PEHD 252 Outdoor Education
College of Charleston
Sea Kayaking

Basic Equipment

Personal Flotation Device (PFD) – a type III PFD is worn while kayaking. This is an essential piece of gear that must be worn correctly buckled at all times while on the water.

Spray Skirt – this nylon coated or neoprene fabric is worn around the paddler’s waist and fits around the cockpit opening to limit water from entering the kayak.

Clothing – kayakers are looking for items that shield them from the wind, water, and sun. Clothing made from synthetic fibers are often the best choice since they dry quickly and offer some insulation when wet. There are countless choices available to today’s consumer.

Helmet – a helmet is not needed in sea kayaking unless the paddler is looking to go surf kayaking.

Paddle – kayak paddles have a blade on each end of the paddle shaft. The blades will usually be offset. Lay the paddle on the ground to check this out. Each paddle blade has a scooped view when looking at its profile. The concave face is known as the power face and is the side most frequently used in the various strokes. The other side is known as the back face and it too is used in certain maneuvers.

Pump – used to eliminate water in the cockpit when the paddler is overturned.
Sponge – a useful item to carry to bail the annoying bilge water which can collect inside the kayak.

Paddle float – an inflatable sack that wraps around the paddle blade to help in self-rescue situations.

Rescue tow line – used by a paddler to tow another boat.

Repair kit – among the things to consider carrying are sealant, duct tape, stainless steel cable 3/16”, sleeves/bridals/stoppers, multi-tool, synthetic towel, nylon line, and plastic trash bags which can be used to help waterproof items and to help prevent hypothermia.

Parts of the Kayak

These are some of the more common terms you will use to communicate information about your boat.

bow/stern - the bow is the front of the boat and the stern the rear end.

bulkhead - an internal wall in the boat that creates a watertight compartment.

coaming - the lip that surrounds the cockpit. The spray skirt attaches here.

cockpit - the compartment that the paddler sits in.

deck - the upper surface of the kayak.

foot pegs - adjustable places for the foot to rest upon that are used for leverage in the paddling stroke as well as controlling the movement of the rudder.

grab loops - nylon loops at the bow and stern used in carrying the kayak.

hatches - compartments in the boat used for storage. Hatch covers are used to seal the hatch.

port/starboard - the left and right sides of the boat when looking toward the bow.

rudder or skeg - kayaks use one or the other to help prevent the wind from causing the boat to slip from its intended track. Both devices work below the waters surface. The rudder has the added advantage of being able to help in steering.

seat - the place the paddler sits inside of the cockpit.

deck lines - lightweight ropes used along the deck of the kayak to be used to hold on in case the kayaker is overturned.

thigh braces - supports located in the cockpit that fit over the upper legs of the paddler. These braces are one of the three points of contact that allow the paddler to better control the boat.

Basic Skills

Moving the kayak
An empty kayak can surely be slung over the shoulder and moved by one person but in the class we will insist that you use a two person carry. One person will grab the bow grab loop and another will use the stern grab loop. It is best, especially with a fully loaded boat, to also place the free hand underneath the hull for extra support.

Paddle brace entry
The paddle shaft is laid across the deck of the boat just behind the cockpit. The paddler will grasp both the paddle shaft and the cockpit coaming and then sit down on the back deck of the boat with both feet in the water shoreside. The paddler’s free hand will grasp the paddle shaft closer to shore and the paddle is now used as an outrigger to provide support while first one foot and then the other is placed inside of the cockpit. During the entire sequence it is important to remember to lean toward the shore as you enter the boat.

Wet Exit
Once overturned the paddler should slap the hull of the boat with both hands three times. This lets your partners know that you are okay and gives you a chance to ease into the wet exit. Lean forward as you “kiss” the deck of your boat. Grasp the spray skirt grab loop with both hands and pull it forward and down. As the spray skirt releases, put your hands on the cockpit coaming and push away. You will come out of the boat with remarkable ease. Try to hold onto your paddle and boat during the wet exit so that a rescue is made easier.

