Reality of Paddling Alone

-- Last Updated: May-20-14 6:00 PM EST --

Hi all! First post.

I recently bought an older used eddyline (Merlin XT) for a price that I couldn't pass up. I fully intend to upgrade down the road but figured this would be a good first kayak to play around in.

Here's where I'd like your insight. I know the rule... "Never paddle alone." I also know that there are plenty of people that do paddle alone. What I would like to know is what skills and equipment I should have before undertaking such an endeavor. I'd be kayaking in the Anacortes/San Juan area in Washington - no desire to get into any rough stuff and would stay off the water when conditions weren't favorable. I have kayaked a bit on guided trips in WA and AK, and have a lot of sit-on-top experience but in warmer water (FL and CA). I'm a good swimmer, former lifeguard, and work on a boat, so I'm comfortable around and in the water so that's a good start lol!

I'm willing to purchase gadgets and gizmos as well as invest in skills classes if you think they are beneficial. I just don't like reading that I should "never" be out there alone because that's an idea I find very appealing!

Also, as far as dry suit stuff, is a dry top and dry pants okay, or do I need to invest in the full-on drysuit? I see plenty of pictures of people kayaking in that area in shorts and a t-shirt (and when I went on the guided trips, even in Alaska, that's all I was in), yet of course when you look online they want you in full survival gear at all times. Thoughts on that?

I appreciate all your help! I'm not taking paddling alone lightly. I really want to know what skills I should have before tackling it.

Get some experience in the area
Join a paddling club or take some classes with outfitters or instructors. There are several good instructors in your area. Paddle with people who know the local waters. Go paddle in a class in rough water, learn to rescue your self in big waves, wind and current. Learn to surf. Learn to roll. Learn how wind, tide, incoming swell affect where you paddle. Then go paddle by your self safely. Let people know where you are going and when you will be back, and when to send help if you are not back. You probably don’t need a full drysuit if water temps are above 50F, but you need to test what keeps you warm and safe. Have a whistle. A phone in a dry box can be good if there is service on the water or a full VHF radio if going far offshore, but probably overkill. Paddle where there are other boats or people on shore until you have solid skills.

Love the suggestion of the waterproof box for phone, thanks!

I actually know someone that runs an outfitter. I’ll have to inquire as to whether they provide lessons. The water is just barelllly skirting over 50 so probably best to err on the side of caution there - at least a dry top.

Deep Trouble Offers Clues
For some info on how kayakers have gotten into bad situations in the San Juans/Rosario Strait area, the book Sea Kayaker’s Deep Trouble offers a half-dozen tales of paddlers in that area in Very Deep Trouble, due to cold water, severe wind, and/or powerful tidal currents. I consider both the Sea Kayaker books–Deep Trouble and More Deep Trouble–to be required reading for those paddlers who wish to Live Long and Prosper.

this should be archived
great advice.

Self-Rescues (SR)
have to be near (or at) the top of the skills list. In order of preference:

  • basic paddling skills + reliable braces
  • (SR) roll
  • (SR) reentry and roll
  • (SR) gear assisted re-entry (paddle float, sp**sons, - just in case some nut case is using a bot to search for that key word - long story, but I never spell out the word **onsons any more - if you need more clues what I am saying here, perhaps some online paddler will help you deal with asterisks :).

    Other devices exist as well, but gear assisted rescues have to be with a device you can reliably use to re-enter while still in the conditions that made you capsize in the first place.

  • wind and immersion protection (clothing warm enough to protect you from wine when wet and hypothermia if in the waters where you paddle)
  • floatation (both for boat and self - pfd being a minumum for self)
  • dry bags and/or dry storage for any electronics
  • hand pump (other pumps may be used as well)
  • comfort items (sunglasses, etc. add a helmet if practicing in surf)
  • signalling device (water protected phone, radio, reflector/mirror)

    Some will say flares, but because these have mixed results at best, I don’t recommend them. I have lots of stories of “oohs and ahhs” from passing boaters who watch the flare and ignore the possibility that someone may need help). The Coast guard, if in the area, will respond as expected, as should merchant ships if they see it. Most others (at least in the US) will clap and cheer as though you just set off a grand finale on the 4th of July. Unless you use a Very Pistol (or whatever commercial flare device is used today), don’t expect to get sufficient height on the flare to be visible in most situations.

    Additional skill - ability to swim back from however far you are from shore. This is, of course, assuming you are in a temperate area and the shore is solid and not some damn ice floe or other environ that poses additional risks :).

    I paddle alone fairly often, but when I do, I keep a simple paddle plan and stay closer to shore. I rarely carry more than this.


