If you are standing on a beach with large waves rolling in with regular consistency, it is natural to ask, can you kayak in the ocean? More pertinently, how do you get out past the break?
The good news is that plenty of people kayak on the ocean in coastal regions every single day. There are a healthy number of kayaks that are specifically designed for this purpose because your average recreational kayak may not be suited to ocean kayaking.
You will need the right kayak and the right knowledge about the ocean in your region. You will also need sea kayaking safety equipment that you will not need to pack if you are just paddling on a calm lake or slow-moving river.
Today, we are going to definitively answer the question of what you need to kayak in the ocean. We will also provide safety tips for ocean kayaking so you can be as prepared as possible when you get your kayak to the coast.
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- Can You Kayak in the Ocean?
- Top Safety Tips for Kayaking in the Ocean
- Studying The Environment For Ocean Kayaking
- Final Thoughts
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Yes! Many of the best kayak brands specialize in creating the best sea kayaks that they possibly can. That being said, kayaking in the ocean requires more studying of environmental factors that you don’t need to worry about with other types of paddling.
Some of those factors include tides, currents, wind, and waves. The reality of ocean kayaking is also that rocky sections of shoreline can make rescue efforts more difficult if you are in trouble.
This is why many sea kayakers take more lessons or sign up for more guided tours than other types of kayakers (aside from maybe paddlers of the best whitewater kayaks).
It never hurts to invest in education and training when it comes to ocean kayaking. That being said, we are going to provide some safety tips to help you begin preparing your mind for kayaking in the ocean.
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In part because of the sheer vastness of the Earth’s ocean, there are more safety concerns for ocean kayakers than for other, more recreational paddlers. So here are our top safety tips if you want to kayak in the ocean.
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One of the best life vests for kayaking is essential for kayaking in the ocean. To be truthful, you should always be wearing a PFD whether you are kayaking on the ocean or any other type of waterway.
The ocean, however, is deeper and larger than lakes, rivers, and other waterways. Plus, the ocean’s tides and currents can quickly carry you away from your kayak if you capsize unexpectedly.
Even if you are paddling on a super calm day, your PFD is an essential piece of safety equipment. When you capsize wearing your PFD, you won’t have to worry about keeping your body afloat as you collect your paddle, flip over your kayak, and make sure you have eyes on any gear that wasn’t appropriately strapped to your kayak.
If you don’t wear a PFD, you will expend unnecessary energy keeping your head above the surface of the water while you are also tending to all of these other things.
This extra energy expenditure is one of the major reasons why the vast majority of injuries and deaths in kayaking occur when the paddler is not wearing a PFD.
If that still is not perfectly clear, the colder waters of most oceans will put you at a higher risk of hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses. Cold-water shock, for example, can cause your muscles to contract and completely hinder your ability to swim or tread water.
Even the best swimmers can drown when they suffer cold water shock. If you are wearing a PFD, however, you will remain afloat while you gather yourself or signal for help.
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When you look at photos of ocean kayakers, you will probably see a lot of people using one of the best sit-in kayaks. However, you should only progress to using a sit-inside kayak for ocean paddling if you have enough experience to do so safely.
Most beginners should use a sit-on-top kayak for ocean paddling because they are much easier to right and climb back into if you do happen to capsize. They also drain water naturally because they are built with scupper holes in the cockpit and storage compartments.
If you do have experience paddling a sit-inside kayak, you can choose one of the best touring kayaks for ocean paddling. These are recommended if you plan to cover long distances for point-to-point or multi-day ocean kayaking trips.
These kayaks give you the ability to handle the rougher waters in most ocean settings and also provide the kind of stability you would need if you happen to hook into a particularly large and fearsome marlin.
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“Cotton kills” when it comes to any type of outdoor recreation and ocean kayaking is no exception. While it can be useful to keep a cotton layer dry to put on and help you warm up at the end of your paddle, it doesn’t make any sense to wear cotton while you are actually paddling.
Any sort of moisture-wicking or synthetic fabric is going to help keep you cool while paddling. Clothing made of these types of fabric will also dry faster if you do happen to go for a swim or get caught in an unexpected rainstorm.
