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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Tight Squeeze!

The Ins and Outs of Kayaking

By Tamia Nelson

May 8, 2007

There's a first time for everything, right? And every kayaker can remember the first time she got into her boat, not to mention the relief she felt when she settled down on her seat without going for an unplanned swim. The reason? Kayaks are tippy. With the exception of a few beamy boats with air-filled sponsons, these lively little craft exhibit what marine architects call "low initial stability." In other words, it doesn't take much to make one roll out from under you. Experienced boaters learn to exploit this. But novices often fear it. Then there's the lid on the box to contend with. Kayaks — as opposed to canoes and sit-on-tops — are decked boats. The upshot? You don't sit in a kayak. You wear it.

Of course, not all kayaks are equally tippy — or equally cramped. Some boats are as roomy as a pair of "relaxed-fit" chinos, while others are as tight as a rodeo cowboy's jeans. Whether the fit is loose or snug, however, a kayak should be an extension of your body. Ideally, paddler and boat are one, a sort of aquatic centaur, a happy union ensured by a hip-hugging seat and braces for feet and knees. First off, though, you've got to get your butt in that hip-hugging seat. And one thing will be obvious at the start: it's not like stepping into a canoe. Not one bit. But a couple of the same rules apply:

Keep Your Weight Low

Stay Centered

Obvious? Maybe so. Yet if you spend a few hours at any popular put-in, you'll see both of these rules violated more than once, usually with predictable results. Slim and supple paddlers have the easiest time getting aboard. Kayakers with bad backs, bum knees, or a lot of years on the clock may not be so lucky. Boat design plays a role, too. Big cockpits give large paddlers room to maneuver. Tight cockpits require pinpoint accuracy and narrow hips. Put-ins also vary. Experts can cope with rocks, breakers, and abrupt drop-offs. Beginners will be happier on gently sloping beaches in protected waters. Complete novices should be sure to bring an experienced companion along to help if things go wrong and to offer advice and encouragement when needed. (This isn't a bad idea for any paddler, in fact, no matter how expert he or she may be.) Preparations are straightforward. Pull on your spray skirt or sun skirt — also known as miniskirts, ventilated sunskirts keep you cool, but they don't keep the water out if you go over — and zip up your PFD. A word of warning: You will get your feet wet. Make sure your footwear can cope.


All set? Great! To begin with, put your boat in the water, with the keel parallel to the shore. You don't need to wade far. Unless you're very big and your boat is very small, two or three inches of water is all you'll need. (A hint: Don't let go of your boat; it might drift away!) Now you're ready to begin your exploration of the ins and outs of kayaking. Let's start with what some of the books call…

The Paddle-Bridge Method

The name gives the game away, and it's the entry technique many paddlers learn first. Simply place your paddle so that it bridges the gap between shore and boat: one blade rests on terra firma while the shaft lies across the stern deck. (It's a good idea not to let the shaft rest on the coaming, particularly on fiberglass boats.) Now squat beside the kayak, facing the bow. Grab the paddle shaft and coaming with one hand and clamp the shaft firmly against the deck. Then slide your other hand down the shaft between boat and shore, letting the blade take your weight. Once your "bridge" is securely anchored at both ends, simply lift the foot nearest the boat and slide it under the bow deck, swinging your butt over the seat and following on with the other foot. Lower your butt into place and wiggle till you're comfy. Lastly, bring your paddle round to the bow deck where you can keep an eye on it — a paddle leash is a handy thing to have — and fit your skirt to the coaming.

That's it. You're good to go. Paddle away. At day's end, or whenever your bladder tells you it's time to take a break, run the tape back and step out on dry land.

Get the picture? No? OK. How about this?

Paddle Bridge
A Bridge Over Untroubled Waters…


What's that? You've tried making a paddle bridge a couple of times and it hasn't worked for you? Maybe your knees aren't up to squatting in the shallows. Or your shoulders protest too much. Or whatever. It doesn't matter. There's another way. I call it…

The Flying Bridge

Think of it as a paddle bridge built where you can see it. Rest your paddle shaft on the bow deck, just ahead of the cockpit coaming. Bend forward, gripping the paddle shaft and coaming in one hand while you place the other hand further down the shaft toward shore. Now poke one foot under the deck. Then bring the other alongside it, keeping much of your weight on the paddle shaft. It ain't elegant, but it works. For some folks, anyway. Others find it easier to step right into the cockpit with both feet and then lower themselves into the seat as they extend their legs, supporting their weight by bracing their hands on either side of the cockpit coaming. (A paddle leash is essential here.) Either way, it helps to have a roomy cockpit. A reminder: Keep your weight as low as possible — and stay centered. If you don't, you'll find out why I call this the "flying" bridge.

Here's another view…

Flying Bridge
Flying Bridge, Anyone?


Paddle bridge or flying bridge? The choice is yours. Chances are good that one or the other will work for you. Of course, life really isn't a beach. At least not always. And when fortune dumps you on the rocks, you may find you need another way to get off. That's where it pays to…

Squat and Scoot

Practice this in easy conditions, but save it for those times when you find yourself between a rock and hard place. A steeply shelving, ironbound shore, say, with a vigorous surf-generated swash. You've no time to build bridges here, and even if you did, there's no beach handy to brace your paddle against. You want out — now. And you don't mind a few scratches on your hull.

Here's how it's done. Park and tether your paddle securely. Look seaward. Make sure no big waves are headed your way. Now turn to face the shore, drop into a half squat, and push your boat out between your legs — stern first. When the rear of the cockpit coaming comes even with your calves, grab the forward peak of the coaming and give the boat another outward shove, dropping your butt into the boat as it scoots under you. Pick up your blade and backpaddle clear while you tuck your legs under the deck. As soon as possible, fix your spray skirt in place. You're under way.

Sound tricky? It is. Timing is everything. Get it wrong and your boat will go on without you. And don't even think about trying it in dumping surf. As always, practice makes perfect. The fundamental moves are summarized below:

Squat and Scoot
Squat, Scoot, and Go!

Is it time to take out? No beach handy? Then try squat-and-scoot in reverse. Backpaddle in, pull your feet out from under the deck, and drop them over the side while you scoot your boat up on shore. But check to see how deep the water is first!

You don't sit in a kayak. You wear it. That's why many beginners find that the hardest part of kayaking is getting into and out of the boat. Still, where there's a will, there's a way, and now you know three. So what are you waiting for?

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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