THE WORLD OF SEA KAYAKING

WHAT IS SEA KAYAKING?

One question, a thousand answers...

++ Welcome to the salty world of the sea kayak ++
++ Interested in kayaking on the sea and looking for information about how to get started? ++
++ Are all those strange terms, like “Greenland rolling”, “rock hopping”, “tide races” etc. all Greek to you? ++
++ Well, you've come to the right place – because this page will give you the overview you need! ++

WHO INVENTED IT?

No – just for once, it wasn’t the Swiss... Sea kayaking is a maritime tradition, after all, and it was invented, developed, and perfected by the native people of Greenland and other regions of the Arctic over the centuries – not for pleasure, but in order to hunt, because in the Arctic, to hunt means to survive.
No – just for once, it wasn’t the Swiss... Sea kayaking is a maritime tradition, after all, and it was invented, developed, and perfected by the native people of Greenland and other regions of the Arctic over the centuries – not for pleasure, but in order to hunt, because in the Arctic, to hunt means to survive.

A LIVING INDIGENOUS TRADITION

++ Even though we don’t go walrus hunting all that often nowadays, we greatly respect this ancient indigenous art, and we do our bit to make sure that, rather than being lost, the inheritance of these brave and resourceful hunters of the far North continues to evolve as a living tradition. ++

  • The Qajaq
    The “Qajaq” of the Greenlanders must surely be one of mankind’s most impressive inventions. Living in a harsh environment, the hunters of the far North developed a boat which was lightweight, narrow and, more importantly: fast. Silently pushed through the water with a slender double-bladed paddle, they are superbly well-suited to the task of hunting for sea mammals. This marvel of human ingenuity is all the more astonishing when you consider the fact that the high Arctic is entirely treeless. Building a qajaq meant using valuable driftwood, which was used to create astonishingly light and carefully constructed frames, around which waterproof animal skins were then stretched. No nails, no screws, no glue – instead, everything was sewn and held together using the tensile strength of animal tendon.

    However, it wasn't just the indigenous Greenlanders who built kayaks. The Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and the Yupiat of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic also developed very similar paddle-powered craft for the purposes of hunting.

    The hunting boat of the arctic hunter has now become a mass-produced piece of “sports equipment”. Now found all over the world, and further developed in all sorts of different directions, all the way up to the short and agile whitewater kayak – the beautiful, slim, elegant qajaqs of the Greenlanders have survived to the present day and are now built not only by indigenous craftsmen, but also by boatyards around the world. Boatbuilders like the Swede Johan Wirsen and his partner company,
    Rebel Kayaks, have made a considerable contribution to the increasing popularity of the Greenland kayak around the world.
  • Roll or Die
    The indigenous hunters of the North are not only striking in terms of their creativity and craftsmanship – they are also renowned for their incredible bravery. In Greenland, nobody used to be able to swim. Why would they? Even in the summer, the seas of the High Arctic rarely exceed temperatures of 2–5°C. Any attempt to get out of the kayak and swim would only have prolonged the ordeal. Awareness of the very real threat of dying prompted these canny hunters to come up with another legendary innovation: they found ways of returning to the surface following a capsize. The famous “Eskimo roll” was born. They didn’t just stop at the one rolling technique though, and over time, they developed all sorts of different rolls. With their more-or-less watertight seal-leather suits (“tuilik”) firmly attached to their boats, these hunters learnt at least 35 different ways of rolling in the icy water, from every position – whether using their paddles, their hands, or tangled up in a harpoon line: in calm seas, stormy waters, whilst being pulled sideways by a one-ton walrus – the acquisition of these skills was a matter of survival. It was only once these skills had been mastered that it was permitted to go hunting in the qajaq.

    For a long time, these techniques remained a mystery to the hobby paddlers of more temperate regions. It wasn’t until 1927 that the mystery was solved, when Edi Hans Pawlata of Vienna became the first European to perform a verified Eskimo roll.
  • The Greenland Paddle
    Perhaps even more so than the pureblood Greenland kayak, the Greenland paddle is also enjoying ever greater popularity today. Just a few years ago, it was dismissed as simply “exotic” – and there are plenty of paddlers who are still wary of this slim traditional wooden paddle. But its following continues to grow apace. Especially when it comes to touring (whether on calm waters or rough), it is ideal. It spares your joints over longer distances – an advantage which the slenderer paddlers amongst us greatly appreciate.

