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Writing about sea-kayaking: rough waters, indeed

Bruce Kirkby paddles in Scorsbysund, off the east coast of Greenland.

Christine Pitkanen/christine pitkanen The Globe and Mail

My weekend story (a tongue-in-cheek account of almost sinking a kayak on the first day of a planned three-week journey) elicited substantial concern from readers, many of whom charged that I appeared flippant and unprepared for the risks that come with such an undertaking.

In my eagerness to relate the uncanny appearance of a baseball cap (and the message across its brim – Your Village Called, Their Idiot is Missing), I failed to address my extensive background in sea kayaking, or catalogue any of the mundane but critical decisions I made in preparation for the journey.

This was not my first experience paddling in the ocean, or in exposed outer waters. Since 1991, I have amassed more than 1,000 days of sea-kayaking experience, including challenging journeys on Greenland's East Coast (40 days) and a complete traverse of Borneo's north coast (60 days). I have travelled waters similar to those I was entering on the Canadian West Coast, from Haida Gwaii to the Hakai to Kyuquot to Clayquot.

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I prepared rigorously for the journey, placing safety ahead of every other consideration. I paddled in a Gore-Tex dry suit, carried the most recent marine radio (with the highest transmission wattage permissible) along with flares and a SPOT satellite messenger. I also spoke at length with paddlers who had travelled the route, discussing strategies for navigating all the difficult portions.

The most audacious decision I made was to travel in a sit-on-top boat. But before writing off such craft, as many readers did, I would point out that extraordinary sit-on-top expedition kayaks are built. Each summer, a dedicated crew of aficionados paddles sit-on-top kayaks on the exact route I was planning. While flying under the mainstream kayaking radar, these are not the joke boats found at Mexican resorts.

I began my search for such a boat months before the journey, but a convergence of modern-world-foibles (lost shipments, cancelled credit cards, disappearing e-mails) meant that my boat didn't arrive until the evening before my departure, which gave me two choices: tentatively stick my toes in the water, testing the boat carefully as I went, or cancel the journey until another year. I decided to go for it, and was turned back quickly. Lesson learned.

As one who continually preaches prudence and caution in outdoor endeavours, if my story appeared to promote a devil-may-care attitude, it failed: The most important part of any wilderness journey is coming back home.

Sea kayaking is not just a realm of huge waves, high danger and daring experts. It is a lovely and relaxing way to experience the splendour of our planet, and with the right instruction and supervision, everyone from youngsters to retirees, non-swimmers to elite athletes can enjoy paddling. Boats today are comfortable and stable; paddling doesn't require enormous fitness or strength, and it is not a complicated skill to pick up. Like anything else, get instruction, be cautious, leave yourself a way out. But please, don't for a second consider that sea kayaking may be beyond you.

Before you venture onto the sea, remember these points:

  • Sea kayaking – like any outdoor venture – can be dangerous and should never be taken lightly. Skills need to be accumulated gradually, under the watchful eye of a mentor, friend or guided course.
  • Different regions on the coast (and the Canadian lake system) carry different dangers, and the arena we choose to paddle in must be carefully matched to our skills and experience.
  • A solo journey offers many rewards, but also carries the most risk, and should be tackled only by those with substantial experience.

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