Sea kayaking is popular around the world anywhere there are large open bodies of water to be explored: lakes, bays, calm rivers, estuaries or the ocean. Although sea kayaks come in variety of styles, they generally are different then their white water cousins in that they trade off the maneuverability for higher cruising speed, cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling and comfort for long journeys. Canoes are an alternative for many of the areas accessible by sea kayak, but less suitable for unsheltered waters.
Sea kayaking is open to people of all skill levels, from renting a kayak to paddle around a small lake, to months long journeys into complex marine conditions. It is often combined with wilderness backpacking for exploring otherwise difficult to access wilderness areas and allows access to fishing areas that might otherwise be inaccessible. Kayaks are also popular to bring along when cruising on small craft, allowing boaters to go ashore or generally give access to areas that larger boats won’t fit.
A sea kayak or touring kayak is a kayak developed for the sport of paddling on open waters of lakes, bays, and the ocean. Sea kayaks are seaworthy small boats with a covered deck and the ability to incorporate a spray deck. They trade off the maneuverability of whitewater kayaks for higher cruising speed, cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys.
Sea kayaks are used around the world for marine (sea) journeys from a few hours to many weeks, as they can accommodate one to three paddlers together with room for camping gear, food, water, and other supplies. A sea kayak usually ranges anywhere from 10–18 feet (3.0–5.5 meters) for solo craft, and up to 26 feet (7.9 meters) for tandem craft. Width may be as little as 21 in (53 cm), and may be up to 36 in (91 cm).
Contemporary sea kayaks trace their origin to the native boats of Alaska, northern Canada, and Southwest Greenland. Eskimo hunters developed a fast seagoing craft to hunt seals and walrus. The ancient Aleut name for a sea kayak is Iqyak, and earliest models were constructed from a light wooden frame (tied together with sinew or baleen) and covered with sea mammal, (sea lion or seal) hides. Archaeologists have found evidence indicating that kayaks are at least 4000 years old. Wooden kayaks and fabric kayaks on wooden frames (such as the folding kayak Klepper) were dominating the market up until 1950s, when fiberglass boats were introduced, while modern plastic kayaks first appeared in 1984.
Forms of sea kayaking
Developed by kayak enthusiasts, Kayak sails can supplement or effectively eliminate the need for paddling. Using a sail can increase offshore range and allow longer expeditions. Use of a sail for touring has established a strong following with recreational sea kayakers, expedition paddlers, and adventure racers.
Weekend trips with overnight camping are popular among recreational kayakers and many combine kayaking with wildlife watching. Modern sea kayaks are designed to carry large amounts of equipment and unsupported expeditions of two weeks or more are conducted in environments ranging from the tropics to the Arctic. Expedition kayaks are designed to handle best when loaded, so it may be necessary to ballast them on shorter trips.
Closely related to surf boards and requiring a mix of surfing and kayaking skills, a wide range of sea kayaks are specifically designed for the sport of wave surfing.
The sea kayak has long been a means of transportation and a means of accessing fishing grounds and kayak fishing has gained popularity due to the availability of purpose built stable designs. This technological development also solves some ergonomic problems that are associated with sitting for long hours without being able to change positions and special kayaks for fishing are accessorized for this sport, including specially-designed hatches, built-in rod holders, catch bags and equipment mounts.
Many of the techniques used in kayak fishing are the same as those used on other fishing boats. The difference is in the set-up, how each piece of equipment is fitted to the kayak, and how each activity is carried out on such a small craft. Contemporary kayaks can be equipped with fishing aids such as rod holders, electronic fish-finders and live-bait containers. Kayak anglers target highly prized bottom feeders like halibut and cod and also pelagics like amberjacks, tuna, sailfish, wahoo, and even marlin.
Modern sea kayaks come in a wide array of materials, designs, and sizes to suit a variety of intended uses. In sea kayaking, where the designs continue along primarily traditional lines, the primary distinction is between rigid kayaks and folding kayaks. Folding kayaks are in some ways more traditional boats, being similar in design to skin-on-frame kayaks used by native people. Modern folding kayaks use ash and birch or contemporary materials such as aluminum for the frame, and replace the sealskin covering with synthetic waterproof fabrics. Unlike native kayaks, folding kayaks can be easily disassembled and packed for transport. Many folding kayaks include inflatable sponsons that improve the secondary stability of the vessel, helping to prevent capsize. More recently, a class of inflatable folding kayaks has emerged, combining a more limited rigid frame with a tightly inflated skin to produce greater rigidity than an inflatable boat alone.
In recent years, there has been an increase in production of sit-on-top kayaks suitable for sea use.
