Take a Sea Kayaking Class

by Eric Soares on August 28, 2011

Mentoring is the best way to teach a newbie how to sea kayak.  But many beginners and even advanced paddlers don’t have the luxury of a knight to patiently teach them all they know about sea kayaking.  Or even if you have a mentor, you may still wish to learn something your mentor doesn’t know.  The best way to learn a new kayaking skill is on the water with a teacher.  A class is a suitable way to do this—and you get the added benefit of learning from someone new with a unique teaching style.

Students practice swimmer rescues in small surf under the watchful eye of the instructor

A Sea Kayaking Class for Beginners

In my opinion, all beginning sea kayakers should take an Introduction to Sea Kayaking class before they ever go out on their own.  This way they can find out if they even like the sport and will also learn rudimentary skills and safety considerations.  In general, on their first time on the water, novices should not rent equipment from an outfitter and go out unescorted.  This would be like jumping on a bob sled and zooming down the hill.  Though you have never been on a bob sled, you’ll go downhill fast, but how will you stop?  When you fly off the track and hit a tree?  Not the ideal first experience.   Equally bad things can happen while kayaking, so don’t sally out with a pod of kayaking virgins.  Instead, take the greenhorn class. You’ll be glad you did.   These classes are available from professional trainers, kayaking clubs, and at sea kayaking conferences.

Students practice swimmer rescues--an essential safety technique seldom practiced

Sea Kayaking Classes for Intermediate Paddlers

After the intro class and a few dozen times on the water, a student should up the ante and acquire more knowledge and skill.  Now it’s time to take a Stroke Clinic.  My wife took this class from Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton a few years ago, and she then paddled twice as fast with twice the efficiency.

Other good classes to take as you become more proficient:  Navigation, Bracing, Rolling, and Rescues.  I took a Knot Tying class years ago and have tied good knots thousands of times since.  An intermediate paddler could also take classes in How to Paddle in the Bay, Paddling With and Against the Wind, and Paddling in Tide Rips.

A student assists another student into her boat

Sea Kayaking Classes for Advanced Paddlers

After months or years of paddling, you may wish to branch out into more advanced skills.  You may wish to take classes in Surf Ski Racing, Expedition Planning, Storm Paddling, Surfing, and Kayaking in Ocean Rock Gardens. 

A student leads the way through a rock garden

Last week, Deb Volturno and I taught a one-day advanced class called Paddling the Open Coast (for more details on what the class entailed, link here: https://tsunamirangers.com/2011/05/30/tsunami-rangers-rock-garden-class-in-august-learn-to-kayak-the-open-coast/). Our students practiced scouting, swimmer rescues, kayak surfing, and basic rock garden paddling techniques.  Deb and I felt that they all improved significantly as the day progressed.  Luckily, it was an easy day with small surf and no wind, and that helped build their confidence and skills.  We only offer this class once or twice a year, so stay tuned to this website for the next scheduled course.

A student successfully negotiates a pourover

As an aside, teachers learn just as much as their students.  After the class last week, while we treated them to a surprise abalone feast, our students told us that we spent too much time scouting and not enough time on the water, they loved the swimmer rescue drills, and they wanted to do more rock garden paddling.  Whew!  That tells me that next year we’ll go back to our two-day format so students can take away even more knowledge and skills.

Our 2011 Rock Garden Kayaking Class at MacKerricher State Park

I did not list every sea kayaking class that’s out there.  What did I miss? Tell us about the most beneficial classes you have taken.  If you are an advanced paddler, please describe the classes you teach, and share your teaching philosophy.  Just push on the COMMENT button below and go for it.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Donohue August 29, 2011 at 8:34 am

Bill Vonnegut has an article in the next issue of California Kayaker Magazine talking about much of the same as what you wrote in this post.


Eric Soares August 29, 2011 at 8:57 am

I shall be sure to read Bill’s article. Go to http://www.calkayakermag.com to download your free issue.

On another note: Both Peter Donohue and Bill Vonnegut are members of the coastal adventure team called Neptune’s Rangers who recently completed our challenge to scale the walls of Neptune’s Castle in Big Sur. Congratulations!

It’s good to see that sea kayaking adventure is on the upswing in the 21st century. Classes such as our rock garden course and quests such as the Big Sur challenge are a lot of fun and personally fulfilling.


