Advice at the One Year Mark (long)

-- Last Updated: May-05-07 11:24 PM EST --

One year ago this week I bought my first kayak and began what I hope is a lifelong love affair with paddling. My paddling experience has been significantly enhanced and my skill level advanced because of what I have learned on p-net, so thank you! I thought I would take a minute to share some advice for folks that might be contemplating or have just completed that first purchase.

Disclaimer - I ain't an expert, not even close . . . but my perspective is probably closer to where you are now than many of the paddlers on the boards. Also, I'm not talking open water paddling - calm lakes, bays, rivers up to class II is where this advice applies. I'm also not directing this to folks buying boats to "float" the river or slap around in the local cove. There is nothing wrong with that, but I'm really writing for folks that want to begin a process of improving paddling skills.

There is an ideal paddling world then there is the real world. In an ideal paddling world there is a great paddling shop down the block that will let you demo every boat in stock, an active paddling club that is convenient, you have an adequate budget to indulge every fancy (and piece of gear) and the water stays above 60 degrees all year. Not sure about y'all but that's not my paddling world.

If you can, demo boats before buying, take lessons from a strong paddler right away and paddle with other more experienced paddlers at first. I did none of those things - the guy at Dick's talked me into a slightly narrower boat with a skeg and I'm glad that he did. Was he an expert - heck no, he wouldn't have even fit into the rec boat that I bought but he did relay what others had told him. One year in, I have moved on from this boat, but it is in the fleet and taught me so much. One comment - high seatbacks are awful, you don't think so now but they are. As a newbie I thought, wow that looks really comfortable. Nothing is as comfortable as a supportive backband and noting gets more in the way of a good stroke than a high seatback. Pay careful attention to how your PFD and seatback interact, if they are overlapping you will not be comfortable and torso rotation will be tough to achieve.

Before you buy and particularly before you paddle buy a good intro book to paddling - I really like Joe Glickman's "The Kayak Companion." It hits the high points in an entertaining manner. Read it several times and REALLY pay attention. If you can, get ahold of an intro kayaking DVD - again my recommendation is Sea Kayaking the Ultimate Guide - why, because it's the best of the two that I have. :-)

Also use the "Search Archives" function on these message boards. Similarly, if you are curious about a particular boat or piece of gear read all of the Reviews in "Product Reviews" before asking your question in a new topic. It will improve your questions and increase the chance of meaningful responses.

Starting this time of year is great (provided you are somewhere that is warming up by now) because you have several months to improve skills and accumulate colder weather gear. Your boat - whatever boat you buy - will feel hard to control and at least a little "tippy" your first paddle. It will pass and quickly. If you want to be a better paddler - think about what you are doing constantly and paddle more. This seems simple, but to improve you need to be on the water several times a week. Start on flat water, stay close to shore and if at all possible have someone else along. If not, go anyway. There is almost always a venue that is within your skill set - seek it out and gradually push the limits. Once you start feeling comfortable on that glassy surface, go out when the wind is blowing or the power boats are kicking up wakes, then consider a slow moving river - again with the ability to stay close to shore.

An example of not "gradually" pushing one's comfort zone - I decided that since the water was way up on the river it would "probably" wash out those ripples and just make for a fast ride. True the ripples were washed out but I really had no clue how to self rescue and did not consider what floating debris could have done to me and my kayak. Again, stay within your comfort zone just push it a little, but just a little at a time.

A spray skirt is mandatory (I shouldn't even need to mention a PFD if you've been reading these boards) - I didn't have one at first but felt more confident particularly in moving water once I got one. In general this is true - the quicker you acquire skills and equipment to control your boat and recover from unexpected events the more you will be able to push it.

Learn to edge your boat as early as possible. Once you do, you will have more control of your boat than 70% of the recreational paddlers that I see putzing around.

Focus on torso rotation - two things I've heard that help me visualize it 1) imagine a steel rod running down your spine through the bottom of your seat - you are rotating on that steel rod, not just arms, not just shoulders but all the way down to your butt. 2) lots of different advice on forward stroke, but thinking about paddling with a beachball or child in your lap has helped me (it forces you not to use arms to pull the paddle toward you) helps me visualize the rotation. Also posture is really important. I still struggle almost every paddle with maintaining good posture throughout, but it is slowly getting better. Added bonus, my posture is better in non-paddling life as well.

