A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

What Is Sea Kayaking

Sea kayaking is an endless range of activities. It’s paddling along the coastline staring off into the zen of the horizon. It’s watching the waves crash on shore and bounce around rocks and then riding those waves cunningly to the spot you have chosen. It’s counting lobster pots in Maine or wandering around marshes to see if a creek goes through. It’s paddling until your body aches and your face is wind chapped, marveling at the miles you’ve covered that day. It’s watching the seagulls and cormorants preening and the seals sneaking up behind your boat.

Sea kayaking is just as much fun for women as men, but the industry sometimes forgets about us. Here are my suggestions for women who want to sea kayak.

The boat

For starters, you need a boat. Odds are, you have a friend, a guy, who wants to help you pick your boat. Unless he can fit in your jeans, he won’t be any help. A kayak needs to fit the paddler. I suppose he could give style advice just like when shopping for jeans…

Try out lots of boats. Rent them or borrow them from friends. Join a club and make Lots of friends. Buy your first boat used because it won’t be the right boat in a few years when you have matured as a paddler.

Kayak fit is very important. Here are some examples I have seen of kayak fit going wrong.

Trudy floating high in the river boat

  • My mother had a boat once, a high volume 15′ fiberglass down river boat. We went paddling in some tidal marshes and she floated so high in the water that the rudder and keel were exposed. The wind spun her around every which way and we had to tether her boat to another boat to prevent her getting blown out to the Atlantic like a beach ball.
  • I picked a boat marketed towards smaller people – the Current Designs Squall. On calm days, it paddled great. On windy days, it leecocked! Now, if you take any sea kayaking instruction, the entire repertoire of strokes is built around kayaks weathercocking. I later read one review online of another light weight woman complaining the squall leecocked. For the rest of my time with that boat, I filled my front hatch with ballast just to get it to behave.
  • Beware the off water handling too. Make sure you can load the kayak on the car by yourself. I watched a friend of a friend and a mother of a friend both quit kayaking because it was too much trouble always trying to find a friend to come along.
  • Almost everyone I have seen in too large a boat had trouble rolling. There’s an epidemic of women who can’t roll. It’s not that women are too weak, it’s that all the boats are too big.
  • Same thing applies to edging. This is a technique you use all the time: to go straight, to turn, to stay upright in waves. With a properly sized kayak, you can edge by shifting your weight and rotating your hips. With a boat that’s too large, you have to lean way out over the side and risk capsizing.

Emilie in her Squall

Now that I have convinced you to buy a boat that fits, how do you tell if a boat fits? Let’s discuss fit in terms of two components of a kayak: the hull and the deck.

Most manufacturers publish a suggested paddler weight for each kayak. These are based on the hull shape. A hull works best when the waterline is at the correct depth relative to the chines. The wrong depth can affect stability and maneuverability. Generally the deeper you submerge a hull, the easier it is to roll and edge. If it’s too deep it just tips over. If it’s too shallow it feels like paddling a raft. For maneuverability, there is a sweet spot for the depth of the chines. Just right and the kayak turns easily on edge. Too high or too low and it goes straight or doesn’t track at all.

Emilie relaxing in her Tahe Greenland.

Another limit the hull sets is how fast you can paddle your kayak. There are two components to this, wetted surface area and hull speed. The hull speed is determined by the waterline length of the boat. Longer boats have higher hull speeds. If you pick a boat with a suggested paddler weight that matches yours, you shouldn’t have issues with wetted surface area. For hull speed, though, a lot of manufacturers try to minimize wetted surface area at the expense of waterline length. I recommend against getting anything shorter than 16′ long. As a woman, you are probably less strong than the guys, so there’s no point setting yourself up for failure by paddling a boat that just can’t go as fast. The standard for guys boats is the 17′ 5″ NDK Explorer. You’ll see the Romany, 15′ 10″ marketed for women. It is noticeably slower than the Explorer. The numbers I am quoting are overall length. Few manufacturers actually publish their waterline length. Longer than 18′ is probably not worth it due to increased wetted surface area and decreased maneuverability.

The second major part of sizing a boat is the deck. It is tempting to go for a higher deck: more room for camping, dry ride through waves, lots of wiggle room. The tradeoff is you will have to fight the wind more. Rescues are harder with a higher deck, both rescuing and being rescued. And rolls are harder too. I would suggest choosing a front deck just high enough for your knees to fit and a rear deck with 1″ to 2″ of freeboard.

I am a big fan off Greenland style boats, partly because of their low volume. Here are some I can recommend:

  • Tahe Marine Greenland (Not the T!) discontinued. The company make a similar boat under the Zegul brand. I haven’t heard rave reviews about the new boat.
  • Rebel Kayaks Naja. This is designed by the same person as designed the original Tahe Greenland according to this Swedish thread.
  • A custom built boat. Kayak Ways is our favorite builder on the east coast and they run classes to build your own.