Ed Anderson August 29, 2011 at 11:06 am

Another good article, Eric. I started out just bumbling on to the water, then only after a few terrifying experiences took some classes. It sky rocketed my abilities, safety, and giggle factor. 🙂


Kenny Howell August 29, 2011 at 11:42 am

Finally, a topic I can contribute to again. (;-)
A couple of key points to emphasize Eric: progression of instruction is criticalin kayaking. There are a series of logical steps for students; fundamental skills must be introduced first, like basic strokes and rescues. From there you build on that foundation by introducing more advance strokes and maneuvers, allowing for ample time for students to experiment, make mistakes, and have fun in “real” conditions. You can scare a new paddler by pushing their envelope too soon, toof fast! It happens all the time, unfortunately. Time in the boat is the key to success. It’s well documented that muli-day classes result in a quantum leap for students – provided students are physically fit and mental prepared for it. We have a nice track record at CCK of taking novices through our “core” classes and watching them blossom into full-blown sea kayakers, and eventually becoming instructors!

And since you asked, I will share a couple philosophical teaching approaches I have found work well for me an many instructors:
1) Don’t try to teach everything you know all it once. Keep it simple! Have a system. We advocate “Sell It, Show It, Do It, Use It”. Ask me to explain if you want to know more.

2) A HUGE part of teaching is making it fun and interesting for your students. To get myself pysched up for the task, I visualize that the studens are my good friends, and I want to turn them on to the coolest think I know – paddling. It’s kind of a professional trick for an old salt like me (teaching kayaking for 26 years). An analogy for aspiring stage actors might be the suggested technique for easing stage fright: imagine the audience are all in their underwear…How does that work, anyway?



Bill Vonnegut August 29, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Nice article Eric, I know I have gotten allot out of and still fall back on all the classes I have taken.

I received an email yesterday from someone that I recognize in your class pic above. He is looking for a ROCK GARDEN BOAT. I think you hooked him !!


gnarlydog August 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm

“Mentoring is the best way to teach a newbie how to sea kayak. But many beginners and even advanced paddlers don’t have the luxury of a knight to patiently teach them all they know about sea kayaking.”
I fully agree with you Eric. Most of my skill learning has come from mentors however good mentors are very hard to find.
About classes: I have mixed experiences/emotions. While basic skills are not very hard to teach and most instructors are OK, the intermediate/advanced skill teaching is not easy.
I found that just because one instructor is good at performing the skills it does not mean that he/she can pass them onto students.
In my area there some very good instructors and some appalling ones. Then there are some that specifically teach skills with the intention to limit the students’ progress so they can have an ongoing business from the same unaware students.
Teaching rolling is the most evident case where I observe very poor form. The instructor makes it looks easy but can’t (doesn’t want) teach the dynamics involved. The students then keep on paying the instructor for consequent classes…
I had the opportunity to follow up with the “failing” students and in a single session they succeeded in rolling.
The hardest thing is to find an instructor skilled in teaching, and honest.


Kenny Howell August 29, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Hey Gnarlydog dude? Where are all these “dishonest” kayak instructors that you have encountered? Sounds like a pretty shady business. I just want to be sure to avoid them…But, isn’t that like life? Some characters are better to deal with than others. It’s unfortunate you take such a cynical view of the professional kayak instructor. Someone must have burned you pretty bad.

Learning/mentoring with friends is great, but sometimes you get what you pay for, mate. I say the short cut to enlightenment is through organized instruction. I learned to roll without an instructor in college, but it took 2 weeks of thrashing around in a warm lake to get it right – and then I discovered later that I had taught myself to do a left side roll without even knowing it. Probably would have nailed the right side quicker with a little pro instruction…Or did I just need a knowledgeable mentor?

I will grant Eric this: if you want to advance your abilities in the artistic realms of our sport such as surf kayaking, freestyle moves in play spots in rock gardens, or even in training for competition, then the mentoring model has a lot going for it. You need a buddy to paddle with – one that can show you how it’s done, give you encouragement, or bail you out in the event of trouble. Mentoring, and the team model of paddling can definitely lead to good things. The relationship in this mode just tends to be rather loose, but that’s really a matter of expectations…

As for teaching the kayak roll: that is perhaps the single most difficult skill of all to learn in paddling, and by far the most challenging to teach. The roll instructor must be 100% confident in his ability to teach it, and have the maturity to explain in advance to the student that he must want to learn. Students get frustrated learning to roll, and sometimes give up after 1 session. You can’t teach someone that doesn’t want to learn! People come to us and say “teach me to roll”. I say to them, “you will need 2 or 3 sessions”. Nothing dishonest with that. If they get the roll in the first session, then they are exemplary, but they still will need to practice, practice, practice. And then they need to learn the “off side” roll. Oh but that might cost you extra. Sucka! (;-)


Moulton Avery August 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Another great post, Eric. Believe it or not, there are still folks out there who disagree with all this emphasis on learning, classes, clinics, workshops, symposia etc. The battle cry of these unschoolers seems to be “just go paddle, already”, and it was much in evidence recently on the forum of a local meetup kayaking group here in the Washington, DC area.