If you are paddling in particularly bad weather or during the colder months, you may also benefit from investing in one of the best drysuits for kayaking. These suits are often used by whitewater kayakers, but they can keep you warm and dry for ocean kayaking as well.
If a drysuit seems a little much for the type of ocean kayaking you do but you also know that your current selections aren’t enough to keep you warm, you can also pick up a wetsuit for kayaking.
These wetsuits are similar to those used for surfing. They won’t keep water from getting to your skin completely as a drysuit will, but they will trap your body heat inside to keep you warmer when you do get wet.
In addition to these suggestions, things like a full-brimmed hat and polarized sunglasses are essential for ocean kayaking. There is minimal shade available on the ocean, but there will be plenty of glare reflecting off the water towards your sensitive retinas!
Finally, you should add items like a beanie and kayaking gloves to your list if you plan to do any winter ocean kayaking. If this is the case, I would also strongly consider checking out our full cold weather kayak gear list.
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Just getting out past the break can be one of the biggest challenges for new ocean kayakers. If you have a marina close to where you want to paddle, that is always the easiest place to launch and land because it is probably going to have a protected channel you can use to get out past breaking waves.
If you do choose to launch from a beachfront location, do not choose a spot that has waves breaking right on the shore. This phenomenon is called “shore break” and it will make it virtually impossible for you to launch your kayak.
So you will need to find a beach location where the waves break a healthy distance from the shoreline. This will allow you to wade in, climb into your kayak between waves, and then build up some speed to make it through the larger breaking waves.
Still, you will need to be aware of the tides in your area as well. We will cover more on tides in our next section about environmental factors, but it is important for you to know which tide times provide more favorable kayaking conditions in your area.
Keep in mind that this can change based on location as well. Some areas may be better for kayaking at low tide while others are best when the tides are high or at a mid-tide.
While it is possible to kayak on the ocean when the tides aren’t favorable, it is going to be a lot more work. The time when that is going to be most obvious is when you are launching and landing, so picking the right time will make your life a lot easier (and also increase the odds that you actually get out past the break without being soaked in the process).
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Many ocean kayaking injuries actually occur when people are either trying to get in or get out of their kayak. This is partly because kayaks are the most unstable when they are standing completely still.
So when you are launching, it is best if you have your paddle partner stabilize your kayak while you climb in and begin paddling. If you don’t have a paddle partner, wait for breaks in between waves to give yourself plenty of time to climb in and get situated.
Also, keep in mind that ocean waves tend to arrive in sets. These sets are typically comprised of 6-8 waves and then there is a brief break before the next set rolls in.
If you are an experienced surfer, you are probably already adept at reading waves and counting sets. If not, it is always a healthy practice to spend some time studying the waves from the beach before you drag your kayak in and start trying to paddle out.
When you arrive back at your starting point, you may need to do a little surfing to get through the waves and onto the beach. Kayak surfing requires matching the speed of the wave and then using your paddle as a rudder to keep your kayak from turning sideways.
If you do not feel comfortable with surfing your kayak back into the beach, the best place you can be is to paddle in on the backside of a wave. This still requires plenty of timing and patience, but it will prevent your kayak from getting thrown somewhere you don’t want it to go by a particularly strong wave.
The worst place you can be in a kayak is sideways and right beneath a breaking wave. If you see this situation coming, it can even be best to intentionally capsize and wet exit your kayak to prevent personal injury.
From there, however, you will be left to swim into shore and hope your kayak is propelled in as well. So it is always best to time up sets and ride the waves into the shore if you can.
When you do get close to shore, paddle hard so that you can effectively run your kayak up and onto the beach as far as possible. This will help to reduce the amount that the back end of your kayak swings with each wave as you attempt to get out.
If your kayak does turn sideways for any reason once you are up on the beach, get out on the side that is closest to the incoming waves. If you get out on the beachside, you risk having a new wave pick up your kayak and bash it into your legs and ankles, which can cause serious injury.
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Most people probably don’t want to get too close to sharks because of the phenomenal social conditioning that resulted from Steven Spielberg’s infamous production of Jaws. Few other marine mammals inspire quite so much fear though.
