We sea kayak because we are drawn to ancient seafaring arts practiced by Aleuts, Inuits, Polynesians, and other coastal peoples. A key part of the appeal is the simple equipment needed—primarily a small boat and a paddle. The whole idea is to venture into the elements with just your knowledge of the sea and paddling skill to see you through.
Over the years, sea kayaking adventure has moved away from hunting seals and otters in sealskin boats and clothing to exploring and playing on the world’s coastlines, from Alaska to Zanzibar. Kayaks and outrigger canoes and surf skis and other small paddle craft are now made from a variety of materials, ranging from wood to Kevlar to rotomolded plastic. Neoprene and other water-resistant fabrics have replaced sealskin anoraks. From the distant past to the present, paddlers develop and use specialized equipment for safety and comfort in their particular kayaking environment.
Though popular in Europe and America through most of the 20th century, over the past four decades, sea kayaking has really taken off as a recreational activity around the world, and ancillary products have evolved with the sport. Let’s look at sea kayaking’s key gizmos and gadgets over the past 40 years.
1970s-PFDs are required by the Coast Guard
In the old days people either eschewed life jackets or wore giant orange kapok vests. Then waterski belts became popular but were not appropriate for sea kayakers. In the 1970s, the U.S. Coast Guard started aggressively enforcing PFD regulations and began approving various categories of PFD. This was good, because today we have a wide range of PFDS from which to choose. In the 1980s and 1990s, I questioned the feasibility of PFDs in surf and ocean rock gardens, since surfers don’t wear them and they get in the way of effective swimming. For the past few years though, I’ve been very happy with my custom Stohlquist creek-boat PFD which features Kevlar inserts to protect my thorax (see my PFD in the photo above). PFDs are a useful piece of personal equipment which must fit properly. So test yours today in the type of water you paddle. And one more thing—remember, a PFD cannot substitute for swimming skill.
1980s-portable marine VHFs ease communication
In the 1980s, handheld VHF marine radios became cost effective. I was an early adopter of VHFs because they were relatively light, handy, allowed a boater to communicate with other boaters and the Coast Guard, and you could listen to weather and sea conditions reports. Somehow my VHF died from salt corrosion. Then came satellite phones, used by explorers in remote locations (e.g., Antarctica). They are expensive but needed if you must communicate and are on Mars. Nowadays, everyone brings a cell phone along while kayaking, and they are convenient and inexpensive. Just don’t text someone every 5 minutes to say “We saw some kelp!”
1990s-EPIRBs tell rescuers where you are
EPIRBS were big in the 1990s and were carried “just in case.” As marine locator beacons, they send a signal to satellites so SAR personnel can triangulate your position if you are in distress. I never owned one of these, since I usually paddle along the shoreline, but I would consider one if I were making a long crossing or paddling out to sea. PLBs are new fangled EPIRBs used by hikers and hunters and just about anyone in the outdoors who gets lost regularly. Since the cost is only $300 for a used waterproof EPIRB or PLB, wealthy kayakers should think about carrying one. Be sure it works and is actually waterproof.
2000s-handheld GPS’ lets you know where you are and where to go
The big rage today is the waterproof, portable GPS. Many have them in their cars and keep them handy while paddling. They can be bought for under $100 and cost around $300 for one with bells and whistles. Apparently, novices in beginning sea kayaking classes are taught how to use them to get around. Though I have never used one, because I know where I am and where I’m going, I can certainly see its practicability in unfamiliar territory, in fog, or at night. The caveat is “don’t rely on them.” You don’t want to end up somewhere you don’t want to be as some hapless drivers have done while using their GPS. Always carry appropriate charts and compass with you when exploring and learn how to navigate.
[This just in—there’s a new product available, the DeLorme PN60w with SPOT, which combines GPS with the ability to communicate with other people and send SOS info to SAR teams—all for under $500. And did I mention it’s supposedly waterproof? If someone has this, will you report how it works at sea?]
2010s-FLIRs allow you to see in the dark
Speaking of kayaking in fog and at night, the new technokayaking trend in the ‘teens’ may be the FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed). Commonly used by the military, yacht owners now have them installed on their boats so they can “see” while motoring around in harbors in the dark. Unfortunately, handheld FLIRs cost about $5,000, so most kayakers won’t be buying them anytime soon. But just as with GPS, the cost may come down in five years or so if there is demand.
I bring up FLIR, not because I think we desperately need it, but to illustrate that technology is ever evolving, and we must be selective in what we choose to augment the primitive art of sea kayaking. I mostly stay away from electronic gizmos and gadgets. I don’t need FLIR to see at night or in fog, or a digital echosounder for bathymetry, or a solar-powered microengine for propulsion. I like to depend on my senses and skills while on the water—that’s why I’m a kayaker and not a yachtsman. What about you?
For me, I will carefully pick and choose what technical equipment to use based on need. And I will test everything to make sure it works and not exchange skills (e.g., navigation) for gizmos and gadgets.
What do you think? Do you get equipment because other kayakers do, or because you believe you really need it? Please share your thoughts and experiences.