Sea kayaking with beginners -


For outings and introduction rather than instruction.

What follows is certainly not a comprehensive (boring) instruction manual, but rather a few observations based on my own experience which may stimulate some consideration on the process.

In the past thirty years or so I have undertaken scores of expeditions with people who want to get an afternoon on the water, People who are not confident on their own and just want to see the local environment from a different perspective. These outings are usually with either one or two people, usually total novices. They are not interested in rolling or edging or rescue techniques. They don't know tow-ropes exist and are often surprised when they are handed a buoyancy aid. When asked if they are right or left handed they think you are joking when you tell them it is so you can give them a right or left handed paddle. They just want to get out on the water and pootle around the islands, inlets and coves a bit, and hopefully see a seal or two.

For liability reasons I have never taken money for such an outing. I have, however, met some really nice people and made some good friends. Often too, it has spurred me to get out on the water when I otherwise would not have bothered.

I have found in the past that turning a hobby into a business can take the pleasure out of the thing, and I never wanted to incur an expense that would make me feel the necessity to make too much of a business out of kayaking, even building, which I really enjoy.

From time to time I have had someone capsize on me, even in my most stable boats. "The rogue wave syndrome," I call it... You may never see a ripple, but dinner conversation afterwards will include a vivid description of a breaking tidal wave of horrendous proportions. Usually the culprit is actually having caught a crab.

If anyone is still awake at this point, here are a few observations that I have to share regarding paddling (not training, just jaunting) with beginners. This all relates to open water, not white water.

1. With beginners, if one wants to give them some sense of adventure and challenge them a little according to their aptitude, the trick is to keep the group small: one or two, and together. Do not tolerate it if a beginner gets too cocky and wants to separate from a slower paddler. Tell him, (yes it will be a "him"), that if he wants to go off alone he can do it in his own boat, not in one of yours. Do not let anyone (no matter how good a swimmer) refuse buoyancy, even if they really don't need it, you are setting the tone and the ground rules of who is in charge. Although I use one myself, I am ambivalent about paddle-leashes for total beginners. KISS and all that.

take the time to get seat and footrests right. It makes so much difference and is easily forgotten in the excitement.

2. Do not take beginners out in boats, or in conditions, that are not appropriate. perfectly able and athletic landlubbers can turn out to be unaccountably nervous at sea. In benign conditions you have time to sort things out. It is irresponsible to expect competence from even normally physically competent people when at sea.

3. As I am helping a novices into a kayak I casually make the comment: "If you capsize, remember, it's only water." Then, in the unlikely event that they do actually capsize, have a little laugh on them. What the laugh does is put the event in perspective for them. If I am laughing then things can't be too serious. Also, any other novice in the group relaxes a little and doesn't follow suit... Capsizing, we know, is contagious.

4. Give novices spraydecks that are not over-tight. They will forget to pull the loop.

5. Do not over-instruct total beginners. Tell them "short easy strokes" and let them get the feeling of the whole thing for the first fifteen minutes or so. Then perhaps a few simple tips for maintaining direction and developing a little more power. (it is easy to give too much instruction at this point).

5. Give the paddler/s a destination landmark and fall into a bit of casual conversation. Ask them about their hobbies, kids, whatever. Get chatting. What this does is distracts and occupies the speech centre of the brain, which is in the left hemisphere. In most western people the left hemisphere totally dominates our brains. The problem with this is that relaxed and competent kayaking, as with most physical activities, is best left to the right-brain. Distracting the left-brain thus enables the right-brain to operate without left-brain interference. The new paddler is rapidly covering ground without even realizing it.

6. Capsizes: (rare in my experience, but they do happen). After the capsized kayaker's head appears and you have stopped laughing, tell them, "Hold onto your boat and your paddle. Do not turn the boat over." Then turn to any other kayaker and tell them to relax and concentrate on their own stability while you sort things out.

At this point the person in the water expects to be towed to shore as they will be unaware of rescue techniques. I have deliberately not mentioned rescue techniques as I have found that they work better impromptu under instruction in the moment, without pre-thinking and visualization.

Panic and haste always slow down a rescue, so If the paddler in the water is in any way panicked then it useful to distract them with a humdrum seemingly trivial detail. I have found, the kayak still being upside down, the following dialogue works a treat:

"Is your water-bottle still attached to the boat?"
"What!" incredulously, "I don't care about the water-bottle!"
"Well we don't want to leave litter all along the shoreline. Just check." Then insist that they actually check.

