Exactly 25 years ago I wrote my first kayaking article called “Survival Swimming”, which was published in SEA KAYAKER Magazine. I thank editors Bea and John Dowd for having faith in me to write an article worthy of their magazine.
I’ve experienced a lot and learned some things since then. The other day I mused, how do I feel today about swimming versus kayaking? Which skill is more essential? Back then I was taken aback at the dearth of sea kayakers who were competent swimmers or even wore wetsuits or drysuits in cold water. Back then, I definitely believed that swimming was more important than kayaking. Upon 25 years of reflection, today I still believe that swimming is more important than kayaking. Let me ‘splain.
Dozens of kayakers have told me they don’t plan on capsizing when they go kayaking (who does?), which they use as an excuse to not dress for immersion and to have faith that nominal or even nonexistent swimming skill is okay. Then you read the sea kayaking accident reports: time and time again the kayaking victims got cold and could not swim, with often fatal results. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Learn to Swim Well
If you are not a competent swimmer (i.e., cannot swim 500 meters in rough water), this winter is a good time to hone your swimming skills. If you already know how to do the crawl, breast stroke, side stroke, and back stroke, then just work on improving your form while increasing your swimming stamina (which keeps you in kayaking shape). That’s what I do. Each stroke has its strengths. Use the crawl for speed, breast stroke in a following sea, back stroke against waves, and side stroke with your face away from the waves when moving perpendicular to wind.
If you have trouble with one or more of those four strokes, then go to a heated pool and have an instructor teach you (e.g., community colleges, the Red Cross, and YMCA offer inexpensive classes, or you can find an underemployed swim team member to coach you). In a few weeks you should have the basics down and be ready to practice in rougher water.
As the seasons turn and the sun warms up the water, practice distance swimming in a local lake and engage in adventure swimming in nearby creeks and rivers. And don’t forget to swim in the sea (this winter you could book a vacation to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or perhaps Australia where the water is warm right now). As I look out at my snowy yard, I dream of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand (I’ll do a blog post on it in a few weeks).
Be sure to practice swimming with your paddle. Should you tip over and lose your boat in the wind, current, or surf (it can happen!), you definitely don’t want to be up the creek without a paddle.
Dress for Immersion
Sea kayaking attire is a personal thing. One cannot tell a kayaker what to wear while paddling. So let me just say this: dress for the water, not the air. “But what if I get too hot?” someone always asks. Roll a couple of times, and you will cool off. What? Can’t roll? Ah, another skill to master.
The main thing is to suss out the conditions you will paddle in, and then dress appropriately. In the photo above, taken last week at Pillar Point where the infamous Mavericks wave resides, I’m wearing the gear I will need to paddle in 50F water and air, 15-knot winds, 5-foot waves, and sharp rocks. For warmth I’m wearing a full, custom-made wetsuit; two thin neoprene scull caps, one with a visor; neoprene divers’ booties with a hard gripping sole to protect my feet from urchins and sharp rocks; and thin neoprene gloves.
For impact protection I’m wearing a helmet and a special PFD (personal flotation device) that has 15 pounds of buoyancy and Kevlar sides and back—in case I get hit by a boat or a rock. The PFD also provides a bit of warmth. Note that I do not depend upon my PFD to “keep me afloat” until help arrives should I capsize and lose my boat (a real possibility in these conditions). A PFD is an accessory that will assist you in floating, but will not keep your face out of the water if you are unconscious or numb (either from impact, hypothermia, injury or illness) in rough water.
Test Clothing, Accessories, and Swimming Skill in the Water
Before you take off in your kayak, always evaluate yourself in the water, without your boat. If you will be paddling in calm cool water on a pleasant day, don’t trust the illusion that it’s “mild outside” so you don’t need to test the waters. Just wade out and swim around for about three minutes or so, no big deal. Does your anorak fill up with water and impede your mobility? Uh oh—better put on your drysuit. Does your drysuit leak? Better adjust that zipper right now. Your head is cold? Put on the neoprene hood stuffed at the bottom of your gear bag. Your rubber boots fill up with water and make it almost impossible to tread water? Swap the boots for those extra thick divers’ booties. PFD hike up around your face? Readjust it or try out the spare.
In the photo above, taken a week ago at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, California, I’m swimming in the surf and rocks where I plan to paddle. It turned out that after five minutes of body surfing on the reef, I was still warm and my gear worked. I played with my kayak in the rocks behind me in the picture. Yay!
I leave you with these words of wisdom, spoken by the late storm sea kayaking king, Steve Sinclair: “Kayaking is an in-water sport!”
Comments, questions? Here’s an assignment for you: Inventory your kayaking apparel. Is it truly adequate for the conditions in which you paddle? How do you know? Oh yes, please share your kayak swimming stories, good and bad.