Mariner Kayaks Owner's Manual on:


Sea Kayaking offers physical exercise from relaxing to strenuous. Its participants seek adventure exploring local waterways or staging expeditions to the most remote areas of the world. It is a sport for a lifetime, with active participants well into their 80's still enjoying the wilderness. Their gear is supported by the water rather than their backs and there is no elevation to gain.
Paddling a sea kayak is easy to learn, perhaps too easy. A novice can easily paddle (blunder) into many situations a more knowledgeable kayaker would avoid that could require expert paddling skills to survive. In skilled hands kayaks are extraordinarily seaworthy craft. Sea kayaking has proven to be a safe form of recreation for those who have taken the time to learn the basic skills and understand the potential hazards. What follows provides information on some skills and equipment necessary for safe paddling. Also included is information on many hazards that might be encountered. It is presented in the hopes that the reader may become a safer participant in this great sport.

The most important factor to safe sea kayaking is having the knowledge and experience to judge the level of potential danger and the ability to accurately compare it to your groups capabilities leaving adequate margin for error.
The most likely fatal accident is due to hypothermia following a capsize and subsequent failure to execute a rescue. Winds and/or rough seas will cause the capsize, the rescue failure will be due to lack of practice, insufficient rescue equipment, inadequate flotation in the kayak, or separation from the kayak or paddles. Most often the victim is paddling alone and carrying no distress signals or an entire group is in trouble making it impossible for the paddlers to take care of each other.


  • You must have skills, knowledge, and equipment adequate for whatever conditions you might encounter.
  • You need a clear understanding of the potential hazards and you must stay alert for them. This includes knowing the latest weather forecast.
  • You must practice in advance with safety equipment and rescues.
  • You should be able to swim and know when not to swim (when the water is under 60 degrees F.)
  • If capsized on a windy day you must never lose a firm grip on your kayak and paddle. Losing them is frighteningly easy as your kayak can blow away faster than you can swim.
  • You should have a plan of action (and a back-up plan) worked out in advance for any emergency including capsize and separation from your kayak or separation from your group. A plan will help prevent the panic and feeling of helplessness that can immobilize the unprepared.
  • You should be wary of goals which may be clouding your judgment. Getting to work on time or preventing your friends from calling the Coast Guard is not worth the risk to life. You should get a comfortable life jacket and wear it whenever you paddle. You must have plenty of secure flotation in both ends of your kayak.

The paddling ability and judgment of the group members is more important than group size. While many consider three kayakers to be the absolute minimum for anything beyond an easy shore paddle, there is not necessarily safety in numbers. For example, an expert is probably safer alone than with two or three novices involving him or her in their troubles. With each additional member the chance of trouble due to one of the group having difficulties increases. Ultimately YOU are responsible for your own safety so don't blindly follow another paddler’s lead. When you are no longer dependent on others you will be welcomed in a group as an asset rather than seen as a liability. Please don't consider this as permission to paddle alone. Paddling alone is far more dangerous than paddling with a partner. Three is safer yet providing more options with which to meet an emergency. With four paddlers one could stay with a disabled paddler (on shore) and two could go for help. Even though the group was forced to split up each member still has a partner.
Groups larger than three should pick a leader to be responsible for keeping the group together, picking a safe route, and assessing the physical and psychological state of the group members. When inexperienced paddlers are involved the leader should check that they have the necessary gear and proper flotation in their kayak. Before embarking the leader should inform the novices of what they will be expected to do if they are involved in a capsize or other emergency and an explanation of what kind of rescue to expect. If a problem arises this information should serve to give the novices hope to help avoid the panic that could cause an emergency, delay rescue, or endanger others. It will also make the entire group aware of the possibility of trouble and force them to see if they have the skills and equipment necessary to meet an emergency.
While all group members should be consulted concerning important decisions, the leader is charged with making the final decision and making sure all the members know the plan. It is important that all members be included in the decision making process as this is one of the prime learning opportunities for the less experienced. By agreeing on a leader in advance and having discussed the hazards a group can minimize the chances of serious disagreements arising at a time when they could threaten everyone’s safety. Large groups should use the buddy system, linking novices to experts. This helps keep the group together and makes the responsibilities of group members clear-cut. If larger groups are divided into subgroups it is important to distribute the experienced paddlers so a weak group is not formed. Never leave a novice or group of novices by themselves. Some paddlers have paddled for years but only in calm conditions. If there is a chance of rough conditions these paddlers should be considered to be nearly novices.
Be prepared to voice your strong objections to any plan you think would be risky for you or some other member of the group. Novices can easily be led into trouble by those who have forgotten how vulnerable the were as beginners. Conditions can get so bad that the experts will have trouble taking care of themselves. Don't count on them being able to rescue you. If the plan appears to be dangerous if you were on your own insist on a safer course of action. In a group paddlers should follow the lead kayak and not branch out at some angle without first notifying the leaders of their intentions. The lead kayak must be certain it is not leaving anyone behind. A meeting place should be agreed on in advance in case the group is accidentally separated.


