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Getting Started in Kayaking

By Cindy Ross

Something magical happens when you put a person into a kayak for the first time and launch them onto the water. The water is so close you can reach out and touch it. You feel as though you’re a cupped leaf floating on the surface, cruising with the current. My young son says,

“You feel like a duck!”

Kayaking is one of the fastest growing sports today.

Everywhere you drive, you see vehicles “wearing” the boats on roof racks like ornaments. People everywhere are discovering the joys of this very accessible water sport, and Texans are not being left behind. In addition to the state’s fine navigable rivers, the Gulf Coast affords some of the finest sea kayaking in the entire country.

There is no smoother, easier way to move through water, and the newer, sleeker kayaks require no more than average body strength to paddle (or to hoist up onto a roof rack). So nearly anyone — single women, seniors or adolescents — can enjoy this extremely popular sport.

If you’ve paddled a canoe and enjoyed it, you will love kayaking. You will already know basic paddling techniques, so you will be able to jump right in with a just a few pointers. For those that have never done it before, even a 15-minute lesson is enough to get you out onto calm water. After taking a quick lesson, you may find the desire to purchase your own craft.

Paddle as many different brands and models as you can before buying. Many lakeside and bayside tourist areas offer kayaks to rent. You can take them out for an hour or so, play around, and get the feel of it. If you have friends that own kayaks, ask to try them out. (At the very least, sit in them.) Retailers and manufacturers sometimes sponsor demo days, or outdoor expos provide opportunities to get into multiple boats. You actually “wear” a kayak, so it needs to feel as comfortable as a favorite piece of clothing or an old pair of shoes. If you can’t get to a class, get a good book on kayaking, study it at home, and then get out and practice.

Shoot for a plastic boat (a 12-footer can be had for $600) as a beginner. Plastic boats are virtually indestructible and you can yank them up onto any shoreline and scrape the bottom of streams to your heart’s content. When you’ve developed your skills and you’ve decided to concentrate on a particular kind of paddling, consider a fiberglass boat ($1,000-$1,500), or one of the extremely lightweight Kevlar and carbon fiber kayaks ($2,000-$3,000).

The first step in choosing a kayak is deciding which type of water you wish to explore. In this age of customized everything, kayaks span a range from river play boats to seaworthy craft, so you can get as specific as you like with your needs.

The terms “sea kayak” and “touring kayak” are often used interchangeably. Touring kayaks are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks, and usually hold cargo in closed bulkheads. Sea kayaks can be taken on larger, open waters, such as lakes, bays and the open ocean, and require a larger investment. On open expanses or in rolling surf, longer boats are better. They often have rudders that you control with foot pedals and cables. Rudders don’t steer a boat but keep it straight in a wind, which can be a tremendous help.

Shorter recreational kayaks are easier to steer, making them better suited to exploring tight tidal streams in estuaries and salt marshes. They have less storage space but certainly enough for day tripping. Tandems are available in many boat styles, and are just the thing for paddling with children or a dog. In warm weather or in shallow coastal bays, sit-on-top kayaks allow you to fish, snorkel, dive or just paddle around. If you fall out, you can climb right back in easily.

You’re probably thinking, “I want to do it all!” which means you’ll need more than one kind of boat down the line. You’ll love this sport so much, however, you won’t mind making multiple purchases over the years. (And resale value is high.) The important thing is to get out on the water now, so aim for a good used boat as a first purchase, preferably a more versatile recreational kayak (under 17 feet).

What you’re looking for first when you test a kayak is how your body feels in the cockpit — too roomy, too tight or just right? Is the seat comfortable? Is there enough adjustment in the foot braces for your body length? You don’t do a lot of shifting positions in a kayak compared to a canoe, so you can’t have your legs or feet falling asleep because of a poor fit.

On the water, pay attention to how well it tracks and turns, how tippy and stable it feels. Are you a big person who needs a lot of boat or a small person who doesn’t want to carry a lot of boat?

Of course you’ll need life jackets and paddles, along with the boat. A good outfitter can help you with material choice and sizing. Some experts say that the best boat performs poorly with a poor paddle. Some recommend spending 25 percent of the price of your boat on your paddle.

