Sea Kayaking For Beginners – Newbie’s Guide To Ocean Kayaking

Steep cliffs, secret bays, hidden beaches, patches of thick seaweed, seals that might pop up to say “Hi” – it sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? 

Ocean kayaking offers endless possibilities; the perfect blend of stunning views and wild, unpredictable environments, allowing paddlers to experience open water and view the coastline from a whole new perspective. 

But it also entails strong winds, changing weather conditions, choppy waters, currents – all that intimidating stuff.

So, while I get that you’re eager to hop in and start paddling, you might want to check out this guide to sea kayaking for beginners first. 

What Is Sea Kayaking? 

sea kayaker paddles towards to a wave

Here’s a quick message from our sponsor, Captain Obvious: 

Sea kayaking is – well, kayaking in the sea. Duh. 

All jokes aside, though, I wish the answer were that simple. I mean, technically speaking, yes, it is a type of kayaking that involves paddling across open waters. But it can include many things – from sea fishing to full-blown expedition trips and everything in between. 

Plus, we are talking about a completely different environment here – even for someone who has a fair share of flat-water paddling experience. 

And yes, you’ll need a specialized kayak for this. 

What Is A Sea Kayak? 

I know you’re going to make this wrong assumption – even some experienced kayakers do – so I figured I should address the misconception straight away: 

No, a sea kayak is not the same as a touring kayak. 

I get how they might look similar with their long and narrow hulls and sleek silhouettes. And you would be right to assume that many touring kayaks can be used in the seas – but not all of them are sea-worthy. 

And while we’re at it, what’s the difference between a kayak and a sea kayak? 

It sounds like a strangely worded question, I know, but you get what I mean by that. “Kayak,” in this sense, refers to a wide range of vessel types that are not sea kayaks, such as recreational kayaks or general-purpose boats, whitewater kayaks, and the like. 

Long and narrow, sea kayaks are characterized by sharp, V-shaped hulls, integrated bulkheads, usually with abundant, water-tight storage options, and are designed with rough, open waters in mind. You’ll often see them equipped with a skeg or rudder system – although they usually offer solid tracking performance on their own, too. 

Sea kayaks are not cheap as they are specialised open water boats, built to hostile conditions-  so think of them as an investment. I’d suggest buying from a well-known manufacturer such as; Wilderness Systems, Perception Kayaks, or Eddyline Kayaks. 

Finding the right sea kayak is an adventure all its own – don’t know where to start? Check out our list of the best sea kayaks for beginners.

Oh, and one more thing: 

It might not be worth buying a sea kayak straight off – not if this is your first foray into this type of kayaking. And before you do get one, consider where you’ll store it and how you’ll transport it to the water. That last part might require a trailer, by the way. 

How Hard Is Sea Kayaking?

Boys sea kayaking

I’ll assume that you’re not a total newbie and that you’ve had a fair share of paddling trips on the local lake or a nearby river. If I’m right, I can see how, as someone who’s used to river kayaking – waterfalls, rocks, rapids, and all that – you might be under the impression that the sea won’t be able to offer you that “Wow” factor. 

What’s so exciting about seeing nothing but blue everywhere you look? Mesmerizing, sure – but adrenaline-fueling? Not so much. 

That’s where you’d be wrong. Oh-so-horribly wrong. 

Sea kayaking is anything but a turn-up-and-simply-paddle type of activity. There is a pretty long list of challenges you’re likely to encounter, all of which could make sea kayaking much harder than you might expect it to be. 

Here are a few: 

  • Varying Water & Weather Conditions – You’re facing all the challenges of open waters at once. Series of waves, strong winds, powerful currents, tides – all without any shelter in sight. And the fact that the conditions can change in a matter of minutes doesn’t make it any easier.
  • Requires A Certain Level Of Fitness – Surprise, surprise, you actually have to paddle when you’re out on the sea. The moment you stop, you’re leaving room for currents and winds to take over. It’s an endurance sport in every sense of the word – and you’re going to feel the strain by the end.
  • Maneuvering Requires Advanced Skills – Sea kayaks are long, pointy, slender – and a real pain to maneuver without advanced paddling skills. “Stick your paddle’s blade in the water and pull” is nowhere near enough to pull this off successfully – let alone safely.
  • Goes Beyond Just Paddling – Mastering essential skills and knowing what you’re doing paddling-wise is one thing. But sea kayaking requires skills that go beyond swinging that paddle of yours.  Marine navigation, water safety and survival skills, and the basics of marine communications and emergency procedures, such as using a VHF radio to make a distress call, are all skills you have to master. 

Also, if you ever caught yourself wondering, is sea kayaking good exercise, I’d like to add: 

Even recreational kayaking can be quite a workout if you put in the effort. But paddling in open waters will kick your butt – I can promise you that.

