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, eitherwe'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 Clydesdalesplacid 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
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 canoesthe Rob Roy canoes of the 1870s and
1880slooked 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 canoeand I was a canoeist long before I was a kayakerI
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
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 Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Still, they're worth looking
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
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 knowit'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 boatit's best to borrow or rent one initiallyand 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 capsizeand you will capsize, sooner or later, even if you
never leave Golden Pondthey 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
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
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
handthe "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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. (No
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