I learned how to sea kayak from a book. Written by Derek Hutchinson, it was called SEA CANOEING. From that book I learned how to roll, how to outfit a sea kayak, how to surf and seal land, and how to stay safe on the water. But that was not the only way I learned how to sea kayak. To advance further I had to find better ways to learn. Let’s take a look at four good ways to learn sea kayaking, starting with the most available and working up to the highest way to gain knowledge and skill.
Books and DVDs
I have a complete library of sea kayaking books, which I refer to regularly. If I want to hone up on piloting and dead reckoning, I read David Burch’s FUNDAMENTALS OF KAYAK NAVIGATION. When students ask for a good kayak surfing book, I suggest Nigel Foster’s SURF KAYAKING. My library ranges from basic books such as John Dowd’s SEA KAYAKING to specialty books on dangerous marine animals and living off the sea to destination books such as the one I’m reading now, Simon Willis’ THE SCOTTISH SEA KAYAK TRAIL (which is a very interesting read, full of gorgeous photos).
Magazines are also good sources. I regularly read Sea Kayaker magazine and a plethora of others. I also read club newsletters such as Bay Currents from the Bay Area Sea Kayakers. Many websites and kayaking blogs present useful information and comments from readers. The point is you can learn a lot about sea kayaking by reading—constantly.
DVDs are a good way to see techniques in motion. I’m slowly collecting good ones which range from Brent Reitz’ FORWARD STROKE CLINIC to University of Sea Kayaking’s BEYOND THE COCKPIT. There are many good DVDs out there, so check them out. Also, you can watch kayaking techniques on YouTube and the like, which is free!
Because I learned from a book without a teacher to correct my mistakes, I now have a funny-looking roll. It works, but it’s ugly. There is no doubt it is much better to learn from good teachers, as they can answer questions, show techniques, and provide feedback so you can improve quickly.
A few weeks ago, I posted a blog on Helen Wilson’s rolling clinic. Literally, in one day she taught 3 people to do a basic roll and taught Jim Kakuk to do a Greenland-style hand roll. Not many could learn that quickly just from reading a book!
I took classes on river canoeing and river kayaking, and both really helped me gain confidence and skill on the river. My wife took a forward stroke class from Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton, and afterward she paddled nearly twice as fast. My advice is to read books and watch DVDs, and whenever possible, take an on-water class with a qualified instructor.
What’s better than taking a class? Having an expert train you one-on-one over time. The ideal learning situation is to have an experienced boater teach you the ropes for a year or more, introducing you to ever-greater challenges in increments.
For instance, senior Tsunami Rangers take eager and adept but less experienced kayakers under their wing and teach them increasingly complex techniques in bigger and bigger seas. They start in small surf and practice perfectly (“Perfect practice makes perfect”) until the protégé asks for more difficult water. After mastering that, the squire is ready to graduate to rock gardens and caves, under the watchful eye of at least one caring mentor. Thus far, we have never had a protégé fail our test to become a Tsunami Ranger officer. Mentoring is the reason.
In my mind, discovery is the highest form of learning. If you’ve been fortunate enough to read good books, take classes, and be mentored, you are well on your way to becoming a complete kayaker. But there is always learning to be had. You don’t know it all; in fact, for most people, including myself, I think it’s safe to say that we really don’t know much about the sea, about boats. It takes a lifetime.
At some point we become our own teachers. We seek new knowledge, new frontiers, and experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Discovery is not the fastest way to learn, nor the easiest, but for me it is the best. I am so happy to discover something I did not know. Like the time I grokked that when broaching, you can create a cushion of water in front of you to protect you from severe impact. Or when I realized that I could plane with the waves when paddling in following seas with a strong wind behind me and go really fast. The list of discoveries goes on. Every time I paddle, I’m open to learning something new.
My new year’s wish to you is to be a reader and a watcher, a student of kayaking, and a teacher. And may all your discoveries be timely!
I’d love to read your experiences as student and teacher. I’d like to know something you discovered on your own. And oh yes, which sea kayaking book influenced you the most?