“No! Keep Away!”, cried Dim Bulb in his most authoritarian voice, a look of sheer terror on his face. “I don’t want your stupid knowledge, and I hate classes. I prefer to learn my lessons like a man, the hard way, by trial and error, making it up as I go along. Only sissies ask for directions!”

Ah yes, well said Dim Bulb, you sure do have rationality, logic and experience on your side of the argument…

Taking a class has so many things to recommend it, and Kenny made a lot of really great points in his comments, points that Dim Bulb and his cohorts would do well to take to heart. In my personal experience, taking a class is a very efficient and effective way to acquire knowledge. Taken on the front end, whether one is a beginner or an old hand seeking to learn a new skill, it has the great virtue of allowing you to develop good technique right from the start. Want to avoid bad habits, sloppy technique, putting the old cart before horse? Take some classes, already!

Long ago, one of my mentors remarked that teaching was the process of sharing “the gift of knowledge”. It really is a two-way gift, and I learn something new from my students every single time that I teach. Teaching has also made me a better and more thoughtful paddler.

A good class represents a distillation of knowledge, bottled in drinkable amounts. Any fool can take the simple and make it complex, we see the evidence around us every day. A good teacher, on the other hand, takes the complex and makes it simple, fun to learn, and easy to comprehend and remember.


Eric Soares August 29, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Thanks, everyone, for your good comments. As an experienced teacher, Kenny knows the ropes and is very competent and concerned. Kenny, I’d like to have you weigh in on the “newbies renting kayaks unescorted” issue. Should they?

Gnarlydog brings up a good point–not all instructors are created equal. As a university professor for over 25 years, I can attest that some profs are great teachers and some suck. That’s why savvy students are always comparing notes and saying “take calculus from this guy, not him” and the like. It would be a good thing for kayaking students to have an instructor rating system. For example, someone like Helen Wilson or Gnarlydog may be able to teach the roll in one or two sessions, whereas it takes two months for someone else to teach it, so Who ya gonna call? And yes, I’m sure there are unscrupulous kayaking teachers (though I don’t know any), just as there are unscrupulous people in every occupation. Let the buyer beware!

Moulton’s point about “lessons are for sissies” is well taken. Whether a person learns from a mentor (which I personally think is ideal) and/or from classes (which I sometimes teach), the important thing is to have someone help you along, to shorten the learning curve and make you safer on the water.

Yes, it’s good to get on the water as often as possible, as the water is your best teacher, but you never want to hear someone say, “Dude, your spray skirt is supposed to go around the cockpit coaming” or “You’ve got to use trunk rotation to paddle, not just rotate your hands” or “Your half roll is impressive; let’s see the other half where you come up.”


gnarlydog August 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Kenny, fortunately there aren’t too many dishonest instructors out there but this one spoils it for others.
To the point that he advocated that ALL kayakers should gain a license to paddle before they go out on the bay. Incidentally he would be the licensor.
He has already managed to implement that in one club but his goal would be to have a blanket paddling license for all.
Back to instructions in general: it takes a skilled teacher to pass his/her knowledge to others and adapt the class to the needs/limitations of the different students. A fixed curriculum is often not suitable for all levels of abilities; failing to identify that leads to poor teaching. Lastly group size: large classes have very limited value where there is no time for personal attention. Sometimes a little individual interaction makes a world of difference.
Just for the record: I would attribute my success in teaching rolling to my friends more a fluke than the norm. I have very limited knowledge, I simply pass what I learned and what worked for me. Helen Wilson, well that’s another story alltogether; her teaching is gold.


Kenny Howell August 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Eric wrote: “Kenny, I’d like to have you weigh in on the “newbies renting kayaks unescorted” issue. Should they?”

OK bradah, I will. This is pretty simple. In the USA, we have a proud tradition of letting people go out into nature, get lost, sunburned, snake bit, heat stroked, paddle over waterfalls, and die! Over a dozen tourists have died in Yosemite National Park this year, and the Park Service policy is, and always will be hopefully (I am paraphrasing here): people need to take responsibility for their actions in the wilderness.

