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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Question Time

Starting Out —
Answers to Questions that New Paddlers Ask

By Tamia Nelson

July 13, 2004

Just starting out? Then I bet you have questions. You're not alone. We get mail year-round from folks who've bought their first boats, or who've been thinking about getting a canoe or kayak for the first time, and who now have a few questions. And for years we've answered their letters as best we could, one question at a time. Sometimes our replies ended up in "Our Readers Write." But that wasn't enough. There were always more questions the next week.

OK. The questions keep coming. And the answers — many of them, anyway — don't change. So it's high time we got organized. If you're just starting out, take heart. This article is for you. Here's where you'll find answers to many of the questions that beginners have asked us over the years, along with links to more articles that cover important topics in greater detail.

Just starting out? Relax. Enjoy. We were all beginners once. A few questions. A few answers. And then you're on your way. Experience starts when you begin.


Kayaking (or canoeing) looks like a blast, but I've never paddled. How can I find out if it's really for me?

The only way to find out if you'll like anything is to try it. No surprise there, eh? If you've got a paddling friend or co-worker, ask him if he'll take you out on the water some sunny afternoon. (You can always rent a boat if you need one.) Make sure he knows that this will be your first time out, though. You're looking for an easy paddle around Golden Pond, not a marathon jaunt down Dangerous River.

But what if you don't know anyone who paddles? Then stop in at the nearest outfitter. Ask if they have guided trips for beginning paddlers. And check their bulletin board. Find out if there's a local paddling club. Most clubs have graded outings —some of them suitable for beginners — and many provide formal instruction. Colleges occasionally offer courses for beginning paddlers, too.

Then, while you're waiting for the big day to arrive, do some background reading. You won't learn to paddle in an easy chair, of course, but you can't drown in your living room, either. And you'll find that a little preliminary study is a big help when you first venture out on the water.

Further Reading


What about us women? I'm just getting my feet wet, so to speak, and my partner isn't all that interested in paddling. I am, though. Do you think I'm up to it?

You bet! Man or woman — the water doesn't care, and neither does the boat. To be sure, upper-body strength is helpful. It's even necessary in some conditions. Spend enough time on the water, though, and the strength will be there. The rest is mostly common sense and the skill that comes with practice. From what I've seen, neither of these is a gender-specific attribute.

Further Reading


I loved my first paddling trip, but my husband (or wife or son or mother or…) just heard a story on the local news about a canoeist who drowned. Now he's (she's) nagging me to find a less dangerous hobby. What's going on here? Is paddling safe?

Yes, it is. And no, it isn't. It all depends on what you mean by "safe." Everything we do involves some risk, and canoeing and kayaking are no exception. In the final analysis, your safety depends on you. More often than not, when a boater dies, it was carelessness that killed her.

How can you stack the odds in your favor? Don't paddle alone. Buy good equipment. Practice on easy water until you and your boat are one. And know your limits. Speaking of limits, there's one we share with every other mammal: we have to breath air. In order to do that, we need to keep our heads — or at least our nostrils — above water. So keep your priorities straight. Many paddlers agonize over buying their first boat, but the most important purchase they'll ever make is a life vest (aka "Personal Flotation Device," or PFD). What's more important than breathing? A life vest should be the very first thing you buy. Make sure it fits, and then wear it whenever you're on (or near) the water.

And that's just the start. Are you hoping to run whitewater or paddle ocean surf? Then a helmet should be your second purchase. Few canoeists wear helmets. More should. (Young kids should probably wear helmets whenever they're in a boat.) It only takes one rock to put a big dent in your life.

That's not all. Water can be cold even in midsummer, and cold can kill. Whenever and wherever you paddle, always dress for the water temperature. Often this means you'll be wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the folks on the beach have stripped down to thongs and bikinis. But they're at the beach. If they feel cold, they can easily get out of the water and into a towel. If they get into trouble, a lifeguard is only a hundred yards away. You and your companions are on your own, however. Never forget that. Be warned: temperature regulation isn't straightforward, particularly in summer. Heat can be a killer, too. Drink — water, fruit juice, or "sports drinks" — early and often. And keep your head covered whenever you're not wearing a helmet. Your brain will thank you.

Is paddling safe? That's up to you. It's just as safe as you make it.

