Is Kayaking for Me?

Hello, I’m looking for some advice…and sorry in advance if this comes off weird in any way.

I’m 64, in good shape, 5’5” and 136lbs. Over the years I’ve been very active as a runner and a pretty hard core cyclist and motorcyclist. About four years ago I got interested in kayaking. I did a lot of research, reading, bought all the magazines, etc. My goal was to find something to replace summer cycling which can be very hot and humid in GA. I was thinking of doing some paddling on local lakes and various rivers and streams north of Atlanta. My intention was to keep up the cardio and possibly find an activity that would interest my wife as well.

Two summers ago I took an introductory group class given on the Chattahoochee river. The instructor was very good, had a lot of experience and I was with six other people for a full day class. I’ll spare you all the details but at some point later in the day we tackled some class 2 rapids (after a lot of prep) and out of the entire class I was the only one who flipped. The water temp was in the low 50s due to a dam release and combined with the swiftness of the water, the entire thing was fairly traumatic. After being rescued (I did manage to hold on to the kayak) I completed the rest of the day but did not go back to do the rapids again. A little scared, a lot embarrassed…it was a bummer.

That’s it…all my kayaking interest totally disappeared. Now almost two years later I find myself interested again. As I think this through I have to be candid and say that I have never tackled an activity that has included some much talk and warnings about death and danger. All the magazines, forums and books include dire warnings about kayacking alone, wearing a PFD, dying due to hypothermia, what happens if you don’t learn to roll and capsize, etc. So while I’m attracted to the activity I’m starting to wonder if at my age it’s just a stupid thing due to the risk involved. I suppose the risk is lessened quite a bit if I NEVER go out by myself, but I’m not sure I want to be limited in that way?

So…any thoughts would be appreciated. I had no fear of any activity until I hit 60 and then you start thinking “is this really worth the risk and would I be just as happy doing something else”…which is why after three friends were involved in street accidents, that I have sold my motorcycles. Thanks for any input, you won’t hurt my feelings with your opinions.

If you have to ask…but on 2nd thought

– Last Updated: May-07-14 7:49 PM EST –

...Gut reaction to the first time you do an activity is probably a pretty good measure of whether it's for you. I know that is the case for me, even if I don't take it up right away and come back later. Which is what I did with kayaking. But your first time maybe wasn't the best way to start (more on this below).

There's no shame in thinking it over! Age definitely play a role in this thought process. It's harder to get over stretched/torn connective muscles, ligaments, and tendon. Harder to resume activity after an injury-forced layoff. Harder to fend off skeptical looks from other people who think you should just sit around and become a blob like most of the U.S.A.

In some cases, it might be harder to learn or do new movements. But then again, age gives you the advantage of knowing more about how YOU learn--this is a huge advantage. If you know that watching demos and videos doesn't cut it for you, find an instructor who understands different learning styles and preferences, and use what allows you to advance. A good instructor is not just someone who's a good paddler. He or she is, equally, an educator and encourager.

If you come from a background as hardcore runner, cyclist, motorcyclist, AND you have stayed in shape (which it sounds like you have), your reflexes and strength should be way better than that of non-active 60-somethings.

From everything you posted, I think you should at least jump in and give it a shot. Don't let that crappy first lesson hold you back. Just for comparison, the only WW kayaking lesson I ever took began with an evening pool intro (didn't need that but I went just in case there was something to learn), then the second day put us in a pond for basic skills in the morning, and moved to a section of a WW play park for the afternoon WW training. It went well; the water was only moderately cold (summer), and we had been outfitted with wetsuits anyway. Consequences of a swim were not dire.

What I am saying is that my earliest kayak outings were on lakes or sheltered sea, and the WW class progressed in a logical manner. If you had started in this way, you probably would not even be asking this question.

Your very first class included Class II rapids and cold water, but most beginner kayaking classes don't throw those two at you right away. Just chalk it up to more than you felt comfortable doing, and take some classes that keep you comfortable enough to actually learn something (other than embarrassment).

