Sea Kayaking - a brief explanation Britain's true wilderness experience.
How can we possibly begin to describe an environment as vast and changeable as the sea and the myriad of shorelines and islands available to adventurous souls. As a professional sea kayak instructor and guide I frequently ask the people I kayak with what it was that sparked the idea to go kayaking on the sea. The answers range from “I did some basic kayaking or canoeing at school and have good memories” to, “my knees hurt when running or hillwalking these days so I thought I’d try something new in the great outdoors”.
I’ve always said that sea kayaking is one of the most accessible of the adventure sports as it can be experienced by paddlers as young as toddlers and as old as the hills. Mountain sports such as skiing, walking , climbing or biking demand a big investment of time into fitness training prior to the activity. In short, your enjoyment is good if you’re fit but it’s painful if you’re not up to scratch! We’ve had kids and parents paddling around Applecross bay, for example, experiencing sea kayaking and the seals, with no prior experience or unusual levels of fitness.
That’s a starting point for many and then, as the skills progress, the bug bites and you develop an insatiable need to: camp on remote islands; land on white sandy beaches and sit by wilderness campfires after a satisfying day out with the seals, otters and whales.
And one of the greatest things about sea kayaking is that we can get novices into these environments very quickly allowing anyone to experience what’s great about the wilderness.
People often ask if there’s any similarity, or cross over skills, in relation to river or fresh water lake kayaking. The simple answer is yes. Some of your paddle skills will be very relevant but the environments are totally different. A sea kayak can be an average of 5 metres long which means that it’s handling and steering control is completely different in comparison to a short river kayak. They are generally narrower so that they travel well through the water. The length also allows the kayak to ride more smoothly over waves – you can imagine that a short river kayak will simply plow into oncoming waves and cost you energy. The other advantage of the length of the kayak is that it also allows hold space where your tent, sleeping gear, food and kit can be stored securely - this opens up the possibility of really paddling away from it all on a multi-day wilderness expedition. For most people this is the ultimate goal as it allows us to get to places that are untouched and wild.
But it’s not an easy activity to get started with. You’ll need good instruction and teaching of safety and skills and access to some very expensive equipment. Walking, as an example, requires very little physical learning – there’s no great skill required to simply go walking on easy upland footpaths so it’s matter of getting fitter and picking up some map, compass and gear knowledge. All very achievable in a short space of time. Going to sea is a very different ball game with the prospect of acquiring co-ordinated paddle skills, knowledge of equipment and an understanding of that most changeable of environments, the sea, tides and weather.
So, how to get started? It’s best to highlight the fact that you can be taught many of the sea kayak paddle skills quite quickly, and you can get involved in quite long wilderness expeditions within a few months of starting, as long as you are with a guide or a very experienced friend. If your aim is to undertake long, multi-day wilderness trips, on your own or as the main decision maker, then the environmental experience you need is extensive. There are no short cuts. You must spend many hours, months and years in the company of a mentor so that you gain an insight into the demands of the environment. Again, that mentoring may be achieved via a group of friends, a club or attending courses and expeditions with a guiding company. Many people get involved in the activity by constantly doing all of these things across the year.
After more than 30 years of working as an outdoor instructor I still see people joining me on expeditions, every year, who I’ve come to know over many of those years. For many individuals who gain good skill levels - and are happy to paddle on their own day trips - the decision to join bigger expeditions is largely about being around an organised multi day expedition where the safety is covered by an experienced guide. The fact is that people live busy lives and can’t get to the sea enough to ever become 100% confident with the more demanding aspects of the marine environment. An acceptance of this is very important so that you don’t end up in places you should not be. Equally, you’ll be limited in what you experience if you don’t push yourself to join expeditions thus allowing yourself to spend time with those who are exceptionally experienced. The key thing is to always operate well within your comfort zone when on a self reliant trip with lots of ‘get outs’ and options to change plans should that squall appear from nowhere!
Finally, we know how confusing the whole kayak scene is when starting out. Especially when trying to select a kayak, if you’re ready to buy one. Which pair of kayak trousers are the best? What not to buy etc, etc. And it’s not easy to use the Which website for independent reviews of these items so please do email us with any questions and we’ll get you started correctly. Remember, shop staff or manufacturers brochures are there to sell you stuff and you won’t always get either expert or unbiased help. Kayak forums can also be a big source of misinformation – much like social media! Drop us an email – email@example.com – and we’ll be happy to get you set up on the right track.