a beginners guide to ocean kayaking

With thousands of miles of open waters to explore, jumping straight into ocean kayaking can be tempting. Plus, how hard can it be, right? You are just paddling in a different body of water. But that’s not the case.

Ocean kayaking is more physically demanding than flat water kayaking. Plus, you need the right gear to follow safety protocols and re-learn kayaking basics.

This article will provide a detailed guide as you prepare for your first ocean kayaking adventure.

What Is Ocean Kayaking?

As its name implies, ocean kayaking involves paddling across large, open waters.

Unlike lake kayaking, where the surrounding mountains protect you from the wind and the water is relatively calm and flat, you will have to deal with other vessels, waves, tides or currents, and wind on the ocean. In short, you are more exposed when kayaking in the ocean.

This can be discouraging for some, but many kayakers paddle in the ocean for leisure, sport, exploration, experience, and fishing.

What You’ll Need for Ocean Paddling

Before embarking on a kayaking trip, you’ll need proper ocean kayaking gear.

Here is a list of what you will need:

Kayak

Ocean kayaks are typically between 28″ to 34.5″ wide. The wider width allows better stability in the water and room for you to sit in or sit on the kayak comfortably. The length depends on whether you prefer to paddle alone (solo) or with a partner (tandem sea kayak).

An ocean kayak also features a v-shape. This feature offers better tracking, meaning the kayak can stay in a straight line when paddling. Having a kayak with a v-shape hull also means you cut through the ocean water with minimal drag.

Sit-on vs. Sit-in

A sit-on-top kayak like the Malibu Two ocean kayak has an open cockpit. As its name implies, you will sit on top of the vessel, providing a better view as you sit above the water level. Fishing kayaks usually have this design.

On the other hand, a sit-inside kayak is the opposite. Instead of sitting on the kayak, you sit inside the enclosed cockpit. Sit-in kayaks also position you below the water surface rather than above.

Between the two, many ocean kayakers prefer sit-in kayaks because the vessel’s lower center of gravity provides better stability and control. As a result, it is easier to propel forward. Having an enclosed cockpit also means that you can stay dry.

Regardless of which one you’ll pick, don’t forget to register your kayak. States like Ohio require kayakers to register their vessels before exploring public waters.

Kayak Paddle

You need a suitable paddle for your sea kayaking experience to be seamless. Unlike paddles for canoes, the ones used in kayaks have blades on both ends and a middle grip.

Before getting a kayaking paddle, you should consider:

  • Material
  • Price
  • Weight and length
  • Shaft and blade

We recommend a lighter paddle for new kayakers who haven’t built their arm strength and endurance. The most lightweight option you can get is a paddle with carbon shafts. Plastic paddles with an aluminum shaft are a great alternative if you are on a budget.

Aside from the weight, you should also consider the paddle length, which is typically based on two factors: the width of the kayak and your height.

For instance, if your kayak width is 23″ to 27.75″ and you are over 6’ tall, the recommended paddle length is 230cm. On the other hand, if you are between 5′ and 5’6″ tall and your kayak is 23″ to 27.75″ wide, a 220cm paddle is perfect.

For paddles, low-angle blades are better suited for a long day of paddling in the ocean. However,  if you want to cover more area in less time, get a high-angle paddle; they are designed for speed.

If you are going to kayak in the ocean, ensure that you have a spare paddle just in case one breaks mid-trip.

Paddle Leash and Float

Although all kayak paddles float, problems arise when you drop one on the water and it floats away. This is where having a paddle leash comes in handy. Most paddlers attach the other end of the leash to their kayaks, while other clips it to their personal flotation device (PFD).

Speaking of paddle accessories, you’ll also appreciate having a paddle float. If your boat capsizes, you attach your paddle float to the end of the paddle and inflate it. It helps increase stability during kayak re-entry.

Wetsuit

Although there is no strict rule on what to wear during your ocean kayaking adventures, we highly advise wearing a wetsuit.

The human body needs a stable core body temperature (CBT) of around 98.6°F. So if you fall into cold water, your body will work double-time to maintain its temperature.

Since water draws heat 25 times faster than air (water molecules are more densely packed than air), you can immediately feel the effects of immersion hypothermia, especially when kayaking in 0° water.

A wetsuit uses several insulating layers to trap body heat. These layers let the water come in, henceforth the name. Your body warms the water as it gets trapped in the layers. The heated water keeps you toasty.

Wearing a wetsuit, having safety gear like a PFD, and a way to signal an emergency (whistle or radio) means you have a higher chance of getting rescued before you experience hypothermia.

Kayak Spray Skirt

A kayak spray skirt goes over the opening of a sit-in kayak. Its purpose is to prevent water splashes and rain from getting into the enclosed cockpit, wetting your legs, and swamping your kayak. It also blocks cold wind from reaching your lower extremities.

Bilge Pump

Water will get into the cockpit if your kayak capsizes. So, most expert paddlers have a bilge pump in their gear rather than using their hands to get water out of their kayak.