What you state wanting from kayaking sounds similar to what I wanted when I took up the sport. Then the bug bit, and the "sea" part could not be ignored. YMMV, but the good news is that you can learn on lakes, add rivers and then be happy with that or add more to your paddling world if you want. You're doing it for fun, so whatever floats your boat, literally. Paddling really opens up your world if you've only done land-based sports. Part of that is learning the new "oxygen-deprived" environment; hence, all the dire warnings about using PFDs, good equipment, skills, etcetc.

The fact that you are thinking about the motorcycle accidents means you are smart enough to not succumb to the macho "No Fear" mentality. That's a very good thing. So don't get hung up thinking to the nth detail about stuff you haven't even started, when you could be paddling instead.

Good luck, and let us here know what you end up doing.


– Last Updated: May-07-14 8:25 PM EST –

A few things:

You can die skipping rope. Yes, there are lots of safety warnings but I know all sorts of personalities and body types who have become competent kayakers, in spite of their fears or apprehensions and sometimes pysical impairment.

You sound fit, what is your comfort level in water? I find that people starting with a greater comfort level, maybe supported with decent swimming skills, can overcome any fears regarding capsize. All a capsize means is that you're upside down for the moment, I'm sure you noticed you weren't trapped in the boat.

If you're going to paddle other than inland lake flatwater and capsizes concern you, the best medicine is learning to roll. Again, you sound physically fit and active so you can master a roll. Take a lesson from a club or instructor. Once you learn and practice a roll and bracing, the body mechanics make so much sense (unlike, say, a golf swing) that they become reflexive. If you're athletically inclined, the first time you land a few rolls you'll dope-slap your forehead and say, "of course!" IMO if you're paddling whitewater it's a waste of time to consider reentry methods instead of simply focusing on a roll, and some people say the same regardless of the type of paddling.

Once you have enough confidence in your roll, the next time you capsize you'll feel more comfortable in your response. But more importantly once you have it at your disposal you'll be more confident in conditions.

Finally - fitness paddling is going to be just as hot
as fitness cycling (but if you have a decent roll you have a way to cool off).

This is all only my $0.02. The last part probably has the most value.

Good luck!

short answer

– Last Updated: May-07-14 9:25 PM EST –

w/o reading the long answers:
Very simailar thing happened to me, WW class, flipped, freaked, gave up on it for years (silly me).
Much later, my wife got us to go on a guided commercial touring kayak trip on a moving but not whitewater river in southern Utah -- fell in love with that kind (flatwater) of kayaking -- immediately bought a Necky Manitou 14 back at home in the Tetons -- for lakes and non-whitewater river -- love it.
There is a bit more to the story because I do boat whitewater some, but not in WW hardshell kayak -- I row a raft and paddle an inflatable kayak -- but that's really beside the main point. Don't lert a bad WW experience ruin the whole kayak thing for you.

Non-white water
Lakes and rivers without rocks or strong current, paddle hard and fast, and you can kill a lot of calories. Also swim less frequently.

Thanks for your suggestions…
To be clear this was not a WW class but on a large river (that runs through Atlanta) that just happened to have some pretty strong current and class 2 rapids that day due to a large dam release. My intentions are to stick to basically flat water and not WW. But I would think that once a few skills are acquired class 2 shouldn’t be that big a deal?

I can swim but not particularly far. As I mentioned, the surprise of capsizing, the 52 degree water and the strong current just really just took the breath out of me. So glad I had the PFD on…the two minutes in the water seemed a lot longer and it took me a bit to warm up with only shorts and a t-shirt on.

Thanks for your suggestions…
To be clear this was not a WW class but on a large river (that runs through Atlanta) that just happened to have some pretty strong current and class 2 rapids that day due to a large dam release. My intentions are to stick to basically flat water and not WW. But I would think that once a few skills are acquired class 2 shouldn’t be that big a deal?

I can swim but not particularly far. As I mentioned, the surprise of capsizing, the 52 degree water and the strong current just really just took the breath out of me. So glad I had the PFD on…the two minutes in the water seemed a lot longer and it took me a bit to warm up with only shorts and a t-shirt on.

