All about sea kayaking

You might say that this is a bit of a personal statement

Why Sea Kayaking?

At the beginning….

Smooth sea, reflected clouds. Tranquil conditions, but It’s all such a new experience that you feel wired. And then gradually the peacefulness soaks in. Gliding close to the rocky shoreline, Sandpipers a few feet away barely notice you. At the headland of a small island, curious seals follow often coming within a kayak length. As we finish the trip the shark fin ridge of Mull is silhouetted in the sunset.

Some years later, when you have aquired skills and sea wisdom….

It’s wild. You just to the west of Scarba’s fearsome sea-crags. It’s blowing about force five and the waterfalls are being blown back up the cliff! There’s spray in your face as you accelerate down the face of a wave, carving a white crescent. In the midst on your exhilaration you realize… that you feel at home here. Like the Sea Eagle above.

I made the journey between those points several decades ago. I still get that feeling and I love to help others make the same journey.

Sea Kayaking particularly appeals to people who like to get out into wild and beautiful places without the artificiality, smell and noise of an engine. In a sea kayak, you can explore fascinating islands, coastlines and sea lochs with the freedom to go where no other form of transport can take you. Kayaking can be serene, a peaceful way of moving through the marine landscape. But if you like challenge and excitement, Atlantic waves and the wild tide races of Argyll will provide it in bucketfuls!

Is it safe?

Yes and no. If it was completely safe, it wouldn’t be adventure!

The sea deserves the utmost respect. It’s a joyful environment but it can also be absolutely lethal. Skill is required and wisdom is essential. The most important thing to understand is this:

Sea kayaking is mainly a team sport.

For people who have been properly trained, paddling in competent groups, sea kayaking in the UK has a very good track record. To my knowledge there has only been one fatality in 38 years! But paddling on the sea without that training and experience is distinctly dangerous. There have been a number tragedies.

Solo padding by experts is risky (I do it, but I would not encourage others to do it)

Solo paddling if you are not an expert is extremely dangerous. Hence most of the tragedies!

So the message is: Get trained. Paddle within your ability with others who are competent. Build your experience step by step. Then you can feel the freedom.


Speaking for myself, the wildife is a major component of the experience. Kayaks are almost silent, create no fumes and leave no trace. Wildlife will often tolerate the close presence of kayaks, when they would flee from anything else. Some seabirds seem to be completely unafraid of kayaks, though we will still take care not to disturb then. Seals and dolphins often swim nearer to get a better look. In some places, grey seals will even come and nuzzle your kayak! We see porposes, Sea Eagles and even occaisional basking sharks. In Alaska I have had Humpback whales swim just under me! Despite their shyness and relative scarcity, we have have 30 to 40 otter sightings per year on Seafreedom trips.

But, we believe that it is vital to avoid disturbance of wildlife. We are visitors in their environment. We have held WiSe accreditation and have been trained in “Leave no trace” practices. We are constantly seeking ways to give our clients a good wildlife experience without causing disturbance. Please have a look at the notes at the bottom of this page.

What’s different about sea kayaks?

Sea kayaks differ from other kayaks in that they are generally longer (usually about 5 to 6 meters) They are sleek and fast with hatches and water tight compartments for storing camping equipment and supplies. If you have paddled general purpose kayaks before, you will be amazed by how smoothly a sea kayak cuts through the water. They have lower “initial stability” than general purpose and most white water kayaks. Paradoxically, this makes them more stable in a rough sea. It is important to match the client to the appropriate design of kayak. If the kayak hull has the right volume for you, it will feel more stable and easier to control in more challenging conditions. We have a wide range of sea kayaks so that you can paddle something that is right for you.

The Rough and the Smooth

Of course, it isn’t always calm. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it was. Because of their hull shape, the compartments and because of the spray decks that we wear to seal the cockpit opening, sea kayaks are amazingly seaworthy. Assuming of course that the paddler has developed the skill required to handle the conditions. An experienced paddler who has taken the time to learn appropriate techniques can handle remarkably rough conditions and strong winds. Once the Eskimo roll has been mastered (a technique for righting the kayak after a capsize without getting out of the kayak) we can go and play in the tide races, surfing the waves and riding the currents.

What do you do if it rains? (Someone once asked me!)

We go paddling! Rain is no problem at all. Once you have got your gear on and you are in your kayak, it can rain all it likes and it won’t make any difference. In light rain, we find that clients often don’t even notice. Paddling a kayak in heavy rain is a unique and enjoyable experience – no really, it is! Of course it is important to keep warm. A couple of layers of fleece under your paddling jacket usually does the trick in all but the coldest conditions. We provide dry suits* when appropriate, so that you can keep dry even if you manage to fall in and for rescue training. We also have “pogies” to keep your hands warm in the winter.