Further Reading


My mind's made up. I've tried kayaking (or canoeing) a couple of times, and I love it. Now I want a kayak (or canoe) of my own. But which boat's right for me?

I don't know. That's one question only you can answer. Remember, too, that no one boat can do everything well. You'll be happiest if you get a boat which satisfies most of your needs most of the time.

Want a little help deciding among the thousands of choices? Then begin by asking yourself these questions:

  • Will I be going solo — alone in my canoe or kayak (but not, I hope, alone on the water)? Or will I usually be paddling with a partner in the same boat? And how about the kids? Or Fido?

  • Where do I want to paddle? Beaver ponds or small lakes? An arm of the sea? Swamps? A lazy, meandering river? Steep mountain streams? Rock gardens? BIG water?

  • How full is the piggy bank? Generally, you pay more for less. Less weight, that is. Cheap. Light. Strong. You get to choose only two out of three.

  • Where will I store my boat? A 20-foot sea kayak is a lovely thing, but it's an awkward companion in a fifth-floor studio apartment.

  • Will I fit? While most boats can be used by most people, very tall (or very big) and very short folks may have trouble getting a good fit. Strength plays a role, too. If you have trouble heaving a fifty-pound sack of fertilizer into your car's trunk, you probably don't want a 105-pound "expedition" canoe.

When you've answered all these questions, use what you've learned to narrow the field. Once you've done that, you're ready to compile a short list of suitable boats. Need a little help deciding if a particular canoe or kayak might suit you? It's as close as a click. Thousands of's readers have reviewed the boats they've owned. And their reviews aren't based on one-night stands. These are the boats they've lived with. So read what they have to say before you make your short list.

All done? Then it's time to take a few test drives. Borrow or rent each boat on your list and try it out on easy water. (If you haven't already done so, get some instruction now — before taking a boat out. And bring an experienced friend along with you if you can.) Don't be in too much of a hurry to hand over your money. Buying a boat is a little bit like getting married. If you make a mistake, you'll have plenty of time to regret it. On the other hand, don't expect any boat to be perfect. It doesn't have to be. It just has to be good enough. Unless you're a racer or an expedition paddler, you can probably have a great time in almost anything that floats. Remember this when you find yourself frozen into immobility in an outfitter's showroom.

Further Reading


I'm going to pick up my boat tomorrow. What else do I need?

Every paddler needs a life vest (and maybe a helmet), a paddle, suitable clothing, and a good, sharp knife. Kayakers will want a spray skirt, too. You'll also need a spare paddle, one or more float bags (think of them as PFDs for your boat), painters (aka bow and stern lines), a bailer and sponge, a throw bag or heaving line, the "ten essentials," and at least one waterproof gear bag. Oh, yes — don't make the mistake I once did. You need to bring your boat home. You'll want a rack for your car.

Is that all? No. But it's a good start. Add other items — a deck compass, for example, or camping gear — only as you need them.

Further Reading


Glad you mentioned car racks. I've never car-topped a boat before. Just what do I have to do to take my boat on the road?

It's more complicated than you might think. First, buy a good rack. It has to fit both your car and your boat. Then tie your boat down well: bow, stern, and midships. (If you're not strong, get help lifting your boat on and off the car.) Once you're on the road, stop every hour or so and check to be sure everything is still tight. Stop immediately if you suspect that a tie-down has come loose.

Do you own a really BIG boat? Or is your SUV taller than you are? Then consider a trailer, or use rollers to help you get your boat on your rack. Both will require a little practice before you're ready to hit the road. A trailer will also need to be registered and insured.

Owners of folding boats and inflatables have it easier, of course. They can even haul their boats behind a bicycle, or backpack them into remote ponds. Sometimes small is beautiful!

Further Reading


Wow! Paddles, wetsuit, float bags, rack.… It looks like the accessories will cost more than the boat. What can I do to keep the total down?

Buy used. A well-put-together boat is good for more than one season. Some are still going strong after ten years. And scratches hurt a lot less when they're not the first. All in all, it's hard to beat a used boat. Where can you find one? Outfitters' end-of-year sales. (Many outfitters sell off their rental fleet in the fall.) Paddling club swap-meets.'s Classified section. On-line auction sites. Your local paper.

There's a bonus. Used boats often come fully outfitted: paddles, float bags, spray skirt — even painters and life vests. (These life vests make good spares, but you're better off buying your own.) The savings can really mount up.