  • Check your equipment for damage and wear.
  • Check that your kayak has flotation, secured both in the bow and stern adequate to float a swamped kayak level and minimize the amount of water that must be removed. Flotation in only one end will allow your kayak to become vertical in the water, Making reentry virtually impossible without the help of a large boat.
  • Check that your spray deck fits tightly enough on the cockpit rim so as to be resistant to being popped off by a wave dumping into your lap. Shock cord loses its elasticity and stretches with time and use so it may need to be readjusted later. Make sure novices don't use a spraydeck until they can show they know how to remove it.
  • Practice capsizing and "wet exits" so you know how to remove your spray deck and climb out (if you wear gloves, can you find the grabloop with them on? Underwater with your eyes closed?). Practice alternate spraydeck removal methods in case the primary one is unavailable. Some include: grasping the shock cord in back, reaching down inside through the waist tube and with palm up pushing the straight fingers out to one side, leaning to the side at the hips to create a fold in the fabric to grab, pressing down on the coaming rim and pushing the fabric out to the side to grab with your fingers. Since none of these will always work practice them all and place them in order of likelyhood of success for you and your equipment.
  • Be careful with your equipment so as not to create a trap with your ropes, loose gear, spray deck, paddle leash (don't use one in breaking surf), PFD's straps, or footbraces (shoelaces and some sandals) that could hold you or your feet and prevent a "wet exit".
  • Carry repair kits for your kayak and paddle, as well as for yourself (first-aid kit).

Those who come to sea kayaking by way of river kayaking have an advantage in that whitewater conditions have forced them to develop several reflexive paddle braces. As a result they are not dependent on the inherent stability of the kayak to keep them upright. The high and low brace are the most important physical skills in kayaking. You should work at developing them. The high brace is basically a bracing forward stroke and the low brace is a bracing reverse stroke. Practice in warm shallow water where you won't be afraid to capsize. Throw yourself progressively further and further off balance and use your paddle to recover. Once you’ve gotten the idea, have a friend or two stand at the end(s) of your kayak and purposely try to capsize you. You should be able to remain upright no matter how hard they try.

Also practice a sculling high brace and alternating between a high and low brace to support you while you lean over to one side. When you've practiced this enough you'll find you can slowly lean your body over until your ear is in the water, then slowly bring yourself back upright. If done quickly you can manage it all with a single sweep. Work on your bracing strokes and you may never have to resort to an Eskimo roll.
In order to know what to expect and what to do when faced with a difficult situation, its best to have practiced in a similar situation. With this in mind we suggest you paddle in progressively stronger winds and rougher waves, but in safe locations such as near an easy landing beach towards which the wind will push you should you capsize. You should be dressed for a capsize and have a source of help, shelter, and warmth at hand. Try rough conditions with your kayak loaded with gear as well as empty. Kayaks and paddles can become extremely difficult to handle in severe conditions. This practice will not only improve your paddling skills, but also give you some experience which will improve your judgment.
Another skill you should master is crossing eddylines. Learn to lean your kayak away from the current you are moving into by using a paddle brace downstream for stability. This lean is to counteract the force of the water sliding under your kayak which often causes a capsize to the upstream side. Find a safe place on a river or tidal stream where an obstruction in the current forms an eddy and practice crossing the eddyline both ways. Expect to capsize. Practice with a group containing some experts (for instruction and rescue). Have a source of warmth at hand and wear a wetsuit or drysuit.
We recommend you learn to Eskimo roll your kayak. This skill is potentially more valuable to sea kayakers than river kayakers because the distance to shore can be so much greater. Because capsizes are so rare while sea kayaking the value of learning to roll is not nearly as obvious as it is to a whitewater paddler. You will probably need expert instruction. Contact a club or kayak shop to find classes. Incidentally, it is easier to roll most gear laden sea kayaks than it is to roll an empty river kayak. At least if the gear can’t seriously shift to one side, side support at the seat keeps you from shifting to the side, and adequate knee braces are present. The additional weight acts as ballast and helps finish the roll. Although the motion is slower getting started--it is more like a thigh pull than a hip snap--once the rotating motion is present the momentum can pull you up out of the water like a punching dummy. Please quit using that sorry old "heavy gear laden kayak" excuse I hear so often for not learning to roll. Learn to roll the kayak you will actually be using both with and without a gear load.
Practice other rescues to back up your ability to Eskimo roll. Even the best rescues are marginal if they haven't been practiced. Rescue practice in a pool can be very valuable, but you should understand that a rescue which works in a heated pool with empty kayaks can give one a false sense of security. Wind, waves, cold water and 150 pounds of gear create a far more difficult situation. There is a wide variety of rescue techniques described in kayaking books, and it is nice to be aware of them; however, many work only under ideal conditions. Rescues that require the lifting of one kayak and rocking it over another to empty it of water risk serious damage to many kayaks and become nearly impossible with a gear load.
The best rescues require little or no help and do not require lifting and dumping the kayak. They get you out of the water quickly to minimize your exposure to hypothermia and allow you to aid in the pumping or bailing of your kayak. They should also be simple and easy to execute with a minimum of extra gear if any. The best rescues are still a poor second to Eskimo rolling.
Do not let confidence in the ability to Eskimo roll or perform rescues cause you to place yourself or your companions in a position where you are depending on it. Rolling and rescues are only safety back-ups. If you need to use them it is a sign you have already made a serious error in judgment.
Finally, practice paddling while pretending to cripple yourself or your equipment in some way. Try paddling and bracing using only one blade of your paddle to simulate a broken paddle (and maybe convince yourself to carry a spare). If your kayak has a rudder or skeg, you should learn to control your kayak without it in difficult conditions. Paddling with your kayak one-half full of water will give you an idea of what it might be like during a rescue. It may also help you to practice your paddle brace and teach you the value of carrying a pump and bailing container and having a partner (or a paddle float for the Mariner Self Rescue) to stabilize the kayak while you are pumping or bailing.