Most rigid sea kayaks also derive from the external designs of native vessels, especially those from Greenland, but the strength of modern materials such as fiberglass, rotomolded plastic and carbon fiber eliminate the need for an internal frame, though significantly increasing weight. Modern skin-on-frame sea kayaks constructed with nylon skins represent an ultralight niche within the rigid sea kayak spectrum. Some recent design innovations include:
Recreational kayaks—shorter kayaks with wide beams and large cockpits intended for sheltered waters
Sit-on-top kayaks—boats without an enclosed cockpit, but with the basic hull shape of a kayak.
A different class of vessel emerged in the 1960s, the Surf ski, a long, narrow boat with low inherent stability that is intended for use in surf and following waves.
Most production sea kayaks are between 12 and 24 feet (3.66 and 7.32 m) in length, the larger kayaks often built for two (or in rare cases, three) paddlers. The width (beam) of typical kayaks varies from 18 to 32 inches (457 to 813 mm), though specialized boats such as surf skis may be narrower. The length of a kayak affects not only its cargo capacity (for both gear and paddlers) but may also affect its “tracking” ability—the ease with which the boat travels in a straight line. While other design features also impact tracking, very long kayaks are easier to paddle straight (and harder to turn). The width of a kayak affects the cargo capacity, the maximum size of the cockpit (and thus the size of the paddler in that cockpit), and (to a degree that depends on the design of the hull) the stability.
Most rigid production kayaks are now made out of fiberglass, rotomolded polyethylene, thermoformed plastic, blow moulded polyethylene or carbon-kevlar. More exotic materials include carbon fiber and foam core. Some kayaks are hand-built from plywood or wood strips covered with fiberglass. Skin-on-frame kayaks are built on wood or aluminum frames covered in canvas, dacron, or other fabrics, and may include inflatable tubes called sponsons.
Marine Grade plywood available today provides a high strength to weight ratio for kayak construction.
Bow, stern, and deck
There are many design approaches for the bow, stern, and deck of kayaks. Some kayaks have upturned bows, which are meant to provide better performance when paddling into waves, as well as better wave-shedding ability. Other kayaks achieve this through increased buoyancy in the bow. Kayaks with unobstructed stern decks may ease certain types of self-rescue. Waterproof bulkheads in modern kayaks provide flotation in the event of capsize.
Sea kayak decks typically include one or more hatches for easy access to the interior storage space inside. Kayak decks often include attachment points for deck lines of various kinds, which are aids in self-rescue and attachment points for above-deck equipment.
Cockpits can be of several designs. They can be large or small. A large keyhole cockpit can give the advantages of both, and combine firm contact between paddler and boat, while offering relatively easier access.
Sea Kayaks have a wide range of hull designs, which greatly expands their range of performance. Designs can accommodate a wide range of physical fitness, or usage. Boats come in many lengths, whereby shorter boats are generally more maneuverable, and longer boats generally travel straighter and faster. Width of beam can affect a boat’s stability, speed, and ability to bring to an edge. The amount of rocker (the curve from bow to stern) can greatly affect the ability of a boat to turn.
Many have steering gear or tracking aids in the form of rudders or skegs. In most cases rudders are attached at the stern and operated by lines (wire or synthetics such as Spectra) from foot pedals in the cockpit. Rudders are typically retractable for beach landings. Skegs are typically retractable straight blades that drop from a well in the stern of the boat. Both devices assist in paddling when a strong wind or waves are coming from a direction other than directly in front. Some Skegs may be more effective at countering pitch, roll and yaw.
Sea kayaks come in several different styles, materials and configurations. They are designed to accommodate one to three paddlers together with room for camping gear, food, water, and other supplies. A sea kayak usually ranges anywhere from 10–18 feet (3–5½ meters) for solo craft, and up to 26 feet (8 meters) for tandem craft. Width may be as little as 21″ (50 cm), and may be up to 36″ (90 cm).
Expedition sea kayaks – strength of modern materials such as fiberglass, rotomolded plastic and carbon fiber eliminate the need for an internal frame, though significantly increasing weight. Modern skin-on-frame sea kayaks constructed with nylon skins represent an ultralight niche within the rigid sea kayak spectrum. These offer excellent cargo and tacking and are suitable for long distance kayaking.
Recreational sea kayaks — shorter sea kayaks with wide beams and large cockpits intended for shorter voyages. Less maneuverable than their white water cousins and offer less cargo space and tracking than standard sea kayaks these kayaks are popular for short term voyages, non overnight exploring and complex waterways where maneuverability is more of a premium.