    However, the true advantages of the Greenland paddle, whose long, slim blades share the same plane, become obvious when it comes to bracing and rolling. Those who have understood and internalised the techniques of Greenland rolling can return to the surface from any position – and do so with confidence and ease. (Read more about this topic further down the page)
  • From the Qajaq to the Ocean Playboat
    As mentioned above, the sea kayak has undergone a lot of development over recent decades. The British have played a leading role in advancing the sport of kayaking. So, it comes as no great surprise that alongside the long-established traditional lines of the greenland kayak, a whole series of “British kayaks” have been developed, and have pretty much come to define the form of the modern sea kayak. They are generally extremely seaworthy boats, with various compartments, footrests, seats optimised for performance, skegs (retractable fins which stabilise the direction of travel in windy conditions), deck lines and so on...

    As the sport continued to develop (more on which below) new boat shapes continued to appear: in addition to the traditional touring boat with lots of storage space, shorter, more manoeuvrable boats also began to appear. These are designed for messing around between the rocks, playing in the marine rapids (tide races), or making the best of the surf. Besides super-light kayaks made of kevlar-carbon, there are extremely solid “ocean playboats” made of virtually indestructible polyethylene – and so on...

    Nevertheless, the common inheritance of all of these modern kayaks can still be seen. And that is, and will always be, the good old qajaq of the Greenlanders.

IT’S KAYAKING FOR WIMPS, RIGHT?

Especially in Switzerland, many still see sea kayaking as “a hobby for people who are too soft for real kayaking”. Real kayaking – well, traditionally, that can pretty much mean only one thing here: whitewater kayaking. Sea kayaking...? Well it’s a harmless pastime for those who don’t dare to kayak on the river. It’s for the kinds of people who just want to have a cosy little paddle-about on the lake. Paddling a kayak on the sea? “Can't be that hard...” That's right. It isn’t. At least – it doesn’t have to be... All the same: the demands it makes of your body and mind are entirely different – you can hardly compare the two. Tight, fast and ferocious, or gigantic, dynamic and massive? It’s a matter of taste. And, in fact, there are growing numbers of kayakers, who are equally passionate about both.
Especially in Switzerland, many still see sea kayaking as “a hobby for people who are too soft for real kayaking”. Real kayaking – well, traditionally, that can pretty much mean only one thing here: whitewater kayaking. Sea kayaking...? Well it’s a harmless pastime for those who don’t dare to kayak on the river. It’s for the kinds of people who just want to have a cosy little paddle-about on the lake. Paddling a kayak on the sea? “Can't be that hard...” That's right. It isn’t. At least – it doesn’t have to be... All the same: the demands it makes of your body and mind are entirely different – you can hardly compare the two. Tight, fast and wild – or gigantic, dynamic and ferocious? It’s a matter of taste. And, in fact, there are growing numbers of kayakers, who are equally passionate about both.

GENTLE OR SAVAGE? NEPTUNE DECIDES

++ The river or the sea? Ultimately, there really is just one real difference: the river is like a hungry wolf. Once he has you, he’ll devour you in seconds. The sea, however, is more like a cat... once she’s caught you, she’ll toy with you for half an eternity. But in the end, she’ll swallow you too! ++

++ The river or the sea? Ultimately, there really is just one real difference: the river is like a hungry wolf. Once he has you, he’ll devour you in seconds. The sea, however, is more like a cat... once she’s caught you, she’ll toy with you for half an eternity. But in the end, she’ll swallow you too! ++

