How to Learn to Kayak

Nova Scotia is an awesome place to kayak with its stunning coastline, myriad islands that are great for camping, and diverse wildlife. Sea kayaking is a great sport that combines physical fitness with cerebral challenges like navigation, planning, and leadership. I can still remember a time in the not too distant past when kayaking was new to me. In this article, I suggest some practical ways that you can get started.

WARNING: SEA KAYAKING IS ADDICTIVE AND, ONCE YOU GET STARTED, YOU MAY NOT BE ABLE TO STOP YOURSELF.

1. Go on a guided tour

Learn to Kayak-3There are plenty of excellent commercial companies and some non-profit community groups in Nova Scotia that offer sea kayak tours and training. Even if you already have some experience or a boat of your own, guided tours are a great way to explore new bits of coastline and to make new paddling friends.

East Coast Outfitters (ECO) is a short drive from Halifax and offers tours around the beautiful Lower Prospect area. I went on my first tour of Blue Rocks with Pleasant Paddling. Candlebox Kayaking in Shelburne guides groups in a variety of places along the shore of Southwest Nova Scotia.

2. Get out with an experienced friend

Getting out with a friend can be fun and more casual than a commercial tour. Who should you ask? Even if your friend doesn’t drive around with a boat on their car all the time, the boat cradles or stacker bars are a sure sign that they kayak. Since many boating enthusiasts have a tendency to collect multiple boats (I’ve got friends with small fleets), you can safely bet they’ve got a spare.

You’ll have an even better time if your friend is formally trained and sufficiently experienced to competently lead a group at sea, ideally in conditions more advanced than you’re likely to encounter. Cold fronts move in quickly and fog as thick as pea soup can manifest in mere minutes, so your friend should be able to anticipate challenges and deal with them when they arise. A good minimum standard would be Paddle Canada Level 2 certification, which demands skill proficiency in a boat, seamanship and leadership training, and wilderness first aid preparedness.

3. Check out some clinics

With a bit more skill you can take on longer tours and feel more confident in a kayak. Clinics are a great way to accumulate experience without the cost or time commitment of taking a course. The weekly Adult Paddle Nights at St. Mary’s Boat Club in Halifax are a fun and highly affordable way to get in a boat and amp up your skill.

4. Take a course

Learn to Kayak-2Maybe you’ve got some experience in a boat and want to get better, or perhaps you want to be super prepared before your first guided tour. There are a variety of courses to consider from fixed curriculum to custom-tailored clinics. Paddle Canada courses define the training standards for recreational sea kayaking in Canada.

The Intro course prepares a complete novice to kayaking in calm, sheltered water by teaching basic paddle strokes and rescue techniques. For day trips in sheltered waters, you might seriously consider the Level 1 course, which is typically taught in two days (e.g. over a weekend). Level 2 teaches proficiency for overnight trips and advances your skill to kayak safely in moderate conditions. The Level 3 group leadership award further develops one’s personal boating skills and expands on risk assessment, decision-making, and seamanship, equipping you to plan and execute multi-day journeys. For dealing with group leadership in advanced conditions, the Level 4 award helps prepare you for longer journeys involving open coastline with infrequent and sometimes difficult landing options.

The Paddle Canada curriculum is taught throughout Canada. I know several thoroughly qualified instructors who teach almost exclusively on the Ontario lakes. These classroom environments share a lot of the characteristics of the sea, including wind and rough water handling. If you train in Nova Scotia, though, you can count yourself lucky. Here we get the added benefit of conditions that even the biggest lakes don’t deliver: tides, tidal races, and swell/surf.

There are lots of great places in Nova Scotia to take Paddle Canada courses. I’ve trained extensively with ECO and did some clinics at Coastal Adventures. For the advanced stuff, and especially for Instructor training, Committed 2 The Core delivers. Kayakers come from all over the country to train with my coach, Christopher Lockyer, and the host of “visiting professors” he imports from the US, UK and other corners of the world.

5. Attend a symposium

I’ve met most of my Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia boating friends through advanced training courses and at sea kayaking symposiums. You can learn to boat in advanced conditions on The Great Lakes but for the most advanced stuff — tidal races, surfing, and rock hopping, for example — you must journey to the sea.

Learn to Kayak-4Nova Scotia boasts symposiums for all levels of paddlers. The annual MEC Paddlefest in Dartmouth is a great place for complete newbies to get their feet wet in a casual setting with no financial commitment. For a modest cost that includes boat and gear,  you can attend a clinic with experienced coaches who volunteer their time to the event. Annual events in Shelburne and in Cape Breton offer skill development in parts of the province that don’t benefit from the density of skilled coaching available closer to Halifax.

The Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium is a special event focused exclusively on sea kayaking and draws participants from throughout Canada and the US and coaches from around the world. There are courses for beginners to advanced paddlers, including surfing, rock hopping, tidal currents, day journeys, navigation, and leadership. I’ve attended this event for three years straight and had the privilege to work with some of the most experienced sea kayaking coaches in the world. Last year I was invited to join the Board of Directors and contributed to organizing the 2015 event. We’re taking a break for 2016 and coming back in full force for 2017.

Coastal Adventures in Tangier hosts an Annual Sea Kayakers’ Meeting, which is the longest continual running paddling event in Canada. This two-day symposium offers coastal paddles on the Eastern Shore, skill sessions, and features an evening session with Scott Cunningham about his adventures at sea. I’m excited to be attending for the first time this year.

6. Go to a pool session

Learn to Kayak-5I love pool sessions. I learned to roll at winter pool session and these days I’m working with others who are progressing this skill. The warm water of a pool offers a safe and comfortable environment to practice things that involve immersion like rolling and rescues.

There are lots of other fun things you can do that are likely to get you wet and put your rescue skills to practice. Paddling backward and maneuvering in the tight confines of a crowded pool is always a challenge. Try low and high brace sculling for support. Sit on the back deck of your boat and paddle around. Start with your legs dangling outside of the boat in the water and advance to keeping your feet in the cockpit. Try it standing up.

For more information about some of the options I’ve described in this article, please check out my resource page: Who to Kayak with in Nova Scotia.

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