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Perspectives on Kayaking From a Noobie: Gear, Efficiency, Safety

A small beach just inside Emerald Bay.  Great place for a short break.

A small beach just inside Emerald Bay. Great place for a short break.

Let me say first that I am by no means an expert kayaker, hence the title of this piece. I am a noobie kayaker. Water was really not my first love. I’m a mountain and land sports guy for the most part, with a couple of articles on the "Hunting and Shooting" side of SkyAboveUs.

I thought it might be cool to provide a perspective on kayaking on this site for someone who is just getting into it. I was recently in that place, and frankly, I still am. I’m confident there are others in my position that are also looking for material about the sport. I learned a lot myself from three articles on SkyAboveUs—Kayaking Solo, How to Kill Yourself in a Kayak, and Kayaking Supplies for the Beginner.

Exploring Lake Tahoe in a Kayak

Two years ago, we moved to Northern Nevada, pretty close to Lake Tahoe and nearly unlimited outdoor recreation opportunities. We decided to spend money on water toys once we got settled, and my wife and daughter got stand-up Paddle Boards, while I preferred a kayak.

Since we’ve moved and since I got the Pungo, all of my trips have been in Lake Tahoe, which quite frankly is a lot nicer from my perspective than the ocean.

Yes, the water is cold even in the summertime and one must understand the realities of cold water shock and take appropriate precautions. Carry appropriate equipment (see the section below) such as a bilge pump, emergency paddle, phone or other communications device (and keep it dry), do not merely carry but WEAR your personal flotation device (aka life jacket), and always look at the weather before you go out.

The Kayaking Gear I Decided to Get

So far, I’ve purchased the following gear and much of it stows away nicely in the cargo compartment:

  1. A personal flotation device. Always worn unless on shore. One of the points made in the article “How to Kill Yourself in a Kayak” linked above, and borne out by my own experience with other safety equipment, is that you will not have time to put it on, make it ready, get it out, whatever, when the poop hits the fan. Wear it.
  2. A collapsible emergency paddle. To keep myself from being literally up the creek without a paddle, I got a collapsible paddle that has three telescoping sections. At about $25.00, it’s cheap insurance to ensure that if I lose my primary paddle somehow, I’ll be able to get home or at least back to someplace safe. Because it’s collapsible, it fits nicely in the stowage compartment. It could also be prepared for use and lashed to the deck or you could lend it to a partner if they lose their paddle and aren’t as prepared as you are.
  3. A bilge pump. These are especially necessary if you start taking on a lot of water for some reason. But, they’re also very convenient to pump out the inevitable small amount of water that gets in the kayak during routine paddling. This helps things dry a little faster and also makes the boat easier to carry back to your vehicle at the end of your trip.
  4. A rescue rope in a throw bag. Might be for you, might be for someone else. The point is you don’t really know until you need it. These are relatively cheap, self contained and pretty simple to use.
  5. An emergency whistle that stays in the pocket of my PFT. A whistle is a good idea because it makes a lot of noise with less effort than screaming or yelling and the sound probably carries better. If you need this because you’ve capsized or got separated from your boat, you should obviously have it on your person at all times, just like the PFT.
  6. A small entrenching tool. Being able to dig a hole onshore or in a beach could maybe come in handy. This is probably the most extra thing I have, but it’s a little one, and I can move it between the boat, my vehicle, a backpack or whatever kind of gear I’m using for various kinds of trips.
  7. Rope with carabiners, in case I need to tie off to something or get towed. I got a 50 foot length of rope and attached a carabiner to either end with a nice secure knot. I’m rocking this thing because with the carabiners attached it’s easy to attach the rope to the boat, to an object on shore, to another kayak or another boat if you need a tow.
  8. An anchor cleat kit for the kayak. This is relatively easy to install with a drill and the provided hardware and you can position it where you choose. It’s recommended you place it where you can reach it while seated in the boat. I haven’t gotten an anchor yet, but so far I haven’t intended to anchor up anywhere. Maybe in the future. For now I’d rather beach and get out for a while. The cleat is to tie off to something if I need to or to facilitate towing if that became necessary.
  9. Water shoes. I wore flip flops for a while but figured I’d spend the $20 on some of these. They were a great investment and allow you to enter and exit the water and the boat while having your feet protected from sand and rocks. Leaving them on your feet for long periods of time when they’re wet starts to get a little nasty once you’re off the water, so it’s probably better to have the flip flops or other shoes to change into as well as these.
  10. Food and water. It’s also always good to have a small to medium-sized supply, depending upon where you’re going and how long you’re planning to be out. My trips have been half day or shorter so I was fine with a couple of PB&Js and a 40 oz. Hydroflask. Adjust accordingly.
  11. Kayak racks for your vehicle. You will of course have to transport your boat from wherever you keep it to the water. There are a variety of ways to do this but for many folks, kayak racks are the clear choice. I’m using Yakima J-Low racks on a set of stock Subaru aero cross bars. The J-Lows are nice because they fold down when not in use, have two settings when deployed (either 90 degrees or something like 120 degrees) so you can run two boats on one rack or a single boat. The single boat is definitely the easiest and Yakima gives you straps that secure the kayak to the racks. I’ve never had any issues with this setup and it has worked really well for at least 15 instances of transporting the boat for trips or maintenance. The only downside I’ve found is they make a whistling noise when they’re folded down and you’re not carrying a boat. Kind of annoying but I got used to it pretty quickly.

