Kayaks come in many different flavors, and the type of kayaking you may practice will be influenced by the area where you live and the water bodies that are nearest to you.
Based on these types of water, the main variations are:
- Lake / Flatwater
- River / Whitewater
- Sea / Ocean
Each discipline requires a different design of kayak and a different skill set.
In this article, the focus is on flat water and sea kayaking.
Flat Water Environments
Think about flatwater as lakes and rivers where the water is barely moving, or flowing at a slow and steady pace. You won’t encounter a lot of waves. A sheltered bay at sea, where the wind does not have free rein, is also considered flatwater.
This is the best option to get started with kayaking.
Flat waters give you an easy start without the surprises that other types of water may present to you. Your biggest surprise may be another small boat causing ripples in the water, but that’s rather a fun learning experience.
This style of kayaking is often limited to shorter trips as a leisurely workout, although it doesn’t have to be like this. Some people will take multi-day trips on inland waters. As you will see later, the type of kayak may be different in that case.
Sea and Ocean Characteristics
Sea kayaking imposes a quite different set of challenges. The sea is far less predictable than sheltered water.
The first thing that comes to mind is the tides. They cause the water level to rise and fall, which may cause currents that force you into the open sea and in unsafe areas.
Wind, and therefore waves, will cause other challenges that will make it harder to keep your balance, or even stay dry. There is also other traffic you have to take into account. This is even a bigger consideration if you kayak near harbors or big rivers leading to a harbor (although local rules may forbid this, so always check with the authorities). You need to understand the basics of maritime rules
Obviously, these conditions are for the more experienced kayakers.
Types of Kayak for Flat Water
As said, the easiest way to start with kayaking is on flat water. And the easiest type of kayak for this is a sit-on-top kayak.
They are very popular at resorts and aimed at the casual kayaker. It’s like sitting on a platform – you just go sit on top of the boat and off you go.
However, if you are looking for more comfort, a sit-in kayak would be the preferred option. They are sometimes referred to as recreational kayaks. With these types of kayaks, your legs are completely inside the hull of the boat.
Because these kayaks are less stable than sit-on-top kayaks, they are much harder to board. You need to stabilize the boat, get one leg in, keep your balance, hold on to the cockpit of the boat and slide your second leg in.
How Sea Kayaks Differ
Sea kayaks are sit-in kayaks and have some unique features that entry-level flatwater kayaks do not have. They are more closely related to expedition kayaks which are used for multi-day trips.
A sea kayak is longer than a recreational kayak and usually equipped with watertight compartments in the front and back. This area is used to store your food stash, drinks, possibly camping gear, emergency equipment, maybe a set of dry clothes, and so on. They are sealed with lids. You will also find stretched nets in front (or behind) for easier access to a bottle of drinking water, and more importantly, a compass and map of the area.
Sea kayaks and exploration kayaks are often equipped with a more comfortable seat.
Another major difference is the rudder. A rudder is a blade on the back of the kayak, slicing in the water. The purpose of a rudder is to help you paddle in a straight line. In calm water, sheltered from the wind, the rudder is not so important. But in the open sea, waves and wind will impact the direction of your kayak, and the stern of the kayak may be pushed sideways. The kayaker can correct this by adjusting the paddling strokes, but a rudder will make this job easier for you.
You can turn the rudder left and right, usually operated by pressing foot pedals. The rudder can also be taken out of the water when not needed, or during transport over land. A skeg is similar, but cannot be rotated sideways.
Every kayak behaves differently in the water in terms of weight, stability, maneuverability, etc. , so always try it out before buying a kayak. The seat positioning, or the foot support, should be adjustable to your body length.
Flat Water Kayaking Skills
As with any sports, you start with the basics. Anybody can kayak on flatwater in easy conditions.
It gets more interesting when conditions are not as favorable, but you still want to go paddling as part of your weekly workout. In that case, it is advisable toenroll in classes – your local watersports club may have the option to get initiations and introduction level training.
You will learn about the different styles of kayaks available, but you will typically start with a very stable kayak. Your coach will show you how to get into the kayak without tumbling into the water and without flipping over the kayak.
The next thing is how to paddle forward. This may seem very obvious, but there are efficient ways and non-efficient ways. Your posture is very important in this respect, and you’ll have to learn how to hold the paddle and which body parts generate the power of the strokes. You may be surprised how hard it is to actually paddle in a straight line.
So next on the list is learning how to adjust the course by putting a bit more power on the left or the right stroke. Once you know how to make quick, small adjustments, you will learn how to change your course completely, for example when you need to make a turn or avoid an object on the water.
These kinds of turns are initiated mostly from the hips instead of the strokes, as you will lean slightly to one side. Obviously, your feeling for balance will be tested during these skills. In the beginning, it often happens that you end up bumping on the river banks. So you will learn how to paddle backward using reverse strokes.
Finally, you will want to make your way back to the start and get out of the boat.
So that is already quite a bit of basic skills and practicing. It will take several weeks of training before you will really be comfortable. And once you try another kayak that’s less stable, you will have to learn it again.
Sea Kayaking Mastery
Continuing to open sea, you will get familiar with getting launched from the beach against the approaching waves.
Similarly, you will see how to get to the shore by using the waves, a skill often called “surfing”.
As you will typically be further away from the shore, you should be proficient with self-rescue skills and with helping others. Self-rescue will include being able to make an eskimo roll. This is a technique to apply when your kayak flips over and you are upside-down in the water. With the proper paddle stroke and body movement, you can flip yourself up again. It takes quite some practice.
Other rescue skills include getting back into your kayak in deep water, towing another kayaker, helping someone to get back into his kayak, etc.
Apart from skills, you require extra knowledge. You have to be aware of traffic rules in open water. How do you respond when bigger boats are crossing your way?
Also think about weather prediction, reading maps, knowing the currents, planning your trip related to the tides, knowing what the buoys at sea mean, general sea navigation,… In short, seamanship.
As always, let’s have a look at safety equipment to take into account.
Whatever type of kayaking you do, a life jacket is mandatory safety equipment. In most places, it is even a legal requirement. If you kayak in the evening, or in dark conditions, you may also be required to have light markers on your kayak so other boats can see you.
If you go into the more adventurous sea kayaking, it is always a good idea to have a compass and a map of the area.
Depending on the water temperature, you may have to invest in a wetsuit, or even a drysuit specifically for watersports to keep yourself warm if you happen to end up in the water. They are more flexible than the ones used by scuba divers.
As a sea kayaker, it is advisable to also have a marine walkie talkie to call for help. Also, a GPS system will help you not to get lost or to be able to determine an accurate location to rescue services.
To summarize, if you are looking for more than the half hour kayaking fun at the beach of the tropical resort, you can follow this approach here:
First go inform yourself at the nearest club offering kayaking. Ask if they can make an initiation and find out if this something for you. Next, follow a course to teach you the foundations. At that point, you may have to buy some of your own equipment, like a life jacket and protective clothing.
Depending on which style of kayaking you prefer, you may further advance your training into that discipline and possibly end up buying your own kayak. Always try a kayak first before purchasing.
I hope this article gave you some more insight in what kayaking entails. There is more to it than kayaking at the beach resort.