Obviously a day trip along a protected urban shoreline will require much less equipment and skill than a week long journey along an exposed wilderness coastline. You will have to decide what you may need and when you may need it.

Life Jacket
The Coast Guard requires there be an approved PFD (personal flotation device) for each person in a boat. You should wear it because if the wind and waves come up you may find it very difficult if not impossible to put it on while in your kayak. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can put it on if you capsize. You can quickly become separated from your kayak (and PFD) if you capsize in wind and waves. Because a kayak can blow away faster than you can swim many kayakers fasten themselves or their paddle to the kayak with a length of cord or shock cord. If faced with breaking waves any leashes or loose lines should be safely stowed so they can't tie you to your kayak. You should practice "wet exits" while never losing your grip on your kayak and paddle.

Maximum flotation in both ends of your kayak is a must. The flotation needs to support the kayak level while you sit in the fully swamped cockpit. It must also provide enough freeboard at the cockpit to minimize further water entry during pumping. The flotation could consist of large airtight float bags, waterproof gear bags, truly watertight bulkheads and hatches, or a waterproof cockpit sock you wear around your legs that seals at the cockpit rim. Prudent paddlers back up bulkheads with float bags (or gear bags) or use bags and sea socks together so the failure of any one system isn't critical.

Bailing device
Lifting and dumping water from a gear laden kayak is virtually impossible from other kayaks, so a means of removing water from the kayak once you’ve gotten yourself up out of the cold water is a must. A high capacity electric, hand held or deck mounted pump is better than a "bailing bucket" because they can be used with the spray skirt closed to further water entry. Slip the hand pump through the top of your spray deck at your chest. A large sponge is nice for the last inch. These items should be readily available but stored securely so they won't float (or sink) away. A hand pump full of water will sink so tether it or add a float collar to it. Consider carrying a back up water removing device such as a bailing container or even second pump.

Nylon braided line and parachute cord are strong and stretch to absorb shocks, but nylon sinks so needs a float attached. A piece of closed-cell foam can serve as the float as well as a place to wrap the line to keep it from tangling. The tow point should be near the paddler (or attached to a harness worn by the paddler) so the towing kayak maintains maneuverability and the line can be quickly jettisoned. in rough seas forty feet or more of line may be necessary to minimize the danger of the kayaks colliding.

Equipment to help maintain or regain body heat if immersed
These include a wet suit, dry suit, survival suit or coat. Also helpful are your life jacket, rainwear, long underwear and pile clothing. Extra dry clothing, a sleeping bag, tent or shelter, and fire making materials in watertight containers should be carried.

First-Aid Kit
A first aid kit adequate to your situation should be readily available from the cockpit.

Repair Kit
A roll of duct tape (kept dry and with the kayak) can temporarily repair almost any damage to a kayak, paddle (with a splint), or even flotation and gear bags. A more extensive repair kit would include spare fittings and more permanent hull and float bag repair materials.

