This summer, I checked off one of my personal goals - take a sea kayaking course! I’ve been wanting to do this mainly to build my confidence in the water, but also to get over an old fear I have of sea kayaking.
Developing a fear of sea kayaking
Growing up, there was a year when my mom did a lot of kayaking. She was getting her master’s degree and had found a way to simultaneously earn credits and go on outdoor adventures. A few of those adventures involved kayaking.
In an attempt to share her newfound hobby with us, she took me, my sister, my aunt, and my cousins on a kayaking/canoeing day trip in the Puget Sound. My mom and I rented a kayak and my aunt and her kids rented a canoe. Up until lunch, everything was going great. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was amazing, and no one had flipped their boat over.
With little warning, the weather took a turn for a worse. The wind began blowing fiercely and the once, gentle waves turned into whitecaps. For my mom and us in the kayak, the weather didn’t pose too much of a problem. Kayaks are fairly stable boats and my mom had gained a lot of sea kayaking experience over the last few months.
My aunt and my cousins were in a trickier situation. Slowly but surely, they’d drifted away from the shoreline and were out where the waves were particularly choppy. Canoes are also notoriously tippy and do not fare well in rough sea conditions.
In an effort to help right their course, my mom kayaked out to my aunt and tied a rope between our boats. She was going to try and tow them to shore. We didn’t make it far before the seemingly inevitable happened.
The canoe tipped.
Luckily, my cousins were all pretty small at the time, so we had no problem hauling them into the kayak with us. My aunt though had somehow gotten the rope tied around her leg. She was stuck, with nothing but the overturned canoe to hang onto. With no knife on hand, no other boats in sight, and the weather getting progressively worse, we were in a tough situation.
My mom instructed us to wave our paddles in the air and scream for help. At the time, I was sure the wind would drown out any sound from us, yet there was nothing else we could do. I screamed as loud as I could. After what felt like an eternity, but was probably only minutes or so, a boat came racing from around the bend. Someone had heard us!
A man and his family had been hanging out on the water when they heard very distant shouting. Their first thought was it was just a couple of teenagers messing around. Thinking they’d better check it out still, they followed the sound and eventually found us.
The family passed my aunt a knife. She cut herself free and then the family hauled both her and the canoe into their boat. One by one, my cousins and I were also placed in the boat. Everyone was now safely out of the water except for my mom, who had decided she was going to kayak back by herself. I knew she was fine and would get back to the rental shop alright, but I still kept a close eye on her while our rescuers brought us to shore.
All in all, we made it home in one piece. We were shaken up but no one was hurt and none of our rental equipment had been lost. Considering our good fortune, you’d think I would’ve been able to push that day behind me and not let it stop me from going kayaking. I couldn’t for a long time though, and found myself always saying, ‘no’ to both kayaks and canoes.
When I got to college, I realized I wasn’t afraid of kayaking in a lake, but rather, I didn’t want to sea kayak. To me, lakes were safe, predictable. The Puget Sound was practically an ocean in my mind. Fast forward to this summer, and I had decided it was finally time to get back in the sound. I was tired of being afraid and wanted to regain some confidence in the water.
Choosing a class
After doing some research, I decided to take a sea kayaking course at Alki Kayak Tours in Seattle. They have great reviews online, and it’s always a treat to visit Alki Beach. The course I picked was a 6-hour long training called Sea Kayaking Essentials. From what I’d read online, I would learn the following:
What to wear
Self and assisted rescue and recovery
I liked the sound of all of that, especially the rescue and recovery part. If there was one thing I wish I’d been more prepared for as a kid, it would’ve been knowing how to handle a boat flipping over.
Meeting my guide
Shortly after arriving at Alki Kayak Tours, I met Christina, my guide for the day. Christina told me a little about her background - how she took up kayaking in college, as part of the University of Washington’s kayaking club. Through the subsequent friendships she made and the trips she went on, she discovered her passion for all things kayaking-related.
After sharing my lack of kayaking experience and hopes to become more confident in the water, Christina told me the day could be tailored to help achieve my specific goals. I liked the idea of having flexibility in our itinerary, and that the class could be customized if necessary.
After checking out the various styles of kayaks, it was time to suit up! My 'uniform' for the day was a full-body wetsuit, a life jacket, water shoes, a spraydeck, and a GoPro. In other words, I was absolutely dying on an 80 degree, sunny day.
Within seconds of putting on my gear, I was sweating from head to toe. I couldn't wait to jump in the water and that's saying something... the water around Seattle is practically freezing. As soon as I dunked my body underwater though, I could see why a wetsuit was essential. The only parts of me which recoiled from the water’s cold were my feet and head - the parts not covered by the wetsuit.
Tipping over on purpose
Our first mission of the day was to practice flipping the kayak upside down and getting out safely. For me, it turned out the hardest part was simply flipping upside down. While all I had to do was lean heavily to one side, I found I had to work myself up to actually do that. I didn't like the idea of being upside down in the water, and I especially didn't like the idea of having my legs stuck in a kayak.
Once I got over the mental hurdle though, I realized it wasn't too tough to get out of a flipped kayak. The important part is simply to stay calm.
After I learned the basics of exiting a kayak, we moved away from the shallows and out into the sound. It was time to practice self-rescuing. Self-rescuing is what a kayaker would do if they were out on the water by themselves. After the kayak flips over, the kayaker has to get the kayak right-side-up, turn their paddle into a flotation device, crawl into the kayak, and pump the water out.
It is a pain in the butt.
Trying to get into an overturned kayak is no easy feat, especially when a speedboat drives by and kicks up waves. It can be done though, and with practice, it can be mastered. When my instructor demonstrated her own self-rescue, she made it look quick and effortless.
It turns out assisted rescues are much easier. An assisted rescue is a technique which involves two or more kayakers and kayaks. When a kayak flips over, the kayaker who stayed afloat can right the other person's kayak, dump the excess water out, and stabilize the kayak while the other person gets back in. During the class, I got to practice being both the assister and the person being assisted in a rescue.
Boat control and paddle strokes
After a hard-earned lunch at a Hawaiian BBQ joint, we got back in the water to practice boat control and paddle strokes. What I didn't know prior to this lesson, is there are a handful of strokes a kayaker can use to stay balanced in the water. They range from slapping the water with one's paddle to swiping the water back-and-forth in a motion best described as 'spreading butter.'
It was fun testing out each of the strokes and seeing which ones I preferred. Before long though, I was absolutely burnt out and ready to call it a day. By this point, we'd been in the sun for 6 hours, covered head to toe in thick gear. I hinted to my instructor that I was ready to go back.
Back on shore, I peeled off my wetsuit and thanked my instructor. "What a day," I thought! I'd learned so much in just a single day of training.
My overall review
Overall, I’m glad I took this course. I gained a lot confidence and had plenty of opportunities to practice my new skills in the water. I also felt like my instructor was very knowledgeable and capable. When we were practicing rescues and recovery, she always had an eye on me in case I needed a hand or something went wrong.
Is this course for you?
If you’re someone who wants to sightsee or just spend some quality time kayaking, a tour or hourly kayak rental might be the better choice. If you want to get into sea kayaking specifically or gain confidence in the water, then I’d go with a course.
Other classes/tours you can do
Alki Kayak Tours offers a wide variety of classes, tours, and rentals. For a complete list, make sure and check out their website. A few which stood out to me are:
I hope you’re able to find one which interests you! Kayaking is a lot of fun and a great skill to have.
* I was welcomed as a guest of Alki Kayak Tours. As always, all opinions are my own.