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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Starting Out in Kayaking

Déjà Vu All Over Again

by Farwell Forrest

Tamia and I have lived on a reservoir in northern New York for almost twenty years now, and we're getting pretty good at spotting trends in water recreation. We've watched the canoes and row-boats disappear one by one, as their owners died or moved away. We've seen the speedy and specialized "bass boat" replace the little aluminum skiff as the fisherman's first love. And, of course, we've noted jet-skis make their first tentative appearance as noisy novelties, only to watch from one year to the next as their numbers exploded.

Now, for the first time, we're seeing kayaks other than our own on the Flow. Not just one or two, either—we've seen dozens in the last two months alone. At long last, it seems, the kayak is coming into its own in America. True, it's been around for a while. For forty years, more or less, short and highly-rockered kayaks have been the darlings of the whitewater fraternity. More recently, their longer, leaner cousins, the boats now universally known as "sea kayaks," have attracted growing numbers of folks interested in exploring the continent's ocean margins and big lakes.

Despite this, though, kayaks have never made it into the mainstream of American watersport. For the most part, when an American thinks about paddling something, he (or she) thinks about a canoe. For reasons rooted in our history, Americans have remained a nation of canoeists.

This isn't altogether surprising. If kayaks and canoes were horses, then canoes would be Clydesdales—placid and versatile beasts of burden, equally at home hauling a wagon, pulling stumps, or taking the kids for a ride around the pasture. Draft horses, in short. Kayaks, on the other hand, would be what the Brits call "hunters." Swift and agile, a hunter is what you want if you have to follow a pack of hounds as they chase a fox. There's more to this than imagery. The modern recreational canoe has descended from the work-horse boats of the fur trade; the modern kayak, from the aboriginal hunting craft of the circumpolar Inuit.

Still, if you go far enough back in our history, you'll find a few surprises. Recreational canoeing was born in the nineteenth century, and the early recreational canoes—the Rob Roy canoes of the 1870s and 1880s—looked a lot more like kayaks than like the boats we Americans now call "canoes." For the first thirty years or so in the history of American paddlesport, in fact, canoeists had few choices other than narrow, decked craft, propelled with a double-bladed paddle. Kayaks, in short.

Now, America seems to be rediscovering the kayak. It's déjà vu all over again. And a good thing, too, I think. However much I love the canoe—and I was a canoeist long before I was a kayaker—I have to admit that there's something magical about the kayak. When you're paddling one of these skinny boats, you're in the water more than you're on it. At one and the same time, you're at home in two very different worlds: water and air. There's no experience quite like it.

However, this isn't the place to discuss the pros and cons of kayaks and canoes. We've been there before, anyway. If you're in any doubt as to which boat to choose, take a look at Tamia's "Guide for First-Time Buyers." From here on out, I'll assume that you've come to a decision. You want to be a kayaker.

How do you begin?

With a book, of course. You can't drown in your living room, and there's no better way to learn the rudiments of any sport than by reading a good book.

Which book? That's a harder question. Both of the books I relied on when I was learning are now out of print. You can probably find them in libraries or through used book sellers, but you won't be able to order them from or Barnes & Noble. Still, they're worth looking for.

The first is White Water Handbook, 2d edition, by John T. Urban and T. Walley Williams. It was published by the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1981, but, despite its age and the poorly-executed illustrations, I've found no better primer. White Water Handbook is useful to canoeists, too. If your library can't help you find a copy, the AMC recently brought out an updated edition. It has a new title (Whitewater Handbook), and a different author (Bruce Lessels), but, though I've yet to see a copy, I'm willing to bet it's a good book.

My favorite primer is an even older book: Living Canoeing, 2d edition, by Alan Byde. As you can tell from the title, it's a British book, published by Adam & Charles Black in 1972. It's none the worse for that, however. Living Canoeing is comprehensive, clearly-illustrated, and a wonderful read. The Brits take their sport seriously, but they're never solemn, and they're refreshingly honest in discussing risks and difficulties. I like that sort of no-nonsense, stiff-upper-lip approach. If you do, too, then Byde's book is worth seeking out.

Neither of these books is going to help you if you're hoping to learn the latest squirt-boat moves, of course. Both books are primers, after all. Still, kayaking can take you far from Golden Pond. If you're seriously interested in whitewater, I'd also recommend that you get a copy of Bill Mason's Path of the Paddle. Yes, I know—it's a canoeing book, but it does the best job of describing the dynamics of moving water of any book I've seen. Tamia agrees, and, since she's spent many hours studying the hydraulics of streamflow and the morphology of rivers, that's enough for me.

If, however, you're looking out to sea, be sure to pick up David Burch's Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, 2d edition. If you're a stranger to nautical charts and tide tables, if "compass deviation" and "dead reckoning" have you scratching your head, if you dream of open-water crossings or coastal tours, then this is the book for you.