Dangers Of Sea Kayaking: Is Kayaking In The Ocean Dangerous?

Lone girl is kayaking on an inflatable kayak

If you have to ask me, you probably know the answer. Okay, that might’ve sounded a bit too gloomy – but it’s true that it won’t be a walk in the park. 

Then again, sea kayaking isn’t some death trap for kayakers to paddle into, either. 

As long as the weather conditions are good and the waters aren’t working against you, kayaking in the sea is generally safe. But we both know, things are rarely ideal. 

There are some potentially risky – or flat-out dangerous – scenarios you should be prepared for when you hit the seas. 

Here are a few common dangers of sea kayaking to keep in mind: 

  • Weather – You’d be surprised how quickly strong winds, lightning storms, rain showers, and dropping temperatures can change a casual afternoon paddle into a life-threatening situation. The ocean is unpredictable – and the weather can be, too. The conditions can turn in a matter of minutes.
  • Extreme Cold & Heat – Make no mistake about it; both can be deadly when you’re out on open water. Too cold, and you’re at risk of cold shock and hypothermia. Too hot, and you’re at risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
  • Rough Waters & Currents – One thing you should never do is undermine the power of the open waters. Again, the ocean is unpredictable. You’ll be going against rip currents, series of large waves, changing tides – all of which will try to throw you off your course.
  • Boat Traffic – You’re not on a nearby lake; chances of encountering other boats – often much larger than your kayak – are pretty high. You might be able to see them from afar, but the real question is – will they be able to spot you and your plastic boat?
  • Getting Lost At Sea – The mere thought of it sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? The thing is, it can be hard to maintain any sense of direction and keep track of how far you’ve paddled when there’s no shore or landmarks in sight.
  • Sharks – Yes, yes, shark attacks are not as common as one might imagine – but they do happen. While you shouldn’t let your imagination run wild or let your fears get the best of you, you should be aware that encountering a shark is a genuine possibility. You paddled your ‘yak straight into their front yard, after all. 

How To Start Sea Kayaking: A Few Things You Need To Master

Girl Sea Kayaking during a vibrant sunny summer evening

Again, sea kayaking is far from a walk in the park – both in terms of dangers you may encounter and the technical and physical challenges you’ll have to overcome. I hope I have made that very clear by now. 

How does one get into it, then? 

Well, it’s going to take a bit of work. But don’t get too discouraged – as long as you master these skills, you should be ready to hit the seas. 

Prerequisites: Make Sure You Have A Suitable Level Of Physical Ability 

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but: 

If your current physical fitness levels are less than optimal, you have no business going on an open-water paddling trip. 

And no, this isn’t me shaming you for being a couch potato. I’m hoping to get you to realize that this isn’t one of those hop-in-and-hope types of outings. 

Kayaking in open water will be anything but easy – technically, physically, and mentally – and you need to be 100% sure you’re cut out for the task. 

So, ask yourself: 

  • Are you physically fit? How’s your endurance? 
  • Are you a strong swimmer? 
  • Do you know how to re-enter a kayak from the water? 
  • Have you paddled long-distance before? 
  • How much flat-water experience do you have? 

If you have any doubts about your ability to tackle the challenges the sea might throw your way, I recommend that you reconsider heading out for now. 

Know your limits – and respect them. 

Take A Lesson

Spending a day or two with a certified instructor will not only get your paddling technique up to a good standard but also help you overcome any fears you might have regarding paddling in open waters. 

6 Tips for Overcoming Fear while Sea Kayaking - Kayak Hipster

It’s not about lulling you into a false sense of security; the ocean will always be an unpredictable territory. It’s about building up your basic skills, getting familiar with different conditions in a controlled manner, and, in turn, building both competence and confidence.

For first timers this might include dry land instruction on how to set up your own kayak; seat and foot peg adjustment in order to get the paddling position, rudder and foot pedals set-up, and how to outrig your ‘yak for ocean expeditions.

Controlling a sea kayak is a whole different ball game than than of a recreational kayak, so I would advise you to go over paddling techniques and master the fundamental paddle strokes, including:

  • Basic forward strokes and reverse strokes 
  • Sweep strokes (forward and reverse) 
  • Positioning and maneuvering strokes, including draw and sculling strokes 
  • Edging your kayak 

But more importantly, you have to learn key safety skills, such as: 

  • How to perform deep-water self-rescue (and how to assist others in your group) 
  • How to do a wet exit and recover from a capsize using different techniques, like the paddle float rescue, scramble (cowboy) recovery, and kayak T-rescue 
  • How to roll a kayak 
  • How to perform the side sculling maneuver 
Paddle Float Re-enter and Roll Kayak Rescue

Learn How To Navigate 

Remember what I said about sea kayaking requiring more than just good paddling skills? Well, learning the basics of open-water navigation is just one of the things I had in mind. 