Now, that being said, as a private enterprise, we will not rent a closed-deck sea kayak (if we can avoid it) to a person that has not done some basic sea kayak training involving self-rescue and assisted rescue practice. That’s out of common sense, the potential for liability, and just good customer service. We also take into account where they might be going. If they tell us, “I want to rent a kayak and paddle down the Mendocino coast to look for the Tsunami Ranger booty stashed at the top fo the sea stack”, we usually say “forgettaboutit”. If they are just headed to the protected waters of Tomales Bay, or Lake Tahoe, then it’s probably OK – provided they have done the basic training.

Unlike a lot of seasoned sea kayakers, I’m still a big fan of sit-on-top kayaks and big fat recreational kayaks for newbies. SOTs are so easy, relatively safe, nearly idiot proof, and people have a blast messing around on them. On lakes and easy rivers, give ’em a Kiwi Kayak or one of those glorified bath tubs and let them go exploring. What’s the worst that could happen? Shit happens, but we can’t and shouldn’t protect everyone from every possible idiotic adventure. Every year, we get a group of yahoos that rent flat water rec boats (usually the Boy Scouts) and they try to take them down a Class III river and destroy the boats – they end up buying the kayaks from us. It works out in the end. They learn a valuable lesson, and we make a deal on the busted boats.

Hope that adds something to the topic.

Live Free or Die.



Jeff August 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Learn from those that cater to you and your learning style.
If you are a school of hard knocks learner, awesome! Have fun, and wear a helmet!
Not a SOHK’s learner, take a class from an instructor that fits you and your paddling dreams. Make sure to modify this as you learn and expand your horizon.

Take another class or clinic that will help you excel. When you have achieved a level of greatness, help others to do the same.

What percent of black belt martial artists achieved this (black belt) on there own?


Eric Soares August 30, 2011 at 9:09 am

To Kenny’s comment on newbies renting kayaks and going out alone, I say “Well said.” I agree that you can’t protect everyone from everything and there’s no use even trying. I’m of the “Let God sort em out” school of thought. It’s sad to read about folks who fall off waterfalls (as in Yosemite) even when signs say “stay away.” But what can you do?

I remember climbing an active volcano in Guatemala (there are no rules there, except stay away from VIPs), looking down at the steaming magma under our feet, and wondering, “Jeez, is this safe?” A year later the volcano blew up. Glad I wasn’t there when that happened. The point is “Life is full of risk.” Had I been smarter I may not have climbed the peak in Guatemala. But I was a newbie and nobody said I couldn’t. (I loved it and am glad I did it–but I’d think twice about doing it again)

Jeff ties it all together by saying groovy on the SOHK style, but there’s another way, perhaps a better way through instruction. His analogy of the student getting a black belt on his own is appropriate. I’d say there are very few martial artists who award themselves a black belt–in fact, none that I know. However, I do know some martial artists without black belts who are damned good. They learned from mentors who did not award belts & they assimilated knowledge on their own. Conversely, I know some 5th degree black belts who couldn’t punch their way out of a paper bag. The bottom line, in martial arts and kayaking: it’s not the “certification” you hold, but how good you are that matters.


John Lull August 30, 2011 at 10:10 am

I haven’t been teaching much in the last couple of years, but I spent many years teaching sea kayaking as well as training instructors. I could go on and on with this subject, but will limit it to a few key points, especially for any new or beginning paddlers who might be lurking here (I hope a lot of new paddlers discover this site!).

Like a lot of activities, kayaking is dependent on a strong foundation of so-called ‘basic’ skills. This goes directly to what Kenny said about progressive learning. So my first point is to encourage any new kayaker to take a few basic courses and pay special attention to stroke technique, rescue technique, and, when you’re ready for it, rolling technique. These ‘hard skills’ will support the more advanced ‘soft skills’ like surfing, playing in rock gardens, and handling wind and rough water (by ‘soft’ skills I mean there’s a substantial mental and intuitive component involved). You need to be able to execute when the rubber meets the road. For example, ability to maneuver your kayak flawlessly (sweep strokes, draw strokes, etc) is essential in rock gardens. A reliable roll is necessary to really learn how to surf; you’ll capsize a lot in the learning process.

My second point is you have to take what you learn in a class and apply it on your own in the real world. It’s not enough to pay an instructor, show up, and expect it to all happen by osmosis. Take those lessons and practice everything the instructor showed you. A good instructor will show the way, but the student has to DO the learning. Then practice some more until you really get it. There’s no time to think through how to roll when capsized in a turbulent rock garden, or to try and remember how a T-rescue is performed when your buddy is clinging to his upside-down kayak in 25 knot winds under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Third point: Have fun! Remember the goal is to get out there and have a good time, not a terrifying experience that you barely survive. If you learn the skills well, you’ll have a lot better time on the water.