A shorter PFD (Personal Flotation Device) made just for kayaking is a nice idea, especially if you are using a paddling skirt to keep water out of your cockpit. (Longer models get pushed up and could make paddling uncomfortable.)

A spray skirt is necessary if you paddle in chilly weather or water or deal with waves. You’ll need to buy one that fits your particular boat.

Also, each paddler should have a whistle and a water bottle. At least one member of the group should have a rescue tow rope, bailer and sponge.

Since paddling a kayak is easier than paddling a canoe (for one, you use a double-bladed paddle to control the kayak better), a person with minimal paddling experience will be able to get onto the water in short order. A course is not necessary. A few pointers may suffice. Even if you dream of playing in whitewater and running waterfalls, start out with a recreational boat first.

Boats and gear are a matter of personal preference, but I’m going to share what kinds of boats we own, our experiences with them, and what we have found to work or not work. Remember that gear is nothing without skill, but if you want the freedom to paddle on your own, you’ll need your own boat.

When my children were young, my husband Todd and I first decided on two tandems. We wanted to go on longer overnight paddles besides short runs down our local river. Since they are extremely stable, they take a huge amount of effort to tip. We felt very safe. In a tandem if the kids don’t want to paddle, they don’t have to. The boat is easily maneuvered from the rear, so children are free to watch the sights and sounds going by. On open water where you could encounter wind and tides, you can lower the optional rudder.

The Texas coast has many barrier islands and public beaches, offering a great variety of extended tours. If this type of tripping appeals to you down the line, go for a longer touring boat. John Van Ness of Austin Outdoor Gear & Guidance says that navigating some of Central Texas’ large lakes can be similar to kayaking along the coast. If this is the type of paddling you see yourself doing, a longer boat would also be a wiser choice.

A longer boat won’t turn on a dime, but we have successfully taken our touring boats (tandems and solo) down streams at high water. With a little steering skill, they work fine. These boats provide plenty of hatch space for extended trips. At 20 feet long they are a dream, for they track well. The tandems are also nice for two adults who like to be together. When my husband and I are in one, we can really make it move!

There are seven main drainages in Texas, and all these rivers have wild stretches averaging about 250 miles in length. Camping is limited to islands and large sandbars as public land is at a minimum. However, in east and west Texas, especially along the Rio Grande, there is tremendous camping along the shores. If this appeals to you, more points for a longer boat.

Since most Texas rivers’ water levels are rain driven, whitewater is not as abundant as in other states. That’s no big deal for beginners because whitewater shouldn’t be attempted until after the paddler has accumulated considerable skill or taken an in-depth whitewater paddling course.

Our children have just arrived at the age where they prefer to be on their own (12 and 14 years old), so we got them two individual smaller kayaks from Wilderness Systems, called “Tsunami.” They can accommodate any size and make for a great day boat or weekend cruiser.

I took my kids and these boats to my girlfriend’s pond to teach them the strokes and basic handling techniques. In only a matter of minutes, they were maneuvering them as if the kayaks were an extension of their bodies. From there, we put in at our local river, which is wide enough to avoid strainers (fallen trees across the river), and the current is strong enough (but not too strong) to take them down on their own with minimal effort. They basically only had to steer and rudder and not power stroke the entire time, like you must on slow moving or still water, which can be very fatiguing for children. My kids fell totally in love with solo kayaking, and are dying to get good enough to try white water!

The thing that’s nice about a boat the size of a “Tsunami” is that a woman can tote it around herself (even on the roof of an economy car). Although it will not track as well as a longer touring or recreational boat, it is great for a quick ride. One of the things I love about kayaking is how it gives you a great upper-body workout. I prefer the water, with blue herons, the warm sun, and a breeze, over pumping iron in a hot, smelly gym.

We also have a great solo touring kayak from Perception called the “Carolina.” It is 14 feet long and is one of the most versatile boats made. It can handle open water and waves, as well as enable you to steer some pretty tight turns along a river. Another choice would be Current Design’s “Slipstream” (16-foot sea kayak) and Wilderness Experience’s “Tempest” (multiple sizes). Another versatile boat to consider is Current Design’s “Kestrel,” a recreational kayak, which comes in a 12- and a 14-foot model.

