Sea kayaking is a fantastic way to explore the coastal and marine habitats around the British Isles. This sport is growing in popularity as it is unobstructive to wildlife and good exercise. Varying from recreational or white water kayaks, sea kayaks have a different hull shape to deal with waves and they are built for endurance, speed, and smooth tracking.
Despite their current use, sea kayaking is something of an ancient phenomenon. The word kayak actually means “hunter’s boat”. For thousands of years, the Aleut, Eskimo, Inuit, and Ainu people in the Arctic waters around northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, used wood and hide kayaks to hunt for seals and walruses.
Today, sea kayaking has morphed into less of a life life-or-death pursuit and more of an adventure and leisure activity. Whether you want to go on a multi-day Odyssey (like Oskar Speck, who paddled 30,000 miles from Germany to Australia in 1932) or a short afternoon paddle on an inflatable kayak, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the sport.
However, there’s also a lot to consider when planning a sea kayaking adventure. You must manage currents, tides, winds, weather, mapping, personal safety, and navigation – to name a few. To give you a head start, here are some top tips for sea kayaking.
Table of Contents
How to prepare for sea kayaking
Define your adventure
Before anything else, figure out why and where would you like to go sea kayaking. For example, if you are a landscape fanatic and enjoy natural geology, you should head for the south coast of England to enjoy the Jurassic Coast, Seven Sisters, Durdle Door, or Lulworth Cove.
If you are a wildlife lover, you might wish to visit the Pembrokeshire coast in the autumn to paddle about the inlets where Atlantic grey seals rear their pups before winter. Perhaps you could explore Lundy Island or Skomer to see the coastal birdlife from the shimmering waters.
If you are interested in fishing or high-intensity exercise, you may select a waterway with rich fish stocks or powerful rapids to challenge yourself. There are many reasons to enjoy sea kayaking and if you select your favourite hobbies, it can help when planning your trip.
Research your adventure
Next up is planning, an essential to ensure you have a safe trip. There are many elements at play that can be dangerous if not researched in advance. By looking at the tide table, water temperature, weather forecast, and swell report, you can get an idea about the conditions you are pitting yourself against.
Knowing where the launch sites and take-out points of your journey are located will help you to organise transport to/from the kayaking area. Providing a “paddle plan” for friends or family members also ensures you have someone looking out for you should anything go wrong.
To stay safe when sea kayaking, you need to go through some precautions. The first is to have adequate training to build up a basic skill set. The next is to carry safety equipment with you. This may include a personal flotation device, helmet, whistle, and first aid kit.
The final way to remain safe is to have a means for contacting help in an emergency. A phone is a great way to call the authorities if you get into trouble – by contacting the emergency services (999 or 112) and asking for the coast guard.
As phones are limited by signal, you can also use a GPS device which has an SOS button, a marine radio to broadcast alerts, or a personal locator beacon. By having these products, you are providing yourself with a safety net to get you out of sticky situations.
Practice makes perfect
Sea kayaking is a challenging discipline. Getting to a stage where you’re confident paddling in open water could take a while. You might need lessons to ensure you are familiar with the equipment and know various bailing procedures and paddling techniques.
You should embark on some practice trips in sheltered bays or estuaries to build up your confidence before attempting any open water or rough sections of the coast. Practising white water kayaking will hone skills such as reading turbulent water, graded by the International Scale of River Difficulty.
This knowledge could then be applied to marine settings that exhibit similar conditions. There’s no need to rush this journey and it’s better you spend time practising before you jump in at the deep end, so to speak!
You might like to read our article about Kayaks vs Canoes
Keep gear dry
When you are out sea kayaking, you are limited in your storage space for valuable items. Electronics, food, and spare clothing are all at the peril of the water you are paddling on. Rather than sacrificing these items, carry them in a dry bag or waterproof container instead.
If you wish to bring a camera or phone on your adventure, you may want to purchase specialised waterproof cases that allow you to use these gadgets while on the move. Flotation attachments are useful in case you drop your valuables in the water. For example, if you have keys on your person, a floatation attachment will prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the ocean!
Keeping your clothing dry is another important part of staying warm on the water. Wind chill and frigid waters can lower your body temperature and put you at risk of hypothermia. To prepare for this, wear a wetsuit with a waterproof spray/shell jacket over the top. If it’s really cold, you can also include a thermal base layer and wetsuit boots to conserve more body heat.
Maritime areas are often a hive of activity. From sailboats to cargo ships, RIBs to windsurfers, fishing trawlers to jet skiers. There are many reasons why one might wish to use the water for pleasure or recreation.
As a sea kayaker, you must navigate this seascape cautiously, signalling to others when necessary and steering clear from obstructions wherever possible (remember, government vessels have the right of way and larger ships turn slowly). A brightly coloured kayak, tall flag, whistle, and colourful clothing will make you more conspicuous.
You should also be on the watch for natural features and other coastal structures. With strong winds and powerful tidal surges, it’s easy to lose focus and be pushed off course. By staying concentrated and on the lookout for reefs, submerged rocks, and various sea defences, you will be well-equipped to navigate this busy marine environment.
Learn your recovery positions
Although it seems like there are many arduous safety considerations to sea kayaking, these tips are primarily to make your experience smoother. Once learned, these lessons are easy to remember and implement in the future. Recovery positions are essential to any sea kayaker.
As a first precaution, you should know how to brace against wind or wave turbulence. Bracing allows you to regain balance and stop yourself from capsizing. It is the first defence against adverse conditions. If a brace fails and you flip into the sea, the splash deck will prevent the kayak from filling with water.
However, you now need to perform a recovery move to upright yourself again. The classic manoeuvre is the “Eskimo roll” which has been practised by sea kayaking Innuits for hundreds of years. This recovery move is made easier if you have a paddle float or a friend to assist you. If you practice these moves first in a controlled environment, it will make your recovery attempts considerably less stressful if they happen for real.
Carry all necessary equipment
All good sea kayakers are self-sufficient. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid to call the emergency services if you ever get into trouble, but it does mean you should be able to handle small problems yourself.
That means carrying maps, charts, a compass, extra warm layers, food, drinks, spare paddles, repair kits, flares, medical kits, sun cream and anything else that may contribute to your adventure.
It’s up to the discretion of each kayaker to decide how well-equipped they want to be. However, there’s no harm in being overly prepared and, as the adage goes, “it’s better to be safe than sorry”!
Sea kayaking is a fantastic adventure sport and one with many great qualities to it. Yes, there are planning procedures and safety protocols to go through, but this is just standard practice for most adventure sports. Once you pick up these tips and implement them yourself, they will soon become second nature and will only enhance your experiences.
Even after all the practice in the world, you will eventually have to face the open water. Unfortunately, there is always one thing that will be out of your control: the environmental conditions. All you can do is adapt to what’s thrown at you and use your skills to gradually build confidence and experience. Ultimately, you shouldn’t be worried about sea kayaking. It’s meant to be challenging, but it should also be fun.
All you have to do is hop in the water and embrace your next adventure!
About the author
Matt is a travel writer with a passion for outdoor adventures - from catching swells to trekking through jungles and climbing mountains. He is currently travelling down the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Chile, surfing as he goes. Follow along at mattwalkwild.com.