Tips for Noob in a Sea Kayak?

I picked up my first kayak (an Old Town Heron 9XT) on Labor Day. I’ve been using the heck out of it and having a great time. But I wanted to do more. I knew I wanted a sea kayak.

I did a lot of reading online. Read lots of reviews. Decided I probably wanted a Wilderness Systems Tempest 170, but figured I would demo a bunch of them over the coming months and get one sometime early next year. Then I was browsing Craigslist today.

Long story short… I brought home a couple year old Tempest 165, a Werner all carbon paddle, a TON of gear including a wet suit, winter boots, waterproof pants, dry top, several under shirts, two pair of gloves, two spray skirts, a cockpit cover, deck bag, paddle float, bilge pump, and bunch of other stuff… for $600.

Now I have this fancy new (to me) kayak sitting outside begging to be used tomorrow after work. I fit in it perfectly. I Googled around and did all the measurements and I’m a perfect fit for this thing… 5’8, 175 lbs, 29" inseam.

So… given that my only kayak experience so far has been three weeks of paddling a little rec boat around, what should I pay attention to when I climb into this thing tomorrow?

I’ll be doing this on the Willamette River here in Salem, Oregon. There’s a nice… dang, I wish I knew what it was called… slough? That doesn’t quite fit because it’s not that shallow, more like a reverse peninsula… that’s about a mile long by a couple hundred yards wide. It’s separated from the river by a narrow little bit of water only about 18" deep by 10-12’ wide that prevents anything with a motor, or bigger than an inflatable raft, from getting through. So it’s perfect for paddling.

I have no desire to try to roll this thing until I take the rolling class, which won’t be for at least a few weeks or more. I’m already signed up for Kayaking Essentials on the 6th, then Rescues on the 14th, and a more advanced Essentials class (this time with Nigel Foster) at the end of October. So after that, I’ll do Rolls, and then take the Sea Paddling class, also with Nigel.

But in the meantime… any tips? Or should I just leave the thing alone and keep paddling the Rec boat until I’ve had training? If I go out, I’ll gear up all the way in case I get wet, since the river water is probably in the high 50’s now given the cooler weather we’ve been having.



Before you start, watch some videos on self-rescues so that you have an idea what to expect. There are lots of these available, so look and learn. Do some web searches as there is a decent bit of information about the river online, such as this:

Once you reach the water, put on your immersion gear and go into the water. If you can stand the temperature, then that’s as bad as it will get all day.

The Williamette isn’t a fast moving body of water when it reaches Portland, and I’ve paddled that in canoes before. Here, there may be wakes from the occasional ship or tug of which you might wish to be aware. Turn into any such turbulence and take it bow on (since you are a novice, I’m not going to recommend trying to surf). If you are on another part of the river, I can’t comment on the conditions. I can say that when you paddle beside on of the large ships, you get a real perspective of not only their size and power, but also just how insignificant you are to one of them.

If you are planning a solo paddle, the following applies:

Stay close to shore - no further than you wish to swim. This may put a crimp in your style, but taking chances before you are familiar with the risks and learn what it is like to paddle this body of water is ill-advised. Bring a well protected cell phone or other signalling gear and leave a float plan with the local authorities (sheriff, coast guard, park rangers or whatever)

If you are paddling with a partner, both of you review and practice rescues. Yeah, it may not be necessary, but it is always better to have the training and not use it than the other way around.

I’d consider asking locally (perhaps the local shop) if there are any tours/groups going out and ask if you could accompany same. I’ve done this before and had some fairly memorable experiences. If this happens, take advantage of the situation and practice some rescues.


The 165 is Plenty Stable
By all means start enjoying and getting accustomed to your new ride.

Maybe do a couple wet exits
If you are planning to only do some paddling in a very protected waterway the chances of a capsize are probably pretty low. However, if your only kayaking thus far has been in a pumpkin seed boat you should be aware that you are losing 7 inches of width going from your Old Town the the Tempest, and 7 inches makes a whole lot of difference when it comes to initial stability.

Also, your rec boat has no skirt and a great big cockpit opening, so that if you ever tipped over in it, you probably pretty much just fell out of it, like a canoe. Exiting a narrow sea kayak with a spray skirt on requires a little more thought. It can be done very quickly, but it is not automatic. You have to tuck, release the skirt, and slide the boat off your legs. I have seen some pretty level-headed folks, even strong swimmers with life saving experience become a little freaked the first time they went over in a kayak.

Best would be if you can find an experienced boater to join you, dress up with some towels and dry clothes in a nearby vehicle, and practice a wet exit or two.

If the water seems to cold for that, I would probably just paddle your boat without the spray skirt and stick close to shore as advised until you take your roll class.