Given how easy it is to get lost at sea, I’d say learning the basics of marine navigation should be high up on your list of priorities. Don’t risk getting lost in the middle of nowhere – with only water everywhere you look. 

So, make sure you have a good grasp of the basics of open-water navigation, and for the love of God – learn how to use a compass and read a map. 

Kayak Navigation Basics - Taking Bearings & Triangulation - Kayak Hipster

Learn Marine Radio Protocol 

Another thing I mentioned earlier – besides navigation – is that sea kayaking also requires you to have a basic understanding of marine communications and emergency protocols. And by that, I mean knowing how to use a VHF marine radio and send a distress call. 

Because one, smartphones aren’t particularly reliable in these scenarios. And two, you can only make one call at a time. 

Now, keep in mind that Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) will be monitored by the US Coast Guard and is reserved for safety and distress calls. As for the actual emergency VHF radio protocols, you’ll have two options: 

  • Mayday, a protocol that indicates an imminent threat to life and the need for immediate assistance 
  • Pan-Pan, a protocol used in urgent situations that are not life-threatening 

Understand (And Be Able To Read) Weather & Water Conditions 

Yeah, yeah, you know how to check the weather app on your smartphone. We all do. But that’s not quite what I have in mind when I say, “be able to read weather and water conditions.” 

And just so we’re clear, I don’t mean licking your pinkie to judge the direction of the wind, either. 

I mean understanding how different weather conditions can affect the water – like the connection between winds and waves, for instance, the impact of tidal currents, and what a high or low tide means in terms of water levels

The good news is that tides can be predicted accurately using these charts. As for the weather conditions, you know the drill – weather forecast

What To Wear When Sea Kayaking?

Adventurous woman is sea kayaking

If you’re going to stay safe and comfortable – let alone have fun – in the outdoors, you’re going to need clothing that can protect you from the elements. Unlike clothing for other outdoor sports, a kayaker’s clothing has to account for the water factor. 

Water can suck the heat away from your body up to 25 times faster than air, sending you on the fast track to hypothermia. So, you have to dress for immersion – not the weather. 

And that usually requires the following: 

  • Wetsuit, which holds a thin layer of water close to the skin, warming it up and using it as insulation – but only works when the conditions aren’t too extreme. 
  • Dry suit, which seals out water, keeping you dry – but it also requires insulating layers to be worn underneath. 
  • Base layers, mainly moisture-wicking clothes made of polyester or Merino wool – never cotton – that are worn next-to-skin. 
  • Shell layers, preferably with neoprene or latex gaskets at the neck and wrists that offer wind protection. 
  • Kayaking boots, usually made of thicker neoprene, that keep the feet dry and warm.
  • Hat – again, one made of neoprene – to protect your head from cold air and brisk winds. 
  • Paddling gloves, which will protect your hands from extreme cold and minimize blisters – these hurt as hell in saltwater, by the way – without compromising your grip. 
  • Helmet – or brain bucket, if that’s what you prefer to call it – to protect the skull and, more importantly, that brain of yours. 

Essential Sea Kayaking Gear Checklist: What Equipment For Kayaking In The Sea?

Man on a Sea Kayak paddling on the sea during winter

Okay, we talked about what to wear when sea kayaking. But we both know that there’s more a paddler needs to bring on such an outing. 

So, since you’re already in the process of making a list of items to pack, let’s go over essential sea kayaking gear, too. 

Obviously, a sea-worthy kayak will be a must – but other than that, you’re going to need: 

  • A spare paddle, preferably a two-piece one, as a just-in-case piece of equipment. It’s better to have it on board and not use it than to lose your main paddle on the open water and not have a backup solution.
  • Dry bags – yes, plural – because anything that isn’t stored in a dry bag and secured to the kayak is at risk of ending up at the bottom of the ocean, or, at the very least, water damage.
  • A spray skirt – because rain and large waves that are splashing left and right will not only have you soaking wet in a matter of minutes but fill up your kayak’s cockpit with water, too.
  • A bilge pump is also worth mentioning while we’re on the subject of your cockpit filling up with water. 
  • Paddle floats – small, inflatable bags that attach to your paddle’s blades and play a vital role in performing paddle float rescue.
  • Kayak lights – because you have to make yourself easy to spot out there, especially in low-visibility conditions. And a 360-degree white light is the only way to do that.
  • Signalling and communication devices, starting with visual distress signals (flares), a noisemaker, such as an air horn or whistle, a marine VHF radio, emergency beacon, or a GPS SOS device.
  • Navigation devices – because marine navigation is a serious business. You’ll need a GPS unit, a kayak compass, and a good, old map.
  • An emergency survival kit, which will essentially be your bail-out bag should things go South, containing basic survival tools, including rain gear, additional thermal base layers, spare batteries, a first aid kit, rope, a Swiss army knife or multi-functional tool, water and water-purifying tablets, fire-starting supplies, energy bars, and an LED headlamp.