We have a healthier (and not so fearful) fascination with other species like dolphins, whales, seals, and even killer whales. We must remember, however, that we are entering their environment and, as such, we should only observe marine species from a healthy distance.
We do recognize, however, that this can be difficult to do if something breaches the water right next to your kayak (and we hope you have the GoPro rolling for those moments).
That being said, if you see something playing in the water somewhere ahead of your kayak, be mindful of how close you are getting to those animals. It is a healthy practice for those animals and can also help you avoid having an animal unexpectedly hit or, in the worst case, attack your kayak.
If you really want to become an expert ocean kayaker, you will need to become very well-versed in studying the environment that you paddle in. Here are the main factors that all ocean kayakers need to study for safe ocean paddling:
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You are probably familiar with the terms high tide and low tide. Low tide is generally when most of us like to head to the beach for tide pooling and high tide is often when coastal flooding can occur.
For paddling purposes, these terms also refer to when the ocean’s flow changes directions. As the low tide is approaching, water is moving out to sea and this is why more of the beach area becomes exposed.
Once low tide hits, however, that water reverses course and begins moving back in towards the mainland again. Now conditions are moving towards high tide again and the beach will become more and more covered.
Planning your paddle to use the low tide to help you get out to see and high tide to get back can be a helpful strategy for ocean kayaking.
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In addition to the in-and-out movement of the tides, the ocean’s currents also circle and swirl around the globe. These currents are responsible for most of the world’s wind and weather patterns, so they are an essential study for ocean kayakers.
There are a lot of factors that go into what creates ocean currents, so it may help to read our full explanation of ocean currents here.
For your practical purposes, however, it can be helpful to get a basic understanding of the speed and direction of the prevailing current in your area. That will help you understand which direction your kayak may get pulled and how strong that current will be.
In this way, you can hopefully plan to use that current to your advantage rather than having to fight against it when you are already tired out from a long day of paddling.
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Wind can also impact other paddling environments (see Lake Tahoe and all of the Great Lakes for perfect examples), but it tends to have a much larger impact on ocean kayakers because there is nothing to block or shelter you from the wind.
Rivers and creeks tend to be more insulated from the impacts of wind because there are usually high banks or tall trees on their edges. When you are out on the open ocean, however, there is nothing to protect you from wind gusts.
Studying and understanding average wind speed, speed of wind gusts, and wind direction will also help you plan a safe ocean kayaking experience. Just like you wouldn’t want to paddle out while fighting an incoming tide, it is going to be tough to paddle into a 15-knot wind.
Just like with tides and currents, do your best to plan to have the wind at your back when you are returning to your original launching location.
As you can probably imagine, however, coordinating all three of these factors can be a challenge because the wind might be moving in one direction while the tides are moving in another and the prevailing current is moving in yet a third.
Still, studying and gaining a deeper understanding of these environmental factors will help you add more knowledge to your tool kit before you begin your paddles on the ocean.
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The ocean’s waves can be a combination of all three of the aforementioned factors. For you as a paddler, however, you just need to consider whether or not waves are too big for you to make it past the break.
Paddling through six-foot waves is a lot different than paddling through three-foot waves, for example. Especially if you are a beginner, smaller waves are always going to be better and you will eventually figure out your maximum wave size for launching and landing your kayak.
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If you are new to ocean kayaking, protected coastal waterways are some of the best places to get your feet wet (and salty!). They are more protected from large waves than the open ocean and don’t present as much of a risk of being carried off course by strong currents.
The main issue with coastal waterways is that they tend to have a lot of motorized boat traffic. So it can be beneficial to pick up a kayak flag to place at the stern of your kayak so that you can increase your visibility.
For those of you that feel you are ready to progress to open ocean paddling, we would highly recommend booking a spot on an ocean kayaking tour near you. Find a local kayak outfitter that can take you out and show you the ropes before you head out solo.
Ocean kayakers get to enjoy encounters with marine life and views of untouched coastlines. They can also fish for larger marine species than you can typically catch if you are fishing inland lakes, rivers, and streams.
These are two great reasons to give ocean kayaking a try and we hope that the safety tips we have provided here will make you more comfortable doing so. As always, we hope you enjoyed this guide and we wish you the healthiest of kayaking adventures for the coming season!