Final point: The one thing that can’t be taught in a class is good judgment. Good judgment comes with experience. So again, if you master the basic skills and get some training and mentoring, you’ll be able to acquire that experience with a minimum of risk. And your judgment, timing, ability to read the conditions, etc, will increase every time you hit the water.


Don September 3, 2011 at 6:53 am

How long do you think it would take for someone who is already an expert sea kayaker in a sit on top kayak to learn the basics of a sit inside kayak? Is it mainly about the self rescue and rolling?

I am a hard core surfer and I have surfed in some nasty tropical storm surf. Being in small craft advisory without your small craft sucks but I am not sure I want to be in the boat after a crash in 5ft seas.


Kenny Howell September 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Don, yes – it’s mainly about the ability to roll, and/or self-rescue with a closed-deck (sit inside) kayak. The skills required to paddle in rough water and surf are essentially the same with both types of kayaks, and there are some advantages and disadvantages to each style. However, it is very rare these days to see anyone rolling a SOT kayak. the Tsunami boats are a notalble exception, as they generally equipped with a belt so you can roll it (if you know how).

Eric should do a blog about this – the topic is worthy of more discussion. After spending the first 25 years of my kayaking life in decked boats, I switched to surfski as the primary boat. With a surfski, you realize that a closed deck is totally unnecessary, and mostly over-rated. Some will disagree, while others will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Last night I ventured out to Pillar Point to enjoy the mega south swell that has surfers from The Wedge to Ocean Beach in ecstasy. It was a sight to behold, and I caught some massive rides that almost peeled the paint off the hull of my 20′ surfski. However, it was damn sketchy on the inside, and I ran for safety after only about 20 minutes of dodging the impact zone – 10′ long period bombs threatened to pitch-pole the ski end over end into the jetty. In 2 decades of surfing this point, I’ve never seen it that gnarly in a south swell! This was a time and place better suited to a true surf kayak, I admit.

The bottom line is this: if you want to paddle a decked boat in open water and surf zone conditions, your roll better be bulletproof. We’re all between swims though, no matter who you are.




Don September 4, 2011 at 6:45 am

SO, pitch pole is what the endo is called. I am very familiar with that.

One good thing about the sit on top is I can easily and quickly slide from the front of the boat to the back, driving the boat down the face and then popping the front end up before it gets driven into the water and “pitch poles” the boat. Timing is critical.

I seem to be the only person surfing a kayak where I am at so I’ve had to teach myself. It would be cool to have a group of other crazy people down here to share the excitement with and to learn from.

I can half-ass do a 360 in a 12 ft Ocean Drifter ( a fishing kayak) by turning directly into a breaking wave, though my technique is not perfected yet (I get stuck going backwards a lot and it still involves a whole lot of swimming!)

Since I started kayak surfing a few years ago I have not used my kayaks to fish even once. I am totally hooked, if you will pardon the pun.


Eric Soares September 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Hi Don,

I’m with Kenny 100% in the “closed deck is unnecessary and mostly overrated” crowd. In a few weeks I will post a column on “messing about in boats”, where I will compare SOTs with closed decked and other boats. So stay tuned to this station.

It’s great that you are out there teaching yourself to surf. Surfing is one of those “soft” skills that John Lull referred to above. If you know how to paddle, you can teach yourself your own tricks in the surf. Please see our recent columns on entering and exiting surf for useful information.


annielou July 29, 2013 at 9:16 am

hi my name is annielou, i would like to know if you can give me some advice on what equipment do i need to have on hand if i ever go alone to kayak fishing!


Nancy Soares July 30, 2013 at 8:36 am

Hi annielou! I’m going to refer you to one of our experts on this one. Stay tuned…


Scott Becklund July 31, 2013 at 4:13 pm

This is Scott Becklund. I am one of the Rangers. I have using kayaks for both fishing and diving for years. Perhaps I could help here. Are you asking about kayaking equipment to support fishing or fishing gear to aid a kayaker? It may also help to know where you may fish. I live in Northwest California and have fished for most of our game fish in both salt and fresh water. Given the title of this article and the comments I’m not sure if your concern is safety or more technical about fishing. I sure have thoughts about both for kayak fishing.
Cheers, Scott


Scott Becklund July 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Opps I need to proof read. I meant to ask if you were asking about safety and additional equipment for your kayak or fishing gear. I think there is an incredible beauty in kayak fishing in that you can do it with so little extra gear. But I’d love to expand on it when I have an idea how I can help. S


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