Emergency Locating devices
Equipment for signaling an emergency and your location should be handy, or better yet carried on your person. Locating devices have saved many kayakers. They include: flares (hand held and aerial), smoke canisters (day only), dye marker (day only), orange distress flag, foghorn or airhorn, signal mirror, strobe light (night only). Many of these items are made quite small, inexpensive, and are available at outdoor equipment or marine supply stores. If you paddle at night, the U.S. Coast Guard requires you to carry a white light. It must be visible for one mile and available to show in time to avoid a collision. When on international waters three flares are required (or a distress beacon that will automatically flash SOS in Morse code). Lakes with a connection to the sea are considered "international waters". On inland waters a high intensity strobe light that flashes 50 to 70 times per minute can replace the SOS signal or the three flares.
A device called the 406 MHz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) transmits an emergency signal that SARSAT satellites can home in on to locate your position within a one mile radius. The Category II version is manually deployed so would be best for kayakers. The price has fallen into the $800 range. Class "B" EPIRB's also transmit to satellites but aren’t nearly as accurate and require much longer to get a fix on your approximate position. Far to long for a kayaker in the water. The class "C" EPIRB transmits an emergency signal on the Marine VHF band (channel 16) monitored by coastal ships, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and the U.S. Coast Guard. This signal alternates with a locating signal (on channel 15). Kayakers in trouble on the water have been rescued within 45 minutes using a Class "C" EPIRB. They have a range of up to 30 miles, are waterproof, float and some have a built in strobe light that works at night. Although cheaper they are much less reliable than the 406 EPIRB and will soon be obsolete.

Handheld VHF radios have a lesser range but the U.S. Coast Guard maintains repeater stations at high points all along the U.S. coast which may vastly increase VHF's useful range. A VHF transmitter/receiver and/or an EPIRB should be strongly considered by anyone traveling in sparsely populated areas. They should be considered essential by commercial tour guides, trip leaders and solo paddlers. A VHF transmitter allows one to contact potential rescuers on the emergency channel (#16) and give a description of the situation. Some channels receive weather stations and others can be used to talk to boats or ships in the area. The range is about one-half that of a class "C" EPIRB. A flexible waterproof case is available for some hand held VHF radios that allow them to be used without exposing them to salt water. Unfortunately, these cases have had a high failure rate, especially at the welded seems. Check its airtightness (and therefore watertightness) by gently squeezing before a trip and anytime it may soon get wet. Some VHF radios are advertised as "waterproof". Even with these limit their exposure to water as much as possible. Maybe some ziplock freezer bags.
At under $25 a simple weather radio can be quite inexpensive. One could be invaluable to warn a paddler of impending bad weather. However, in my experience most don’t have the "range" of the weather channels on a VHF radio. Lower priced VHF radios can be had for under $150. A VHF seems to be the most versatile and cost effective locating device

Spares of Critical Items
Paddles, pumps, charts, tide and current tables, timepieces, and compasses. Many of these spares could be shared among a group, but you would be wise to be the person who brings them. It is a good idea to carry two compasses, but make sure they are far enough apart to not interfere with each other. Use one to navigate and the spare to convince you the first one is correct if you get into thick fog. We use a domed compass attached to the kayak's foredeck for course keeping and a small orienteering compass for plotting a course on the chart and as the spare.



AVOID HYPOTHERMIA (Cooling of the body's core temperature)
In arctic and temperate regions, this is the greatest danger to sea kayakers. In fact, hypothermia is a leading cause of death related to outdoor activities and therefore demands serious study by anyone interested in any form of outdoor recreation.
Paddling in wind and rain or wet rough seas without adequate clothing can lead to hypothermia, but the greatest danger is from total immersion in chilling water as the result of a capsize. It is imperative to get a capsize victim out of the water as soon as possible and then to add clothing and watch closely for signs of hypothermia. The victim may not recognize the symptoms in himself and if hypothermic may even become belligerent towards your concern.

The symptoms of hypothermia: (in order of severity)

  • Sensation of cold
  • Shivering and shuddering (core temperature 98 to 91 degrees. Rapid breathing and rapid pulse)
  • Vague, slurred speech
  • Memory lapses
  • Lack of coordination (fumbling hands or erratic paddling and inability to stay on course)
  • Indifference (even to discomfort)
  • Blurred vision and drowsiness
  • Ashen face and hands
  • Muscle rigidity and loss of manual dexterity replaces shivering (core temperature 93 to 86 degrees. The situation is now extremely critical. Breathing and pulse very slow and shallow
  • Exhaustion
  • Incoherence and collapse
  • Unconsciousness (core temperature about 86 degrees. Chances of survival less than even.)
  • Death (if not from drowning when unconscious then due to heart failure at a core temperature of approximately 80 degrees)