Caveats? Sure, but nothing that will come as a surprise. Shop for a used boat just as carefully as you'd shop for a new one. More carefully, in fact. Unless you buy from an outfitter — and maybe not even then — a used boat probably won't come with a guarantee. Once you've found a boat you like, take it out for a spin. And when the time comes to close the deal, don't be shy about bargaining.

Further Reading


I've got my boat home. Now I need a place to put it. My wife (or the landlord or the homeowner's association) doesn't like me leaving it on the lawn, and I can't keep it on the car all the time. Help!

Relax. Modern materials are pretty forgiving. Aluminum canoes can be stored just about anywhere, although thermoplastic and fiberglass craft should be kept out of the sun and protected from heavy snow — and no boat should be stored where water will drip on it. (Wet wooden gunwales and seats will rot; freezing water can open seams and delaminate lay-ups.) So get you boat off the ground and under cover. A tarp will do fine, though you'll need to lash both tarp and boat down if you don't want the wind blowing them away. And make sure that no tree limb (or wood pile) is likely to topple on your pride and joy.

Wind and damp aren't the only hazards. Boats attract the attention of thieves, too. A lock always helps to keep honest men honest.

Further Reading


I've taken a few lessons, got my boat and gear, and solved my storage and transportation problems. Now I'm ready to log some real float time. Where should I go?

Pick up the scent of water and follow your nose. You don't have to travel to the far corners of the earth to find a place to paddle. Wherever you live — unless you live in a desert or smack in the middle of an arid megapolis — chances are pretty good that there's a trip of a lifetime within an hour's drive of your home. Scouting is part of the fun. Get out your maps. Check a few guidebooks out of your local library, too. (Old guidebooks are fine for finding new places to paddle, though they can't be relied on for current conditions.) Talk to other paddlers in your area. Better yet, join a paddling club and sign up for some of their trips. Be sure to ask the leader if the trip is within your abilities first, however.

Above all, keep your paddle in the water. Learning to paddle is a little like learning to ride a bike. The basic skills are easily mastered, and they stay with you for life. But they're only a beginning. You'll learn something new every time you launch, even if you never leave Golden Pond. So get out on the water whenever you can.

Don't get cocky, though. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and hubris has struck a lot of novice paddlers down. Paddle with experienced companions whenever possible. (Never run difficult whitewater solo, or venture out onto big water alone.) And always make sure that someone knows where you're going and when you'll be back. Most important of all, listen to your inner voice. If it whispers "No," don't ignore the warning. You can always come back another day.

Further Reading


I'm having second thoughts. Sure, I enjoy paddling, but I'm getting on, I weigh a few pounds more than I ought to, and my knees aren't what they used to be. Maybe it's time for the La-Z-Boy®. What do you think?

What do you think? That's what matters. Aches and pains are the price we pay for an active life. Most can be managed with the help of a knowledgeable physician or other health professional. If you're having fun, why fight it? Paddling isn't just for the young. One of the happiest kayakers I've had the pleasure of paddling with was a chubby chain-smoker in his 80s, who started kayaking sometime after he turned 70. He convinced his 72-year-old "girlfriend" to give it a try, too. And they didn't stick to Golden Pond. They were running Class III-IV water on the Hudson River in high style when we first met.

Nor is paddlesport only for athletes. The best rock-garden technician I ever saw was a wizened, freshly dried-out dipso, with a list of health problems as long as my paddle. He didn't look as if he could lift a day-pack, yet he threaded his overloaded shallow-draft "cottage canoe" unerringly through Class II-III rapids on the Missinaibi — including some drops that swamped our big Tripper — and he never took more than a canteen cup of water over the gunwales. (The rain sometimes filled his boat; the river never did.) He wheezed and stumbled on the portages, but he flew across the water. And he had the time of his life into the bargain.

Then there was my grandfather. He lived hard and he died hard, after a long, grinding illness. Yet he paddled his own canoe right up until the day he left for his last trip to the hospital. Make no mistake: canoeing and kayaking are sports for life.

Further Reading


A few questions. A few answers. And then you're on your way. There's plenty more to learn, but experience starts when you begin. The recipe is simple. Take it easy. Don't bet against the odds. Have a good time. What could be more straightforward — or more enjoyable?

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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