  • But enough of these comparisons!
    The discussion sketched out above regarding whitewater vs. sea kayaking is, of course, a moot point. For one thing, as sea kayakers, we really don’t want to enter into these kinds of comparisons. Why should we? We paddle for our own enjoyment – not for other people. And whether it's rivers or the sea, we paddlers should stick together anyway, and save our energy for the things that really matter. But all the same, we know how omnipresent this topic continues to be amongst kayakers in Switzerland. And we know – from our own experiences as well as from the reports of so many others – how irritating it is to be sneered at by some of the dinosaurs that you still come across in the clubs, to be given the feeling that you somehow have to prove yourself. So: enough is enough! We gladly invite everyone to come paddling with us and experience it for themselves. Not so that we can show off, but rather so that you can see for yourself how beautiful, vast, moving, frightening, overwhelming, peaceful, furious, fascinating, and unfathomable the ocean is.
  • Welcome to Neptune’s Realm
    Describing the reality of the sea in a couple of sentences is pretty much an impossibility... What is it that fills us with such passion, such enthusiasm? Is it the infinite horizon of the sea? That feeling of being one tiny, vulnerable point in the endless blue? Is it the capes and the reefs, pounded by the thunderous waves? The sea spray? The salt in the air? Is it the immense power of the wind, clawing waves up out of the water and sending them surging across the entire breadth of the Atlantic? Or is it the might of the sun and the moon, whose forces combine to generate enormous tidal ranges, tide races, and gigantic rapids? Is it the dolphins, seals, and even those occasional whales, whose paths we cross on special days? Is it the unfathomed unknown across which we playfully paddle, never knowing what turmoil might at this very moment be thrashing in the depths below our keels? Is it the fickleness of Neptune’s mood, greeting us with a gentle welcome on one day, and swallowing entire ships the next? Is it the wanderlust that captures all those who have spent time at sea? Is it the immediacy of the experience, the raw, unfiltered reality of bobbing on the water in your little kayak, immersed in the surging power of the elements? Is it the spirit of discovery, when we find ourselves in places we’ve never seen before? Or is it the joy that grips us when we discover a narrow passage between the rocks, washed over by the waves? Is it those waves that we seem to wait an eternity for, until finally we catch a huge one, a perfect one?

    There is only one answer to all of these questions: it’s everything – and probably much, much more.
  • But what about lakes?
    Even though our boats are built for the sea, and even though we are at our happiest when the brine is dripping from our eyebrows: we also paddle on lakes – of course we do! It’s a wonderful feeling: up in the mountains of Switzerland, gliding swiftly and smoothly across turquoise lakes – whether in the summer or the winter. This is where we hone our paddling technique and practise rolling. It’s where we spend many of our weekends, very often only taking hammocks, sleeping bags, a cooking pot, and a flint and steel. At the end of a strenuous week of work, this is where we come to find ourselves again.

    And yes, we do also kayak on rivers. There’s no better place to practise for the sea’s enormous tide races than back home in Switzerland, on the Aare, Reuss, and Rhine.

    No – sea kayaks are not just made for the sea. And we’re not so pretentious that we would refuse to paddle on the rivers and lakes of our homeland!

PURE ADVENTURE

For us at Moryak, what sea kayaking means more than anything else is adventure and freedom. An opportunity to escape from the confines of an ever-shrinking world. Getting back to what matters. Everything that you need is right there in your kayak. The only things which matter are the sea, the rhythm of the tides, the wind, and the waves. No open-plan office, no working from home, no under-floor heating. Everything is real, immediate, unfiltered. And you are only answerable to yourself.
For us at Moryak, what sea kayaking means more than anything else is adventure and freedom. An opportunity to escape from the confines of an ever-shrinking world. Getting back to what matters. Everything that you need is right there in your kayak. The only things which matter are the sea, the rhythm of the tides, the wind, and the waves. No open-plan office, no working from home, no under-floor heating. Everything is real, immediate, unfiltered. And you are only answerable to yourself.
 

FREEDOM AND ADVENTURE

++ Whether you just fancy a micro-adventure over the weekend, or you are planning an expedition to Kamchatka: sea kayaking will give you the dose of adventure and freedom you need. With a kayak, a paddle, a tent, a sleeping bag and a bit of safety equipment, you are ready to do pretty much anything you can imagine. You don’t need a yacht – for you, luxury is a bivouac under a starry sky. ++

  • When you go sea kayaking, you leave everything behind you – except your principles!
    The best thing of all about sea kayaking is the fact that you and your little kayak can, for a certain period, just get away from all those everyday things that wind you up so much. You end up in places which others simply cannot get to (or can only do so with some serious effort). You will experience adventures big and small and, depending on what plans you have laid, and what Neptune decides to make of them, relaxation or thrills.