Sit on top kayaks – popular for some users that require quick exiting and entering and can be suitable for sea use. They are usually used for shorter term voyages where cargo space is less of a premium.
Folding kayaks – Folding kayaks are in some ways more traditional boats, being similar in design to skin-on-frame kayaks used by native people. Modern folding kayaks use contemporary materials such as aluminum for the frame, and replace the sealskin covering with synthetic waterproof fabrics. Unlike native kayaks, folding kayaks can be easily disassembled and packed for transport. Many folding kayaks include inflatable sponsons that improve the secondary stability of the vessel, helping to prevent capsize. More recently, a class of inflatable folding kayaks has emerged, combining a more limited rigid frame with a tightly inflated skin to produce greater rigidity than an inflatable boat alone.
Inflatable kayaks – have a distinct advantage over other types of kayaks in that they can be deflated and packed away in small areas. Popular with travelers that want to bring a kayak along on an outing but lack space or logistics to manage a larger hard shell kayak. Often very stable but lack the tracking and storage of larger kayaks.
Besides an actual sea kayak there are a number of pieces of equipment that are needed for an excursion.
Life Jacket is the most important piece of equipment and can make the difference between life and death.
Paddle is the propulsion device and must be carefully selected. It may be made of wood, aluminum, plastic, or composite materials. Two-piece take-apart paddles are also available in all three materials and make for good emergency back up paddles.
Spray skirt fits around paddler and the kayak opening to prevent waves from entering kayak.
Flotation in both ends of boat – air bags or bulkheads help keep kayaks floating even in an emergency.
Bailing device can be as simple as a plastic cup or large sponge to remove excess water.
Rain gear and hat hopefully small enough that packs away nicely
Warm change of clothes in case of an emergency
Dry bags keep supplies dry, expensive solutions are available but can be as simple as a plastic bag. Consider bringing several smaller bags rather than one large bag for ease of packing on longer journeys.
Tide tables when paddling in the open ocean
Other basic camping/outdoor items, such as whistle, waterproof matches/lighter, flashlight, sunglasses and sunscreen, knife, Compass, Charts of area, basic first aid kit and extra food
Other equipment is optional but may be required in some instances
Paddle leash – prevents paddles from being lost in an emergency
Paddle float – for self rescue
Flares – for signaling for help in an emergency
Tow line – for assisting others in an emergency
Waterproof gloves – help keep hands warm when paddling in colder weather
Navigation lights are required in some areas when kayaking between sundown and sunrise or when visibility is reduced, a white light visible over 360° is preferable, but a watertight flashlight may be acceptable.
You should of course have adequate equipment, including suitable clothing and means of getting help.
It is paramount to know the basic rescue and self-rescue techniques. Although keeping a kayak on its keel is not as difficult as it seems the first time you try to enter one, a breaking wave can easily turn you over. Unless you succeed in rolling up again, you should be able to get out, catch the kayak, get rid of most water in it and enter it again, regardless of conditions. You should also know how to get somebody to the shore without his or her kayak.
Tides and currents
Though invisible, the current has great impact on kayaking. On the ocean, the current changes direction subsequent to the tides. This can either slow you down and/or cause you to drift far from your itinerary. The amplitude of tides can sometimes rise above 6 meters and even moderate tides, of less than a metre, can cause very dangerous currents in some regions. Currents can occur also in seas without tides, resulting from shifting wind and air pressure. The local currents do not always point in the same general direction as the tides or the wind, as islands and sea floor topography have significant influence.
Recreational kayakers can maintain on average a speed to 2 to 3 knots (3.5 to 5.5 km/h). Currents between 1 to 4 knots are then regarded as average, while currents above 4 knots are significant.
Some regions have prevailing and constant winds that can be easily forecasted. Wind has a drift effect similar to the current and can also rapidly decrease its ambient temperature. Sudden wind-blasts provoke strong, sometimes breaking waves and can cause you to drift very far from the banks. Great care should be taken when interpreting weather forecasts.
In open waters there are often waves. However, they may not always behave like one would expect. Especially in shallow areas the sea floor topography affects the direction and speed of wind waves and swell, which may cause cross sea and breaking waves. “Shallow” here means less than half a wavelength of depth, about 5 m with 1-m-high wind waves; swell has relatively greater wavelength (as it originates from large waves), which explains surf caused by swell that is invisible off shore. A steep shore can reflect waves, also causing cross sea and sometimes standing waves.
Consider the water temperature rather than just the air temperature when choosing clothing. Layers of quick-dry clothing are ideal, and hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are highly recommended. For footwear consider wearing sturdy, strap-on sandals or water shoes.