I ran the Llano River this past spring and used Wilderness System’s “The Ride,” which is a sit-on-top. You get a little wetter with a sit-on-top, but that can be downright refreshing in the mid-afternoon heat.

Scott Hickman, recreation program coordinator for the Lower Colorado River Authority and an avid kayak fisherman, suggests the “Cobra” by Wilderness Systems as a great sit-on-top fishing boat. You can get to your equipment easily, install a rod holder if one isn’t built into the boat; it’s roomy, and some boats are even stable enough to allow you to stand and cast.

“There are places like ‘The Flats’ in Matagorda Bay where the red drum fish are so abundant and large, and motorized boats can’t get you into these shallow waters like a kayak can.”

Before you buy, look at all the different boats, order company catalogs, and do some research. Use my personal boat examples as a guide to help you determine which one would be best for your needs and interests as well as your children’s. My family has always loved canoeing, and it was just a matter of time before we took the plunge and invested in kayaks. It is an activity that brings our family close together, while we enjoy the great outdoors and get some marvelous exercise.

For you gear-heads, or those of you who are certain you want to get into this sport, check out these items:

Cascade Designs makes clear vinyl waterproof dry bags so you can see how much lunch is left, or where your fleece jacket is. The bags come in all sizes and are a must for things like a camera.

Water sandals (like Tevas) are great, especially the kind with buckle closures (as opposed to hook-and-loop closings). Mud and sand get into the latter, and they open at the most inopportune times, like when you are pulling your boat over cobblestones at a low-river point. Teva also makes an enclosed river shoe (like an all-terrain sneaker) with self-draining holes if you want more protection and want to use the same footwear for hiking as well as paddling. Scott says if you plan to paddle near oyster beds and have to do any amount of getting in and out and dragging, you’ll need the greater protection of an enclosed water shoe.

Since I can’t go anywhere without a camera, I found Cascade Design’s waterproof Deck Bag to be my favorite piece of gear. It’s attached to the outside of my boat, right by my hands, so I can quickly grab my camera (or snacks for a starving child) in short order. If the camera isn’t easily accessible, the shots don’t get taken, and the memories are gone forever.

I have a sciatic nerve problem, so Cascade Design’s self-inflating “Touring Seat” makes me feel like I’m sitting on a cloud, instead of those hard rigid kayak seats.

These things aren’t necessary, but they make kayaking easier and more enjoyable. The important thing is to get out on the water in a kayak as quickly as you can — you’ll wish you hadn’t waited so long.

Where to Go:

Texas offers a wealth of kayaking opportunities. Here are a few contacts to get you started.

Matagorda Bay

Building on the success of TPWD’s six coastal kayaking trails (for information, go to <www.kayaktexas.com>), the Lower Colorado River Authority is adding a series of kayaking trails in the East Matagorda Bay, near the mouth of the Colorado River .

Betsy Terrel, Education Coordinator
(512) 303-5073 or (800) 776-5272, Ext. 8026
Outfitter: Freebird Kayak & Canoe Adventures
(979) 863-7926
freebird3733@aol.com

Corpus Christi

Ken Johnson offers nine tours described on his Web site and is available to guide small groups.

Ken Johnson
(361)- 855-3926
home.earthlink.net/~johnsonkw/kayak-corpus/

Austin area

The chain of Highland Lakes are great for paddling. Austin Outdoor Gear and Guidance rents from its fleet of 100 rental boats and 300 retail boats, including the high-end touring kayaks. Austin Outdoor Gear & Guidance also offers kayaking seminars, from three hours to three days.

Austin Outdoor Gear & Guidance
512-473-2644
www.kayaktexas.com
e-mail: john@kayaktexas.com

Rockport

Located on the gulf, 30 miles north of Corpus Christi. This outfitter specializes in kayaking and fishing.

Rockport Kayak Outfitters
(866) 729-1505
(361) 729-1505

Lighthouse Lakes Trails - TPWD trail located in North Harbor Island, just west of Port Aransas. Order maps at www.aransaspass .org/boating_and_kayaking.htm

Slowride Guide Service and Kayak Rentals
(361) 758-0463
www.slowrideguide.com

TPWD Texas River Guide at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers/links.phtml

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