    Nevertheless, all of this does require a certain level of experience and some pretty solid knowledge and skills, and not just physical skills: you need to be able to plan your trip properly, you need to be able to use a map and compass with confidence and ease, and you may need to be able to calculate tides and current speeds. You’ll need to be able to know how to set up an overnight camp, and where, you’ll need to be able to make a fire, even when it’s wet, and you’ll need to have some idea of how you’re going to get all your rubbish back to civilisation. As an experienced sea kayaker, you will surely have heard of “leave no trace” – and you will know how to implement these principles on the ground (and on the water). You know how and where to dig a cathole, and what you have to do with your used toilet paper...

    And on top of all this, there's the matter of interacting with wildlife responsibly. At Moryak, we make a point of sticking to the “WiSe codes of conduct”, in order to avoid any unnecessary disturbance of birds which are incubating their eggs or looking for food, or causing sea mammals unnecessary stress through underwater noise. Of course, being the responsible kind of person that you are, we are sure that you will be doing this anyway. Even though the temptation to throw all caution to the wind in order to chase an animal and get an even better photograph is sometimes very strong. And we’re just as sure that you're the kind of person who will happily fish floating bits of fishing net and plastic rubbish out of the sea and dispose of them as well as you can after the tour.

    We sea kayakers know the state that the world’s seas are in – and we try to do our bit so that maybe, one day, the situation can be brought under control again.
  • Bivouacking – the last freedom left?
    We are quite frank about this: every now and then, we take the liberty of spending the night “wild camping” out in nature. We believe – no, we are absolutely convinced – that this is our birthright and should in fact be accepted universally as a human right. What is at stake here is nothing less than our very connection to the world – something which really ought to be an everyday experience for all of us, but which nowadays is unfortunately almost nowhere to be found. The dilemma has deep roots in our Western understanding of the world: we Europeans believe that we, as humans, are fundamentally separate from nature. But this is nothing but a myth; a belief which we have internalised so thoroughly that we accept it as a given and never think to question it; a system that can only persist by virtue of the fact that we continue to believe in it. It makes no difference what our attitude to this thing called “nature” is – it doesn’t matter whether we see it as something to be exploited, or as something deserving of protection: we believe that nature is something that is passive, something which is inherently separate from us. If we look a little more closely, however, we can see that this idea really doesn’t make any sense. The dispassionate observer would have to admit that we are, ultimately, nothing more than mammals – admittedly, mammals with considerable cognitive and motor skills (and occasionally even social skills too). But never mind how special we are (or believe ourselves to be): we are – and we remain – an integral part of the whole, of the world. And the one thing we absolutely cannot afford to do is to carry on trying to lock ourselves out of it.

    What all of this means is this: bivouacking isn’t just a frequent necessity on sea kayaking trips – it’s fundamental. It makes sea kayaking what it is. When we bivouac, we are where we belong, where we spent 99.9% of our evolutionary past: we’re back home again.