A bilge pump is specifically made to remove water from kayaks, canoes, and other water vessels. It creates a suction that pulls the water from the kayak to the pump’s exit hole (below the handle) by pushing and pulling the handle.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Ocean waters are deeper than lakes and rivers, averaging 3.7 kilometers (2.3 miles) deep. So, imagine if you capsize and the seas are rough – your chances of keeping your head above the water are pretty slim, even if you consider yourself a good swimmer.

That’s why you should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) or a life jacket.

Dry Bag

As their name suggests, dry bags keep your valuables dry and protected from water. They are made of vinyl and nylon, typically with a waterproof polyurethane coating.

Most dry bags have a roll-top enclosure, which you roll down about three to four times to create a seal, depending on the size of the bag. You then clip the plastic buckles together to lock the seal.

Dry bags come in different capacities, expressed in liters. A 5-liter dry bag is an excellent choice for a short 1-2 hour morning kayak. For extended kayaking, half-day or full-day, we suggest a capacity between 10L and 30L.

Head Lamp

If you find yourself out in the water after dark, having a headlamp can give you enough illumination to travel back to shore and keep yourself visible to others.

When shopping for a headlamp, make sure it is dimmable. Bright light can create a beam with too much glare that would disable your vision beyond your kayak. Bring extra batteries as well.

Signaling Whistle

You may want to pack a signaling whistle just in case you need help from other kayakers. You can also use the whistle to get the attention of others or let your kayaking group know to stop.

Here are three essential whistle signals:

  • One whistle: Attention
  • Two whistles: Stop
  • Three whistles: Emergency

Vhf Radio

All ocean kayakers need a marine Very High Frequency (VHF) radio to communicate with other marine vessels and the Coast Guard. If you have a problem and need to call for help, you can switch to Channel 16 VHF (156.8 MHz), which is the frequency for distressed calls.

A VHF radio is not only for emergencies; you can use it to communicate with nearby vessels.

We suggest reading the updated U.S. VHF Channel Information.

Repair Kit

Ocean kayaks are made from tough materials like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and carbon fiber. But they are still susceptible to damage, especially when you accidentally hit a sharp rock.

An emergency repair kit with a multitool, repair patches, and sealant allows you to make minor repairs at sea, enough for you to return safely to shore.

First Aid Kit

You should also kayak with a first aid kit. Most kits include everything you need, including a gauze pad, antiseptic towelette, and more. You can a kit that is pre-packed or create one per piece at your local pharmacy.

Map and Maritime Chart

A map and maritime chart are necessary for safe navigation whether you are a beginner kayaker or an experienced paddler.

Some kayakers opt for a GPS device when kayaking. Although incredibly beneficial, we always suggest having a good ol’ map and compass with you just in case your GPS device fails.

How to Ocean Kayak

Now that you have the right gear, you need to learn how to kayak. Luckily, you are not alone in this journey. Statistics show that kayaking participation in the United States grew by 87.3% from 2010 to 2021.

Learn Kayaking Basics

If you are a newbie kayaker who wants to take ocean kayaking more seriously, consider taking a kayaking course.

Most classes cover addling, navigation, kayak rescues, safety, rafting, and canoeing. The duration and cost can vary from one course to another.

For instance, if you register for a class with ACA Paddle Sports, they offer:

  • A free online course
  • Day kayaking workshops across different states

If you are in Alaska, you can take a class with Alaska Sea Kayaking:

  • Classes last 7 to 12 days
  • Cost of the class is $1,850 – $2,950

Join a Kayaking Tour

Once you’ve completed a course, the next step is getting real-life experience. Local paddle shops typically have full-day or half-day practice runs during weekends. Alternatively, you can join kayak tours.

Find an Ocean Kayaking Spot

Before putting your water vessel on a kayak roof rack and traveling across states, ensure you find a paddling location first. There are several ways to find a kayaking spot near you, either via paddling forums, groups, national park websites, or paddling apps.

Ocean Kayaking Tips & Safety Precautions

Ocean kayaking can be unpredictable; therefore, you must take some safety precautions as you venture out. Here are some of them:

  • Build stamina: Kayaking is tiring and difficult, especially when exploring the ocean. Start your kayaking trip near the shoreline to build your strength before moving farther away.
  • Always check the weather: Generally, when the wind is under 10 knots or 11.5 mph, it’s considered safe to kayak in the sea. Don’t forget to check the water temperature, tides, and ocean currents.
  • Inform others about the trip: If you are taking a solo trip, inform a friend or family member about your plans. Tell them your return time and date.
  • Bring a paddling buddy: It’s always a great idea to tag along with a more experienced kayaker during your first few trips to the ocean.

Getting Ocean Kayaking Right

Ocean kayaking is an exhilarating experience every kayaker should try at least once in their lifetime! But remember, as tempting as it is to venture to the ocean right away, having the right skills and gear can make a huge difference.

This article originally appeared on Savoteur.

Bobby Kania
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