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Sea Kayaking – The Complete Guide

Mark Armstrong
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With oceans covering most of the Earth’s surface, it’s no surprise that you want to get out there and explore it. 

The rhythmic splash of your paddle, the thrill of spotting a dolphin or seal, the sheer awe of seeing a sunset from the middle of the ocean.

But, let’s be real, it’s not a walk in the park. You need to be in good shape, possess some technical know-how, and always remember: safety first.

Okay, let’s get into it

Sea Kayaking - Pinterest ImagePin

What Is Sea Kayaking?

Sea kayaking is more than just kayaking in the sea when you’re at the beach. It involves more technical kayaking skills and a dedicated sea kayak to take on the open water conditions of the sea. 

Sea kayakers tend to experience rougher waters, wind and stronger currents than recreational kayakers or anyone who is paddle boarding on the coast.

What’s The Difference Between A Sea Kayak And Other Types Of Kayak?

Two kayakers in the extreme cold around icebergsPin

A sea kayak is different from other types of kayaks because it is specifically designed to handle ocean conditions. This means it has sufficient levels of secondary stability to handle ocean waves and rough water.

These types of boats also have a long and narrow hull to cut through water, allowing for fast and efficient paddling in wind and strong currents or waves. They usually have V-shaped hulls with a sharp bow and stern. And they will often have built-in bulkheads for added buoyancy.

Sea kayaks can look similar to touring kayaks. But the main difference between a touring kayak and a sea kayak is the design of the hull. Some touring kayaks are only able to handle flat water and have flat bottoms. 

Essentially, a sea kayak is a type of touring kayak but it has the added capability to power through wind, waves, and currents.

> The best sea kayaks in review

You may find that sea kayaks have additional features to make paddling in ocean conditions easier. For example, many sea kayaks will have a rudder attached, which can help to control direction and help you maintain your course in moving water and windy weather. 

Other kayaks, such as recreational kayaks, are generally not built for efficient paddling on ocean waters. This is because these types of boats are mostly designed with flatwater in mind, so tend to have a high level of primary stability but not secondary stability. They also tend to be much wider.

Unlike other types of kayaks, a sea kayak is almost always a sit-inside kayak. This is so that the kayak can be rolled easily in the event of a capsize. 


The sit-inside cockpit on a sea kayak also allows for additional protection from the elements, such as wind, rain, and sea spray.

You will also usually find several storage compartments on a sea kayak, so that you can load it up with gear for a few days. There should also be room to stow your essential safety gear and equipment, such as a bilge pump and a compass.

Additionally, sea kayaks will usually have perimeter lines around the deck, which can be used as grab lines during a self rescue. 

Is Sea Or Ocean Kayaking Hard?

Sea kayaking can be more difficult than recreational kayaking. If you’re used to paddling on calm, flatwater in a short, wide sit-on-top kayak then you might need to master a few extra skills before you start sea kayaking.

One of the main difficulties you might encounter is the changing water conditions. Remember, the ocean is not like your favorite flatwater lake or pond. The ocean is constantly moving, with tides and currents to contend with. 

The weather conditions can also affect the sea conditions, with strong winds creating large waves and rough waters which can make paddling difficult.  

You Might Need To Alter Your Paddling Technique

Sea kayaking can require you to use a more efficient paddling stroke. High angle forward strokes tend to be more efficient for sea kayaking, as it can minimize fatigue and allow you to maintain a decent speed and forward momentum. 

Unlike kayaking on a small lake or slow-moving river where you’re usually able to stop paddling for a while to enjoy your surroundings, you can’t really do that on the ocean. 

The currents and waves could move you and your kayak off course if you stop paddling for any length of time.  

You Should Have Additional Kayaking Skills

Sea kayaking requires advanced paddling skills in addition to adjusting your paddling technique. One of the most important safety skills you should learn before you take to the high seas is the Eskimo roll or kayak roll. 

This skill lets you roll your kayak in the event of a capsize using a sweep stroke with your paddle to bring you back up to the surface while remaining inside your kayak.

Video: How To Do A Sweep Kayak Roll

You should always have a spray skirt attached to you and your cockpit rim before you attempt to roll your kayak. You should also always remember to wear your life jacket every time you kayak.

If you have only ever paddled a small recreational kayak or a whitewater kayak, you might want to practice maneuvering a longer vessel. Maneuvering sea kayaks can be a little trickier than shorter vessels. 

Because sea kayaks are long and narrow, they tend not to be as quick to turn as nimble whitewater kayaks, for example. But the same principle applies. 

To turn quickly, you should edge your kayak by leaning slightly to one side (the outside edge of the turn you want to make). You can then use sweep strokes starting as close to the bow as possible and ending as you reach your torso.

It can be best to keep your feet on the foot peg to help stabilize yourself in the boat while you make the turn.