My Pungo Kayak From Wilderness Systems

I got a Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 and a Wilderness Systems Pungo Glass paddle and fell in love. The first year I had them I was iffy because I had about zero experience in a kayak. As I’ve gone out more and more, I like the equipment more and more.

The Pungo 120 is a 12 foot open-top, sit-inside kayak designed for one person. It’s an expensive boat, but it has some cool features that have made my life better out on the water. The removable dashboard is nice, but the stowage compartment and deck rigging are super cool and allow one to carry a lot of stuff. This capability is perfect for me because I’m one of those people that carries a lot of gear. It adds extra weight, but this practice has also made difficult situations better for me across different disciplines over the years.

The stowage compartment is separated from the main interior area by a bulkhead and is supposed to keep things dry. In practice, I found the seal was not as good as it should have been and it leaked. I got a tube of silicone type gel designed for building fish aquariums and slathered both sides of the seam where the bulkhead meets the hull and presto! No more leaks. (I should qualify my above statement and say that the hull itself didn’t leak. Over time with getting in and out of the boat and with paddling, it’s inevitable that water gets inside the passenger / pilot area and that was what leaked into the stowage area before I re-sealed it.)

The hull of this boat seems very efficient and it’s easy to achieve and maintain speed in it, especially in glassy water. f you’re interested in looking at Wilderness Systems gear, check them out here.

What It's Like to Explore This Cold Lake by Kayak

I love Lake Tahoe. I typically try to get in the water no later than 8:00 am because the water is most often glassy and amazing. And, I usually have at least an hour or two before the power boat traffic increases and starts screwing up the ride with wakes and swells. Most power boat drivers on the lake are pretty respectful and will at least slow down when in close proximity to kayakers and paddle boarders, but there’s always that guy.

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My first trips in Lake Tahoe were off the North Shore near Incline Village at a beach called Sand Harbor. This is a fun area but gets quite crowded in the summertime, especially towards the end of summer when all the kids are getting ready to go back to school. It is gorgeous but I did have more issues with wind and swells there than on the South Shore. Since I’m closer to the South Shore, this year I’ve exclusively put in down there for all my trips so far. Parks and day use areas are now open again, but during the earlier part of the Covid-19 pandemic the launch points were limited because nothing was open. The positive side of that was that since I’m willing to work for a payoff, launching from an uncontrolled point during that time was really nice, because nobody was around and it was so peaceful, quiet and absolutely gorgeous with the snow still on the mountains and the cold morning air. Things are back to normal for the most part and I recently did a trip I had been wanting to do since last year.

I intended to launch from Baldwin Beach and go into Emerald Bay. But, since at the time Baldwin was still closed, I put in at Camp Richardson after securing permission to park in their lot and went into Emerald Bay from there. This added about an extra mile each way, but like I said I don’t mind working a little harder and at about 5.5 miles each way, it ended up being not only a beautiful paddle but also a decent workout. I put in at 8:00 am and since the water was glassy and the weather was good, I ventured about 500 yards off shore and took a more direct line to the mouth of the bay, so I could get there while the water was still nice and before a lot of power boats showed up. Emerald Bay is one of the premier destinations at Lake Tahoe for all kinds of water craft and you will inevitably interact with power boats and other paddle craft. I stopped on a beach at the mouth of the bay for a few minutes to rest and take in the sights and then headed inside. Passing Fannette Island and the tea house that sits atop this one island in Lake Tahoe, I headed all the way back to the beach near Vikingsholm. There I beached my kayak and had some lunch at a nearby picnic table. I walked around for a few minutes to stretch my legs, as I’ve found that sitting in a boat for a long time starts to wear on the booty and the hips.

Emerald Bay is really pretty awesome. Surrounded by mountains and huge trees, with Fannette Island in the middle, it’s relatively secluded in geography but not so much in traffic as it is a major destination as I mentioned. I was there early and during the later part of the pandemic lockdown so it was pretty nice. In fact, at the time the only access to the beach was either from the water or a long hike from a remote parking place on the road above the bay. I will go again. And probably again after that because it’s a fun and beautiful trip from a place that’s pretty easy for me to get to.