Prevent heat loss in the first place. It can take several hours to rewarm a victim of even mild hypothermia. Prevent heat loss by wearing warm dry clothing including a hat, or warm-when-wet clothing such as a wet suit or drysuit. Eat sufficient carbohydrates before and during paddling.
If you capsize and are out of your kayak, try to get out of the water as quickly as possible. The more of your body you can get out the better. Get out of the water first then get the water out of the kayak. Do not remain in cold water while attempting to first empty out the kayak unless conditions are such that this can be done in two minutes maximum (or the water is warm). The more heat you lose the harder it will be to aid in your own rescue and the longer it will take to warm up. Even worse far before your core temperature begins to cool your body will divert the blood from your extremities to your core to slow down the cooling process. On one level this is good but the lack of blood feeding your muscles quickly makes them very weak, perhaps too weak to get yourself out of the water and into your kayak. Do it while you still can.
Decrease your rate of cooling by getting as much of your body out of the water as possible. If you must stay in the water keep relatively still with your head and neck covered and out of the water. Your hands will function longer if you can keep them above water as well. A fetal position is best if you are alone, huddle together if in the water with others. A PFD helps keep your head above water, decreases the need to swim or tread water (which will speed cooling) and provides some insulation for your core. Your rate of heat loss can be doubled by using energy struggling, swimming, or by immersing your head when in 50 degree water (50 degrees is a common sea water temperature from California to Alaska). You probably can't swim one-half mile before being overcome by hypothermia even if you are an excellent swimmer --- for most people the distance is far less. Don't swim for shore in cold water unless it is very close or you have no other hope for rescue. Even if you can’t get back into the kayak you probably can lay over it. That is, if the kayak has enough flotation to support you. Try to straddle the overturned kayak in a prone position, spread your legs for stability and paddle to shore with your hands.
Once back in the kayak a victim who shows any symptoms beyond shivering should be dressed as warmly as possible and then be carried as a passenger or towed in his or her kayak to the nearest place offering shelter and insulation, such as a tent and sleeping bag (or even a large pile of leaves). Someone who is severely hypothermic must be handled gently like a stretcher case to avoid exertion and possible heart failure. Refrain from stimulations such as shaking or rubbing the limbs. Avoid alcohol or hot drinks, which might speed the return of chilled blood from the extremities to the core, dropping the core temperature even further (or cause the victim to choke and cough).
When shelter is obtained, carefully undress the victim (especially wet clothes) so warmth can be applied gently but directly to the head, neck, sides, chest, and groin.. This warmth can be first supplied by other’s warm naked bodies in the sleeping bag and then (if more help is available to heat water) by applying very warm, but not scalding, compresses. Soak articles of clothing in hot water to make compresses. Keep warm compresses confined to the core area and change them often to keep transferring heat to the victims core. If possible prewarm the air the victim breathes. The steam from heating the compresses could also be a source of warm air. These are obviously wilderness treatments, if a hospital is available the victim should be insulated against further heat loss and evacuated immediately. In fact, some experts advocate only insulating the seriously hypothermic victim against further heat loss to stabilize them in order to minimize disturbances that could set off heart problems. Evacuate a seriously hypothermic victim even if they have already rewarmed because electrolyte imbalances that were caused by the hypothermia continue to put the victim at increased risk for heart problems.