Edging the boat means to tip either side of it toward the water.  This movement allows for greater maneuverability. Imagine if you will the shape of your spine if you were to lean your boat over. If you maintain your center of gravity over the seat, the spine would assume the shape of the letter J. This maneuver is helped by your offside knee and thigh holding fast against the thigh brace.

Power Strokes – these are the two strokes used for propulsion: the forward stroke and reverse stroke.

Turning Strokes – used to turn or make corrections in your boat’s course: the forward sweep, reverse sweep, and the draw stroke.

Bracing Strokes – used to prevent the boat from overturning. There are two bracing strokes: the high brace and the low brace.

Stroke mechanics – there are two constant mechanics used in paddling: the paddler’s box and torso rotation. Pretend that your paddling motion was affected by a large beach ball placed between the PFD and the paddle. This beach ball would tend to force the paddling motion to be performed with arms in the extended position. This is the concept of the paddler’s box. When used in conjunction with torso rotation, the paddle mechanics should be more efficient and paddling endurance enhanced.

These three variables are different for each paddling stroke and have an effect on paddling efficiency. They are: path of the paddle, blade orientation, and paddle shaft position.


These are just three possible rescue variations. For those cases where the overturned paddler remains in the boat, the first two rescues are good bets.

Eskimo Bow rescue
The overturned paddler remains in the boat, slaps his hands on the hull, and then begins sliding his hands (palms facing away from the boat) back and forth along the sides of the cockpit. This signal tells any rescuers that the paddler will hold his breath and count to ten while awaiting a rescue attempt. If no one is able to reach him by the ten count he will have to wet exit.

The rescuer must move his boat quickly toward the overturned boat and attempt to strike it perpendicularly with the bow of his boat. The overturned paddler will hear and feel the boats collide and with his hands continuing to move back and forth he will grasp the bow of the rescuer’s boat. Now the paddler will attempt to right himself by pushing on the rescuer’s bow. This rescue is quick and effective and better than having to perform one of the other more difficult rescues.

Eskimo side-by-side rescue
Here the rescuer will instead paddle his boat parallel to the overturned craft. He will place his paddle over the deck of his boat and the hull of the other. The overturned paddler will now grasp the paddle and push on this to right himself. The rescuer will guide the head of the other paddler so as to avoid any injury.

T or X rescue
When the overturned paddler comes out of the boat, this rescue is often used. The rescuer will have the paddler move to the stern of the overturned boat and help swim the boat to a perpendicular position with the rescue boat. After collecting the victim’s paddle, the rescuer will direct the paddler to push down on the stern as he pulls the bow of the boat up and over his kayak. With the boat balancing on his kayak, he will lift one end up to flush as much water out as possible and repeat with the other end. He will then slide the boat back into the water parallel with his. The rescuer will then lean over onto the deck of the other boat and hold both boats tightly together as the victim attempts the next series of moves. Directed to move to the rear of his uprighted boat just behind the cockpit, the victim in the water will then try to pull himself up and place his chest onto the decks of both boats. Now facing toward his stern, he will attempt to slide one leg and then the other into his cockpit. He will then turn in the direction of the rescue boat and try to slide down into his kayak seat. If all goes well, it is just a matter of attaching the spray skirt and paddling off.

Environmental Concerns

Tides and current
The incoming tidal current is called a flood. When the water rushes out to sea, it is called an ebb tide. The period between the flood and ebb, when the water is not moving, is called slack water. It is difficult to paddle against the tidal current. This flow is strongest at mid-tide and can run up to 4 knots. Plan your trip accordingly.

The tide direction changes every 6 hours and 15 minutes. The outgoing tide is much stronger than the incoming tide since the ebb drains the wetlands area and the water is flowing downhill. It is best to avoid trying a crossing during this time.

The tidal variation along the SC coast averages 6.25 feet. The range is from 4 feet to 8.50 feet. How can this affect you? Say you have set your campsite near the water, a 6-foot vertical rise in the tide can extend over 100 feet along the beach face.

