I Want Out!
Not Quite 50 Ways to Leave Your Kayak —
But You'll Probably Find at Least One That Works for You
By Tamia Nelson
September 25, 2012
When I bought my first kayak, I wasn't confronted by an embarrassment of choice. Apart from highly specialized Olympic racing craft and Faltboote (then, as now, the Klepper and Folbot brands were the most visible), there were only three types of kayak on offer: slalom boats, downriver boats, and sea kayaks. The handful of "touring kayaks" on the market were mostly high‑volume slalom designs. There wasn't much to choose from in other areas, either. Cockpits were cramped, footrests awkward, and seats rudimentary (not to mention being miserably uncomfortable). This posed problems for boaters who weren't both fit and flexible.
How times have changed! I gave up trying to stay abreast of the constant evolution in design and materials long ago. It would be a full‑time job in itself. Moreover, I have boats I like, and I like the boats I have. They'll probably last longer than I will, and that's enough for me. So I leave the job of monitoring the state of the mart to others. Still, I look at fellow boaters' craft whenever the opportunity presents itself, and I scan outfitters' catalogs regularly, in the vain hope that I won't be taken completely by surprise when the latest New Big Thing appears. And I've noticed that kayak cockpits have gotten a lot bigger over the years. This can be explained, at least in part, as an attempt to limit the danger of entrapment when a boater wraps his craft around an obdurate rock. But I'll bet that other considerations have also influenced cockpit design, most notably the growing number of heavier and less agile boaters.
Whatever the reasons, cockpits have become roomier, and this makes it easier for a kayaker to enter and leave her craft. I use the words "enter" and "leave" advisedly, since you don't really climb aboard a kayak. You put it on, instead. And at trip's end, you don't climb out. You take it off. That can be a problem for the folks I like to call "gray seals," those aging boaters who have no intention of trading their paddles for TV remotes. Then again, gray seals have been messing about in boats for a good long while. The kayaker who inspired me to give decked boats a try, back when I was in my 20s, was well into his eighth decade at the time. Now I'm a gray seal myself, and like many other kayakers, I never stop looking for …
Easier Ways to Enter and Leave These Lively Craft
Reader Karl Engleka shares my interest in the subject. He had this to say about it in a recent e‑mail:
Here's a question that you or your readers might deal with. I'm in my mid-70s. I have working hips, knees, and shoulders. I have no age-related handicaps. But after an hour or more in my kayak I find it difficult to disembark. I flex my legs a bit before beaching the kayak, but I still end up struggling to stand up. I kayak in a tandem, usually solo, so there's lots of room in the cockpit. I end up lifting myself up enough with my arms to get on my knees. From there I struggle to a standing position by bracing my hands on each side of the cockpit. Once I'm standing I can use the paddle as a brace, and exiting is easy. I suspect that even much younger paddlers have similar difficulties, and I wonder how they solve them. Has anyone ever shared anything on ways to make exiting easier?
Karl's not alone in finding it harder to get out of his kayak than it was to get in, nor — as he rightly suggests — is this a problem which only afflicts older paddlers. While modern kayaks boast much more comfortable seats than the unyielding slabs of earlier years, you don't get a lot of chance to stretch your legs when you're in a decked boat. And as any thirty‑something writer or office worker will tell you, sitting for long hours without respite can leave you a little unsteady on your feet when you first stand up. In fact, some medical researchers are now arguing that sitting for extended periods of time is one of the most hazardous things we humans can do. This will probably come as no surprise to truckers, pilots, and cops, however. They've long had to battle the adverse health consequences of their semi‑sedentary occupations.
But kayaking isn't a job. It's something we do for fun. It shouldn't be a trial to be endured. So, what can be done? Well, we can begin by simply waggling our toes now and again as we paddle. And boaters within easy reach of land — that's the overwhelming majority of kayakers, after all — are well advised to grant themselves regular "shore leave," stopping every hour or so to explore a sandy beach or wooded esker on foot. These strategies help keep the blood moving through our farther extremities, and that's half the battle. Paddlers with a history of deep vein thrombosis or other circulatory problems will need to do more, of course, and they should certainly get the advice of their physicians, particularly if they suspect that the hours they spend in their boats might aggravate their condition. That's just common sense.
