Sea Kayaking: What You Need to Know Before touring the Sea on a Kayak

Photo: Frank Busch / Unsplash

Getting into a touring or sea kayak is roughly the same as a recreational craft on calm water. The obvious difference is that you may have to consider working with waves in the sea.

Launching the Kayak into the Ocean

Most public launching areas are in protected inlets, but it is important to know how to deal with waves if you are touring along open coastlines or small islands.

For any entry into the surf, place the kayak close to the edge of the water where it is not affected by the wave action. The bow should be just touching the water when the wave rolls in.

Make sure all gear is secured and quickly get into the boat. Fasten the spray deck and be sure to hold on to the paddle.

Push yourself with your hands into the water, keeping the kayak pointing directly into the wave line. If the boat gets pushed sideways back to shore, it will probably capsize.

Landing a kayak through the waves uses the opposite approach to surfing. As a wave passes under you, begin to paddle behind it. Get on top of it at the end for an extra boost onto the sand.

Try to push yourself further up the beach and get out quickly, holding on to the paddle. Keep a hold on the boat as well, so the next wave doesn’t carry it back out.

Specialized Equipment

Long-distance paddling requires some variations on the general equipment needed for recreational or whitewater kayaking.

  • The touring kayak (click here for our guide on choosing a kayak) is longer and narrower.
  • The long-distance paddle is also longer and may be lighter. A paddle shaft with a slight bend near the blades can help you avoid wrist strain.
  • The spray deck may be nylon or a combination of a neoprene deck and a nylon body sleeve.
  • Offshore trips require extra safety gear such as a strobe emergency light, flares, and a VFH radio or mobile phone. A tow line and/or climbing slings should be standard equipment.
  • Clothing should be worn in layers to account for the temperature changes in the course of the day. A dry suit may be needed in extremely cold situations, and outer waterproof gear is always a good idea.

Different Strokes

One tremendous difference in holding the paddle for long distances is called the ‘slide hand.’ A shorter paddle can be used to create less wind resistance and a smaller profile, just for a strong wind to catch and pull out of your grasp.

The upper hand grasps the paddle at the throat of the upper blade. The ‘water’ hand holds the center of the paddle and guides the stroke like a normal forward or sweeping stroke.

At the end of the stroke, the paddle has to be slid to the other side and the water hand is now holding the throat of that end of the paddle.

Any touring paddle can be used in this manner except for one with a bent handle.

The knifed-J stroke is used when the conditions are windy and the boat gets pushed to the side at the end of every stroke when the paddle is lifted. To perform this stroke, turn your wrist at the end of the stroke so the blade faces the boat. This allows you to easily bring the paddle back to the front position as the turned blade knifes through the water. The blade also continues to hold the kayak in a straighter line since it is functioning as an element of the kayak through your good seating and grip.

The figure eight stroke is used for inside turns and begins the same way as the knifed-J stroke. When the paddle has cut through to the front position, the wrists are turned opposite to present the blade’s drive face to the bow, and the back is used to complete the next stroke.

Note: this is another example of the benefits of getting to know the feel of the paddle and the movement of the kayak in different situations.

Another drastic difference when paddling in a touring kayak is capsizing. Instead of righting the kayak to re-enter it, you perform an underwater entry. This is due to two circumstances; a touring kayak is too unstable to do a standard upright re-entry, and less water is in the kayak when you turn upright. Secure your paddle under the deck lines spanning the kayak to keep it handy. This will help stabilize the kayak as you do the re-entry.

To achieve this re-entry, you have to get under the kayak and hold the cockpit with both hands and your head pointing to the bow. Hold yourself at arm’s length and bring your knees to your chest so you can put your feet into the boat. Reattach the spray deck, get the paddle, and roll upright.

Understanding the Wind, Waves, and Tides

The tide and winds can be dangerous to a beginner kayaker. Ebb and rip tides prevent you from returning to the shore easily, and wind pushes you off course and raises the waves’ height. Other conditions create troughs that seem to trap you. Detailed charts and tables can provide you with basic information about the area so that the safest route may be planned, but not all water movements are accounted for on paper.

To learn how to handle these conditions, it is best to go with an instructor or other highly experienced paddler.

The Beaufort Wind Scale

To put some of the information about the wind in perspective, the Beaufort wind scale rates the force of the wind into 12 categories. A beginning paddler should not go out in wind over level 2 or 3.

Level 2 breezes are measured at 4-7 mph or 7-11 km/h. Level 3 is 8-12 mph and 12-19 km/h. Whitecaps can form at level 4 but most commonly at level 5.

A level 6 wind blowing over the ocean for two days can create waves up to 18 feet or 5.5 meters high. Level 7 is considered near-gale force, and level 12 is the minimum wind speed for a storm to be classed as a hurricane.

Offshore Waves

Offshore waves are categorized in two ways. Chop is created by brief winds blowing over a small area that create random waves. The best thing to do in this condition is to remain calm and loose and continue to paddle through. They make a bumpy ride but don’t exert much force on the kayak because they pop up all around.

On the other hand, swells are the large rolling waves created by wind blowing over the ocean for great distances in the same direction. They are affected as they approach the shore by the direction and strength of the wind. If the wind is offshore (from land to the ocean), the waves become steeper and break in a crash. Lee or following, winds press down on the tops of the waves so the water is just pushed off the forward face of the wave.

With other conditions affecting the characteristics of offshore seawater, such as tides or the mouths of bays and rivers, it is important to learn about these conditions before setting out on a trip.

Navigation and Buoys

Navigation while sea kayaking includes having equipment to help you find your way and knowing how to use it. A compass and map should be adequate for most trips since people seem to follow the coast or shoreline. If you plan on crossing a more open stretch of water where the use of visible landmarks is limited, a compass, chart, and prior examination of the area are required. Seek out an expert who knows the local area and can share information about the waters you plan to paddle.

Navigation charts show land, the main channels in the waterways, and tide and navigational marker information. The color red is always associated with a pointed marker, and green is rectangular. The simple way to know which way to go through them is the phrase ‘red, right, returning,’ which is universally meant to keep the red markers on your right side as you return to port. Other specialty markers are used in crowded waterways, intersections, or around sunken or natural obstacles.

The best way to understand navigation and basic seamanship is to take a class offered by maritime organizations.