After lunch, I paddled back out to the main part of Lake Tahoe, turned southeast and headed back. On the return trip, I stayed closer to the shoreline because the wind had come up and there were more boats, plus the wind was from the east which is where I was headed. This all made for a more challenging trip back with chop and side swells, but I was able to just maintain a pace (a benefit of having an endurance background) and just kept the boat moving. I did beach at Baldwin on the way back because I wanted another break since I was now working harder to get home. After that break I headed back to Camp Richardson, pumped a bit of water out of the hull with my bilge pump to make the kayak easier to carry and loaded it up on the car.

Glassy water set against snowy mountains, just west of Camp Richardson.

Glassy water set against snowy mountains, just west of Camp Richardson.

Fitness Helps You Enjoy Kayaking

My athletic background includes years of mountain and road cycling, which I substantially reduced years ago when I was introduced to CrossFit. No matter your feelings on the company or the discipline, CrossFit style or functional fitness style workouts with an emphasis on strength, flexibility, muscular endurance and so on have significantly improved my life over spending hours in the saddle working up base mileage and confining myself exclusively to two wheels. I still love the bike and I still love being outside, but picking up kayaking was really exciting for me. With several years of functional fitness workouts under my belt, my core strength as well as my overall strength, stability and athletic diversity has improved significantly. So, when I discovered kayaking, I was more or less able to hit the ground running from a fitness perspective. Loading the boat on and off the car, carrying it to the water, paddling and so on were not difficult which made it more fun and allowed me to concentrate on the specifics.

Adjusting Gear For Efficiency of Motion

I figured out (although I’m sure I need more work at this) that since I have a paddle that is adjustable for length, I needed to find the right settings for a more efficient paddle stroke. When cycling, running, kayaking, shooting or doing anything else that requires moving your body with or in relation to equipment, efficiency is a very important thing. Wasted motion means more exertion and slower and less efficient movement, and that means you burn more energy for the same payoff and consequently get tired faster.

I set my paddle at what felt like the best setting and positioned the grommets appropriately to help me keep my hands in the same position. What I was looking for was a length that allowed me to get the blades in the water so that the end of the blade was somewhere around 3 or 4 inches under the surface for a good bite so to speak, but balanced against being able to get the blades into that position without having to rotate the paddle at such a high angle to get one blade out of the water and the other blade into the water. Keeping the paddle at a longer setting allowed me to keep the blades closer to the surface and thereby reduced the amount of distance I had to move it to get it in the water and thereby made things more efficient. As I mentioned, the Pungo has a very efficient hull design that moves through the water really well. Combined with a good paddle setting and efficient stroke, one can really cover some distance with this rig. As far as feathering the paddle, which is how the angle of the blades are set relative to each other along the axis of the paddle, I kept them both lined up the same rather than offsetting them. As I said I’m still experimenting and I haven’t figured out whether feathering would help me be more efficient.

If you have any pointers for me, by all means hit me up in the comments. I feel like I have to figure out my unique motor skills with moving a paddle and then maybe see if offsetting the blades might keep me from fighting myself in some way. To be continued.

Preparedness: Drilling for Emergencies and Reading More About Them

One thing I have not done yet, but really need to do, is to drill on emergency procedures. I have intended to get the kayak in the water and go to a depth where I can’t touch the bottom. Then, deliberately roll or capsize the kayak and practice getting it righted and getting back in. This is obviously a little dicey in cold water, so I would prefer to be with someone when I start practicing. I figure an actual emergency is not the time to figure this stuff out, but I’ve been putting it off. It might make sense to start at a depth where I can touch the bottom and then move into deeper water from there. Hopefully I’ll have a partner on a trip soon and I’ll work on this stuff. Preparedness makes life better.

If you’re a new kayaker like I am, I’d suggest reading the linked articles on Sky Above Us. I learned a lot from them, especially “How to Kill Yourself in a Kayak”. In my other life, when someone tragically dies we try to learn what happened to we can hopefully think about strategies to prevent that from happening to us. Knowing about the things that can kill or injure you and taking steps to address those allows one to relax a bit more with the knowledge of preparedness and good decision making. I haven’t had to worry about a lot of these hazards because I’m an open water lake guy at the moment, so cold water shock is my primary issue, other than weather. But knowing about other hazards, like submerged objects, tree branches, fast water, whirlpools and the like, provides something to think about, especially if I ever venture into a place with those hazards. Even if you’re experienced in a kayak or any other outdoor discipline, it’s always nice to review the basics or at least see how other people do stuff. You can never have too many tools in your toolbox.

I hope you found my noobie experience and equipment suggestions helpful. I’m always excited to learn new things and I’ve had a blast enjoying the peace and beauty of being out on the lake on a kayak. At some point I’ll venture out to other lakes in the area as well.

Have fun and happy kayaking!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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