Since ocean kayaks generally don’t struggle with lack of storage space as much as an average ‘yak does, it’s safe to assume you won’t have trouble bringing most of these items – and more – with you. 

Golden Rules Of Sea Kayaking – Remember The 5 Ps

view from sea kayak at sunset

Okay, we’re nearing the end of this beginner’s guide to sea kayaking – but we’re not quite there yet. There’s one more thing – or five, if you want to get technical about it – I’d like to go over with you before we wrap things up: 

The 5 Ps of sea kayaking. 

#1 Plan (And Then Plan Some More) 

First of all when planning a kayak trip, get familiar with the area you’ll be paddling in – and pick your route, including entry and exit spots and a plan B route, accordingly. 

Proper planning is half the battle in ocean kayaking, if you ask me. And by “proper planning,” I mean: 

  • Map out your paddling route in advance, down to the last detail. 
  • Check – and then double-check – the local weather reports. Be sure to factor in how the weather conditions in the days prior to your kayaking trip might affect water temperature.
  • Check the tide predictions in the area and plan the beginning and end of your outing accordingly. 

Also, if you plan on clocking in more than a few miles and going further from shore – or spending the night out there – be sure to file a float plan. Someone – be it a family member or a close friend – should know where you’re going, when you expect to come back, and, most importantly, what to do if you don’t. 

#2 Paddle With A Partner 

Bring a friend – or four. Bring as many friends as you’d like. Whatever it takes to make your sea voyage safer. 

I’m serious, though. 

As much as you may enjoy the serenity of kayaking solo, you should be mindful of the fact that the ocean is one big, powerful – and pretty darn unpredictable – place. Trying to conquer it alone is a bad idea. 

You’ll be glad that someone’s there if you ever find yourself requiring assistance to get back into your kayak. 

Sea Kayak T-Rescue: Deep Water Rescue / How to get back in your Kayak with help

Plus, it’s going to be a lot more fun if you make it a group thing. Think of it as a road trip – but in the ocean. 

#3 PFD (Wear It) 

I generally believe that this much should go without saying, but then I figured – it doesn’t hurt to be reminded about the importance of life vests every once in a while. 

They’re called life jackets for a reason. They save lives. 

The very nature of kayaking guarantees that you will end up in the water – no matter how skilled and experienced you are. But when that happens in open waters, which tend to be affected by the weather and powerful currents, wearing a PFD becomes more important than ever. 

In terms of choosing a suitable life vest, make sure it fits you right and that it’s rated for off-shore use and USCG-certified. Also, I’d recommend PFDs that feature multiple attachment loops and pockets; you should keep a whistle, a waterproof flashlight, and an emergency beacon on you at all times. 

Stay safe out there, folks!

#4 Practice Your Skills & Drills 

I’m not saying you need to go full-on Bear-Grylls-style survival mode, but you need to know how to keep yourself alive out there should things go wrong. 

Practice and hone your skills until basic paddling strokes and more advanced maneuvers, such as rolling, edging, and performing both assisted and self-rescue, become second nature to you. 

And then practice some more. 

You should get to a point where you can pretty much do these things without thinking – because your chances of getting out of a sticky situation depend on you being able to think clearly, make sound decisions, and react without succumbing to panic. 

#5 Prepare (For Everything) 

I’ve said this already – and I’ll keep repeating it until you take me seriously – but the ocean can be an incredibly unpredictable environment. 

And the only way to be genuinely prepared is to – well, prepare for EVERYTHING, including the worst-case scenario. That means you need to: 

  • Carry a means of calling for help – and keep it on hand 
  • Pack an emergency survival kit 
  • Keep all your electronics (GPS, for example) fully charged and bring spare batteries 
  • Bring extra water and food for emergency scenarios 
  • Pack a change of clothes and a towel 
  • Stick close to the rest of your paddling group 

Ocean Kayaking For Beginners: Summary 

Getting into sea kayaking requires you to remain aware and follow certain open-water safety protocols, including: 

  • Choosing a sea-worthy kayak 
  • Wearing a PFD 
  • Researching the location and mapping your route 
  • Mastering your paddling technique 
  • Learning the basics of marine navigation 
  • Understanding weather and water conditions 
  • Paddling in a group rather than alone 
  • Understanding the dangers and being prepared for everything