Ocean Kayak Safety | Beginner’s Guide
Ocean kayaking or sea kayaking is an exciting water activity that allows you to immerse yourself in the wonders of our oceans. However, while it is a relatively safe activity, there are still risks that all kayakers must be aware of. In this guide, we’ll be explaining everything you need to know about being safe while out on a sea kayaking adventure.
Know What to Bring
PFDs, or personal flotation devices, are an essential piece of equipment for any style of kayaking and is required by the Coast Guard that every kayak has one on board. Regardless of how strong of a swimmer you may be, water conditions can change in an instant and can make swimming challenging and dangerous.
There are two types of PFDs, standard and inflatable. Both have their pros and cons. Standard PFDs require very little care and are inherently buoyant, meaning you don’t need to activate it to provide flotation. They also have pockets, providing you with a space to store small items you want to bring on board. The downside of standard PFDs is that they’re bulky and can be restrictive when paddling.
Inflatable PFDs are more comfortable. They have a slim profile, granting you more freedom of movement when paddling. However, the cons of inflatable PFDs outweigh the pros. Because they’re inflatable, they’re not inherently buoyant. To be able to float, the life jacket needs to be inflated, and if you’re injured, this can be a problem. Also, unlike standard PFDs, inflatable PFDs are high maintenance. You are required to change the CO2 cartridge after each inflation to ensure it is functioning as it should.
Dress according to the air and water temperatures. If you’re likely to get wet on your excursion, dress in warmer and waterproof clothing. If you’re less likely to get wet, it is still recommended to wear waterproof clothing, but it’s not as important. If you’re unsure about the air and water temperatures, it’s better to dress more warmly than too cold.
If you’re going to be kayaking in cooler temperatures, you may want to consider wearing a wetsuit. The neoprene material will trap in your body heat and keep you warm. If you don’t want something as heavy duty as a wetsuit, check out a rashguard. But keep in mind that these are designed to protect you from the sun, not from the cold.
There are a few things to consider when choosing a sea kayak paddle: paddle length, the shape of the shaft, and the materials it is made from.
The general rule of thumb for choosing the right kayak paddle is the taller and wider the front of the kayak is, the longer the shaft will need to be in order to reach the water. The best way to choose the right paddle length is to test out a couple with different lengths and see what gives you the best average speed over a long distance.
The shape of the shaft
Paddles can either have a straight shaft or a bent shaft. Straight shafts are the more common type of shaft because they can be used for different styles of kayaking. They allow you to choose where you position your hands, offering you a more comfortable experience. Bent shafts, on the other hand, have several bends on each side of the paddle, offering you less freedom for where you place your hands. These are generally heavier and more expensive. Beginner kayakers should choose a paddle with a straight shaft.
Paddles can be made from a variety of materials, such as aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon. Aluminum paddles will suffice for beginners but are not recommended for more experienced kayakers. While they are inexpensive, they’re heavy, making paddling difficult. Fiberglass paddles keep your hands warmer than aluminum paddles do and are lighter and more durable. Paddles made from carbon are the best, as they are lighter and more durable than the previous two.
Ultimately, the lighter the paddle, the more expensive it is. For beginners, there’s no need to spend the extra money on a carbon paddle. Go for one made of fiberglass. Even though they’re a bit more expensive than aluminum paddles, you’ll have a much more comfortable experience. For more information, visit our guide on how to choose the right kayak paddle.
Other Essential Accessories
Not all sea kayakers wear helmets, but it’s a good idea to do so if you’re a less experienced kayaker.
Helmets protect your head if you are hit by your paddle or if you capsize. Wearing a helmet is not necessary, but it is highly recommended.
Have the Proper Kayak
For sea kayaking, it’s recommended to choose a sit-on-top (SOT) kayak rather than a sit-inside kayak. SOTs are ideal for beginner kayakers, warmer temperatures, and rougher water conditions. They are very stable, providing you with a secure surface when sailing on top of waves. They’re also are easy to get in and out of. And unlike sit-inside kayaks, SOTs are self-bailing, meaning that water drains on its own from the kayak through small holes called scupper holes. The only real downside of these kayaks is that because you are sitting on top, rather than inside, you’re more likely to get wet.
Sit-inside kayaks shelter your lower body inside the boat, making them much warmer than SOT kayaks and are best for sea excursions in cold temperatures. However, if your kayak flips, it’s much more difficult to free yourself. This makes them more dangerous, especially for those new to sea kayaking. For more information, visit our guide on how to choose a kayak.