*to be accurate and to manage customer expectations…. they are “Kayaking specific surface immersion suits” and they don’t really keep you totally dry For normal paddling they will keep you mostly dry. If you do go for a swim in them or if we paddle in very rough water, you might get a bit damp. But they are a lot better than just wearing a jacket

Small craft for great journeys

Some astonishing feats have been achieved in se kayaks, for example, there have been a number of circumnavigations of the UK, Australia, South Island of New Zealand, Cape Horn and crossings of the North Sea, the Irish Sea, Tasman sea. Unbelievably, in 2001, Peter Bray paddled the North Atlantic. In 2006, Patrick Winterton paddled to Mingulay, St Kilda, The Flannans, Butt of Lewis, Cape Wrath, the Orkneys, Fair Isle and the Shetlands all in one Trip! In 2010 he paddled from the outer Hebrides to the Faroe islands. I have crossed the Minch to the outer Heb’s several times, though I tend to get a bit bored after 10 or 12 miles of open water. Most people prefer to use their kayaks for coastal rambles. In kayaks, we can paddle between the sea stacks of Anglesey, visit otherwise inaccessible islands in the Hebrides and explore the deep sea lochs of Scotland.

Should you buy your own kayak?

Eventually, may be. But not right away. You will need time to find out what style of sea kayak suits you physically and is also optimum for the type of sea kayaking that you are going to be doing. Sadly I ‘ve seen lots of people rush out and buy kayaks (I’ve even had complete beginners turn up with them) only to find they want to change them within a few months. Borrow, beg and rent for a while until you know what you need.

World class training

Learning to paddle a sea kayak is not difficult, but it’s not obvious. Some of the techniques are very contra-intuitive. It’s well worth getting proper tuition so that you don’t acquire bad habits. And of course, safety is extremely important. As I mentioned before, Sea kayaking in the UK has an excellent safety record, largely due to the well thought out and carefully structured coaching scheme operated by British Canoeing. The BCU has established exacting standards for kayak instructors and controls the award of qualifications. The BCU system is arguably the best in the world and it’s qualifications are accepted almost everywhere. The sea is a serious place to be. There are risks and traps for the unwary. A novice setting off from a holiday beach on a seemingly calm day can find himself in big trouble when the tide turns and takes him into the overalls or clapotis ( rough water created by waves reflecting from cliffs). But a paddler who has learned with a BCU coach will be aware of the risks and have the skills and techniques that turn a threat into a bit of fun.

We are all enthusiastic exponents of “individualized coaching” and take pride in finding coaching techniques that are just right for you.

Kayaking and Fitness: You don’t need to be super fit or made of India rubber to enjoy sea kayaking. Even relatively unfit people can usually manage 5 or 6 miles paddling after a couple of days. Stamina and flexibility are more useful than strength as good technique takes care of the effort. An experienced and reasonably fit paddler will comfortably manage 15 to 20 miles a day and experts frequently paddle 30 or more. Being overweight can create a few challenges but isn’t an insuperable problem. If you would like to know more about this (or anything else) please give us a call.

Finding your way: Sea kayak navigation is an art in itself. At the simple end of the spectrum, the ability to use an OS 1:50,000 map and a compass, together with a good understanding of tides and their effects would be adequate. A paddler undertaking advanced trips will need an intimate knowledge of the ways of flowing water, the ability to read charts and plot a course. Night paddling is fun!

* Wildlife Notes.

Kayakers should be careful not to cause stress to wildlife. They live there. We are the visitors. We must treat wildife with consideration and respect. Never chase or paddle an interception course with an animal. If you happen to get close, back off if the animal shows any sign of agitation. You will get a better view if you just sit quietly in your kayak. Better still, keep your distance and use water proof binoculars (we can provide them). Whatever you are watching, even if it doesn’t seem aware of you, limit your time and let them be.

Seals (in the water) and dolphins are curious and if they don’t feel threatened they will probably come to you. Seals, when they are hauled out on rocks, are very nervous of kayaks . If they stare at you – back off, you are too close. If they feel threatened and get into the water you are at least inconveniencing them and possibly harming them by reducing their recuperation time.

Dolphins and Porpoises are well aware of your prescence. If you try and go to them you may disturb or distress them. Be patient and they may come closer to you. But be very circumspect. You don’t get any idea of how big Dolphins are until they jump out of the water right beside you. You really wouldn’t want to be in the way when they land.

Birds. Before landing on small islands between May and August, check that there are no nesting seabirds or chicks.  If you find

Otters Take delight in seeing them but limit the time that you watch them and don’t keep coming back as they may feel pressured and abandon their territory.

Basking Sharks. Are quite tolerant of kayaks and unlike boats with propellers, we don’t represent a danger to them. But avoid paddling on an interception course or following them. And don’t touch them. They don’t have teeth, but a flick of their tail if they are upset could be a seriously unpleasant experience.

Please be responsible and protect our wild environment.

Take only pictures and leave nothing more than footprints.