– Last Updated: Sep-27-12 7:33 AM EST –

A wet exit and learning to rescue yourself is NO 1. Learn the paddle float reentry for starters. Join a club where you can learn all kinds of things for free and have a good time doing it.

You can take lessons too if you have the money.

Wet exits and neo deck skirts

– Last Updated: Sep-27-12 8:55 AM EST –

If the skirts have a neoprene deck, you need to practice capsizing and pulling them off before taking the boat into anything. (Grab loop always always out.) You can't knee a neoprene deck skirt off, it'll just stretch. Most people will recommend this is best done the first time with someone standing there who can pull the skirt if there is a surprise.

Or just paddle without the skirt until you can set up the first practice with company.

If the grab loop is underneath there are emergency ways to get a neo skirt off, but they aren't handy for when you are first getting your reflexes down. Remember that if the water is murky or it is getting dark out, you will have to manage everything by feel alone.

If you get by this one, make sure you have a wind blocking layer over the wet suit stuff. A wet wet suit in chilly air or wind is a fast trip to hypothermia, the stuff only keeps you warm when you are in the water. But it sounds like you have the layers.

If you have a way to get by the wet exit thing, why not take it out. The Tempest is pretty forgiving of mistakes.

Great deal, by the way!

Cracking deal!
I always get a bill of sale on used boats. It’s extra important when I’m getting a great deal.

A great utility often overlooked
Animated Kayak Tutorial


    Click on "“british flag” for english version when loaded

    Watch, rewind, play again, freeze frame, repeat.

    A great way to learn a lot of info and

    burn it into your brain.

Awesome tips, thank you!!

Yeah I’ve paddled this section before, but in the wide, stable rec boat. I’m a strong swimmer, but the temp of the water concerns me. Good tip for getting geared up and going in, I may have to do that.

I was thinking about “practicing” in the yard before going out. I have two spray skirts… one is a lightweight summer one, the other is a neopreme. I figured I’d bring the lightweight one. I saw one of the self-rescue videos about how to get the skirt off, and thought I would try setting all that up in the yard, tipping the thing over, and try it.

I have yet to make any kayaking hookups here locally, except for one local group I’m going out with on Saturday. We’re paddling from Independence to Salem (12 miles)… should be fun. I’m debating which boat to bring. Probably the rec boat, I dunno.

Thanks again!


Just go paddle the thing
It ain’t rocket science. By all means, watch some videos, talk with and paddle with some experienced paddlers, but in the end it’s all about spending a lot of time in the saddle.

Hip Ups - yeah its spelled correctly
Dry Land training for those core muscles

Higher-Back Seat
Rather than start a new thread…

I’m here after work, and I’ve decided to go out and try the new kayak tomorrow since I have the day off. Today I’ve been cleaning it up, experimenting with the spray skirt, with getting and out, etc.

One thing I noticed… the seat is NOT at all comfortable. The bottom is fine; it’s the back support, or rather, the total lack thereof. It’s uncomfortable to sit in because I have nothing to support my back. At least my rec boat has a higher seat back, which while not great, is 1000x better than this.

I know these things aren’t supposed to have “high back” seats since you’re supposed to be able to lean backwards against the rear deck, but isn’t there something else I can do to get the seat back up a few more inches?


Not supposed to be leaning into back
The seat is fine. The paddler needs adjustment, which you will get in the classes you have coming up shortly.

Unfortunately for your current comfort range, the folks you will be working with are likely to disabuse you of any notion about actually using a seat back for support. For a good forward stroke, you are supposed to erect and rotating from the hips up, thru the torso. Rotation is point blank not possible if you are leaning back against the kind of seat you had in the other boat. Core muscles etc.

What you should have in that boat is a back band, set lower to support you at the top of your pelvis.

There are things that you may eventually find you want to do about thigh and leg angle - everyone has slightly different places where you need to tweak the seat and thigh braces - but for a proper stroke you need to replace the reliance on a high seat back with reliance on core muscles.

As Celia said
you want to develop the habit of sitting with your torso upright maintaining some curvature (lordosis) in your lower back. That might not come naturally at first so I would stick with the stock outfitting first. Keep your initial outings short and focus on good posture. People tend to slouch more as they become fatigued.

That said, I know a number of individuals who could never get comfortable with the low seated position of a kayak and had persistent back pain. Those who still paddle have canoes now. Hopefully you won’t be one of those.

If after a good trial use of your existing outfitting, you might consider padding your seat with a thin layer of foam to either cant your pelvis slightly forward or back. Stock molded seats cannot accommodate everybody’s anatomy. If you do this, keep the foam thin so as to raise your center of gravity only minimally.