Wind is one of the sea kayakers most dangerous adversaries, it can increase in velocity quickly and make control of a kayak and paddle difficult if not impossible. Making headway into very strong winds is a struggle. It is possible you could be blown offshore or blown onshore into dangerous regions, such as big surf or a rocky coast.
In mountainous areas the terrain can deflect and funnel the wind creating strong gusts, downdrafts, and twisters. Also, cold air can build up in the mountains over vast snowfields (or in the cold interior behind a mountain range) on a calm day and be triggered into an avalanche of cold air that spills down the valleys and out a fjord, creating extremely high winds where a few seconds before it was dead calm. Strong winds and gusts are also often associated with rain squalls. When the wind approaches gale force it can snatch a paddle out of your hands or catch a paddle blade squarely from the side and cause a capsize. Unexpected gusts can be much more "upsetting" than a steady wind of equal velocity.
Securely attaching a three foot long shock cord from the middle of your paddle to your kayak at the front of the cockpit will insure that if your paddle gets away it will be easy to retrieve. Eskimo rolling and the Mariner Outrigger Self Rescue are still easily done without untethering the paddle. If you capsize and wet exit, and have this safety line attached, as long as you can hang on to your paddle or your kayak you will still have both. A tether makes it much easier to hang onto the kayak while fastening your paddle float device.
Shock cord stretches to twice its length so only half as much is needed to avoid limiting your range of motion. A longer cord or a curly "telephone" style cord is much more likely to snag, drag, or otherwise interfere with your paddling. Shock cord does not hold knots as well as cord so make sure you test your attachments severely (but carefully so you don’t accidentally snap it into your eyes).
The forces of both the wind and the waves tend to turn and hold long objects such as kayaks into an orientation sideways to the wind and waves. It can be very difficult to fight these forces and turn a kayak into or away from a strong wind. This is especially true if your kayak is empty so that the ends are light and therefore easily blown around. Another factor is the amount and location of windage and weight. How hard a kayak is to turn in calm conditions (relative to other kayaks) is probably the most important factor in how hard it will be to turn in a windstorm.
The most powerful method of turning in strong winds is to get speed up across the wind to take advantage of the weather cocking effect of a hull moving across the wind. Paddle forward to turn the bow into the wind and backward to turn the bow downwind. Use powerful sweep strokes to one side that finish by strongly pulling the stern over. Avoid any reverse or braking strokes on the other side, they will only hinder you. Surprisingly, a rudder will probably do you more good if lifted into the air for more windage at the stern when turning into a strong wind. If left in the water take care not to angle the rudder too much or the braking effect will actually hinder your ability to turn by slowing your speed, reducing the weathercocking effect. If you are comfortable with the technique, lean the kayak towards the sweep stroke (using a skimming low brace on the return for support). If your not comfortable tilting the kayak until the cockpit is in the water practice it until you are.This tilt should significantly improve (cut nearly in half with the average kayak) your turning speed and therefore your double your ability to turn into a strong wind. One kayaker can help another turn or stay on course in a strong wind by placing their kayak and torso ten to twenty feet upwind to shield the bow or stern half of the other kayak. If the problem is severe a towline (stern to bow) can help both kayaks to turn into the wind and hold a course into it..

When the wind picks up the waves soon follow. Waves make a capsize more likely and can get you wet from splash or spray. Waves can create difficult control problems and broaching if they are approaching from the side or from the stern quadrants. You should always wear a spray deck. Waves are most difficult when they are steep and have a wavelength roughly the same as your craft. When waves are reflected from a cliff or wall (or are arriving from different directions for any reason) they can create a very steep and confused sea. Large waves meeting from opposite directions can throw water upwards (clapotis) with sufficient force to lift a kayak into the air. Clapotis is most likely next to a wall or cliff that is reflecting waves straight back on themselves. In confused seas care must be taken that your paddle reaches the water. A surprise "air" stroke or brace can throw you off balance. Large waves created by distant storms can be huge but of such long wave length that they will only slowly carry you up and down, causing no real problems unless you are in water shallow enough to cause them to become breakers.

The size of surf is difficult to judge from seaward, but you should be able to differentiate the less violent spilling surf from the abrupt dumping surf more likely to damage you or your kayak. A dumping surf on a steep beach can be extremely violent. You should avoid surf if possible. You can often find a much smaller surf, and a place to land in an area protected by a point of land or an island. If landing in surf is a possibility bring a helmet.

Stay well outside the surf line while paddling because larger waves break farther out. This can occur quite intermittently and come as a real surprise. Waves can break in any shallow place, not just near shore. Most rivers and many bays have a sandbar well offshore where breakers form under the right conditions. Be especially careful of a falling tide since the outgoing current will steepen the waves and the water will be getting shallower. Both make the waves more likely to break. Underwater rocks, plateaus, or shallows well offshore can cause intermittent breakers (called boomers) which might not be noticed unless you have been watching far ahead. Other clues to the possibility of boomers include: steepening of the waves, an area of foam, a change in water color, a patch of kelp, or underwater rocks and shallows marked on your chart.
If you capsize and wet exit in the surf near shore, your kayak could be a great danger to you. Swim to one side to get well clear of your kayak, and only then swim for shore. The breakers should deliver your kayak to the beach if you have proper flotation in it. If you can't make progress swimming for shore you may be in a beach rip. A beach rip is formed by the water that builds up behind a sand bar flowing back out to sea in a narrow channel through the bar. Swim to one side before again making for the shore. Continue to angle away from the rip as you approach shore so the lateral currents near shore that feed the rip don’t carry you back into it.