MORE DIVERSE THAN YOU’D THINK

Quite apart from its fascinating history, the enormous element of adventure that’s involved, and all of the associated philosophical questions, sea kayaking is also – at its most basic – a sport. And best of all, it’s a sport which is extremely varied too. Though many still believe that sea kayaking essentially consists of paddling in a straight line, the sport has in fact undergone a great deal of development in recent decades. As well as traditional touring, there are now technical, playful paddling styles. And at the same time, there’s been a massive revival in Greenland rolls – the oldest (and perhaps still the most mysterious) tradition in the sport of kayaking.
Quite apart from its fascinating history, the enormous element of adventure that’s involved, and all of the associated philosophical questions, sea kayaking is also – at its most basic – a sport. And best of all, it’s a sport which is extremely varied too. Though many still believe that sea kayaking essentially consists of paddling in a straight line, the sport has in fact undergone a great deal of development in recent decades. As well as traditional touring, there are now technical, playful paddling styles. And at the same time, there’s been a massive revival in Greenland rolls – the oldest (and perhaps still the most mysterious) tradition in the sport of kayaking.
  • Touring
    We have already talked about what touring means for all of us. However, we haven’t yet addressed kayaking as a sport. Strictly speaking, touring does indeed consist of paddling in a straight line. Making headway. This could mean a meditative afternoon tour on a lake, but it could also mean kayaking around Great Britain, overcoming the challenges presented by rugged capes, heavy seas, strong winds, and enormous open crossings. By its very nature, touring is anything but monotonous and can be extremely challenging – for body and mind alike. Some expeditions will demand that you have the fitness and determination of a marathon runner, the strength of a regatta rower, the ability to concentrate of a chess grandmaster, the psychological strength of a yogi, the cool-headed toughness and nautical knowledge of a round-the-world sailor, and the boat control skills and wave resistance of a whitewater kayaker. Sooner or later, Neptune will push us right up against our limits, whether physically or psychologically. But luckily, and given time, we can move these limits ourselves, bit by bit. This is why we don’t just train for endurance and paddling flat out on calm waters – we also work on our technique in the more playful disciplines of sea kayaking: rock hopping, tide races, surfing, and Greenland rolling.
  • Rock hopping
    Rock hopping (or “rock gardening”, as it is termed in America) means paddling between the rocks in the coastal zone. It does in fact have many similarities with whitewater paddling – similarities which go beyond the fact that both disciplines are ones you should most definitely be wearing a helmet for. It’s about skilfully passing through gaps between the rocks, ideally without scraping your kayak or getting hurt. It’s also about using perfect timing to catch a wave as it washes over an obstacle – hopping, you could say. In contrast to paddling on a river, however, the water does not simply flow downhill – it constantly moves back and forth with the rhythm of the waves, sometimes opening up opportunities to get through, sometimes revealing obstacles which moments before had been submerged and invisible. These characteristics not only make this discipline fantastic for improving your paddling technique, especially when it comes to tight manoeuvres – it’s also about developing an eye for how the sea moves, a feel for the dynamics of it all.
  • Tide race
    Tide races are currents generated by the tide. And this means you will definitely need river skills. If you can paddle in fast currents, ferry glide, enter eddies, get out of them again, and maybe even surf on standing waves in a river (or you’d like to learn how to do all of these things), then the tide race will make you as happy as a pig in clover! The only difference between this and kayaking on a river is this: four times a day or so, the whole thing pauses, changes direction, and then accelerates again (and it’s a bit saltier...).

    For many paddlers, tide races have long been seen as something best avoided, but nowadays, ever increasing numbers of sea kayakers with a taste for whitewater have been seeking them out. Places like Penrhyn Mawr on Anglesey, the Skookumchuck Narrows north of Vancouver, and the many tide races off the coasts of Jersey and Brittany have become serious sea kayaking hot-spots in recent decades.
  • Surfing
    Surfboards are not the only way to surf – with a sea kayak, you can do pretty much the same thing. The ideal conditions for surfing are a level beach with no obstacles, ideally with no swimmers present and, of course, a few waves – then you're all set! When you first get started, nothing is going to get you capsizing as much as this – but when it comes to learning to control your kayak and learning to brace safely and effectively, it doesn’t get better than this either. And it’s just amazing fun. That feeling of being grabbed by a breaking wave at just the right moment, sending you hurtling towards the beach at full speed, can hardly be put into words. It’s just a rush of pure seratonin – as addictive as it gets!

    Just like the other technical disciplines which take place in dynamic water, you’ll gain mastery of your boat incredibly quickly, even in difficult conditions. You’ll be training your reactions, and in no time at all you will be a confident paddler. This will give you a real advantage when it comes to dealing with waves coming at you from behind – whether you're landing on the beach or paddling in a following sea, it’s a situation which many paddlers, especially those with less experience, often find uncomfortable.
  • Greenland Rolling
    Rolling – especially Greenland-style – is not something which you learn once just to get it out of the way (and never have anything to do with it again). Rather, it’s an entire ancient discipline within the sport of kayaking. Each year, there are official Greenland roll competitions, during which the athletes compete by attempting to do all 35 of the official rolls within a certain period of time, with the cleanest possible technique, and in both directions. The winners are determined on the basis of the number of points awarded by the judges.

    Whilst some of the official Greenland rolls really are very easy, there are some rolls which drive learners to the edge of despair. On the one hand, these traditional rolls stand testament to the incredible inventiveness, genius and discipline of the hunters of Greenland. On the other hand, with each new roll you learn, you develop a greater understanding for the interplay of the water, your paddle, your body, and your kayak, achieving incredible confidence and mastery of your boat, all of which will serve you well in all the other “disciplines” within kayaking!

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