Practice Flipping Over or Capsizing
One of the most common fears for beginner kayakers is capsizing and getting stuck inside a flipped kayak. This is a reasonable fear– being trapped underwater in a flipped kayak is scary.
While sea kayaks are designed to be able to handle rougher water conditions, there is still a chance of getting knocked over by a larger wave. Situations like this are often unexpected and can be very dangerous, especially when kayaking on the ocean. Regardless of the style of kayaking, you’re doing, it’s best to be prepared for a situation like this. The most important thing to remember if you are ever in a situation like this is to stay calm.
Before taking your kayak out on the water, practice a wet release, the technique that will release you from the kayak if it has flipped over.
Steps to execute a wet release when submerged underwater:
- Lean forward.
- Push the bottom of the kayak with your paddle.
- Release the protective spray skirt that’s attaching you to the kayak.
- Make sure the protective skirt is all the way off.
- Push yourself out of the kayak.
Getting back into a kayak after it has flipped over can be tricky. Here are some tips for getting back into a sit-on-top kayak and a sit-inside kayak.
To get back on a sit-on-top kayak:
- Position yourself at the side of the kayak, near the center where your seat is. Reach across to the other side of the board and grab the edge with both hands. Then pull the edge to flip the board over.
- Grab either side of the kayak and let your legs come up to the surface. Pull yourself onto the kayak until your abdomen is on top of the seat. Make sure you’re balanced before going any further.
- Spin your body so that your butt is now on the seat. Bring your legs back into the kayak.
To get back into a sit-inside kayak:
- Position yourself at the side of the kayak near the seat. Reach underneath the kayak and grab both sides of the seat with both hands. Push it up so that the kayak flips away from you.
- Reach over to the opposite side of the kayak and grab onto the side. Bring your legs up to the surface and pull yourself flat onto the kayak.
- Once you’re stable, flip your body around and slide yourself back into the seat. (You may need to paddle back to shore to empty the water out of the kayak.)
Check Weather Forecasts
Prior to taking your kayak out on the water, make yourself familiar with the area you’ll be kayaking in. Check the swell and the weather forecasts for that area. For beginners, kayaking in bays and other sheltered areas is recommended, as you’re better protected against strong winds or choppy waves.
If the weather forecast predicts there will be fog, DO NOT take your kayak out. Fog can roll in very quickly and you can lose visibility within minutes. This can be extremely dangerous, especially for inexperienced kayakers. Do not underestimate Mother Nature, for she is much more powerful than you are!
Launching into the Surf
Being able to launch yourself through the surf zone is a necessary skill to have when sea kayaking, but it’s not always the easiest. Regardless of your experience level, getting through the surf can be a challenge.
How to launch into the surf:
- Before getting in the water, watch the timing of the waves and wait for a brief period when the waves have calmed. When there is a gap or break between sets, or when there are few waves, that’s your time to enter the water.
- Pull your kayak into a few feet of water by the bow handle.
- Sit on top of your kayak so that your butt is on the seat with legs off to the side. Then bring your legs into the kayak.
- Immediately begin paddling away from shore. Make sure your kayak is always perpendicular to the beach. If a wave crashes into you while your kayak is parallel, you’re at risk of flipping.
Avoiding Ocean Animals
Please don’t let the picture scare you. There’s an extremely slim chance that ocean animals will pay any attention to you, but you must keep in mind that when you enter the ocean, you’re entering into someone else’s home. Be respectful of the sea animals and their space. If you do encounter an animal, be sure to keep a good distance. While it’s tempting to interact with them, getting too close to the animal can hurt them.
Returning to Shore
Returning to shore is more difficult and can be more dangerous than leaving the shore. When returning to shore, you do not want to ride a wave and have it dump you at the shore, for you can get injured. Instead, just as you would do when launching yourself into the surf, wait for a gap or break between the waves and then paddle to shore.
When you’ve found that gap and paddled towards the beach, exit your kayak and pull it to shore. You NEVER want to stand between the beach and your kayak. If a wave launches the kayak at you, you can get seriously injured.
This guide isn’t meant to scare you– it’s meant to provide you with the necessary knowledge to safely get yourself out of potentially dangerous situations. Ocean kayaking poses safety concerns just as any other sport does, and it’s extremely important to be aware of these risks so you can prepare yourself if they arise. If you follow these tips, you’ll be sure to have an exciting and safe sea kayaking excursion!