Novice paddlers who might be easily intimidated by the large but relatively harmless swell on the open ocean can be lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent calm of inland waters. This might be justified in good weather on a warm lake, but some areas affected by tidal currents can become treacherous. In some locales the effects of tidal currents can intimidate even the best whitewater river paddlers. A calm place can become very rough in a few minutes. Even mild currents can take you well off course. (If possible, line up two distant landmarks with your course and then try to keep them lined up--or look back to check if you are still on a line between your point of origin and your destination.) Currents can significantly slow or stop your progress so plan paddling times to take best advantage of them. If you must paddle against a current you may be able to take advantage of back eddies and the usual slowing of the current in shallows near shore.
Currents can create rough and confused water where they meet. This is called a tide rip. When a current is moving in the opposite direction of the wave motion the wave length is shortened, steepening the waves. A current changing with the tides to run against the wave direction can turn what was a mild sea into a rough one. This combined with shallow water is what makes the bar off of a river or harbor such a dangerous place. Underwater obstructions, headlands, narrows, and shallows can combine with a current to cause waves, eddies, boils, whirlpools, overfalls, and water so agitated that it hisses or gives off a steady roar. Headlands, narrows, and shallows also can increase the speed of the current locally. Your chart will label these areas "tide races". River kayaking experience and skill at bracing can be a great help in dealing with some of the effects of tidal currents.
In some bays and river estuaries where the tidal differences are great and a narrowing channel is present, a tidal bore can form. The tide front is a tumbling wall of water or a high cresting wave that lies across the entire channel and moves inland rapidly with the tide. Large tidal bores (up to 25 feet high on the Amazon) are a rare local phenomenon but they demonstrate the need to get information on local conditions and hazards if you travel to unfamiliar areas.
If you paddle in areas where currents are a factor to consider get the best current tables and current charts you can find and learn how to use them. The "Tidal Current Charts", showing changes on an hour by hour basis using many direction arrows, are far better than most charts for predicting current strength and direction. "Tidal Current Charts" are available through NOAA or chart dealers. They are available for these areas: Boston Harbor, Narragansett Bay to Nantucket Sound, Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound, New York Harbor, Delaware Bay and River, Upper Chesapeake Bay, Charleston Harbor, S.D., Tampa Bay, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound--North Part, and Puget Sound--South Part.

The book Current Atlas published by The Canadian Hydrographic Service is good resource. It gives hour by hour detailed charts of the speed and direction of the currents in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, and the Straits of Georgia for three different tidal ranges. With this book, Washburne's tables (or the tide tables for Vancouver, B.C.’s Pt Atkinson) and some knowledge of what causes rough water (currents colliding, wind against the current, headlands and shallows, etc.) many danger areas in this popular paddling region can be spotted in advance on the chart and avoided at the times during the day when they are most dangerous.

Other Tidal Hazards
On an outgoing tide you could become stranded in tidal basins with wide areas of muddy shallows such as often occur where a river enters a bay. A long shallow beach could mean a long carry to a resting or camping place at low tide. Also on this shallow type beach the tide comes in very rapidly so you must be especially careful not to leave your kayak unsecured for even a few minutes or it could float away. Carry your kayak and equipment well above high tide line and then tie it to a fixed object in case you misjudged the tide.

Ships are deceptively fast. Never try to paddle across the path of a ship. Busy shipping lanes if crossed at all should be crossed at an angle nearly perpendicular to minimize the time in them. Groups should stay close together in order to make it easier for a large craft to notice them and avoid them. While assuming that ships, speedboats, and sailboats won't see you, give them every chance. Make yourself visible: bright colors on the kayak, spray deck, life jacket and hat all help, but the most visible thing from speedboat eye level will probably be your paddle blades waving up and down. Paddle blades that are a light bright color such as yellow, orange, pink, light blue or white will probably be your best warning. Try to avoid being in the path of any larger craft. While you may legally have the right of way, to take it is foolhardy. Wait and cross behind power or sailboats unless there is no possible way they could reach you. Make sure tugboats do not have something in tow before crossing behind them.

There are no landmarks in a thick fog, only a small circle of sea inside a luminous dome with you at the center. Without a compass or some means of judging direction, such as wave angle or a distant repeating sound, you will paddle in circles. However, wave direction can be altered close to shore or behind an island due to refraction or if the waves are small by a change in the wind. Also, that distant repeating sound could be a moving ship. In fog you will need a compass (or a GPS). In fact you can become so disoriented that you may need two compasses pointing the same direction to assure you that the first one is not broken. Groups should stay very close together since separation is a constant possibility in thick fog.
Paddling in thick fog can be dangerous because its much more difficult to see or even hear hazards until you are very near it. Also, your judgement of size and distance is distorted by fog. In some areas shipping is a hazard in fog. It would be prudent not to cross even seldom used shipping lanes in fog, mist, or rain that limits your vision. Even if you have a radar reflector held high above the kayak the "noise" caused by the mist or rain will probably blot out your echo on the radar screen. In a fog a moving ship is required to sound one prolonged (4 to 6 seconds) blast on its foghorn at least every two minutes. A ship at rest will sound two prolonged blasts in close succession. If possible answer a moving ship with one prolonged and two short blasts. This means, "I can only maneuver with great difficulty."
If your destination in fog is an island you must also plan what you will do if you miss it. In addition to a compass you will need a watch, a good idea of your paddling speed, and the effects of wind and currents so you will know when to implement your alternate plan or make a required course change. If your destination is on a long shoreline you can navigate to intentionally miss your goal somewhat to one side so you will know which way to turn to find it when you reach the shoreline. If possible avoid paddling out of sight of the shore in a fog.
Inland paddlers who have grown up in areas where radiation fog that forms over land in the morning is common, associate fog with lack of wind. Sea fog which is found over water in coastal areas during the summer is different. It forms when winds up to 25 mph bring warm air over colder sea water and once formed can persist even during much higher winds.