The other gear

Ok, so we talked about the boat. What else do you need?

PFD, paddle float, wet suit, helmet, chart, compass, spray skirt, boat repair kit, people repair kit, sun hat, sunglasses.

And a paddle! People talk lots about boats, but the paddle is just as important. The good news is paddles are cheaper. The paddle needs to fit you and your boat. Because of this, you may need to buy a new paddle when you buy a new boat. It needs to be long enough to easily clear the deck, but short enough to be easy to handle. Definitely pick a light paddle. You will be holding that paddle up all day long.

There are three different types of paddle blades — Euro-blade, wing blade, Greenland style. Most people start with a flat European style blade. You can use them without learning any special technique. Both the European (racing) wing paddle and the Greenland paddle have a wing cross section that must be flown through the water without stalling. If used properly, they are much more efficient than a flat blade. The European wing is slightly more efficient for forward speed. The Greenland paddle is slightly more versatile for a variety of strokes and activities.

Shafts also come in many styles — straight, bent, thick, thin, with or without shoulders, adjustable, feathering, or single piece. Find whatever is comfortable for you. The shaft needs to fit your hands and your shoulders. When holding the shaft, your finger tips should almost touch your thumbs.

I paddle with a custom Greenland paddle from Kayak Ways with a backup two piece carbon paddle from GearLabs.

Just paddle harder!

You’ve been paddling for a while, sometimes with a club, and sometimes with that guy friend who hopefully didn’t pick your boat. Most of the time paddling is fun, but sometimes you just can’t get your kayak to do what you want it to do. You can’t maneuver the kayak through rocky spots or across eddy lines. You can’t turn the boat in the wind or hold a heading in wind. You can’t keep up with the group or you get swept away in tidal currents. The advice you keep getting is “paddler harder”, but you are already paddling as hard as you can.

Well, what can you do now? First, make sure you followed the advice above for picking a kayak. Maybe you decide “I’ll go paddle inland bays and flat rivers where it doesn’t matter if I’m not as strong” No! The problem isn’t you. The problem is the advice to paddler harder. The solution is to learn proper technique. Once I found a club and instructors who taught technique, not brute force, everything that used to be maddening now took a touch of the paddle here, or form of the body there.

The best places to find top notch instruction are at symposiums. These bring in instructors from all across the world for a weekend or a week. Another opportunity to watch for is if your local kayak shop brings in any guest instructors. I am a big fan of the British Canoeing classes and ratings. The ACA has a similar sequence.

Some good symposiums on the US East Coast:

Divorce Boats

Us racing in the Blackburn Challenge. Photo by Doug Mogill.

What about a tandem kayak? Then it doesn’t matter if you are strong enough, right? And they fit lots of gear for camping.

Tandem kayaks can be a useful and fun tool, but they aren’t an excuse to skip learning your own skills. They are useful for covering long distances. They turn kayaking into a collaborative experience. But, there are reasons they are called divorce boats.

  • You need a consistent partner
  • One of you and only one can be captain. The other can be navigator or lobster buoy lookout, but only one captain. Tactical decision making is not a collaborative effort. The captain gets the rudder pedals. Rudder pedals can be installed front or rear, so you aren’t limited to the bigger paddler being the captain.
  • You need to learn skills in a solo kayak. If you don’t improve your technique solo, the two of you in the tandem won’t be able to do any of the fun things you were frustrated by on your own. We had to learn solo racing kayaks before we could paddle our tandem racing kayak.
  • Once you have mastered technique solo, then practice them together in the tandem.

If it all works out, then you are off to the (tidal) races.

The intermediate paddler

Long way to land

So, you’ve been paddling the coast for a few years. You comfortably paddle 10 miles a day. You are an intermediate paddler, right?

Well, maybe.

I have observed that skiers know their ski level relative to other skiers and have a good sense for what they can ski. “I ski the blues, but the blacks are tricky.” I think this is because you can hardly go skiing without falling. Each fall reminds you of your limits. Kayaking, on the other hand, you can pick the calm days and accumulate a long paddling resume, yet never once tip your boat. These people think they are intermediate paddlers, but they aren’t. The sunny calm days are the kayaking equivalent of a green run.

To be an intermediate paddler, you need to be comfortable on the windy days when the waves pick up, or fighting against a tide that turned a little earlier than you expected, or recovering from a capsize when the waves at the beach were larger than forecast. That’s a blue kayaking trip.

I bring this up because it is a safety issue. All the planning in the world to pick perfect days will eventually fall through. When it does, you don’t want to end up on the evening news. So go out with a club, or take a class and put yourself in blue conditions. Know that you will fall, but that’s ok, you are learning. Someday you’ll be an intermediate paddler and be able to ski that blue slope.

Other Resources

Here’s a different woman’s perspective on sea kayaking.

Here are some a broader unisex suggestions for beginner starting out sea kayaking

And, some really good skills to come back to throughout your paddling career.