Kayaking is just like canoeing, but a lot more fun.
By Jon Turk, edited by Lara Sorkanich
Travelling in a kayak feels like you’re tricking the universe. The boat has the impression of being vulnerable because it’s so small – an ocean-going boat that you can pick up with one hand. But once you gain some skills in it, the kayak is the safest, most seaworthy boat in the world. The universe thinks that you’re out there doing something dangerous, but really you’re in total control.
I’ve travelled the world in a kayak, thousands of kilometres on many expeditions. Around Cape Horn near Antarctica, through the gnarliest piece of ocean on the planet, even for big ships. I’ve paddled from Japan to Alaska, retracing the steps of Stone Age mariners. In 2012, I circumnavigated Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle on a 2 400-kilometre trip.
The thing about the kayak is it puts you in direct, intimate contact with Nature. Yachts are great, but a kayak requires personal, tactile skill and interaction with your surroundings. When you’re in a kayak, your butt is below the level of the water and waves are washing over your boat, your chest, maybe even over your head. I’ve paddled past grizzly bears feeding on clams and come eye to eye with a grey whale. I’ve sat on top of a 20-metre wave, then surfed down it in a 30-kilogram boat.
But that’s not where you’ll start. You might start on a lake or a stream behind your house. And it’s just as fun.
You want to start kayaking
You’ll need: A recreational kayak
Which will cost you: R6 000 upwards
The gist: Recreational kayaks are the midsize sedans of the boating world. They are affordable, stable and easy to manoeuvre through water, making them popular for beginners. Best for slow-moving water, these 2,65- to 5,2-metre boats have wide cockpits that make getting in and out easy. Andrew Mills of Brian’s Kayaks recommends that you invest a little more. About R10 000 gets you a recreational kayak that is sturdy, reliable and even a little comfortable and about R15 000 gets you something with all the bells and whistles.
The sit-on-top kayak has shallow impressions to sit in, rather than a formal cockpit. It’s great for fishing since you can more easily shift around in your seat. It’s also great for paddlers who want to occasionally jump out of their boat and swim. In South Africa, the sit-on-top variant is by far the most common.
TIP: Always try a kayak before buying. Many specialty shops offer trials (once a month or season) where you can take test boats out on the water.
Personal flotation device (PFD): Whatever type of kayaking you choose, you’ll need a specialised lifejacket – not the big orange ones you used as a kid and not the low-profile waterskiing vests. Kayaking PFDs have less padding and material near your neck and shoulders so that they don’t inhibit the motion of your arms, and they typically have as much mesh panelling as possible for better breathability and comfort.
Paddle: Most men of average height will use a 210- to 220-cm paddle, measured tip to tip. If you’re particularly aggressive – someone who is interested in going fast and thus angles the paddle into the water closer to 90 degrees – opt for something a little shorter. Paddles come with straight shafts (usually less expensive) and bent shafts (improved ergonomics means less stress on your wrists).
Float bags: Many boats have built-in bulkheads for increased buoyancy. But if yours doesn’t, you’ll need float bags – inflatable bags that typically go in the stern to keep your boat from sinking when you fall out. And you’re probably going to fall out.
Bilge pump: A handheld plastic pump used to remove water from your boat.
How to paddle
There are three basic strokes:
(controls forward and backward movement)
1. Reach forward with the paddle blade and submerge it completely in the water – but not so deep that your hand goes in.
2. Pull the blade straight back, parallel to your boat. The blade should be close enough to almost touch the kayak.
3. Switch sides and repeat. (Reverse the stroke to go backward.)
(turns the front or back of the kayak)
1. Reach forward with the paddle blade opposite the side you want the boat to move. For example, if you’d like to turn right, reach forward with your left paddle blade.
2. Put the blade in the water and sweep it outward, arcing away from the front of the boat.
3. Repeat on the same side until the boat is aimed where you want it.
(moves your kayak laterally without changing direction)
1. Reach out in the direction you want to move the boat and place your paddle in the water, directly to the side of your hip.
2. Pull the water in towards you, as if pushing it under your seat.
3. Continue as needed.
The Outdoor Elements Agulhas (R6 999) is a 2,95-m compact plastic sit-on-top design that comes with a comfortable adjustable seat. It has four rod holders with provision for two swivel rod holders, as well as two 20 cm hatches. It weighs 22 kg.
