There are a few mistakes that every sea kayaker dreads making. They’re usually learned the hard way, or through a friend who learned the hard way. Ranging from embarrassing to seriously threatening, here are some mistakes to avoid while camping on wild coastlines out of a small boat.
Losing A Boat
On a long-ago trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island, one moment I was sitting on a beach log eating lunch. The next, I was running at a dead sprint because my kayak was floating away. I was able to retrieve it quickly, but if I hadn’t, with a strong wind blowing parallel to the coastline, I’d have been left on an island sans bateau. I’ve woken up at night to realize tides were higher than we thought and moved boats again. It’s an embarrassing mistake because it’s so preventable: tie the boats up, even if you think you don’t need to.
Putting a hole in a kayak by hitting a rock isn’t something anyone intends, but the risk comes with playing on rugged shorelines. Plastic kayaks are much more resilient to loaded impact, but if you paddle a fiberglass kayak, know how to repair it in the field. I’ve fixed boats in various ways on beaches. It’s not ideal, but it works.
Up the Creek Without a….
I once ran into a group in the San Juans that had lost a paddle and not brought spares. Like not tying up your boat, it’s an easy mistake to avoid. They ended up paddling two doubles with the bow paddlers using halves of a break-down kayak paddle-like canoe paddles. I don’t know how they managed to lose their paddle, but bringing a spare is standard practice.
It’s phenomenally easy to get lost in islands. From sea level, islands, inlets, and peninsulas are hard to tell apart—islands can all look the same. Getting lost in a sea kayak can be more than a hassle; if you end up in the wrong place, ocean currents can make it hard, or even impossible, to get where you want to go. Learn how to read current tables and nautical charts: which are very different from maps and tide tables. GPS can help, but relying on it too much puts you at the mercy of batteries.
Letting Critters Into Your Food
Most sea kayak destinations have some form of aggressive, food-seeking wildlife: the Grizzlies of Glacier Bay, the raccoons of the San Juan Islands (which know how to open kayak hatches) the crows in British Columbia’s Broken Group, or the dry-bag pecking Gray Jays of the Cascades. There’s nothing more humiliating—and annoying than returning to see your kitchen strewn about your camp. Protect your food: hang it, put it in canisters, or Ursacks, that bears and raccoons can’t bite through.
Ignoring Weather Changes
By far the biggest source of kayak accidents is “unanticipated weather changes”. Unanticipated by whom? Usually, it’s not an inaccurate forecast—it’s someone who didn’t listen to the forecast, overestimated their skill, or didn’t know what impact the weather would have on the sea. Watch the skies, carry a portable barometer, and learn what to expect to form the interactions of the sea, wind, storms, and the land. And yes, I’ve made that mistake, thinking I could make it through a narrow window between fog burning off and the wind rising. Discretion is often the better part of valor.
Getting Stuck on the Beach
There are few things to a sea kayaker more enticing than a wide open and empty beach, small surf, and a western view to the sunset. Keep in mind that the swell might not stay small, or may come from a new direction. I remember one camp on British Columbia’s west coast, sheltered from both the wind and swell, where we had two days of ankle-high waves. The third morning, we woke up to crashing surf that kept us stuck on the beach until the swell changed direction again the next day.