Bad introduction…
Kayaking doesn’t have to be dangerous, the water doesn’t have to be cold, you don’t need to learn how to roll or even to handle whitewater at first. Just pick your time and waters. That same river, during lower water levels during a Georgia summer, is going to be easy to handle and not dangerous even if you happen to flip as long as you’re wearing a PFD. And there are plenty of flatwater and class I rivers in the Southeast. Just do a bit of research and avoid the class II and above stuff until you are very comfortable in class I, and don’t go when the river is high and cold.

There are risks
but most risks can be mitigated.

More lessons would be a good start. One day is really just a taster session. If you can find a local instructor who will work with you over a period of time to build skills such as wet exits, bracing, edging, rolling, self-rescues, coping with wind, breaking in and out of eddies etc you will be much better placed to enjoy the sport safely.

Appropriate clothing can reduce the risk and discomfort of cold water. Either a decent wetsuit and dry cag or a full drysuit with appropriate head cover.

Paddle in environments that suit your skill and circumstances. A novice paddling solo on a river with class 2+ rapids is asking for trouble so don’t do that. Paddle on flat water close to shore until your skill develops to the point you can move on to more dynamic environments.

If you can swim and want to kayak
go for it.

Just don’t go in white water and if you go in cold water stay close enough to shore, so you can walk to the shore if you capsize

If you can’t swim don’t go for it.

If you are paranoid don’t go for it

Little kids paddle, middle age people paddle and lots of us over the hill people paddle

Jack L

Sounds like an awful and completely
unnecessary experience you had. I’m curious, did the leaders ask about your swimming ability before you started the class?

Did they teach you how to wet exit before they put you in that cold class two whitewater?

From your description of what happened I would say that you are the victim of a very poor introduction to the sport.

It would be a huge confidence builder for you and probably restore you enthusiasm if you could find someone to spend time with you on several occasions in flat warm water doing wet exits, and then later teach you to roll. This will made the prospect of a swim seem normal and it will lower your anxiety level to almost zero. If you have taken a hundred swims and survived just fine the next swim will not be a big deal. After that you can ease into some warm water mild whitewater if you still have any interest and then after a few years move to cold water and bigger water if you want but you certainly don’t have to do that.

The age thing is a significant, trust me I know, and folks who are younger don’t really understand that aspect of your story. I completely relate. Even as a life long paddler there are things I once did that I shy away from now, and with good reason. To some extent it is called maturity. But it is more than just that.

Go for it
My mother is about your age, and not particularly fit, though not bad. She enjoys kayaking with her local paddling group immensely here in VA. She can’t stick a roll, but wet exits fine. She picks easy class I paddles and goes with friends. She also to a bad spill at the beginning on something over her ability level and scared herself pretty bad. But she stuck with it. Flipping your kayak is nothing to be embarrassed about, although I can relate.

It’s relaxing, low impact, and great exercise. And with proper planning can be pretty safe. I’d be way more likely to get in a kayak than on a motorcycle!

Second al_a

– Last Updated: May-08-14 9:17 AM EST –

It would probably be a good idea to work on your swimming some, both for exercise and to be more relaxed in a boat. If you were the only person who capsized in the group, I'd wager that you essentially capsized yourself because you were too tense. You can do that to yourself in a kayak.

Most YMCA's offer classes specifically for adults, usually two levels. One for can't-swim, another for can't-swim-confidently. You aren't in there with little kids that hit the water and are fish, but other adults with similar hesitations. In an area like Atlanta you should be within reach of such a program.

But as to the kayaking - pick easier and warmer times, as indicated above. And find someone to go out with who will dress you better when in a learning mode. Shorts and a top are not appropriate clothing for the water temps you mention. In the northeast, where such temperatures are quite a bit more common, many outfitters would have put you into at least a shorty wet suit. And someone should have had a top on their own boat specifically to be lent to a newby who capsizes, so they don't get cold. I always carry at least one, sometimes two, when I have any responsibility on evening paddles around here.