If you see other paddlers - at a put in, on the river, with a boat racked in the grocery store parking lot, say hi and let them know that you are new to paddling. Most of them will be very nice, you might get a paddling invite and could even make new friends. If you have questions about their boats, gear, basic techniques you will probably get an enthusiastic answer. By asking somewhat intelligent questions (and they will be somewhat intelligent because you have been reading and watching), you will demonstrate that you are interested in learning, not just slapping around at the water in your local cove. Not that there's anything wrong with that. :-)

Your first boat probably won't be your only or last, sweat it, but don't sweat it too much. I have learned that in general you should buy a boat significantly narrower than you think you want. Fit is important - the books and videos do a good job of describing it, but again your instinct for a large cockpit is wrong. Remember you wear a kayak - your first one might be more Levi's regular fit than Jordache skin tight, but for god's sake don't go baggy hip-hop style on us!

Weight is important - I'm 6'0, 205 and fairly athletic and I can tell you that there are still times that I have to "motivate" myself to go out back and carry a boat to my truck. Consider the weight of the boat in the purchase, your storage location, and rack set ups.

Speaking of racks - dropping several hundred dollars on a rack system is probably a great thing, but not one that I've done. Foam "kayak" blocks and straps on the SUV roof rack have worked well. Lots of debate about bow and stern tie-downs, read past threads and see where you fall. I also have a pickup with a 7' bed - With the tailgate down it accomodates up to 12' boats easily. I transport my current 14' boat in it for short trips, but probably not good long term. When you first strap down your boat, you are going to be tempted to crank for all your worth - snug is good, tighter than snug is too tight. My boat has the cinch marks and deformations to prove it.

Keep a paddling journal - there was a good thread recently but it will add to your enjoyment and make you consider each paddle as part of your progression in skill and experiences.

Talk about paddling with co-workers, acquaintances, family - you might be surprised at who has a kayak or canoe tucked behind the barn. If someone expresses an interest in what you are doing, invite them to come along - even if it is to watch/take turns in your boat.

There are very experienced paddlers of every stripe that post on these boards - read carefully, even those discussions that appear to be well beyond your current skill level. Gradually those pieces start to fit together. One caveat, if you read some of the posts you can be scared into thinking that any paddling without a drysuit, VHF radio and personal locator beacon is a sure pathway to a watery grave. Realize that people post within the context of the paddling that they do unless you carefully describe the conditions you are paddling in. If you are ready to jump into open water crossings or big water then an entirely different set of rules apply.

Set goals for yourself. I am working toward a solo, 8 - 10 day paddle for the Spring of '08. I still have tons to learn, but having that goal has kept me focused and helped with setting skill priorities.

Above all else have fun. I have wet exited a few times this past year, have crab walked my boat through shallows because I didn't bother to check the river gauge, have strained muscles and sunk into calf deep mud. Every paddle that I have taken has been a blast and has helped me learn.

Did I mention get out and paddle, a lot. See you on the water.


Good post Jamie
I hope all the lurkers out there who are thinking of trying our wonderful past time will read your post.



Yes, Good Post
I will add one more thought re what the board says after three years.

Several of the start-up questions and thoughts that I had and posted were answered with replys that just did not ring completely true. Now, I look back and find that not only were these replys true but they became true without my realizing it.

*(The boat is way too tippy.) The board said more seat time will make the boat stable. [The boat now seems as stable as a rock and I could not imagine wanting something wider.]

*(Boat/Jet Ski wakes threten to tip me over, what to do.) The board said more seat time will cure this. [I don’t think about most boat wakes now and treat them as just another bump. Occationally a very large boat pushing a giant wake will get me to pay attention. Jet ski wakes are not large enough to worry about.<br /> <br /> *(How do you keep from getting your paddle stuck in lumpy water.) The board said with more seat time paddle placement will become intuative and feel will improve to the point that this becomes a non-issue. [The board was again correct.]

There are several more but these are the first that come to mind.

Happy Paddling,


thanks, j. n/m