The differences between sea kayaks, river kayaks and tripping canoes can be subtle and profound at the same time. The same can be said about equipment. The paddle is much the same as a white water stick, albeit a bit longer. 220-240 cm lengths are common. You can start with a white water paddle, but the effort to move the blades to the water over a higher deck will prove tiring.
Sea kayaking involves a lot of paddling. 45 degree blade offsets reduce wrist angulation, but there is a lot to be said for a 90. A blade that isn’t parallel to the wind in a headwind can cause as much drag as the rest of the boat. What about the long thin “sea kayak” blades in the Carlisle catalog? The Bering Sea originals were probably defined as much by the size of planks from shipwrecks as they were by function.
An asymmetrical spoon blade works at sea for the same reason that it does in white water. Power. A carbon fiber paddle is a great stick. Whatever you use, put drip rings on it. Without them, you’ll be wet to the elbows all day. After the thousandth stroke you begin to dread the next drop running up the shaft.
The spray skirt is different. Suspenders? You’re trying to raise the effective cockpit edge, not make a watertight seal. Trippers wear a nylon tube with a drawstring at the top. A loose top is handy for ventilation. Buy one with a pocket on the front. The PFD can be a short white water model. The more pockets the merrier.
There are items that you wouldn’t normally think of. Tow Ropes: Put hooks on a white water throw rope and use it as a tow rope. It’s how you help an injured or tired paddler. Some like to tow with a waist strap. It has less effect on the boat, but is more tiring than hooking the tow rope to the pulling boat.
A paddle float: You’ve seen the inflatable kind. Think of it as an inflatable pillow. Can you imagine flipping over, righting the boat and blowing up a pillow on the end of your paddle in the conditions that dumped you in the first place? Put on your paddling clothes and blow up one of your kids’ pool toys in a cold shower. Then find a chunk of Ethafoam and hollow out a hole for the blade. Or, use duct tape on two pieces of foam. Not pretty, but reliable. Better yet, paddle with friends. Assisted rescues are better anyway.
A bilge pump: This is what the short model with the red flotation collar is for. You open the side of the skirt, drop in the pump and empty the bilge. It’s also handy when someone makes a wet reentry. Multiple pumps can move a lot of water. You’re holding the other boat steady anyway.
A compass: Sea kayaks ride low. It’s easy to lose a shore landmark in waves, even small ones. A backpacker’s hand-held seems to make sense until you stop paddling to use it. In calm water it’s an interruption. In any kind of weather it’s impossible. Imagine trying to hold a course in fog. A sailboat compass on the deck is your most prized possession when you’re crossing even a modest body of water. The shape of the foredeck dictates the mounting system. The best allow you to separate the compass from the mount when you’re not paddling.
A whistle: If you think you can’t see far from the boat, try it at water level. You can’t be seen either. You would not believe how much noise you can make with a little orange whistle when you need help. Tie it to your vest.
A spare paddle: A child’s short pool paddle works surprisingly well. A break down model is a better idea. In a pinch, someone else can carry a half if they’re missing a spare.
A rudder: Don’t they come with one? Some do. Some don’t. The rudder is there to help the boat track straight. Most sea kayaks can be paddled well enough with the rudder up. But, the downwind arm tires quickly in a cross wind. Some boats have a retractable skeg in lieu of a rudder. Crunch one on a gravel bar and you’ll see why real sea kayaks have rudders on the rear deck.
Some items add to the quality of the experience. A map case: Expensive ones hold an atlas and craze slowly in the sun. Xeroxed map pages in Ziplock freezer bags are cheap and always new. You can put individual pages in their own bags and stop shuffling dry pages with wet hands.
A hat: What? No helmet? The sun holds more danger than do rocks. Make it big and floppy. “Tilleys” work well. They float, too. Get the green underside on the brim. UV clothing is a good idea. You’re going to be in direct sunlight for hours. Reflections can double the effect of the sun. Pale is in this year.
Croakies: The things that keep your glasses from falling off. You will need sunglasses to deal with the reflections. Losing a cherished pair of aviator frames is bad enough. But the sun can be bright enough to make the loss of eye protection a reason to abort a trip.
A paddle leash: No, you’re not going to take the paddle for a daily constitutional. A paddle typically makes a break for freedom during a rest stop. It’s balancing on the cockpit coaming while your attention is elsewhere. The vertical blade snags a riffle and the thing heads for Tahiti. A leash on the center of the paddle does not interfere with the stroke and keeps it in reach.
A deck bag: A waterproof bag with snaps at the corners to secure it to the deck in front of the cockpit. Where else would you put the good camera? Some come with shoulder straps so that they can double as a day pack.
A sponge: The dribbles from your sandals, the wavelet that burped over the cockpit coaming when you were eating lunch, the leaks around the spray skirt from boat wakes all add up. It lets you mop the cockpit floor almost dry. Think of it as a small bilge pump.
Carrying handles: Two people can carry two empty boats, or one loaded one if the handles at the bow and stern are any good. It is easy to add pieces of PVC pipe if the stock handles are just loops of rope. Just don’t hook handles to unreinforced deck hardware.
Hardware: No kayak ever has enough tie-downs and bungies. Here’s your chance to drill holes in your boat and smile about it.
A security loop: A stainless steel wire on an aluminum backing plate. It gives you something stronger to hook the motorcycle chain to than your carrying handles. It’s a useful tow hook too.
Locks: Take a look at downhill ski locks. They’re small, light, combination and stainless.
Hatch straps: Many sea kayaks are delivered with bungie cords over the hatches. They are not strong enough to keep the hatches watertight in an upset. Add straps. Long ones. You will use them to hold gear down on top of the hatches.