OK. That's enough preliminary reading, I think. It's time to get up out of the easy chair and go down to the water. I'll assume that you've found a boat—it's best to borrow or rent one initially—and a place to paddle it. Not a river, of course, at least not at first. You'll be much better off on a warm, placid pond or lake. And I'll assume that you've found someone to go along with you. Kayaks present special problems for the novice. (Here I'm referring to decked boats, not to the sit-on-top kayaks that are growing in popularity.) Even though you'll be paddling alone, you'll be glad to have someone nearby if things don't go as planned

What are these problems, exactly? Well, to begin with, kayaks are hard to get into, and, when you do get into them, they can be hard to get out of. Let's talk about getting in first. Put your boat down in the water, parallel to the shore. You don't want a dock, and you don't want a steep drop. A gently-sloping, sandy beach is best. Be sure that there are four inches or so of water under the keel. Now take your paddle and rest it across the boat, just behind (never ON) the cockpit coaming (rim). One blade will stick out into the air beyond the cockpit; the other should rest on the beach.

First things first, though. Got your life jacket on? Of course you do. You might want to wear a nose clip, too, if you're prone to sinus or ear infections. (You should wear one if the water's anything but warm. A jet of cold water up the nose can trigger cardiac arrhythmias in some people. Most squirt-boaters and other sub-mariners wear nose clips all the time.) Leave the spray skirt behind. You won't need it today.

Ready? Good. Squat beside your boat, facing the bow. Grab the cockpit coaming and the paddle shaft with your "offshore" hand. Place your "inshore" hand on the paddle shaft between the boat and the beach. Transfer just enough of your weight to the inshore hand to stabilize the boat. Now lift the foot nearest the boat and place it inside the kayak. Tuck it well up into the bow. Next, still keeping your weight mostly on the paddle shaft, lift the other foot and bring it into the boat.

Wiggle you butt around till you feel comfortable. Check that the foot braces are in the right place. Comfy? Good. Take your paddle in your hands. (You've read up on paddling with a feathered paddle, haven't you? I hope so.) Shove off. Don't go far, though. You've got a very important test coming up.

Paddle out until you have about three feet of water under you. Now ask your friend to wade out and join you. Have him stand behind the boat. Keep your paddle in your hands. Relax. Talk about whatever you usually talk about for a few minutes. Don't make eye contact. Keep looking straight ahead. When you're ready, say "Now!" and have your friend grab the boat and turn it over. If you pop right up without any trouble, you've passed your first test. If you don't, it's your friend's job to haul you into shallow water and get you out of the boat before your drown. He is a friend, right?

This is called a "wet exit." You don't need to be told why, do you? A kayak fits close, and your legs are tucked up under the deck. When most folks capsize—and you will capsize, sooner or later, even if you never leave Golden Pond—they just pop right out. Some folks panic, though, and start thrashing their legs before they're clear. This isn't good. It locks them into the boat like nothing else can. If you're one of these folks, it's best to find out while you have a friend standing by.

Everything go all right? Good. Drain the boat by tipping it up on its side while its still in the water, then turning it all the way over and lifting it free. Rock it back and forth, upside down, to get the last little bit of water out. This is where float bags come in handy. They displace water and make it easier to empty a swamped boat. They also keep the kayak floating if its holed. You did have float bags in your boat, didn't you?

Now get back into the kayak and paddle out again. Have your friend join you. Talk for a few minutes as you did before, and let your friend dump you once more. This time, though, have him do it without any warning. Did you pop right out? Good. Do you have your paddle in your hand? Great! You're ready to go paddling.

Still got your life jacket on? Right. You've had it on all the time. Take your boat out a hundred feet or so and start practicing what you learned in your reading. If your friend can come along in his own kayak or canoe, so much the better. If not, he should at least watch you from shore.

Have fun! When you start to get tired, come back. It's time to get out of your boat. How? Like you got in. Just run the tape back. Pull in parallel to shore until you've got four inches of water under you. Place your paddle across your boat, just behind the cockpit. Grab hold of both the cockpit coaming and the paddle shaft with one hand. Place the other hand—the "inshore" hand, remember!—on the paddle shaft. Transfer enough weight to the inshore hand to anchor the kayak. Push up on both hands and pull your nearshore foot out. Set it down on the bottom. Now the other one. Stagger upright. Snag the kayak before it drifts away.

Simple wasn't it? Not elegant, maybe, but simple. Congratulations. You've just joined the second American kayak revolution. It's déjà vu all over again. Welcome aboard!

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

All geared up, but nowhere to go? Next time out, Farwell looks at the problem of finding a place to paddle your canoe. It isn't always as easy it as it ought to be. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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