Paddling a kayak on the ocean is a risky activity.
It’s fun, to be sure. But lurking in the shadows — ever present — is the fact, simply said, that you can die doing this activity.
If that turns you off or makes you think twice about venturing out on the cold ocean water in a skinny paddle craft, then good, don’t go out. Stay ashore and participate in something less threatening.
No one should be out there who hasn’t assessed the dangers and prepared themselves with proper training, conditioning and equipment. These are the pieces of a foundation that will keep you safer. Head out without them and you’re inviting disaster.
Comedian Ron White made the phrase “you can’t fix stupid” a Billboard chart topper in 2006. In an effort to prove the adage wrong, I’ve rounded up some advice from folks who make a living taking folks out on the water in kayaks, and who spend the off-season teaching the skills associated with kayaking.
I asked each one to give me a top-five list of advice for those heading out for an ocean paddle.
Robert Shaw is owner of National Park Sea Kayak Tours in Bar Harbor. Karen Francoeur is owner of Castine Kayak Adventures in Castine. Marc Burgoin is owner of Lincoln Canoe and Kayak in Freeport. All are longtime Registered Maine Sea Kayak Guides and members of the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors. Each has been an officer in the association, and Burgoin is the current president.
Here’s what they suggest for anyone thinking of heading out for a paddle.
Robert Shaw, National Park Sea Kayak Tours, Bar Harbor
1. Wear your life jacket, Be smart from the start, whether it’s the ocean, a lake or a river; whether it’s your age or your physical condition, put it on and zip it up.
2. Take the right boat to the right place. Recreational boats have no place on the ocean. White-water boats are made for rivers, recreational boats are for lakes and ponds, and sea kayaks are designed for the ocean. A sea kayak (minimum 15 feet) is designed with good flotation (sealed bulkheads fore and aft), water-tight hatches, perimeter grab lines, etc.
3. There is power in numbers. Always try to paddle with a buddy. If you can’t find anyone to go with you then tell someone where you intend to go and when you plan on getting back. It’s called a float plan. At minimum, write it up and put it on your windshield under the wiper blade where you park. If you don’t return it gives searchers a place to start.
4. Communication: Always bring a VHF radio and cellphone in waterproof box or bag. In an emergency you can use it to call 911 or use the radio to contact a lobster fisherman, another boater, or (most important) the Coast Guard. You have to have a means of communication.
5. Dress appropriately in water-friendly materials — not cotton. Next to your skin use Capilene or other wicking, breathable materials. Our bodies are near 100 degrees, and the Gulf of Maine water is 45-60 degrees year-round. Water that is below 70 degrees is too cold for us to maintain our core temperature.
Marc Burgoin, Lincoln Canoe and Kayak, Freeport
1. Know what you will be doing for the day. It’s the basis for a float plan. Look at the area you will be exploring, include points of interest, where will you will take out in an emergency, what roads are in the area, houses, etc. Think in terms of an overview of the day — time on water, time off water — and stick to a plan. Tell someone else of your plans.
2. Make sure you are prepared. Have ample water to drink and food depending on how long you plan to be out on the water. Have the necessary gear — personal flotation device, proper clothing, layers with windbreaker or paddling jacket, or a wetsuit or drysuit.
3. Make sure you understand the gear you are using — for example, how a skeg works, how a rudder works, what they do and when to use them.
4. Have a good understanding of “what ifs.” What if I capsize? What am I going to do if I can’t make it to my destination? What do I do if I bail out here rather than there?
5. Know about the area where you plan to paddle. Listen to and understand the weather report, know what it means. Seek out local advice on weather patterns, water conditions, currents, tides, distances etc. Seek out a local outfitter for advice on the area.
Recent kayaking fatalities have prompted Burgoin to send an email to MASKGI members urging them to be “on guard as representatives of the professional community to be aware of our actions, and model sound risk management and good decision-making skills.”
As an example, he cited a decision he made not to go out for a late-afternoon paddle earlier this week in Castine with experienced friends because of ominous-looking weather approaching. It would have been easy to head out, he said, but if something bad happened it would not have been good decision modeling.
Karen Francoeur, Castine Kayak Adventures
1. Wear your life jacket — even if you consider yourself a skilled swimmer or paddler. Find one that fits comfortably, that you can move in easily, and wear it zipped up. It gives you added flotation in the water as well as insulation from the cold ocean water.
2. Know your rescue skills. Rescues can be seamless and easy if you know what to do before a capsize and you have practiced those skills before you need them. Take a rescue class. Learn options for each situation and what the options are for your kayak so that you can understand where you can safely paddle. Understand what the options will be if you paddle with friends. Never paddle on the ocean with others in recreational kayaks — they are extremely difficult to rescue in water that’s over-your-head deep.
3. On the ocean, paddle a kayak with sealed, airtight compartments: Kayaks with sealed compartments allow more options for rescues because they provide inherent flotation bow and stern. Kayaks without sealed compartments, even kayaks with foam blocks, fill with water and do not allow a capsized paddler to re-enter the boat safely, as it will fill with water.
4. Paddle only in conditions that match your skill level: Good paddling technique is key to your safety. A good way to gain good skills is to train with Registered Maine Sea Kayak Guides and instructors. If you want to enhance your skills and experience more challenging waters, guided instructional trips are a great way to increase your skills.
5. Do not lend kayaks to others if they do not have all of the above skills. You won’t be doing them a favor. Do not leave sea kayaks at your camp or beach-side home for indiscriminate use by renters or friends without being sure of their skills, and definitely do not offer or rent recreation kayaks without bulkheads (airtight compartments) for use by friends or renters on the ocean. Should these boats capsize they’ll fill with water and negate rescue options.
For more information on classes and services offered by these outfitters check out: