Once you've researched, test paddled, and finally purchased the best kayak for you, it's time to get to know the essentials of paddling safely. Kayaking, like all water sports, is risky, but the more knowledge you have about your boat and how to use it, the safer you'll be.
Buoyancy, especially for sea kayakers, is essential should you need to reenter the kayak in the event of a capsize. Be certain your neoprene hatch covers are securely in place before you venture out—make it a habit to check your hatches every time you leave the beach. If your kayak has bulkheads (most touring kayaks do), check the seals as part of your regular maintenance and repair them when necessary. If your kayak does not have bulkheads, you must tie in floatation bags at the bow and stern. If you plan to carry gear in a kayak that has no bulkheads, pack everything in dry bags and take up any remaining space with an inflatable float bag. You can never have too much buoyancy.
Having to spend an extended period in the water is a worst-case scenario in kayaking; thus, the safest way to dress is for the water temperature. However, there is often a big difference between the air temperature and the water temperature—paddling in a wetsuit is uncomfortable and hot when the sun beats down. A good alternative is a farmer john and a breathable paddling jacket, or a breathable dry suit with the necessary layers underneath. In warm conditions a dry suit is moderately cool and can protect you from UV rays, and in cool conditions it's as warm as what you wear under it. What you wear is also determined by your skill level—how quickly you can exit the water if you capsize makes a huge difference in what you might wear, as does your distance from shore. Keep in mind your activities, your skills, your company, and the weather when choosing what to wear—it can mean the difference between life and death.
No matter what, a PFD (personal flotation device) is standard apparel for kayakers, even for strong swimmers. A PFD increases survival time in the water, first by keeping you afloat without wasting energy, and second by keeping you warm. Do not paddle without an approved PFD that fits properly.
Spray skirts are another essential item. A spray skirt seals your cockpit, keeping water out, warmth in, and retaining the sea worthiness of a touring kayak. Recreational kayakers do not need spray skirts in most situations, but they are available. Skirts are obviously unnecessary for sit-on-tops.
The final piece of apparel is a helmet. Helmets are essential for rocky surf zone paddling.
It is important to check conditions such as weather and tides before going out in your kayak. Whether you are going on a multi-day excursion or just paddling for an afternoon, being aware of current conditions can help you plan a more safe and efficient trip. An excellent way to monitor sea conditions is to use the National Marine Forecast located at www.weather.gov/om/marine/home.htm
Sea kayakers carry with them a wide variety of safety items including everything from approved lights to a repair kit. Here are just some of the items to carry (and know how to use):
- Paddle Float (or other rescue aid)
- Bilge Pump (to empty a
- Tow Rope
- Charts (in a waterproof
- Deck Knife
- Weather Radio
- First Aid Kit and Extra Clothing (kept dry)
- Deck Bag (with extra water, food, sunscreen, etc.)
- Air Horn / whistle
- Spare paddle
- Repair Kit