Most “ocean” kayakers stick to the protected waters of bays, or inland seas like the San Juan Islands, where they’re protected from the open sea and swells. But for those with enough skills, the ultimate playground—the rugged, open sea awaits. It’s full of thrills, some of the best ocean scenery in the world, whales, and yes, some danger if you’re unprepared. Interested in venturing into Poseidon’s Playground? Here’s what to know and how to get started.
Kayaking the exposed coast is challenging and risky. It takes power and athleticism to make it out through the surf zone…and back in again. It requires even more daring, skill, and care to play among the rocks and cliffs while the swell surges up and down. And it takes experience to know when it’s safe to go, and when it isn’t. All this might make you wonder what’s so enticing about the exposed outer coast. But there are many reasons to go for it.
One simple reason is rugged beauty—much of the west coast of North America is defined by rugged sea cliffs, dramatic headlands, secret coves. The endless pounding of the ocean creates arches, caves, tunnels, a stunning landscape no casual beachgoer will ever see.
Coastal paddling is thrilling. In addition to the beauty, there are two major sources of adrenaline: surf and rock gardens. Like surfing on boards, surfing in kayaks is a great workout as well as an adrenaline rush. Playing in rock gardens, where swell washes through narrow passages and over rocks, is a lot like whitewater kayaking on the sea. It means making quick moves amidst shifting waves and barnacle-covered rocks.
Being a Human-Powered Jacques Cousteau
Once you’re beyond the beach break, you’re in a watery world filled with wildlife you can otherwise only see through binoculars. I’ve had countless close encounters with whales, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and massive rafts of seabirds. Perhaps my strangest ocean encounter was a deer swimming across a kelp-filled bay off the British Columbia Coast to get away from a pair of feral dogs.
The Ultimate Private Beach
The best part of ocean kayaking is that you can reach places that literally nobody on the planet will ever see. Secret coves hidden between cliffs, vast sea caves the size of cathedrals, and rocky tunnels underneath headlands are totally inaccessible to powerboats or beachgoers. Only skilled kayakers will ever see them.
How to Explore the Sea
The ocean is a rough and fickle playground. Like whitewater kayaking or climbing, it’s not something to plunge into without instruction. Most all, it requires judgment—the ability to know when to stay on shore.
The surf zone is the guardian to the outer coast. While some places, like California’s Trinidad Head, offer a protected launch and landing area, most ocean paddling involves pounding your way out through the surf zone. This is no small feat, and on big days or when your timing is off, can be impossible. Capsizes are common, and being sure to not get hit by your own kayak (or allow it to hit beachgoers or surfers) is part of the routine. Re-entering through the surf—which you’ll need to do every time you want a break—is even more challenging, as the waves will break behind you.
Rock Gardens and Caves
The other adrenaline zone is in amongst the rocks, cliffs, and narrow passages. These narrow passages can to hidden coves, caves, and obstacle courses of arches, pourovers and slots. And they change by the second: as swell funnels through the rocks, it surges, steepens, sucks and boils. Places can be flat one moment can be a wall of froth the next. Playing in rock gardens takes whitewater-style maneuvering skills and a good sense of timing. A reliable roll is also a prerequisite.
The Seas They Are A Changin’
The ocean is never still. Neither are the conditions on it. Many a paddler has launched on a calm morning, only to find that a few hours later, he’s paddling in strong winds that rose during the day. Falling tides can expose rocks that were previously covered by smooth water, creating steep waves. Fog banks can turn an easy bay crossing into a guessing game. You’ll always be watching the weather, sea conditions, and the tide and current tables.
The ability to read these factors is called seamanship. Combined with an understanding of your own and your buddies’ skills, it results in judgment. In my home waters of Oregon—cold, exposed to the full brunt of the Pacific with few offshore rocks and reefs to break up the swell, many days of the year the only winning move is to stay on shore. But when the conditions are right and you’ve got the skills, paddling the ocean is totally new way to discover the magic of the coast.