Kayaking: Take to the water!
Paddling a kayak is easier than you think and it’s one of the best ways to get out into nature. Mark Johnston hands out some beginner’s advice.
Kayaking is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in South Africa. I’ve recently spent some time on the water myself and I can see why some people say that owning a kayak is a bit like having your own holiday home at the seaside.
It’s an ideal activity for the whole family, because you don’t need any special skills or training to get started. Look at me. I’m pretty useless when it comes to water sports, but kayaking was something I was able to pick up straight away.
The secret seems to be the modern kayak designs. I remember when as a Boy Scout I once tried to paddle one of those K1 racing kayaks. Disaster! I felt like a ranch hand fresh out of cowboy school trying to hang on to a particularly belligerent bucking bronco. I wobbled wildly from side to side for a few seconds and then tipped over into the drink.
You still get K1s today, but now there’s a huge selection of more user-friendly models that are much more stable in the water, yet still handle like the faster professional models rather than a bathtub with a rudder.
In South Africa, there’s no shortage of places to paddle: dams, rivers, lagoons, beaches – usually at popular holiday destinations (that’s why they’re so popular!).
You’ll be amazed how different the world looks when you view it from the water.
Give it a splash. You won’t regret it!
In the market for a kayak?
Answer these 5 questions first:
1. Fat or thin?
Not you, the kayak! Broader kayaks are more stable in the water than skinny ones. So, if you’re new to paddling, we recommend you avoid the long, pencil-thin racing models and stick with a more forgiving tugboat design. Not as speedy, for sure, but you’ll spend a lot more time on the water rather than in it!
2. On top or inside?
You get two types of kayaks – those where you sit on top and those where you sit inside.
The so-called “sit on top” kayak is extremely buoyant and can’t fill up with water and topple over. It’s great for short outings, but the disadvantage is that you’re completely exposed to the elements (sun, wind and spray from waves).
For longer paddles you’ll want a “sit inside” kayak, which has a cavity in the front to shelter your legs and feet. A nylon sheet, called a spray cover, can be worn around your waist for additional protection.
3. Plastic or fibreglass?
There’s a good reason Tupperware kitchenware is so popular: It’s practically indestructible! Ditto for kayaks made from plastic. Plastic kayaks are just the thing for beginner paddlers still mastering the art of not bumping into things, and are also well suited to shallow rivers or anywhere else where there’s a strong likelihood of connecting with a rock.
Plastic is quite a bit heavier, though, which is why racing paddlers still choose fiberglass. And if you do manage to bust a plastic kayak, you can’t patch it up as easily as you can with fibreglass.
For general recreational use, though, we say stick with the plastic option.
4. One- or two-seater?
Think carefully about this one. Like beds, you get kayaks that have space for one person, and others that have space for two. The difference here is that a single person can still sleep in a double bed, whereas you have to have two people to paddle a double kayak.
Doubles are ideal for couples and families, since you’ve always got that second person available. Paddling with two sets of arms is easier if both pull their weight (but if you’re Dad, you might end up doing all the work).
If you are the solitary type, a single is the better bet.
5. What about a rudder?
If you want to tackle a big river one day, consider buying a kayak with a mechanical rudder (basically a vertical fin at the back of the kayak that is foot-operated). Any kayak can be steered using a paddle, but on more serious racing or touring models the manufacturers include a mechanical rudder for more accurate, agile steering.
Local manufacturer Fluid makes some great kayaks that are perfect for families. Fluid’s brightly coloured boats have a reputation for being strong, stable and easy to paddle.
The Synergy is the largest model, a sit-on-top one- or two-seater that boasts an impressive spread of moulded footholds, which means that it can happily accommodate paddlers of all ages and sizes.
It’s equally at home on the Vaal Dam, Blouberg Beach, the Orange River or Knysna
Price: About R5 500.
Contact: Fluid Kayaks 056 817 2951; www.fluidkayaks.co.za
Go! says: Got a budding Oscar Chalupsky in the family? Fluid also makes a dedicated kiddies’ model called the Vaya.
Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145
Take a tour
Boats designed for longer outings or multi-day expeditions are known as touring kayaks. Typically, these feature a long profile (for speed), sit-inside cockpit (for protection from the elements) and lots of storage compartments (for stashing gear and provisions).
The Tsunami 145 ticks all of the above, and has a fully adjustable foam seat. Despite its length (4.4 m), the boat is surprisingly stable in the water, and can be used in anything from flat water to minor rapids and even small surf.
Price: About R10 500 (or R13 000 with a rudder).
Contact: Canoe and Kayak World 011 807 8111; www.canoekayak.co.za
Go! says: It’s not an entry-level model, but consider it if you want to tackle something more ambitious, like Lake Malawi or the coast of Mozambique.
Fishing from a kayak? Why not! It’s the easiest way to get right out into the dam or past the breakers without having to cast further.
The Supalite is a model made for fishing. It comes with two large hatches (one for your tackle, one for the catch), two rod holders and a nice, wide base so you don’t topple over when you hook a big one.
It’s designed to get you quickly and easily through the surf, and comes with a rudder for accurate tracking.
Price: About R6400.
Contact: Canoe and Kayak World; 011 807 8111; www.canoekayak.co.za
Go! says: All it’s missing is a cool box for the bait.
Surf those breakers
Surfskis are designed for use on the ocean, specifically for racing, catching waves and general high-speed fun. So they’re not really suited for beginner paddlers?
Nonsense! The folk at Honcho have come up with a design that is aimed at novices keen to get into the sport.
Like other surfskis, the Guru is a sit-on-top boat made from fibreglass, but it’s not as narrow as some racing models (at 50 cm wide it’s up to 7cm broader).
Does it make a difference? You bet! Honcho promises that no previous experience is required.
Price: About R7750.
Contact: Honcho 021 557 8762; www.honchosurfskis.co.za
Go! says: There’s always a demand for second-hand boats like this, so if you want to upgrade to a faster model later you shouldn’t have a problem finding a buyer.
Tip: Get the most out of your kayak
Kayaks are remarkably resilient and require little if any running maintenance, but you can still help prolong your boat’s lifespan by looking after it. Rinse it off with fresh water after use, and – importantly – store it in a cool, dark place out of direct sunlight.
Good kayak stores
Johannesburg: Canoe and Kayak World 011 807 8111; www.canoekayak.co.za
Durban: Paddler’s Point 031 337 7850
Port Elizabeth: Liquid Attractions Yamaha 041 363 4967; www.liquidattractions.co.za
Cape Town: Brian’s Kayaks 021 511 9695; www.brianskayaks.co.za
Countrywide: Outdoor Warehouse sells basic kayaks and accessories. 0800 003 051; www.outdoorwarehouse.co.za
We asked Denzil Young of Canoe and Kayak World for advice on paddle essentials.
Strictly speaking, it’s called a personal flotation device (PFD), and it helps to keeps your head above water if you go overboard. Make sure you buy one that’s snug-fitting, and if you have children, buy jackets designed for children.
Expect to pay: R500 – R600.
Taller people need longer paddles. Ditto if you own a broader boat. You get special paddles for racing, touring and so on, but if you’re new to the sport, avoid the fancy models and go for something solid and basic.
Expect to pay: About R500.
This is essential to protect your cellphone, camera, GPS or any other delicate electronics. You also get larger bags for stowing clothing and sleeping gear on expeditions.
Expect to pay: From R100.
Obvious, really: Long hours on the water equals plenty of time to roast in the sun, so cover up properly with a hat, long-sleeved shirt and high-SPF sunblock.
Don’t skimp on a roof rack. Kayaks are big and cumbersome, and you definitely don’t want yours flying off the roof on the drive down to Margate. A basic roof rack set-up will include the feet and bars (onto which you fix the boat using ratchet straps); in addition to this you can buy dedicated kayak mounts that fix onto the bars and make for easier loading and more stability on the road.
Expect to pay: R1800 – R4000.
(Note: Prices accurate in May 2009)Close