Basic Kayak Skills for Safe Paddling

What skills do you need to go kayaking on your own or with friends? Kayaking is a wonderful sport and lets you see remote places, wildlife, gets you across to islands and can even be used for fishing. However, a few key techniques are needed to make sure you don’t end up needing the lifeboat out. Let’s look at those skills. Although there are many transferable skills, this article is specifically for closed corckpit sea kayaks with a skeg.

Steering – harder than you think

Steering is an essential skill and in the flat calm, it s pretty easy. There are many ways of turning your kayak, but the 2 important ones are the forward and backward sweep stroke. Put your paddle into the water as far forward and as close as you can to your bow and then draw a large arch through the water, pushing your bow to the side, finishing at hip level. For the backward sweep start at the back of your boat and sweep to the middle. The key is to make this as big and wide as possible. If you can, edge your kayak towards your blade. This may take some practice.

When it’s windy (F3 and upwards), the sweep stroke only works efficiently on the downwind side of your boat, especially the backward sweep. Try it out and see how much your boat will turn on either side. This is key in handling your kayak in windy conditions and making it home when the wind picks up.

Practising Manoeuvering Skills

Understanding the Skeg

Sea kayaks have a skeg (this is different from a rudder). You only need this when it’s windy, and it helps you go in the right direction. When your skeg is up, your boat will turn its bow into the wind and lets you paddle against the wind. When your skeg is down, your boat will turn down wind and lets you paddle with the wind. In the middle, you can paddle with the wind coming from the side. When your skeg is down, it will be very hard to turn upwind, so remember to put it up when you are trying to turn. The best way to understand your skeg is to try it out on a windy day.

Riding the waves down wind. The skeg keeps you going in the right direction.

Understanding the weather

Always read the weather forecast for your area and pay attention to the wind strength and direction. It doesn’t mater if it’s raining, but the wind can turn a lovely paddle into an epic. Can you handle the wind strength? Is the direction going to blow you off shore or help you reach your destination? Check out the Windfinder App for easy to read wind forecasts. Despite forecasters’ best efforts, the weather is unpredictable, so always err on the side of caution, and if you do not have the necessary skills, always go out with an experienced friend or guide.

Are you dressed appropriately for the temperature on the day? You should always dress for immersion, even if you are not expecting to swim. Wear a wetsuit or in cold weather a drysuit, and if you wear dry trousers and a cagoule, carry a set of dry clothes with you in case you do get wet. We’ill write more about what to wear and what to carry in another blog, but we cannot stress enough that wearing a buoyancy aid is a must, no matter how good a swimmer you are.

Rescuing a capsized paddler

When you are paddling with friends, you can help each other in case of a capsize. It’s not difficult but it involves understanding the technique and takes some practice. The hardest bit is to get your kayak close to the swimmer’s kayak, which means you need good manoeuvering skills. Then you need to empty their boat and support it while they climb back in. Consider why they capsized in the first place and whether it’s going to happen again. Are they cold? Have you got a warm layer to give them? Maybe it’s time to go home? You can learn rescue skills at specific sea kayak courses, where you will learn more about safety and rescue and get plenty of opportunity to practise, so that you can do it quickly.

Rescuing a capsized paddler

Self rescue

Self rescue means you can get yourself back into your kayak without help from someone else. It takes quite a lot of practice and while children and teenagers often find it quite easy, adults often struggle to get themselves back in. How do you get back into your kayak when you have capsized? There are different ways, but here is one: go to the bow of your upturned kayak, kick your legs hard and lift the bow up and flip it over at the same time to get as much water out as you can. Then go to the back deck, reach over, kick your legs and pull your torso up onto the deck without pulling the kayak over. Then swing your leg across as if onto a horse, facing forwards, and while keeping your body low, pull yourself forward into your seat. Like the rescue of another paddler, your can learn and practise the self rescue on a sea kayak skills course.

Understanding the tides

The tides are different everywhere in the world. Some places are affected more than others and while some places have very little lital movement other places can have dangerous flows that can carry you in a direction you don’t want to be. Tidal flows like in Kylerea on the Isle of Skye can flow 8 knots (~16km/h) or more and can take you by surprise and not only carry you away but also capsize you. However they can be fun to play in when you are a more adanced paddler and want to understand paddling in moving water. Join us for an advanced course to try it out. For everyday use, you can look up high and low water online, but understanding flow rates and directions is more complex. You can learn more about tides on webinars run by the Scottish Canoe Association or on intermediate sea kayak or improvers courses.

Knowing how to call for help

When you go out kayaking you should always have the means to call for help with you and accessible. This can be a mobile phone in a waterproof case, a VHF radio or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), ideally you carry more than one, and one of them on your body in case you get seperated from your kayak. Before you call, make sure you know where you are and can communicate that to the emergency services. If you use your phone, call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Learn Basic Safety and Rescue Skills to get ready for your own adventures.

If you are new to kayaking, why not join your local canoe club and learn new skills with other people. There will be trips lead by qualified people and the chance to pick up tips and tricks on your way. Or of course you can do a 2 or 4 day course to learn the kayaking essentials from a professional coach and meet new people from all over. Happy Paddling!