We have listed many of the hazards that might be encountered in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. Other parts of the world have their own hazards many of which will be different from those encountered in this area. For instance, in the tropics hypothermia is not likely to be a problem but sunstroke, coral reefs, sea snakes, crocodiles, and sharks might be. In the arctic a paddler may have to deal with icebergs, sea ice, calving glaciers, frigid water, and the more likely occurrence of katabatic (gravity powered) winds.
Find out about local hazards while planning a trip to a distant location. If you can, talk to local kayakers, fishermen, or others who live, play, or work where you will be paddling.

Most sea mammals are not a threat to a kayaker if they are left alone. Exceptions might be Polar Bear, Walrus, and territorial bull Elephant Seals and Sea Lions at rookeries. You will be happy to hear that unprovoked Shark attacks are rare north of the 42nd parallel (California/Oregon border) and are rare in any waters less than 68` Fahrenheit (20` C.) (but maybe the reason is less people are in the colder water so the sharks have less opportunity). If you are going to be in unfamiliar territory check with the locals about potential hazards and animal pests. On land, in North America at least, bears seem the only major threat. Bears are especially dangerous in parks where they are protected from hunting, and therefore have little fear of man. Many may even have developed a taste for campers food. Keep food and the smell of food away from your sleeping area and wash up before retiring. In Grizzly country it is recommended you cook below the high tide line if possible. Hang your food out of reach of a bear and well away from your tents. Camping on a small island may lessen bear hazards (as well as mosquitoes), but bring plenty of water and still maintain the above precautions, bears are good swimmers.

Sometimes in the summer and fall filter feeding shellfish eat a lot of a certain type of microorganism store and concentrate the nerve poison it contains. A person eating the contaminated bivalves (clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops) is then poisoned. Some of these shellfish, such as butter clams, store the poison for years. A tingling or numbness of the lips and tongue is usually the first symptom. Soon this spreads to the fingers and toes. In severe cases this progresses to difficult breathing, loss of coordination, and death due to the paralysis of the breathing muscles. P.S.P. or "Red Tide" warnings are often posted at access points in contaminated areas. There are no other clues to contamination and detecting the poison in shellfish is a very complicated process ending with how long it takes a rat injected with the concentrated poison to die. Those who think they can tell by the months of the year, color of the water, or apparent health of the clams are fooling themselves and have been lucky. Always check with the authorities. In Washington State the Dept. of Health Services has a toll free recorded message listing closed areas (1-800-562-5632) and a website:   (
At the first sign of P.S.P. poisoning induce vomiting, take a strong laxative, drink a solution containing baking soda or baking powder and get medical attention as soon as possible. If breathing stops begin CPR immediately and don't stop until recovery of the victim (which could take a day or more).

Since a sea kayak is right at home on unobstructed rivers that don't require the maneuverability of a whitewater kayak, we should mention the most dangerous moving water hazards. Stay out of reversals (the white water behind an underwater rock or dam). Stay well away from "strainers" (log jams, fallen trees, or brush) which can pin you underwater, even in a mild current. Although the temptation is strong to stand up if you are swimming you must always swim with your feet at the surface even in a shallow current. If you do not your body could be hooked by a underwater branch or log or your feet could get caught between two rocks. In either case very little current is required to pull you under and hold you there. Wear a helmet on all but the most sluggish rivers.

This was not meant to be a compete how-to guide to sea kayaking, just a fairly extensive list of some hazards and safety information that we as manufacturers of the equipment you may be using would like you to understand.

For further information on sea kayaking we recommend the following books:

  • SEA KAYAKING by John Dowd
  • THE COASTAL KAYAKER’S MANUAL by Randel Washburne
  • SEA KAYAK RESCUE by Roger Shuman & Jan Shriner
  • SEA KAYAKER'S DEEP TROUBLE by Matt Broze & George Gronseth

copyright 1983 & 2001 by Matt Broze
Mariner Kayaks

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