IT WAS THE STARFISH, IN ALL SHADES OF PURPLE AND ORANGE THAT STOLE THE SHOW
Article by Eugene Buchanan
Brooke was giddy with excitement all morning. She was only 4 and we were heading out for a day-long sea kayaking tour of British Columbia’s Barkley Sound. I put her up front in a double, a nylon spray skirt with suspenders rainbowing over her life jacket to keep splashes at bay. No sooner than we put in and she started singing, “Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow,” a Raffi favorite.
Brooke’s strokes didn’t really help, but they didn’t need to. She was having a blast—especially when she figured out how easy it was to splash me in the stern. Seals poked their heads out of the water, as curious as children in a classroom. Then they’d disappear like kids come dinner time. But it was the starfish, in all shades of purples and orange, that stole the show. “Look, Dad!” Brooke exclaimed. “They’re all over the place! Just like in the sky!” I didn’t need any more of a lesson to understand how valuable sea kayaks can be for family forays into the wilds.
Unlike canoes, sea kayaks are easily propelled by one person, and put your legs out of the wind and rain. As you know from the toys littering your family room, plastic boats are tougher, heavier and less expensive, while fiberglass is lighter, faster, more fragile, and more demanding on the pocketbook. Tandems work best for younger kids. You can man the stern, putting your child in the bow. Following are a few rules of thumb before heading out into the wild blue yonder.
The most important: make sure you and your child wear a properly fitted life jacket at all times while on the water. Sear this into your skull like the pancakes you burn after distractedly cleaning up a glass of spilled milk. Today’s Coast Guard-approved Type III life jackets are more comfortable than ever, and there’s no excuse not to wear one.
The next step is choosing a craft. There are as many to choose from as there are birthday present options at Toys R Us. Two main points to consider are sit-on-top vs. cockpit boat; and single or tandem. If you’re paddling in warmer environments and making miles isn’t a top priority, a sit-on-top might be the answer. You and your child simply climb aboard and paddle away, with no fear of the confinement cockpits create. Worse case scenario is you tip over and simply climb back on just like you would a bike. Conversely, if you’re planning to make miles and weather and water temperatures are a concern, consider a sea kayak with a cockpit. They’re generally faster and keep you and your brood out of the elements.
Next up: capacity. Until your child is capable of paddling on his or her own (and keeping a halfway decent pace), go with a tandem. You can place junior up front while you commandeer the stern and call the shots by steering with a drop-down rudder. Your child gets the feel of paddling, and can actually aid in your craft’s propulsion, but your progress isn’t limited to his or her power alone. Hint: make sure the sprayskirt (nylon, not neoprene) fits loosely enough around the cockpit so as not to cause trepidation if you tip over. If height is an issue, you can have your child sit atop a drybag, pad or even extra PFD as a booster seat. The added height helps their paddles clear the boat and makes it so they don’t feel like a gopher poking his head out of a hole. Some parents even find it helpful to store gear in front of their children’s feet so they won’t slide under the deck.
The final piece of gear you need to get your brood boating is a paddle. Again, pay attention to size. Don’t get one sized for Yao Ming. Several companies make children-specific paddles, and even those for small adults often work well for touring tykes. Teach them the proper paddling technique by having their hands shoulder width apart (a lot of kids put their hands too close together), and show them how to rotate the torso with each stroke. Also show them how the drip rings work, and to make sure they’re positioned outside of their hands. If your kids are like ours, they’ll be infatuated with how they stop drops dead in their tracks.
So you’re finally ready to head out. A few final safety measures first. Make sure you have the proper safety gear, which should include a bilge pump and paddle flat to aid in re-entry in event of a capsize. Also make sure your craft has bulkheads or float bags, and that you have a rescue plan should things go awry. (Note: your best bet is to have another grown-up along in another boat.)
Before you both hop in, give a last call for the potty before heading off paddling. That accomplished, to ease the Weebles-Wobble feeling of climbing aboard, show them how to place their paddle behind them when getting in, with one blade on shore or the dock for stability. You might need to help them with their spray skirt also, starting from the back and working forward.
And now you’re on your way. During your first few outings, don’t over-do your itinerary. Consider it a success that you’re simply out on the water. Save the crossing across Temper Tantrum bay until they have a few shorter journeys under their skirts. Another helpful hint: until your kids are capable swimmers, stay close to shore instead of playing Pippi Longstocking on the high seas. It will make both of you less nervous while also allowing you to see wildlife of shore and marine life in the shallows.