Kudos to kayaking clubs, professional trainers, and organizations for introducing thousands of people to the wonders of sea kayaking each year. This essay centers on my opinions on how a seasoned kayaker can teach a greenhorn how to sea kayak. So here we go.
First, I only teach beginners who are truly interested in learning. They must show self-motivation or forget it. Then, they must be able to swim and feel comfortable in water—or forget it. No coaxing. Years ago I took a buffed rock climber kayaking in mild surf, and he freaked out, puked bile, and had a terrible experience. It turns out that he was “willing to overcome his fear of the sea.” He told me he was afraid, but I didn’t listen. I assumed, since he was a fantastic outdoor athlete, that this would be right up his alley. I was wrong. From then on, I vowed to put absolute beginners in safe water that they could literally splash around in all day with ease.
On an initial outing with a newbie, I ask him what water experience he has. If he is already a river rafter, for instance, like my friend Troy Shehorn, then I know that it is likely that he will have a good time and progress at a good pace. So on that first kayaking experience, I have a novice swim around with the boat. That way, he learns firsthand that the boat is just an extension of himself, and that he is always in the water. And I can see if he can actually swim.
Since I paddle sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks, I have students learn to get on and off the boat first thing. Once they can get on board and be ready to rumble in five seconds or less, I let them piddle-paddle near shore awhile until they are chomping at the bit for more.
The next thing is we go out in a double kayak and practice mounting the boat again, teamwork, and basic strokes, such as the forward power stroke and back stroke. As we paddle along, I constantly make small stroke corrections until my student increases his power by at least double. Then we paddle as fast as possible so he can feel the boat respond to his efficient effort. Then we go in and land, with the student wanting more. On the first lesson, it’s important to quit before students get tired.
The next time I take a beginner out, I have him paddle a river kayak, which has a lot of rocker and goes whichever way you direct. River kayaks are slalom in nature, with no chines, skegs or rudders to help with tracking or turning. They are not fast like sea kayaks, but the student learns real boat control. On the second lesson we again practice mounting and forward and back strokes, but also experiment with sweeps, braces, pries and other strokes so he learns to master his craft.
Assuming the student has progressed, I may then loan the river kayak to the beginner so he can practice everything he has learned on his own. At this time, I fill the new guy in with other important knowledge such as wearing proper immersion clothing and PFDs. After he has gone out a few times and says he’s ready for a challenge, I give him the third lesson.
On the third lesson, the beginner gets to try her hand in safe but stimulating conditions. I may have her try her river kayak in small surf, current, or choppy seas. One of my favorite tricks is to have her maneuver through a bunch of obstacles, for example, pilings under a harbor or lake pier.
If she does well, I’ll have her practice maneuvers in a challenging environment on her own—as homework. I stress that she find a safe place to practice—for instance, a small, protected beach with small waves, and not take stupid risks.
After she has gone out on her own a few times in rougher water, she may be ready to become an intermediate student and learn how to roll, rescue, and surf.
Please share your experiences in teaching beginners. If you are a novice and want to learn sea kayaking, please ask any questions and I or another reader will answer.