Thanks. Yes I did search the archives and find some resources but maybe I wasn’t using good enough search terms. Thanks for the book recs as well.

Paddling alone
Yes, on taking classes, developing the skills, and acquiring the equipment mentioned above.

For my own first few years of paddling alone, I paddled shorelines as much as possible and limited crossings. If you have some protected shorelines available where you can paddle in water that doesn’t exceed a depth of 5 feet, that can make those early ventures alone a lot safer.

However, if the water temps are less than 50 degrees, if the shoreline is inaccessible due to cliffs, rocks, or surf, or if there are strong currents, that safety margin shrinks once again.

Just keep in mind, the area you will be in has tidal currents. Look at a tide chart beforehand. You dont want to be pulled out to sea.

Learn to roll
People can make a big deal of it but seriously it isn’t that hard to learn. I paddled for years without being able to roll and it was never an issue (I’m not on the coast with cold water either though) but once I learned to roll it changed the way I paddled. Going out in rougher water or playing with sculling or leaning the kayak over to edge turns was a fun way to play around once I didn’t have to worry about swimming should I go too far.

Also practice a wet exit and then re-enter and roll. Nothing better to practice on a hot and muggy summer afternoon…not that you’d know what those are out there… :slight_smile:


Many thanks to all of you for the warm welcome! I’m really looking forward to paddling out there. I’ve tried canoes and stand-up paddling but I just really love the kayak the most.

There’s an opinion that one should never
paddle alone, but there’s no such rule.

There’s an opinion that one should never hike alone, but there’s no such rule.

There’s an opinion that one should never think for oneself, but there’s no such rule.

Some good advice here
But in my opinion unless you either have a water proof phone (they have those now) carrying a phone in a water proof container wont help much unless you can actually use it while its in that water proof container. When you really need it and you pull it out of container to use and it will get wet, a touch of water kills iphones fast. They have water proof bags that you can talk through to use it while its still protected so better to get one of those. But hey waterproof handheld VHF radios can be had for as little as 60 to 100 bucks now.

One other note, have either the phone or VHF attached to you NOT your kayak. Good chance you could get separated from kayak. Then your nice water proof phone/VHF wont help much. Read about that in Deep Trouble and More Deep Trouble books. You would be surprised on a windy day how fast a kayak will blow away from you, shockingly fast. Learn to swim using paddle might help.

I concur
that electronics and water (especially salt water) don’t mix very well. I would never expect to be able to tread water and place a call at the same time, but there are situations where it is possible to be in trouble and access the phone without exposure to the water. Say, for example, a broken paddle situation where one forgets the spare (as I did in my list of things above :slight_smile: ).

And yes, I’ve paddled without my spare at times because I am an idiot at times and forget to pack it under my rear bungees. Damn thing likes to hide in the garage and no matter how gently I talk to it, it never comes when called!


By Yourself
As long as you know your limits, nothing wrong with paddling alone,. Been doing it for years and I’m still here. Took some serious instruction beforehand though. Tim

ooops - Paddle Leash
One thing I forgot and many will not like. If I am paddling alone off shore I always have a paddle leash. If you can hang onto the boat the paddle can be pulled back. Remember if you exit, hang onto the boat no matter what.

prefer pulling myself back into boat
If you have decent upper body strength, I recommend just pulling yourself up and into your boat to reenter and roll. I practice both and can do both techniques easily, but never had to do either in very rough conditions (wind yes, but not big seas). Maybe I will change my mind once I have to self rescue in rough conditions.

Get a PLB
And you will never be alone

Keep in on your PFD.

I always paddle with a partner and have one, but if I was paddling alone, that would be the first thing on my list.

Also a VHF radio will almost always get you to the Coast Guard.

Jack L

Paddling alone is fine
Thousands of paddlers do it and many with less skills than you. If you wind along shore on a calm day with plenty of places to land that’s one thing. But to do stupid things like going far off shore and then the conditions change dramatically is another. The fact that you posted your concern shows you are thinking. You can’t pre-learn to be a good paddler. It will all come in time. If the water is too cold to swim in, then you need protections although you will see paddlers in T-shirts. WEAR your PFD all the time. Gradually learn more and more. Have fun.

Skills ALWAYS beneficial
Especially for that area. It’s the real stuff. And that includes learning about tides and how to paddle in tidal interchange areas.

But for paddling solo in an area like that, skills are not optional. And frankly, it will probably take more time to acquire them than you currently anticipate. You need to devote regular time to practice in order to be ready for safe solo paddling there. It’s not just a few classes and go for most people, even athletic ones. Handling surprises on the water alone in a little boat can cause anxiety to surface that you never even knew you had.