Sea Kayaking 101

Photo: Chad Case/TandemStock

Basics for Launching an Open-Water Adventure

Once you’ve gained a few flatwater kayaking fundamentals in protected waters, you’ll want to stretch out your skills. A capable sea kayak can carry you on both short tours or extended journeys across large, open bodies of water, from salty ocean adventures to high-volume rivers or the Great Lakes. And with plenty of gear storage area to turn your boat into an aquatic backpacking platform, it’s all too tempting to set your sights on making miles to empty stretches of coastline. However, the bigger the water and the farther you extend, the more dynamic the conditions—and the more considerations you’ll need to factor to launch your next sea kayak trip, and safely return to shore.

Sea Kayaking Skills

Large bodies of water introduce new challenges, and additional risks, than you might not encounter on smaller lakes or bays. Take the time to gain comfort in your boat. That means the ability to get in and out with ease, as well as capably sealing your spray skirt and adjusting the seat and footpegs from the water. Consider an outfitted tour, an introductory course, or paddling with a more experienced partner for your first forays into open water.

Learning to roll your kayak is an excellent skill to gain. At the least, however, you need to be able to “wet exit” your boat upside-down, and then perform a self-rescue in deep water should you be flipped over by waves or choppy water, which is an eventuality. Practicing in a lake or pool is not enough; seek out rougher waters that are a safe swimming distance from shore (but outside of the surf zone). Paddle with a partner who can back you up, aid in proper re-entry, as well as practice other multiple-paddler rescue techniques like the T-rescue. 

Gear Essentials

Comfort in your sea kayak is key. That starts with how the hull interacts with the water, so make sure that you have a touring or sea kayak ready for rougher waters. These boats are often longer and skinnier than recreational boats, coming in at about 12 to 18 feet long. They also often have a rudder, which is a steerable blade off the back of your boat, or a skeg, which is a fixed blade that sits underneath the middle of the boat, both of which help keep you on your desired line in wind and waves—and then flip up or retract for landings.

Though many kayak fishermen (and some sea kayakers in warmer climates) opt for sit-on-top ocean touring kayaks, most sea kayaks have a closed deck—meaning the deck is “closed” over the paddler’s legs, with a cockpit that is sealed off by a spray skirt worn around the paddler’s waist.

Regardless of deck type of air temperature, you need to dress for the temperature of the water, where you can comfortably take the time to perform a self-rescue. Being prepared for a capsize means dressing for immersion. Depending on water temperature, that usually means wearing either a wetsuit, or a dry suit over wicking, insulating layers. Don’t forget proper footwear that will stay on your feet for launching and landing—and then dry or drain fast and provide insulation while on board. 

The other critical piece of safety gear is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD) that fits properly and that you are actively wearing. A hand-powered bilge pump and sponge also come in handy to drain water remaining in the cockpit following a wet exit and re-entry. Less experienced paddlers should also consider a paddle leash and additional floatation bags to fill unused storage spaces, which aid buoyancy and displace water that might flood in with a capsize or compromised hull, bulkhead, or hatch.  

Beyond a good paddle, many sea kayakers bring a spare two-piece breakdown paddle—accessible in your deck rigging—and also opt for a helmet when navigating surf launches and landings, as well as exploring shallow coastal rock gardens.  

Make sure you have proper navigation equipment including charts, GPS, and, if you are in shipping or otherwise busy waters, a proper marine VHF radio to communicate with other boats on the water. A cell phone in a dry bag for emergency communication can also be of critical help. At the least, latch a whistle to your PFD to signal distress in an emergency.

Prepare for your time on the water by bringing any other day-paddling essentials in a dry bag rigged to your deck or stored in a hatch within easy reach. Think: First aid kit, extra layers, sunscreen, a watch, and enough food and water for your trip. Bring about a liter of water for every hour you plan on sea kayaking. Add water purification like a filter or iodine water if you’ll have access to an additional freshwater source.

(Be sure to give your gear and clothing a rinse with freshwater when you get home to keep the saltwater from damaging or corroding your equipment—especially zippers.)

Tourists kayaking in open bay in Zapata National Park, Cuba Photo: Chad Case/TandemStock

Check the Weather

As you start kayaking, take your first trips on days with nice weather. Wind, rain, and cold temperatures will only multiply the challenges of waves and tides. Check your local weather report days in advance, and in the hours before you launch. For most areas, the summer will be an easier time to start thanks to warmer temperatures. Similarly, check the surf forecast as wave height can change day-to-day, and may not reflect the weather in the immediate vicinity. 

