Finding yourself at one with water Kayaking: Riding below the waterline, the rider feels every nuance in a sea kayak. And its steering and speed beat a canoe, too.

On The Bay

June 07, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

When I lived for a while on Smith Island, one of my joys was to paddle the marsh creeks alone in a canoe -- until the first time a stiff breeze came up. Against tide and wind, it took me two hours to (barely) make the last mile back to the harbor.

Then one day a paddling club came to the island from Crisfield across eight miles of water. Several of them, men and women, were in their 40s through 60s, fit enough, but no tri-athletes by any stretch.

The sleek craft that brought them, called sea, or touring, kayaks, were a revelation. If I could go back to youth and change my life, a high priority would be to have had a sea kayak.

It is one of the most capable and pleasurable -- sensual even -- tools ever devised for exploring the Chesapeake and its rivers.

Derived from the highly evolved hunting craft of indigenous Arctic peoples, the modern sea kayak resembles a canoe only in length. Most are 15 feet to 18 feet. (Whitewater kayaks differ from both.)

Whereas you sit in a canoe, you wear a kayak. Devotees compare it to the fit of a good pair of hiking boots. The beam -- the widest part, where one sits -- is often two feet or less; almost snug to the hips and thighs.

This transmits every nuance of the water's motion exquisitely, and can feel quite tippy, but only for a few minutes.

A kayak is, in fact, extremely stable, since the paddler's butt and hips are literally below the waterline.

By the same token, a kayak has only a few inches of deck above water, so it does not catch wind like a canoe. This means waves of more than a couple of feet routinely wash over a kayak; but a spray skirt, extending down from the paddler's chest to a tight fit around the lip of the cockpit, gives the whole affair the buoyancy of a cork.

Indeed, a sea kayak is such an able craft it is possible to get into trouble because you can put out in weather that even people in small outboard skiffs would avoid.

20 miles a day

The other beauties of the sea kayak are its steering and speed. You can equip one with a simple rudder, operated by foot pedals under the deck -- just push left to go left, right to go right, even in heavy wind and waves.

This lets you put all your effort with the double-bladed paddle into locomotion. Combined with the kayaks' eel-like ability to slip through the water, this translates into speeds about twice that of the average two-person canoe. Day trips of 20 miles are not at all out of the question.

So how do you find out if sea kayaking is for you? I've distilled my own experience, and that of several experts.

Because a kayak is such a personal craft, you should try several before even thinking of buying.

A tiny variation among boats can be critical. I flipped twice in nice weather one day in a boat with a 23-inch beam; in a similar model of 24-inch beam, I'm comfortably stable in sizable waves. Tamsin Venn, editor and publisher of Atlantic Coastal Kayaker, advises talking to paddlers with body types similar to yours.

Be realistic about what you plan to use a kayak for; whether long open-water voyages, bird watching on a protected creek, or taking a child along (they make doubles, with two cockpits, where the rear paddler steers).

Another big question involves price -- new or used; plastic or Fiberglas? The very nicest sea kayaks, in handcrafted Fiberglas, will run about $2,400.

That gets you an almost indestructible boat, complete with rudder, and fore and aft watertight storage compartments that can hold enough gear for extended camping trips.

I recently bought such a kayak used, a 4-year-old rental with lots of scratches but structurally sound, for about $1,000.

A less fully equipped Fiberglas boat, which might be all you'd need for summer day-tripping on your home creek, might go for as little as that new.

Plastic kayaks are a bit heavier than Fiberglas, and a little slower, and not as easily repaired -- but they are every bit as capable and cost half to two-thirds as much.

A spray skirt, life jacket and paddle, the basics you'd need to complete the package, will run another $200-$300; and plan on a roof rack to carry the kayak ($50 to $200) on your car.

Where to look

You can buy sea kayaks many places, from the L.L. Bean catalog, to outfitters such as REI and Eastern Mountain Sports. Springriver Corp. carries the largest selection in our region and has a dock at its Annapolis (Eastport) store so you can try before you buy. It also rents sea kayaks ($45; pick up Friday, return Monday), an excellent way to get acquainted with several models under field conditions.

I know people who live close to rental places who have decided it is cheaper to rent for life than to buy kayaks for each paddling member of the family.

On the Eastern Shore, the best place I know of for kayak sales and rentals is Survival Products in Salisbury. Dealers often hold kayak demonstrations on weekends and have lists of instructors and tour guides, who often provide kayaks.

Other sources include the Chesapeake Paddlers Association, a club with 350 members (P.O. Box 3873, Fairfax, Va. 22038). They are working on a "paddling trail" of campsites and routes that they envision someday ringing the bay. Atlantic Coastal Kayaker will send you a free sample copy (P.O. Box 520, Ipswich, Mass. 01938).

And I still love canoes. If you are getting in and out a lot, or want to take the family dog and a last-minute guest, or stand up and stretch your legs, they are the best paddle craft.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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