And there's still the problem that Karl raised in his e‑mail: You're in your boat. It's the end of a long day. Now …
How Do You Get Out?
I've described some of my own strategies for embarking and disembarking in an earlier column. (Actually, as I've already noted, it would make more sense to say "putting a kayak on and taking it off," but "embarking and disembarking" has a more nautical flavor to it.) If you don't have the time to read the earlier article, here's the executive summary, presented under the assumption that one picture really is worth (at least) a couple of hundred words. If this doesn't do it for you, just click back to the original.
The Squat and Shoot
The technique needs two unencumbered hands. For clarity's sake, I've left the paddle out of this sketch, which I've adapted from a similar drawing in the earlier column. (And no, your monitor isn't giving you trouble. This is a low‑resolution image.) If you're wondering where your paddle goes, just read on. A few caveats to bear in mind: Squat and Shoot, like Squat and Scoot, works best on a gently sloping foreshore, in boats with roomy cockpits. You'll get your feet wet, too.
Let's do it by the numbers:
- As you approach the shore, swing your boat round so that your bow points away from land. Now drift back till you're in water no deeper than calf‑height.
- Tuck your paddle under the rigging on the rear deck, or clip it into a paddle park. The goal? To keep it out of the way, but still within reach.
- Lift your legs out of the boat and swing them over the cockpit coaming, one on each side. When you've done this, you'll be straddling your kayak like you'd sit a horse. If you've chosen your disembarkation point well, your feet will be within easy reach of the bottom. Waggle your toes for a few minutes to give your legs time to wake from their slumbers.
- Have the pins‑and‑needles subsided? Then the critical moment has arrived. After getting hold of the free end of the bow painter, reach forward and grip the peak of the cockpit coaming with both hands. Now lever yourself upright, while you simultaneously …
- Lift your butt off the seat and thrust your feet downward.
- Then, as soon as your feet make contact with the bottom, put your quads to work and shoot up — or stagger up if this is the best that your temporarily palsied limbs can manage. That's it. You're standing on your own two feet. The whole thing is a bit like rising from a low chair. Your kayak will make some sternway in the process, of course (for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction), but if you've got the balance of forces right — so much pull on the coaming peak, so much push from your quads — and if you've kept your grip on the coaming, your boat won't travel far. You'll still be straddling it.
- Now swing one leg over the bow deck and lead your kayak into shore. This is easier if you remembered to hold the free end of the bow painter in your hand, as I suggested earlier. (I hope I learn to take my own advice someday!) If you're feeling a bit unsteady on your pins, or if you need some support while you execute the leg‑over maneuver (do I hear giggles from across the Pond?), you can always unclip your paddle and use it as a prop. Or …
- You can just push your boat shoreward till it clears your legs, turn round, and walk up on the beach. (WARNING! Don't try this if a brisk offshore wind or strong undertow threatens to wrest control of the kayak from you and send it hurrying out to sea without a pilot aboard. And if you value the integrity of your hull, don't Squat and Shoot on a foreshore littered with sharp stones or other hazards.)
Is Squat and Shoot elegant? No. In fact, you'll make quite a spectacle of yourself during the learning process. I'd suggest practicing on a sunny day, someplace where the water is warm. But once you've mastered the trick, you may find that it's the easiest way to disembark from a kayak.
There are other alternatives, however. One that I've seen used — but never attempted myself — could be labeled "Twist and Shoot." Here's how it's done:
- Paddle into shallow water.
- Lift your legs out of the boat, one by one, but — instead of straddling the cockpit — twist round in your seat and swing both legs to one side, taking care that your boat doesn't heel so far that it starts to swamp. (Like Squat and Shoot, this method requires a roomy cockpit. Unlike Squat and Shoot, it works better if your boat is beamy.)
- Now plant your feet on the bottom, and simply shoot (or stagger) upright. Once again, it's as if you were rising from a low chair. Use your paddle as a wading staff if you need a prop.