Then remind them..."It's only water," and say, "Come on, let's get you back in the boat."

Next question, "Aren't you going to tow me to shore?"
"What, are you crazy? Im not dragging a swamped boat all that way. Here give me that paddle. You hang on to the back* of my boat.."
at which point, to their amazement, you casually empty the boat and turn it over, bone dry.

I have found, to this point, that getting them back in works best parallel-bar style from the rear. i.e: Swimmer holds onto the rear decks of both boats which are side by side facing the same direction. Hoists himself up between them, laying back on his elbows, gets a foot in, and scrambles in. You may suggest that he uses the neck of your buoyancy aid for a bit of leverage. I have had adults and kids who have never heard of a T rescue achieve journey to journey in as little as two minutes. It has never taken more than about four.

I had one friend, with whom I paddle a lot, capsize for the first time in a fairly rough onshore sea with rocks downwind. He wanted a tow as the rocks looked mean and nasty. I took the time to have the above dialogue with him and we were back on track in under two minutes.

*I know that for logical reasons convention dictates that the swimmer should go to the bow of the rescuing boat, but I find the stern to work better for a beginner reentry and the setup quicker if they are in position already.

Back to the beginners.

7. If there is any sea or tide I try to start off paddling upwind. Once people have got into the groove a bit, usually about 45 minutes into the first outing, I give them any few tips they may benefit from immediately: i.e.: I may recommend that they hold the paddle more gently and push with the top hand a little more, or, If they are wasting energy, that they reduce their stroke-pace (they don't know what cadence is yet) and leave the blade in the water longer... whatever. Not too much information though.

When returning I will try to paddle 45 degrees upwind for a while, then 45 degrees down wind and then downwind. Ease them into it. Keep them distracted with casual conversation, point out wild-life and interesting landmarks, so that they don't tense up as the sea movement changes with the angles. If you are relaxed they will be more relaxed.

One tip that can work well in a beam-sea or unpredictable sea-state, is to tell them that, "if the boat is left to its own devices it will never capsize, no matter how rough it gets." Then tell them that, "if they let it the boat will look after them." Rock you boat back and forth with your hips so that they can see what you mean by staying loose, and then tell them that it is like belly-dancing. You keep you head and shoulders level and let the boat do what it wants by staying loose in the hips. Encourage them to try it themselves.

It is important generally, but especially with novices, to stay well upwind when rounding islands and headlands, as the sea-states in such areas are invariably magnified. If a capsize, occurs with a novice in such a location you want plenty of space and time to initiate a rescue or a tow. being blown down onto scary rocks in breaking water will lead to panic and confusion.

8 Of course, it should go without saying that attention to weather forecasts and local omens is important, and discretion is the better part of valour, but sometimes local conditions can change and become a little gnarly. Even a small sea can put the wind up first timers who, after all, are not aware of the capabilities of what seems to be a very narrow boat. Then it is even more important to stay relaxed and cheerful. If you start worrying about your charges they will see it and tense up. If they are relaxed they have a better chance of staying upright.

If for some reason things do go pear-shaped, then you need to be in the best position to intervene. Consider your position relative to novice paddlers, and make sure that your own affairs are in order before going to the rescue. Apart from the embarrassment, you won't be of much use to anyone if you lose your paddle in the process.

If you have started the expedition upwind, then rafting and guiding the raft back to the calmer water or the take-out is always an option.

8. If your companions are young and fit then it is no big deal if you push them a bit and challenge their competitive spirit. A couple of capsizes and fooling around can be fun. My oldest beginner was in his seventies and we took it real easy in warm, flat-calm conditions, close to easy landing and the car. He managed fine, and would have been capable of more, but it would be an absolute nightmare to have to deal with a heart attack in a kayak. At the same time, why should age limit one's experiences?

9 Your own choice of boat:... We all have our favorite boats and, of course, would prefer to be paddling them, but if you are in charge of a group then it is perhaps not advisable to be paddling your fastest, but least maneuverable, least stable, speed machine.

10. Finally, two to three hours seems to be enough for most first timers. Too much can put people off before they have begun, leave them wanting a little more.


Etienne Muller