Video: Turn Your Kayak Quickly 

You Might Need To Learn To Use Additional Accessories

Sea kayaks can have extra features that may require some getting used to. For example, you may need to learn how to use a rudder system to help you paddle in a straight line. Most rudders are controlled using foot pedals or a toe pedal inside the cockpit, allowing you to keep both hands on your paddle.

You might also need to learn how to use a VHF or marine radio. This can be useful for safety as it can let you call for help if you get into difficulty. Knowing how to send a distress call and respond to one are skills you should generally have before you head out on the ocean. 

It can also be a good idea to know how to use a compass. General survival skills can also be a good shout before embarking on a kayak trip

Safety First: Preparing For Emergencies On A Sea Kayaking Trip

No matter what type of kayaking or other water sports you plan to do, you should always be prepared for an emergency. 

For starters, life jackets should always be worn. In an emergency, you may not have time to put it on before you need it, as a capsize can happen in a split second.

One of the first things you should do before you head out is check the weather conditions for your launch location and the route of your planned journey. Weather conditions can change rapidly on the coast, which means you need to be prepared to cut your trip short or postpone your launch.

If you’re a new paddler, you might want to stay close to the shore. This can keep you out of the way of boat traffic and within a safe swimming distance of land. It might be helpful for your first time to paddle near a lifeguard zone for added safety.

How Do I Start Sea Kayaking?

The first thing you should do before you start ocean kayaking is to practice basic paddling techniques on calm flatwater so that you can get to grips with water safety in a less dangerous environment.

> Can kayaking be dangerous?

It can be useful to practice kayaking on your local lake before you start paddling on the rough waters of the open ocean.

This can be particularly useful if you have never kayaked before or have only ever paddled in a sit-on-top kayak. A sit-in kayak can feel a little different for beginner kayakers.

It can be a good idea for first timers to take a kayaking lesson. A certified ocean kayaking instructor can help you develop the required skills you’ll need for sea kayaking. You should also learn safety techniques, as well as how to perform a wet exit and re-enter your kayak from deep water.

Sometimes, you might find it easier to practice rolling your kayak in the safety of a swimming pool before trying it in the wild. 

Basic Sea Kayaking Tips And Techniques For Beginners

Don’t Paddle Alone

As you probably already know, the ocean can be pretty darn unpredictable. And it covers a huge area. So it’s best to paddle with a partner if you’re heading off shore.

Having someone with you means if either one of you gets into trouble, the other one can come to the rescue or raise the alarm.

Avoid Bad Weather

Even experienced sea kayakers, should avoid sea kayaking in bad weather. Stormy weather can lead to very rough conditions on the water, which can be dangerous for a small kayak.

Always check the weather forecast before you head out. If you are planning a kayaking trip where you will be paddling over several days, make sure you check the forecast for the weather conditions for the duration of your trip. And keep checking it regularly to keep up to date. 

Remember, the weather can change quickly on the coast.

Practice On Calm Water

We’ve said it before but practice your kayaking skills on calm water before you take to the open ocean. 

Developing good paddling techniques and improving your skills can build your confidence in the kayak so that you have a better handle on your boat when it comes to kayaking in rougher waters.

Think Of Your Safety

As we mentioned earlier, you should always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) when kayaking on the ocean – or anywhere else for that matter. This is what will help to keep you afloat if you capsize or if you have to swim to shore. 

You should also make sure you know how to send a distress signal on a marine radio. And you should always have a whistle attached to your PFD in case you need to signal for help or alert someone (or another vessel) to your position in the water.

Learn How To Read The Water

Reading the water can be important for sea kayaking, as the changing tides can cause powerful currents, known as rip currents and rip tides, which can be dangerous if you get caught in them.

You should remain aware of the timings of high tide and low tide so that you know how to avoid dangerous currents.

Know How To Self Rescue

Ideally, you should be a strong swimmer if you plan to kayak in the ocean. You should be able to get yourself back to shore if necessary, either in your kayak or by swimming.

There are generally two things you can do if you capsize. One is to roll your kayak so that you and your kayak are the right way up. This allows you to remain in the kayak while you perform the correction. 

The other is to perform a wet exit, which means you have to pull the grab loop on your spray skirt while you’re under the water, so that you can slide out of the cockpit.

Stay Out Of The Path Of Larger Vessels

Kayaking on the sea can mean you see much bigger boats than you’ve been used to on your local waterways. You may not have had to deal with any boat traffic before.

These large boats may not always be able to see you and may not have enough time to avoid you if they do.

This is why you should always avoid getting in the path of other boats and try to stay out of shipping lanes for your own safety.  

Essential Gear For Sea Kayaking: What You Need To Pack And Wear


A PFD is an essential piece of kayaking equipment.

A life jacket can help to save your life. So it’s important that you wear it at all times while you are kayaking. 

Spare Paddle

Having a spare paddle with you can be vital if something happens to your main one.

A four-piece paddle can be easily stowed inside a hatch.

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit can be essential for all outdoor sports, not just sea kayaking. 


A whistle or other suitable sounding device is generally required by the US Coast Guard for paddling in coastal waters. 