The wind can cause difficulty in paddling by whipping up the waves, causing you to veer off course, severely impeding your forward speed, and by making the paddle unwieldy during the recovery stroke. It can also lead to severe cooling of the body’s core temperature.

Watercraft and Navigational Aids
The rule is power boats give way to those under sail; sail boats give way to those under manual power. Do not try to use the right-of-way. It is much safer and easier to wait for a chance to make a safe crossing than to enter into a busy traffic pattern and be at the mercy of another operator who may not even see you! Crossings should be made together as a single group. Cross at right angles and minimize the time you are in the channel. Also for any night travel, your boat must be lighted per state law.

Anticipate potential weather patterns before you leave. Plan for contingencies. Rain, electrical storms, cold front, high winds, even excessively hot temperatures can cause life-threatening dangers.

Jellyfish and other animal life can create problems for the paddler, but in this area a most dangerous and overlooked hazard is the oyster.

Time of season or day
Weather patterns do exhibit a seasonal nature. The time of day is another element that the paddler should consider. In this area, thunderstorms are more of a threat during the afternoon. Getting caught on the water after dusk is also inviting danger.

Cold Water
Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below 95? F (34? C). More sea kayak deaths are attributed to this one cause.

Hypothermia can strike under a variety of conditions. Cold, wet, windy weather can effectively rob the body of heat especially if the person is not dressed properly. Getting overturned in the water can also prove dangerous. Water is a greater conductor of heat than is air. The current temperature in Charleston Harbor ranges from 70-75? F at this time of year. That could effectively induce this deadly condition. Clothing that insulates and sheds water goes a long way toward protection from hypothermia. Do not forget the importance of headgear since a great percentage of the body’s heat is lost through the head.

The three stages of hypothermia in order of severity are: uncontrolled shivering, loss of judgment and reasoning, and stupor or collapse.

Personal Safety

1. Know your limits and do not paddle alone!
2. Communicate with your companions.
3. Develop your paddling skills.
4. Plan your trip.
5. Practice proper group organization. Follow the safety rules of group travel, e.g. buddy system, hand/horn signals, stay together and do not break-up the group, establish gathering points, accommodate the weakest paddlers in the group, etc.
6. Proper equipment. PFD, rescue or emergency items, navigational aids, and proper choice of clothing.
7. Know the paddling environment you are about to enter.
8. Compiled from the U.S. Coast Guard accident statistics, these are five of the common explanations for accidents:
not wearing the PFD
cold water or cold weather is a mitigating circumstance. Hypothermia creates added difficulty.
inexperience and lack of training or skill.
the inability to swim.

Trip control plan

The speed for the average paddler is 2-3 knots. One knot equals 1.15 miles per hour. The TCP must include a land contact that can account for you should an unexpected event occur. You are obliged to contact this person as soon as the trip ends. The TCP must consider the route, landings and emergency pull-outs, total time, tides, weather, etc. The TCP is paramount for a safe, enjoyable adventure.

Suggested Reading

Able, G. and Horan, J. Paddling South Carolina. Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Co., Inc., 1986.
Dowd, John. Sea Kayaking: A Manual for Long Distance Touring. University of Washington Press, 1998.
Hutchinson, Derek C. The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking. The Globe Pequot Press, 1995.
Keener-Chavis, P. and Sautter, Leslie. Of Sand and Sea: Teachings From the Southeastern Shoreline. S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, 2000.
Wyatt, Mike. The Basic Essentials of Sea Kayaking. ICS Books, Inc., 1990.

Web Sites

Several sites are listed on the PEHD 252 web page for kayaking and related information such as tide tables.

East Coast Canoe and Kayak Symposium

If you are truly interested in kayaking, do not miss the next symposium scheduled in April at the James Island County Park. Experts from around the world are invited to contribute to this annual affair, which is among the best of its kind in the country.

updated: May 10, 2007