A variant of Twist and Shoot that I've occasionally encountered requires that you place your hands on either side of the cockpit, then lift your bum out of the seat by pushing down. (It's a lot like the resistance exercise known as the chest dip, and the movement requires well‑developed triceps, delts, and pecs.) When you've levered your butt up over the cockpit rim, just slide back and sit on the rear deck. Now you can pull your legs free, swing round, and stand up, using a paddle‑bridge‑like brace for support, if needed. Needless to say, this method is not for you if you have any doubts at all about the strength of your rear deck or cockpit coaming.
So far, so good. But what about those times when you don't have a nice, sandy, shelving foreshore under your keel? In particular, what if you have to …
Launch or Take Out from a Dock?
This has always been my bête noir. At times I've resorted to a seal launch, getting into my boat while it's on the dock and hunching my way off the end of the pier and into the water. Take it from me: This definitely ain't elegant. And if you return to the dock later, you're left with the problem of disembarking. In the absence of a skyhook — or a good‑sized swell washing over the pier — you're out of luck. A wet exit and a short swim may be your best alternative. But reader Ed Jarvis has a better idea:
At 73 years of age, agility and strength are not what they used to be. Hence, entering and exiting a kayak is not as easy as it once was. Here is a hint to help make exiting or entering at a dock or seawall easier.
I attach a length of parachute cord approximately eight feet long to my kayaks, right next to the cockpit. In one case I installed a pad eye in the boat, and in another case I was able to just tie off to the seat itself. When entering or exiting, position the kayak with the cord-side of the boat next to the dock. Attach the cord to the dock or seawall as tightly as possible at a position higher than the attachment point on the kayak. Usually I look for a post or cleat to tie off to.
When entering or exiting your kayak, the boat tends to roll toward the dock or seawall as your weight shifts. With the cord tied off in a taut position the kayak cannot rotate dockward. The kayak will be stabilized, making it much easier to enter or exit.
You do not need to be 73 to enjoy this tip. My wife and I have used this technique for years.
Ed's improvisation is a clever one, though I'd guess that swells and chop may cause the disembarking boater problems in some locations. Nonetheless, I look forward to giving it a try. If you, too, would like to experiment with the technique, Ed has the following advice:
As for knots, I tie a bowline at the kayak end of the cord. It's easy to tie and easy to untie, and it will not get tight and jam. At the dock end, the attachment depends on the situation. Occasionally there is actually a cleat to fasten off to. If it is a piling or post, I usually do two to three round turns around the piling, followed by two half hitches.
As for storage when paddling, I leave the cord on permanently. I stuff it under my seat while kayaking. If anyone is worried about that or cannot stuff it under the seat, I would coil it and tie the coil. Having been a sailor for so many years, these things come more easily to me and transfer nicely to this kayaking application.
Ah, yes. Sailors and climbers see any length of rope or cord as a friend in need. And so should paddlers.
What about it? Have you found that one or more of these canny stratagems works for you? Good. But what if none of them do the trick? Or what if you just don't like the cozy but claustrophobic feel of a decked boat? What then? Well, if you don't like the way the cards are running, you can always change the game: Give a SOT a try. Sit‑on‑tops have the makings of the perfect compromise, combining the seaworthiness of a kayak with a canoe's ease of entry and exit. You lose the protection from sun and cold afforded by a decked craft, of course, and very few SOTs can match the paddling efficiency and ride‑on‑rails tracking of sea kayaks. There's usually a weight penalty, too. Still, many paddlers find these shortcomings easy to live with, and you might be one of them. To learn more, check out a couple of my earlier articles: "SOTto Voce?" and "Tips for First‑Time SOT Buyers." Better yet, spend some time with Barney Ward, an experienced paddler and self‑described "Old Fat Man." He's been using SOTs to explore the waters in and around the Gulf Coast for years, and what he doesn't know about these versatile watercraft probably isn't worth knowing. So your SOTisfaction is guaranteed.
Bottom line? I guess you could say that getting a SOT is the last way to leave your kayak, couldn't you? But — notwithstanding the many happily beSOTted paddlers I know — I'll stick to my pack canoe and (folding) kayak. Though, now that I come to think of it, an inflatable canoe is pretty close kin to a SOT, and there's one of those kept at the ready on a shelf right over Farwell's desk. In any case, when all is said and done, the type of craft you paddle matters very little. The important thing is to make the most of what you have.