All it takes is a kayak and a paddle, and you’re off on an adventure — propelling yourself across a lake, navigating river rapids or slicing through ocean waves.
In the realm of outdoor recreation, kayaking has gained popularity over the years, and it’s easy to guess why. The low-impact sport is fun for a wide variety of people. It’s easy to learn. It can be done solo, in pairs or with a group. And it’s versatile; some kayakers enjoy flatwater fishing, while others launch off waterfalls into whitewater.
If you’re thinking of kayaking this summer — whether you’re an experienced paddler or you’ve never set foot in a boat — here are a few tips from Maine kayakers that might help you have a more enjoyable, comfortable, safer experience out on the water.
Even just a little instruction can work wonders
“I think that anybody can put a boat in the water and make it move,” said Karen Francouer, owner of Castine Kayak Adventures. “But if you get instruction, you really shorten the learning curve.”
At Castine Kayak Adventures, Francouer offers a variety of courses and tours for kayakers. She also says that people can look for instruction from Maine registered guides, local outfitters, other touring companies and paddling groups, such as Penobscot Paddle and Chowder and Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization.
“The things you learn are simple things, like how do you get in and out of a boat safely, how to use your paddle efficiently so you don’t wreck your back,” Francouer said. “The reality is, good technique keeps you out of trouble.”
Leave behind a float plan
A float plan is an outline of your planned paddle, including departure and arrival points, estimated times and other details. This is left at home, with someone who will notice if you don’t return from your trip.
“Always file a float plan so people know where you are, when you’re supposed to be back and what direction you’re traveling in,” said Glenn Tucker, owner of Coastal Kayaking Tours in Bar Harbor. “That way, if for some reason something happens, people will know where to look for you.”
While leaving a float plan is always a good idea, it’s most important for solo kayakers, who don’t have anyone to help them if something goes awry.
Different kayaks are for different waters
“Going into the ocean with what we call recreational boats — which are small boats with big open cockpits that aren’t suited for the rigors of ocean travel — that’s a big mistake,” said Tucker.
While recreational kayaks are great for flatwater, they aren’t built for waves and strong currents. If you do want to kayak in the ocean, you’ll want to learn about touring kayaks (as well as spray skirts). And you’ll want some instruction on the skills you’ll need out there.
“Just when you think the ocean is your friend, it will kill you,” said Tucker. “You have to be really careful out there … The conditions can change so quickly. The wind can come up, and the fog can come up so quickly here. If people are out there without navigational skills and gear such as compasses and nautical charts, they can be completely disoriented.”
Accessible gear is key to a comfortable trip
Kayaks are pretty tight for space. Mostly, gear is stowed in storage compartments in the bow or stern, and often a paddler can’t reach into these compartments while sitting in the cockpit. Therefore, it’s important to think about what you’ll need on the water ahead of time, especially if you’re kayaking alone and don’t have a paddling buddy to access your storage compartments for you.
“Many paddlers have PFDs that have lots of pockets to help with organization,” said Brad Ryder, owner of Epic Sports in Bangor. “And deck bags attached to the deck rigging in front of you offer an easy way to get to maps, cameras, water or snacks.”
Some kayaks have a small compartment directly behind the paddler that can be accessed while paddling. But each kayak is different, so it’s important to consider storage when looking at different models to buy or rent.
Among the things you’ll want to invest in are dry bags, which are waterproof bags in which to place your gear. And often, people use hard waterproof cases to store electronics, Ryder said.
Get comfortable with your boat in a safe spot
When someone buys a kayak at Cadillac Mountain Sports in Ellsworth, the employees give them all sorts of tips, but they also make sure the customer walks out with the brochure, “From Store to Shore,” which was authored by several Maine kayak experts from various outfitters and organizations, including the Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides and Instructors and the U.S. Coast Guard. This brochure is available online at www.seagrant.umaine.edu/files/pdf-global/03storetoshore.pdf.
But no matter how much advice someone hears or reads, it can’t prepare someone for how their boat will react to the water and their paddling. The only way to become comfortable with your boat is by paddling it.
“We tell people to go down to the public landing and just play with the boat in water you don’t mind swimming in,” said Kelly Cochrane, manager of Cadillac Mountain Sports in Ellsworth. “It’s better to test your boat in a playful situation as opposed to an emergency situation.”
Some accessories are necessary
“Some people look at our accessories and think, ‘Do I really need all of that?’ Well, no, but you want to have your safety pieces covered,” said Cochrane.
First and foremost, you need a personal flotation device. The U.S. Coast Guard and Maine law require that kayakers must have a Type I, II or III PFD for each person aboard the kayak on all types of water.
In addition, paddle floats and leashes can prevent you from being stranded and losing an expensive paddle. And a bailing device, such as a pump, is always a good thing to have in emergencies or if waves are crashing over the top of the boat.
Then, before you even get to the water, you’ll need to look into purchasing a few accessories that will allow you to transport your kayak without damaging your vehicle. While some people invest in Thule and Yakima roof racks and cradles (totalling about $300) to hold the boat on the roof of their car, other paddlers simply use a few foam blocks (about $20 each).
To secure a kayak to your vehicle, Ryder of Epic Sports suggest using at least three ratcheting tie-downs (or ropes). One tie-down spans across the kayak, from one side to the other, and is secured to the roof rack; if you don’t have a roof rack, you’ll need to secure it to fixed points inside your vehicle by passing it through the doors on either side. The other two tie-downs are used to secure the boat by its bow and stern to fixed points at the front and back of your vehicle.
It’s a bit of a hassle, but you don’t want to skimp on tie-downs and have your kayak flying off your vehicle on Route 1.