The Urge to Paddle

by Phil Rowe

Ever since I got hooked on sea kayaking, or kayak touring, I can't look at any scene with water without wondering how it would be to paddle there. I look at magazine pictures of waterfront developments, or harbors, or coastal lagoons, and like magic I mentally place myself there, paddling my favorite kayak. That magic is now often reality.

That urge never happens when I see rapids, falls or other rushing waters, which some seem to feel is the only place to paddle. No, this kayaker is a flat-water sailor. Perhaps that stems from my years of canoe paddling. I no longer have to prove myself to anybody. Kayaking for me is purely for the joy of being on the water, getting up close to wildlife and exploring.

Since buying my 17-foot fiberglass single-seat sea kayak, I have put it into over 30 different waters. It's been terrific. I've paddled in protected waters from Alaska to Maine and the Yukon to Prince Edward Island. Each place has been a delight, made especially so by the "up close and personal" experience of kayaking.

For years I was an avid canoeist and even built my own, once.But, after trying that first rental sea kayak in the Seattle area, I was hooked. The advantage of the sea kayak over the canoe, for extended paddling is no contest. True, canoes are less expensive than sea kayaks, and they hold more cargo, plus canoes are easier to get into and out of. And I'll readily admit that a romantic moonlight paddle with your favorite girl is more enjoyable in a canoe than in a kayak. But look at the areas where the kayak shines brighter.

Stability. The sea kayak is far more stable than most canoes. The center-of-gravity (CG) is lower, for you sit close to the bottom of the hull and not on a raised seat. You're lower than even a kneeling canoeist. Kayaks are not at all tippy like many canoes. That surprises people who have preconceived notions of "eskimo rolls" and lots of frantic thrashing about. T'ain't so.

Wind Resistance. Where the canoe has much of its hull above the waterline, exposed to the effects of cross winds, the kayak has a much lower profile. It is bothered little by wind.

Comfort. With its molded, contoured seat and built-in back rest, the kayak is very comfortable. After hours of paddling you really appreciate the accommodations. Comfort also comes from the use of a double-bladed paddle which allows you to equalize the effort of left and right strokes.

Tracking. The semi-V shape of the hull of many sea kayaks gives them good directional tracking stability. Like a keel, the hull tends to keep the kayak going on a steady course. Further, many sea kayaks also feature a foot-pedal controlled, retractable rudder. This makes correcting for stiff crosswinds or currents easy. Tracking or steering your course requires much less effort than in a canoe.

Manhandling. The kayak, especially the single-seat model, is easy for one person to handle. They seldom weigh more than 60 pounds, so getting the boat down from the car-top carrier, or putting it back up again, is much less work than with bulkier and heavier canoes.

Cargo Stowage. While the canoe holds more and bulkier cargo, owing to its open hull design, the kayak can carry a lot too. And its cargo is stowed in dry, water-tight compartments, safe from rain and water spray. Camping or fishing gear stows handily within the forward and aft cargo compartments, and there are often deck-mounted bungee cord accommodations for external carrying.

Long Distance Travel. The kayak is superior for long distance paddling. The combination of a comfortable seat and the double-bladed paddle, the better stability, good tracking and greatly-reduced susceptibility to wind effects make the kayak a winner for extended trips. Covering 20 miles of more in a day is not at all demanding for a kayak paddler. It would be much harder in a canoe, especially if there was much wind.

Wildlife Encounters. The quiet glide of both the canoe and the kayak makes them great for observing wildlife. I happen to prefer the kayak for close-up nature viewing, because the foot-operated rudder allows me to coast into the reeds or shallow waters, my hands free for camera work. In a canoe, I had to paddle gently with one hand to keep a steady course toward my quest. In the kayak the task is easier by far.

Fishing. For many of the same reasons that I prefer a kayak when photographing or observing nature, I find the kayak superior for fishing. Probably the only drawback of fishing in a kayak is having less room to set things. There is no place for a big tackle box, but then I don't use one. There is not much room for a fish box, so I keep 'em on a stringer dangling over the side.

Maneuverability. Both the kayak and the canoe are great for maneuvering in narrow channels or tight places. I believe that here my kayak has the edge because of the added control afforded by the rudder. A sea kayak does not turn on a dime, like white-water kayaks do, of course. But then, neither do most canoes.

I cannot choose between lake or coastal salt water kayaking. Each is special and great fun for me. There are more things one has to consider and watch for when paddling near the ocean, like tides, surf and bigger waves. Lake or bayou paddling doesn't
threaten much there. The problem with tides is not that you will get stranded in suddenly shallowed waters, for kayaks don't draw much water. No, the problem is usually the currents and rips that can be difficult or even dangerous. Coastal kayaking requires that you pay attention to the tidal schedules and know where problem areas can develop.

There's not much surf or swells to worry about on lakes. For coastal kayakers these can present challenges and hazards. I said at the outset that I am a flat water sailor. It's because I choose not to fight the big waves or pounding surf. And besides, it's hard work. Paddling canoes or kayaks in stiff breezes is hard work, period. But it's a whole lot harder in canoes than kayaks. Even on lakes, the winds can come up quickly and waves often to whitecaps. Waves two or three feet high are possible on many lakes, where winds over broad open expanses drive the water. I'd much rather deal with those conditions in my kayak than any canoe.

I head for the shore when it gets too choppy or fighting the winds becomes excessively hard work. My personal limit is not to fight waves over two feet high, on salt or fresh water. When conditions get that rough, I am no longer a flat water sailor. So, I quit.

For overall safety and pure enjoyment, I rate the sea kayak tops. I do not knock the canoe. It's a versatile and proven craft that has been great fun for me in the past. But, as I get into my mid-60's and find I'm slowing down a bit, the sea kayak has given me many more years of fun on the water. Flat water, that is.

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