8 °C (46 °F) is a critical threshold. A forced plunge in water below 8°C can provoke hypothermia within minutes. Swimming in water between 8 and 15°C is, though uncomfortable, tolerable: you can act for quite some time.
The natural environment in which an excursion takes place should not be taken lightly. Camping conditions, the presence of dangerous animals, evenness of terrain, and its remoteness can each trigger or influence minor incidents that could take on catastrophic dimensions.
Traffic can be dense on large, navigable channels and along certain coastlines. Cargo ships in these areas are obliged to adhere to exact routes, leaving them with no room to maneuver around you. It is your responsibility to steer out of their way. The crew of these huge ships cannot detect you on their radar, cannot spot you when beyond a distance of 3 km (2 miles) (and that in clear weather), and lose sight of you again when you are closer than a half mile to their ship. Also fast recreational vessels are a danger. You can often avoid traffic by keeping to shallower water and crossing fairways quickly.
Know your rights and obligations as a pleasure boater and respect the navigational regulations in order to avoid collisions. Make sure that you are well seen and heard. To this effect, the color of your kayak and your PFD can play an important role. Kayaks come in a variety of bright colors not for reasons of style but because the bright colors make them more visible to other boaters. Yellow, orange and red are the colors that are the most visible on water. Signalling devices should always be within hand’s reach.
Komodo National Park with dozens of uninhabited islands within and just outside the park. Many of these are only accessible by unmotorised vessels such as expedition style sea kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs).
Ao Phang Nga National Park, known for its limestone rock formations. More than 40 islands with beautiful cliffs, caves and the largest remaining mangrove forests in Thailand.
Oban is a town in Argyll and Bute. It is known as the Seafood & Sea Kayaking Capital of Scotland and probably the whole of Europe It is also shopping and drinking capital of the west coast of Scotland, and home to the excellent whiskey of that name.
Sea kayaking is a great way to discover countless islands of the Archipelago Sea, the other archipelagos along the coast or, e.g., the Saimaa freshwater archipelago. Very good conditions for sea kayaking and equipment rentals are also in Raseborg featuring the Ekenäs Natural Park, Ingå and Helsinki.
The Inuit peoples of Northern Canada (and/or Greenland) invented and still use a type of kayak and for some places it is the best or in fact only way to get around.
Seward has many vendors offering kayakers a close up look of the many glaciers and wildlife in the area.
Sea kayaks can get closer to wildlife and maneuver through areas that larger boats can’t but be well prepared for cold weather.
A sea kayak’s primary safety device is its paddler. Although some kayakers consider a well-practised self-righting move such as an Eskimo roll to be essential in order to safe open-water kayaking, it is the technique of bracing that every well-trained, experienced kayaker practises in order to maintain an upright position in their kayak. Practice in bracing is often neglected by inexperienced kayakers once they have learned the Eskimo roll. However, the reality is that having to roll really means having to recover from a failed brace. Being in the capsized position in some environments due to missing a brace can put the paddler in danger of colliding with obstacles under the water. Staying upright in surf zones, rocky surf zones (informally known as rock gardens), and rivers is most important and is only accomplished through well-practised and successful bracing.
While there are a number of techniques for unassisted righting and re-entry of a kayak after a capsize and turtling, most paddlers consider it safest to paddle with one or more others, as assistance is useful if attempting to recover via rolling solo fails. Even if the assistance fails to successfully right the kayaker, it is much easier to climb back into a boat in the open sea if one has another boat and paddler to help and the swamped boat has been emptied of water first. Nonetheless, experienced paddlers do attempt open-water crossings unaccompanied, and many major long-distance kayak expeditions have been carried out solo.
The use of a paddle float self-rescue device, generally consisting of foam or in the form of an inflatable bag, and attached to the end of a paddle when needed, allows the paddle to be used as an outrigger while climbing back into the cockpit. If an inflatable paddle float is chosen, it should be a dual-chambered model on account of the safety advantage (in the event of failure of one chamber) that is conferred by the redundancy. The kayaker is advised to train with only one chamber inflated. In many areas (Canada, for instance), a paddle float is a safety item required by the coast guard. Re-entry using a paddle float is a fairly reliable rescue technique that, if well practised, allows one to paddle with confidence when one is not equipped with a flawlessly honed rolling skill.
There is a strong culture of self-sufficiency amongst sea kayakers and extensive safety equipment such as compass, towing lines, manual pumps, repair kits including wet application repair tape, flares, paddle leash, spare paddles, and survival gear are routinely carried; along with supplies of food and a flask of hot beverage for non-emergency use. GPS, charts, lights, radios and cell phones, and radar reflectors are also sometimes carried.