Ahh the kayak. That little palindrome conjures up such sweet reveries of sunny lakes and uncharted independence.  What could be more freeing than hopping into a small boat and paddling away? The Inuit used them for hunting walruses and whales, stealthily approaching their prey in the quiet, nimble vessels (we’ll cover this later). For now, read on to learn how to get started with these swift, agile boats.

Suit up

Choose the best apparel for your kayaking trip.

  • If the water is cold, keep warm in a wet suit or dry suit.
  • Protect yourself from sunburn with long sleeves when necessary.
  • If you are going whitewater or sea kayaking and using a spray skirt — a neoprene or nylon piece of apparel that keeps water out of the boat — step into it as you would a pair of pants, pulling it up so the top of the skirt is around your hips.  The skirt’s grab loop — a tab for releasing the skirt from the kayak — should hang in the front.
  • Remember to have a life jacket stowed in a handy place, if you’re not wearing one.

Launch your kayak into the water

Bring your kayak to the water and get in.

  • Pick up the kayak and carry it with one shoulder inside the cockpit. Once at the shore, place the kayak on the edge with the bow facing out into the water.
  • If the water is shallow, you can get into the boat while it’s still partly on the bank. Step into the cockpit first and push off from shore with your hands.
  • If the bank is rocky or steep, get in the kayak by placing it in the water parallel to the shoreline, resting your paddle across the boat behind the cockpit. Climb aboard using the paddle for support.
  • If you’re wearing a spray skirt, attach it to the kayak by stretching it over the cockpit coaming — the lip around the cockpit of the kayak. Start behind the seat, moving your hands along the sides until the skirt is secured in the front.  Use the grab loop for leverage if needed.

Paddle Strokes for Kayaks

Below are some different strokes you’ll use when kayaking. Keep good posture while paddling to conserve energy.

  • Grasp the paddle with both hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart.  If you raise the paddle over your head your arms should make an angle just under 90 degrees.    
    • Forward: Put the paddle blade in the water near your feet and draw it back while keeping it close to the boat.  If the paddle is too far out, it will cause the boat to turn. Alternate sides after each stroke, twisting your torso to give you more energy as you paddle.
    • Reverse: Use the same stroke, but move your paddle in the opposite direction, starting at your side.
    • Sculling draw stroke: Imagine you’re spreading peanut butter on your boat by moving the blades of your paddle back and forth along its side.  This stroke can be used to position your kayak parallel to another boat or a dock.
    • Sweep stroke: Start with the paddle close to your feet but instead of pulling it straight back, make an arc around the side of the boat.  This will cause you to turn.

Executing a Wet Exit in a Kayak

If you capsize in a recreational kayak, the cockpit is large enough so that you’ll just fall out.  If you’re using a sea kayak, white water, or other cruising kayak, however, it’s important to practice awet exit — exiting the boat after a capsize. In these kayaks, you’ll likely be wearing a spray skirt that needs to be released from the boat.

  • Make sure to leave the grab loop of your spray skirt out.  If you capsize, you’ll be able to grab it quickly and pull on it to release yourself.
  • Once capsized, duck your head in a downward position and pull the grab loop, releasing yourself from the boat.  Try and hold on to your paddle with one hand, or tuck it under your arm.
  • Push yourself out of the kayak.  You should end up doing a forward roll out of your boat.  The whole process should last several seconds.

Tips to Remember while Kayaking

Kayaking is a fun and free-spirited sport, but you still need to follow the rules of the water and use caution.

  • Practice capsizing with a friend nearby.
  • Pay attention to water currents, wind shifts, and boat traffic.