Wax: Wax is equipment? Yes it is. It makes your boat that much easier to paddle. But do not use anything with silicone in it. It penetrates composites. You have to use strong strippers to leach it out of a surface or a repair will not hold. Not something you want to learn about in a barge wake. Use 100% Carnauba. Read the label.
A cockpit cover: Aside from keeping the creepy crawlies out when you’re not paddling, it lets you carry your paddling gear in the kayak on the rack. I’ve seen one with a mesh bag behind a zipper. You can put your wet stuff into the boat without opening the cover. Nice.
A crossover item from the backpacking community is becoming a necessity. A water filter: Wait a minute. We’re floating in the stuff. What do I need a water filter for? On day trips a canteen is enough. You can carry water on overnights. But, it isn’t practical on a long trip. How much sense does it make to fill your flotation with water, even if it is in canteens? Between sewage treatment plant overflows, mine runoffs and industrial leaks, it’s a good idea to purify what you drink. A filter for the hard stuff and purification tablets for the viruses will see that the only bugs you have to worry about are on the mosquito netting. I have Army canteens that still taste of iodine after twenty years. It grows on you. Hydration is an issue. Opening the spray skirt for a canteen when seas are high is not a good idea. Use a CamelBack with a bite valve.
Optional extras can make any trip an adventure. Like, a sail: A what! You usually see masts and sails on folding twins in Caribbean travelogues. But you can carry a variation on a single. I’m partial to a Jalbert Parafoil. It’s a soft kite. Wind speed increases with altitude. Six square feet at fifty feet can be the equivalent of twenty four at water level. Even if it’s only usable downwind it repays the effort of going upwind. Besides, it is fun. You find out who wants to be your friend when you launch a kite with a lake in front of you.
A pink flamingo: Long trips seem to bring out the best in people. They tie all sorts of flotsam and jetsam onto their boats. It starts out as an effort to clean up the environment, and turns into a fashion statement. Start one of your own. I’m partial to a solar shower. You meet the nicest people in showers.
Deck bungies. Your kayak will come with some. Add more. What the heck are all the bungie cords for? Don’t these things carry stuff under the hatches? Of course they do. That’s where the tent, sleeping bag, food, stove, clothes, books, water filter and Crazy Creek PowerLounger go. But there are some things you want close at hand. Like the compass, map case, deck bag, spare paddle, bilge pump, paddle float, kite, CamelBack, cooler and lunch… not to mention the waterproof camera, harmonica, solar shower, flamingo and whatever else amuses you.
If a loaded sea kayak reminds you of a chuck wagon in a spaghetti western, you’re closer than you think. The only things missing are the pots and pans hanging from the roof. Hey, wait a minute. I carried an omelet pan down the Allagash. I can fit one through my rear hatch! Crepes for desert. Cool. You can tell how far someone’s going by the amount of stuff they have strapped to the deck. Pets are not unheard of. Racers look pretty. Trippers look fed… and warm… and dry… and comfortable. Is this a great sport or what? We even play it from the seated position.
Then there is the stuff that you don’t want to think about. Repairs: Ptex candles for plastic. Cloth and epoxy for glass. Duct tape for everything. Wire and nuts and bolts for the metal bits.
First Aid: When you need it, you never have enough. You would be amazed at how handy duct tape can be when you run out of adhesive tape. The rest of the kit will depend on the terrain you’re passing through and how long you’re staying. Most accidents occur between the water and the beach. Wear paddling shoes. When things become serious, three of the best items in this category are a cell phone, a map and the phone number of the local rescue squad. Have a plan.
Waste disposal: When you’re on a long crossing, going to shore to run behind a bush is not a viable option. We use Ziplock freezer bags in sail planes. They work in boats too. Think about it before you plan a long passage.
Tie-downs: Have you ever watched your kayak peel off a car at speed? It’s not a pretty sight. It’s even less amusing for the car behind you. The scene in the mirror as they try to dodge the incoming missile is almost worth the pain. Home Depot sells four long (blue) ratchet straps for $15, and four short (red) for $10. The best protection you ever bought for your boat. Just go easy on the ratchets. They’ll crush anything you put on the racks long before you overstress the webbing.
Do you need all this stuff to start with? No. You’d sink if you tried to carry all of it on the same trip. Some of it is obvious. But much of it is unique to a given trip. Even then each boat does not have to carry every item. If you spend your time on creeks, a deck compass isn’t critical. But it can be a lifesaver in the Everglades or in the Keys.
A lot of it serves double duty. More tow ropes dry clothes than ever pull a boat. Buy equipment as you need it. Over time your kit bag will be able to handle any type of trip. It keeps the fish ties and Walmart perfume off the Christmas list too.
Where do you find touring equipment? The sport is locally in its infancy. Local paddling stores carry some of it, but their inventory is still growing. The best place to learn about what’s available is the mail order catalog. Every vendor has a page or two on touring kayak equipment. Even the NOC carries them. If you want to contact people who only sell touring kayaks, check out Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre, 1668 Duranieau Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6H 3S4. (604-689-7575).
Perhaps the most serious touring catalog comes from Great River Outfitters, 4180 Elizabeth Lake Road, Waterford, MI 48328. (810-683-1770). Michigan? You’ve heard of the Great Lakes? These people cross them. Have you ever seen a foot powered internal bilge pump? Can you imagine needing one? Real sea kayakers live in Michigan. Trust what they say. But I’m not so sure about the fresh water shark story.
Check your favorite paddling store before you order from a catalog. Their prices may surprise you.
by Peter C. King
From The Eddy Line, June 1997