Learn the Tides

Always check tide charts and forecasts for the high and low tides on the day you plan to launch and land, noting when they switch. This is especially important in shallow areas that could become cut off or hard to access at low tide. Likewise, take notice if your launch, access points, or anticipated points of interest will be impacted by a high or low tide. Keep track of the time as you paddle, and cross-reference with your tide information.

The changing tide can also create currents when water floods in, or ebbs back out through narrowing or widening channels. Check charts and other navigational resources to note any currents, how they change, and when they are active. If possible, return with the current rather than against it so that you are not fighting against moving water at the end of a long trip. (The same goes for the wind forecast, as it’s easier to paddle out into a headwind and then return with it at your back.) 

Mind the Surf Zone

A surf zone is where incoming waves break on land or prominent features. A point break is where waves break on an outcropping like a rock or structure in the water. A shore break is where waves break on long stretches of land like a beach.

The shape of incoming waves will depend on swell energy across the terrain underwater. When ocean swell reaches a gradually sloping shoreline, waves spill onto the beach in long foamy waves. When deep water hits a shoreline abruptly, incoming waves have nowhere to go but up, creating steep faces that dump onto the beach. 

If a protected bay or harbor launch is not an option for launching and landing, look for an on-shore area that will be easiest to get your boat into the water, through any surf, and out into the open water. Beginners should look for areas with a gradual grade—free of rock and reef that could create hazards or damage hulls. Typically, a shore break rather than a point break will offer less rock structure to worry about. Navigating waves that spill into whitewash (rather than crash or dump) provide an easier route through the surf zone—or to practice more advanced skills. 

Launch From Shore

Walk your kayak out until it’s floating in shallow water, facing perpendicular, directly into any waves. Nest one end of your paddle under your deck rigging so you can straddle your kayak from behind the cockpit with hands on either side. Lower butt to seat and adjust so your thighs are under braces and your feet are touching pegs. Seal your spray skirt and grab your paddle.

If you’re in a surf zone, waves usually come in sets of a few larger waves in immediate succession; wait for a break between these sets, then paddle straight through the surf zone and into oncoming waves with confident strokes until you are into open water. Here you can pop your skirt to bail any water that flooded in during launch. 

Though landing in surf is an advanced skill not quite as simple as reversing the steps of this process, especially if you catch a wave, the principles remain the same: waiting out sets and paddling to shore in between waves; working to stay perpendicular to waves rather than sideways; and getting your feet on land in shallow water before your boat hits shore. 

Paddle Control

Your paddle, next to your hips, is your greatest tool for sea kayak control and stability. Practice proper paddling technique, maintaining a light grip to avoid fatigue. The most efficient high-cadence, low-angle strokes driven from the torso will include a smooth, clean entry of the blade into the water and a smooth clean exit near your hips. 

As you learn to incorporate different strokes, mixing them with the angle of your blade entry into the water will give you a greater ability to accelerate quickly, turn sharply, and stop when needed. Play with your paddle angle to see how it affects your boat, especially as you move your hips and adjust the boat’s edging. Paddling constantly, fluently from side to side, and using your strokes in combination to keep on a straight course, or to keep yourself pointing into waves, will keep you moving forward smoothly and confidently through dynamic waters.

You need to be proficient with your forward and backward stroke, though sea kayaking begs the use of a couple of other different strokes to gain added boat control.

The Forward Sweep

Rather than paddling repeatedly on the same side to turn your boat, use a forward sweep. The stroke starts as your paddle enters near the bow then makes a wide “C” shape in the water, arcing away from your waist then pulling water back in toward your stern. Doing this properly maintains your forward momentum (and balance) while veering your bow toward the opposite side that you are paddling on.

Rudder Stroke

If you need to quickly adjust your boat direction to counter wind, waves, or your prevailing momentum, use your paddle like a rudder by holding the shaft nearly vertical and inserting the blade to the water between your knees and waist. This slows momentum, but allows you to maintain course.

Boat Edging and Brace Strokes

Learning to operate comfortably on the edge of your kayak is an essential skill for sea kayaking in choppy water and waves. It is important to keep your hips loose and to allow them to move with the kayak, independent of your upper body. A kayak slightly on edge turns with more agility as part of your hull is slightly out of the water—quick, responsive turns keep you from being broadsided should you find yourself in a less-than-ideal position in rough water.

Practicing on your edges will also give you confidence to lean your kayak farther over to the side. Reaching the threshold of where your boat will capsize—and correcting it with a bracing stroke that brings you back to neutral paddling position—is another key to managing your sea kayak in moving water. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.