Bilge Pump

This helps you to remove water from your cockpit. Unlike most sit-on-top boats that are self-bailing, sit-inside sea kayaks need to be manually bailed if water enters the cockpit.

Bilge pumps can do this quickly while you’re on the water.

> We think these bilge pumps are the best

Dry Bag

A dry bag is a useful piece of equipment for keeping your essential gear safe and dry. Dry bags can be safely stored inside storage hatches or secured to the deck. 

Spray Skirt

Good spray skirts help the spray and rain out of your cockpit, helping to keep your lower body dry. It also helps to keep out water when you need to roll the kayak. 

Spray skirts are worn around your waist and are connected to the rim of the cockpit, creating a secure seal. 

Navigation Devices

Kayaking on a large body of water like the sea means it’s easy to get lost. A compass and GPS device can be ideal accessories to bring along with you on your sea kayaking trip.

Here are some of the best GPS devices for kayaking.

Suitable Clothing

You should wear suitable clothing for the conditions that you will be paddling in. If you plan to paddle in cold water, you should wear a wetsuit or drysuit that is designed to handle cold temperatures. 

Even if the weather is warm, the water temperature may not always be warm. So consider how cold you might be if you capsized. Always dress for a capsize.

Here are some tips on what to wear when kayaking

Multi-Day Trips

Along with all the essentials and safety gear you’ll need for your kayaking trip, you will also need to think about bringing enough food and drinking water for the duration of your adventure. 

Always pack more food and water than you think you’ll need. This way, if your trip gets extended unexpectedly, you’ll have enough supplies to keep you going.

You’ll also need to pack kayak camping equipment, such as a tent and sleeping bag, if you plan to stay overnight in remote areas or beaches. You’ll probably also need to pack cooking equipment. 

If you’re paddling in a group, you can split the gear up between boats to help balance your load.

Sea Kayaking Destinations: The Best Places To Paddle Around The World


Kayakers at Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska, United StatesPin
Courtesy: NAParish on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Alaska is home to the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park, which can provide the perfect backdrop for a sea kayaking trip. There are several glaciers that can be seen from the water.

You may also have the chance for close encounters with one of the many resident orcas, making it a bucket-list experience for many people.

> Kayaking places in Alaska


Sea Kayaking at Na Pali CoastPin
Courtesy: Kikuko Nakayama on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If tropical islands are more your thing, Hawaii is home to numerous islands and some of the world’s best sea kayaking opportunities. The Na Pali Coast is one of the most magnificent coastlines and can be best experienced from the water in your own kayak.

This wild coast features towering cliffs and forms part of a protected State Wilderness Park.

> Hawaii kayaking places

Greek Islands

Navajio Beach, Zakynthos, GreecePin

The calm, clear waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean can be best explored by sea kayak. You can paddle alongside ancient monuments of the picturesque Greek Islands. With literally thousands of islands, there is no shortage of places to paddle. 

You can explore sea caves and tunnels, discover hidden beaches and coves, and even check out shipwrecks. 

United Kingdom

Sea Kayak Isle of Skye Mac Clouds MaidensPin
Courtesy: john mason on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Kayaking the UK – thousands of miles of rugged coastline to explore, with a variety of different landscapes and geology.

Scotland can offer some of the best sea kayaking opportunities in the UK, with hundreds of islands offering unique experiences. 

The west coast of Scotland, in particular, has pristine beaches with white sand, turquoise water, and plenty of marine life. 


Kayaks on Sheltered Anchorage in God's Pocket, Vancouver IslandPin

As the second largest country in the world, Canada can offer miles of sea kayaking trips along remote coastlines on the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. Vancouver Island can be a good place to begin, with access to the Strait of Georgia and the San Juan Islands. 

This area is known for its killer whales, with lots of guided tours offering chances to spot these magnificent mammals in their natural habitat. 

New Zealand

Kayaks in Kaiteriteri, Nelson Beach, New ZealandPin
Courtesy: Bernard Spragg. NZ on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Another great place for kayaking with whales is New Zealand, where you can spot them just about anywhere on the coastal waters.

Hauraki Gulf Marine Park near Auckland can offer excellent sea kayaking and whale watching opportunities, as can Kaikoura on the South Island. 


Baja California in northwestern Mexico offers a unique opportunity to paddle along the second-longest peninsula in the world.

You can explore the Unesco World Heritage site, which includes the Sea of Cortez and its 244 islands and islets in the Gulf of California. 

Or you can take to the wild waters of the Pacific.

Conclusion: Now You’re Ready For An Unforgettable Kayaking Adventure On The Ocean Waves!

Sea kayaking is an adventurous and rewarding activity that offers a unique way to experience the beauty and diversity of coastal environments.

But safety is highly important. 

If you make sure you’re prepared with the right skills, safety equipment, and a little paddling experience, sea kayaking can be a fantastic way to connect with nature and the endless possibilities that the sea provides.

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