The 4,25-m Kaskazi Breeze AR (R9 525) is the sit-on-top version of the very successful entry-level Breeze. It’s ideally suited to
paddlers up to 100 kg and 1,8,m although it has enough buoyancy to carry 120 kg comfortably. Its length provides a good compromise between stability and tracking ability and it can be fitted with a rudder. Weight: 17 kg.
Kaskazi’s Skua (about R16 000) is a high-performance touring kayak that’s designed to be extremely stable and sea-friendly on the move, while capable of being manoeuvred easily at low speed. This 5,3-m craft has two hatches and huge load-carrying ability. It’s available in a sit-on-top version for adventure racing, too.
The Popes Wahoo Fishing Ski (R8 950) is all set up for fishing without the hassle. Made of glass fibre, it has a moulded fish box, rudder and padded back rest and measures 4,2 m.
Or you could have double the fun: Fluid describes its Synergy (R7 699) as a versatile two-seater, with high carrying capacity, that can also be paddled solo. Its length is said to make it fast and extremely efficient; it has a tri-hull design for stability, plus a subtle keel for better tracking, along with a rocker profile and lifted bow that ensures manoeuvrability and the ability to easily punch through waves.
Kayaking in the open sea
You’ll need: A touring kayak which will cost you: From about R10 000. Try one out on a guided tour before investing in your own.
The gist: Touring kayaks are long – 4,25 to 5 metres – and meant to be used in the ocean or other open water. They’re for serious paddlers covering serious distance. In fact, people use them for overnight trips, taking advantage of the boat’s ample storage space to go on multiday expeditions with camping gear. These boats won’t feel as stable as a recreational kayak and will take some getting used to. Most touring kayaks have small cockpits to keep you firmly planted in your seat, even in choppy water.
TIP: Invest in an alert whistle. Every kayaker should have one, but this is especially so in moving water where it can be hard to hear calls for help.
PFD, float bags (if necessary), bilge pump
Paddle: A little longer than a recreational kayak paddle; 230 to 240 cm is ideal for most men.
Spray skirt: A water-resistant neoprene seal that fits tightly around your waist, then spreads out just wide enough to seal off the edge of the cockpit.
Kayaking in rapids
You’ll need: A whitewater kayak which will cost you: From about R5 000.
ONE WARNING: Whitewater kayaking can be dangerous if you’re inexperienced. When you’re just starting out, rent a boat and take lessons through a recreational facility. Once you’ve got the skills, including the ability to roll – rotating the boat and yourself under the water and back up on the other side – you can think about buying one for yourself.
The gist: Whitewater kayaks are short and round, designed to manoeuvre through fast water and to dodge rocks and other obstructions. They have small cockpits to make it easier for you to stay inside the boat while flying downstream. In calm water these stocky boats are slow and difficult to paddle straight, so are ideal for fast-moving rivers.
PFD, float bags, bilge pump
Paddle: Relatively short to allow for faster paddling. Look for 194 to 203 cm.
Helmet: Water may not be that hard, but the rocks beneath it definitely are.
Throw rope: A rescue bag with a length of high-strength rope (around 15 to 25 metres). The funnel top helps the rope come out smoothly so that you can throw the bag further – and into almost any situation you may need help extracting yourself from.
What to do when you flip over
Don’t worry about flipping your kayak. It’s inevitable. Also: not scary. A sit-on-top kayak is the hardest to flip and the easiest to recover from. It’s wide enough that you can just hop back on, and some have self-bailing drain holes. In a whitewater or touring kayak, you can just roll back up (after hours of training to master the skill). In a recreational kayak, you’re not likely to get trapped inside. You just push the kayak off you like you’re pushing yourself up from the sofa, and you slip right out. The real challenge is getting back in.
Here’s how to do it:
If you can, get to land, where you can easily drain your kayak. If you can’t get to land and you have a partner, position your kayak perpendicular to your partner’s boat, push down on the stern to get the bow out of the water, and have your partner slide the bow across the deck of his boat to drain the water. If you can’t get to land and you’re alone – which, technically speaking, should never happen, since you should never kayak without a partner – one option is to get back in the wet boat and bail the water out using a bilge pump or bailing with your empty water bottle.
With thanks to Kelsey Bracewell at the American Canoe Association and Forrest Wells at the Olympic Outdoor Center in Port Gamble, Washington.