Anyone taking out new paddlers should be responsible enough to carry stuff to make sure that someone who capsizes does not get cold. If they don't, you did not get taken out by the right people.

Being prudent.
There isn’t a lot one can do that doesn’t involve some risk, but with experience confidence is gained and the risks become manageable. Of all the activities I do, in my mind, kayaking is the least risky, or at least the risks mostly involve my decisions. Riding bikes and motorcycles you are often at risk from the decisions that other people make. Yes, I ride bikes and motorcycles a lot.

For me, kayaking was evolutionary. I started with a canoe and thought I had arrived at the pinnacle of my paddling aspirations. The idea that kayaking would someday become all consuming was not even a possibility–so I thought. These days I paddle boats that I could never have dreamed possible and in places and conditions that I would have considered crazy. Some people still think it’s crazy and they tell me so, but it really isn’t. It’s all about experience and expanding your comfort zone.

I’ll be 71 in a month and I have no intention of backing off.

health/life hazards
As a kayaker who has taken up cycling last year and managed to survive 3 major crashes so far, two of which left me in stitches and one that required new helmet after, I can tell you kayaking is nowhere near as dangerous as cycling seems to be!

…I’ve been riding for over 35 years with only one crash. Sounds like we ought to get together to help one another out. :slight_smile: Wear your helmet and wear gloves…when you go down there is a tendency to put your hands out thereby breaking your collar bone and losing some flesh from your palms. Perhaps you could wear your PFD as a sort of airbag? :slight_smile:

No, I don’t remember…
…the teacher asking about our swimming ability…but he may have, it’s been two years. And while I do swim, at 130lbs (at the time)I just have very little body fat and the cold water took my breath away. I floated down river a few hundred yards until I could get to shore never letting go of the kayak even though it was upside down. Kinda proud of that because the teacher had begged us not to let go so he wouldn’t have to go searching for it. But when I got out I was shaking uncontrollably and frankly…that just made the entire experience “memorable”.

Thanks again to all for your opinions and encouragement. If I do give this another try, I need to find some warmer water for sure.

You’re right – with some skill and comfort in the boat, Class II water shouldn’t be a big deal. It can be great fun. But even Class II can be humbling if you don’t treat it with due respect.

Flatwater: If the goal is fitness paddling, and you’re concerned about rolling, consider a stable surfski. Skis are high-performance sit-on-tops designed for fast paddling in open water.

Rolling is one of those things that seems hard until it "clicks’ and then it becomes easy. It’s a huge confidence builder. Good bracing and rolling skills make you much less likely to capsize because you’re not afraid of going inverted and stay relaxed.

It’s like being on a motorcycle on a bumpy road. if you tense up and go rigid, it doesn’t take much to throw you off balance. If you stay loose and let the bike move under you, it’s much more comfortable and stable.

The same applies on the water. If you’re relaxed enough to let the boat move under you, you’ll be much more comfortable and stable than if you fight to keep it perfectly upright. Loose hips save ships!

Letting go of the kayak
Pretty standard admonishment, but it almost sounds like the instructor was less concerned about your safety than about hunting for the boat. Maybe that was not the case. In any event, you would do well to take another class…from someone else. At the least, expect to be required to wear a wetsuit. Renting one is very cheap.

"The instructor was very good"
I’m wondering about that. It sounds like he scheduled the class on this particular river not knowing that the water was going to be released and found NONBEGINNER conditions at the river. Since you say this was NOT a whitewater class, I’m thinking he should have canceled it. I would have had exactly the same reaction as you to this combination of cold water and whitewater in a nonwhitewater class.

LESSON: Always use your own judgment on the water, even if you’re urged to do something by an experienced kayaker or instructor. Listen to your gut feeling of comfort or discomfort, even if you’re pressured by an entire group. It may save your life.

Your solution is simple: get a good kayak and start on small lakes and ponds. You’ll love it. Your age is irrelevant to this type of kayaking.