Last time we looked at the progression for whitewater kayaking and what skills or concepts are important. This time lets take a look at the ocean and get a little bit more specific in the skill department. Sea kayaking is quite different from whitewater in that you can start out in very benign locations with almost no skill or understanding and yet still be safe and have fun. And on the other end of the spectrum you can get into advanced rock gardening which can be more complicated, skillful and dangerous than class V whitewater. So how do you get from one end to the other and what do you need to know before you try something new?
You start with flat water. You start with a nice stable boat and you paddle short distances in calm conditions (winds under 10 knots, no waves to speak of) and stay close to shore. The skills you need are minimal and you can figure out how to do it on your own. But if you want to do it better, have more fun and be safer, then a one day intro to sea kayaking class will make a big difference. A good class will cover basic paddling technique as well as rescues – both solo and assisted. Those rescues are the fundamental skill necessary to have before moving up.
So if you have learned your rescues and basic strokes then you can start to open things up a bit. You can head out in more challenging conditions, more open water. This means winds up to 20 knots, some choppy conditions on the lake or bay, a mile or two from shore or a landing option. The ocean swell is a different beast and it will take a little bit more knowledge before you should venture out in anything other than very protected ocean waters.
For the ocean you need some more boat control and solid rescues. That means edge control and bracing and practice time on those same rescues learned at the start. Along with these hard skills comes some softer skills – an understanding of tides and currents and basic navigation (know what a ‘range’ is?). Even with these skills you need to stick to manageable conditions – light to moderate winds, smaller swells (no surf zone). Ocean conditions can change very quickly so it will take time and experience to learn how to read the water and weather – start off with very conservative judgments.
At this point you are a sea kayaker. An inexperienced one but a true paddler. Lots of people stay at this level for a while, maybe even the rest of their paddling career. There are lots of places you can explore and be quite safe and responsible. But even to stay at this level you need to practice what you’ve learned – if you don’t work on those rescues then you will forget them and your safety margin drops quickly. So keeping those skills fresh, or learning a few new tricks, can keep you paddling longer and having more fun.
But some people will not be satisfied with mellow ocean conditions, some people want it rough. The next step for handling rough water is getting in the surf zone. Learning how to deal with breaking waves not only lets you get off the beach and back in but really prepares you for paddling in higher winds and bigger swells. Having good instruction is critical here since doing things wrong and learning from bad experiences can mean injury and equipment damage. You will progress faster and safer with some good guidance. And it will take more than a single class to truly master the surf – it will take repeated time and practice of being in that surf zone.
And this is a good time to talk about rolling. Rolling is the best self-rescue technique and is useful for paddling at any level. But the further you progress the more important the technique becomes. The surf zone will show that rather quickly so this is a good time to start working on your rolling technique. This skill will take a fair bit of time to learn and lots of practice to master. Again, good instruction will make a huge difference in shortening the learning curve and getting proper technique that will be easy on the body.
While the surf zone will give you a lot of skills and confidence for paddling out in the open ocean it doesn’t give you the needed judgment. Staying upright is one thing but knowing where you are going and how to actually get there is another. Navigation becomes more critical. Chart and compass work essential (no, a GPS isn’t enough). This actually means classroom time, even if only reading a good book on the subject or pouring over charts and trip reports in your living room. It takes studying and practice to be ready for the true ocean paddling.
Again, many people stop here. Just paddling on the ocean while hopefully maintaining their skills. Whether to go further will often depend upon where you have to paddle or what trips you want to go on. But there’s still more options for those who want to develop further. It’s time to start playing in the tide races and rock gardens.
To play in rough water you need to have excellent boat control (that edging and bracing again); you need to have good wave riding skills (lots of surf zone time); and you should have a solid roll. But most importantly you should have good judgment. Without that judgment things can go south quickly so you need to understand your limitations, understand the ocean’s power, and understand what risks you are actually taking. Acquiring this judgment will take time and experience and hopefully only a few bumps and bruises. But once you are comfortable playing in the rocks you will know that where you can paddle will only be limited by the conditions of the day. For however skilled and strong you may be there are always days when the ocean is beyond you. And while the extreme paddlers may push that edge the ones who come back safe are the ones who know when to stop pushing and turn for home.