Back bands
Some kayaks come with woefully inadequately supported back bands, but no worries, they can easily be fixed with the addition of or merely changing to a firmer–usually larger bungy cords for the fine adjustments.

The back band is not there as a back rest, but that doesn’t mean it is just a useless decoration. You do need firm support in your lower back, so any modifications should be done with that goal in mind.

Back support
Yes, exactly!! I know you’re supposed to sit upright when paddling, and I do that even in my Rec boat, but the backrest in that one is vastly more supportive. The one in the Tempest is just pathetic.

I went out today for my first paddle in that boat. Wow, what a total difference! Definitely “tippy” compared to the rec boat, but I didn’t capsize. I went without the spray skirt (it was in one of the compartments in case I needed it). The wet suit was a bit hot… I need a shorty version. But anyway… I could “rock” the boat with my hips, and I worked to keep my upper and lower body separate. I sat upright as best I could against that pathetic back band thing.

What was getting me, though, is my legs were cramping up. I have the footrests set so my legs are splayed and pressed up against the knee pads, and I fit just fine between the hip pads. I’d try to press myself against the back band. But no matter how I set the footrests, my legs would cramp up after a few minutes. I would have to stop paddling, remove my feet from the foot rests, and stretch them out. That’d help for a little bit, but every 10-15 min, I found myself on shore having to get out and walk around a little bit. The problem is that there’s just no “free” movement space for my legs in there, and I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe in time I’ll get used to it, or maybe I’m tensing up, I dunno.

Anyway… I decided to paddle up-river from the boat launch, towards a dark red boat house on the right. The last time I tried ti in the rec boat, I got turned back once I hit the strong river current in that area. This time, I put the skeg down, and paddled through it. It still pushed me to the side a bit. I actually hadn’t planned on visiting the boat house, but the current had other ideas. As I approached it, I did almost get dumped when I hit a nasty reflecting current off the boat house’s wall. I then went around to the back side of the boat house and got out on its little dock and rested for a bit and had more water.

By the time I got back to the boat ramp, I was absolutely beat! Either I’m trying too hard (tensing up – likely), or I’m even more out of shape than I thought (also likely). I’m very glad I have the class next weekend. I need to figure out how to properly setup this thing so it fits me properly.

Thanks a bunch to everybody for the helpful replies!! I’m having a blast at this new activity.


re: back band
Lots of ppl replace the stock back band on their boats. There is nothing sacred about 'em AFAIK.

As long as the new one isn’t so stiff that it prevents torso rotation, or is so high that it makes it hard to get back in the boat when self-rescuing (or prevents a layback roll)…

You may find that using the leg lifters helps with the cramping. Some of us have found that they help with keeping our feet from getting numb.

I like the backband well enough that I went out of my way to get one for my home built boat. Have you loosened the rear straps, so that when you pull the main straps, the back band actually comes forward as it tightens?

Have you made adjustments to your seat and backband? I have a T165 and I really like the thigh adjustments pulled up pretty tight. When I first started I liked the backband pulled up tight also. I guess my body has gotten used to kayaking. I paddled with a backband strap broken for a long while and didn’t even notice.

Cinch up those adjustment straps and spend some time paddling. I bet those comfort issues will go away.

My thoughts-
I am new to all this too (kayaks that is). My experience was similar to yours at first and I am happy to report that after time in the saddle all the same discomfort you are describing with my back and my legs has disappeared. I feel very comfortable in my WS Zephyr which I feel sure has the exact same seat and back band as your Tempest. I do have a couple of suggestions for you to consider. Your seat should have an adjustable under thigh support. If you adjust that to supply a bit of upward support for your thighs that might help with your legs. Also, at first anyway, consider adjusting the foot pegs so that your knee area contacts the top pads when you put press a bit on the foot pegs with your toes but also so that if you relax your foot you can comfortably drop your knee off that contact point. The back band issue is something that just takes a bit of time. I have mine adjusted now so that when I am seated in the boat with my legs on the pegs in proper paddling position the band just brushes my lower back/hip area - definitely not real tight. When I am actively paddling the back band is lightly contacting me. When I rest a bit I can relax into it. I do not have a strong abdominal area or strong back muscles but still after some time I find this set up very comfortable. I can paddle for hours on end in comfort. I am prone to back pain, but even I am finding this truly comfortable. A hight back seat will interfere with your development of good paddling technique and limit your skills development in my opinion. But you could install one if you decide you just can’t work with the back band. Everyone is different so your set up might end up slightly different than mine. But I encourage you to be patient. Your perceptions about what is comfortable will change fairly quickly as you get time in the seat.

Also, I encourage you to stay away from current at the start. Paddle flat water for a while near shore and then after you gain some comfort level - venture into the current.