Kayaking with Kids
This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
by Al Schaffer
Strapping on plastic boat bumpers behind the cockpit for extra stability.
Having moved from white water to ocean kayaking and from no kids to two, my intent here is to share some of my thoughts and experiences on sea kayaking with kids. Many of these ideas come both from paddling with our own two children as well as operating family trips through our business. Last fall's TASK Sea Kayak Symposium at Port Townsend also featured many ideas on sea kayaking with kids, some of which I have outlined below.
There are many reasons for the dramatic increase and interest in sea kayaking with and for kids:
Many parents want to take their children along in an activity that they already enjoy. Sea kayaking is a sport that the whole family can participate in, each at their own interest and activity level.
Evolutions in design are making it easier for youngsters to fit into kayaks or for paddling children to benefit from the development of proper fitting and sized equipment.
Appreciation of the marine environment in increasing, especially for families not living next to this unique ocean area rich in many different landscapes and crawling with many different "critters".
New Equipment with Kids in Mind
Top: normal narrow-bladed sea kayak paddle
Last fall's TASK Sea Kayak Symposium at Port Townsend was a showcase for many new kayaks available, specifically sized for children. Sea kayaks--lastic, fiberglass, and skin boats--ere all offered, sporting a variety of features, including different lengths, designs, and options. Manufacturers such as Eddyline, Wilderness Systems, Dagger, and Perception all had specially designed smaller person kayaks on display. Some boats featured built in rudders, bulkheads and even rear stabilizers! (Randy Monge of Orcas Island, who builds the traditional Aleut and Inuit designs using synthetic cloth over a wooden frame, attaches plastic boat bumpers near the stern on his youth sized boats, see photo next page).
Companies such as Werner paddles are also manufacturing special youth- sized kayak paddles, with shorter, narrower shafts, and smaller blades. A BC company, Mountain Dreams, manufactures childsized neoprene wet suits as well. Look for many more youth-sized items to come out in the near future, so youngsters can more comfortably and safely participate in this activity.
One need not go out and purchase some of this newer and sometimes more costly equipment for children. To get our children interested in kayaking, we simply put them into an old whitewater kayak and fashioned a skeg onto the stern. This aided in tracking and reduced frustration from the white-water kayak constantly turning. In some cases we formed a "booster seat" out of foam on the existing seat so the youngster could see over the cockpit combing.
For paddles, we initially purchased an inexpensive plastic paddle designed for use with rubber rafts. As our children got older and started actually paddling for power, we fashioned a proper length paddle by cutting an old adult-sized paddle in half and then inserting a dowel in the shaft ends before assembling. This provided a shorter paddle with the option to increase in length as the child grew. You might also want to shave some size off the paddle blade as well.
Seating Arrangements for Kids
Some combinations are as follows:
Be aware of your own paddling skills and limits. Do not put yourself and children in an uncompromising situation.
Practice re-entry techniques and capsizes (in a pool or lake) before heading out on a "major expedition".
Have a correct life jacket size for child. DO NOT COMPROMISE HERE!
Place extra weight in the front of a double kayak in order to maintain proper boat trim.
Use a seat sock in the cockpit for more ambitious types of trips.
If using a spray skirt with children, have them practice releasing and taking them off. You might have to relocate the grab-loop attachment point in order for a youngster to reach. I personally like the idea of a youngster being able to squeak out of the chimney section of a sprayskirt without the need to pull the skirt off the cockpit rim. In this situation, the skirt would fit on outside of PFD.
Kirby Stevens of Victoria designed a spray skirt with 2 chimneys (one for the adult, one for the youngster) for his daughter when she was still small enough to sit on his lap (see Sea Kayaking...With Kids? Wavelength Feb/Mar 95).
An old C-1 skirt works well in some boats when the youngster is seated in the rear or center hatches of some kayaks. I feel it is safer if you do not need to use a spray skirt in first place, but some children get upset when they get splashed!
Travelling with Kids
A few more thoughts that might make the first few strokes with children more enjoyable and safe:
Carefully consider your trip progressions. Take many short trips before attempting a long one. Select relatively safe and easy trips. Leave the surf and swells of Vancouver Island's west coast for you and your buddies! Remember, you don't have to travel the ocean blue for your first trip -- try a local lake or waterway! Working from one central base-camp is usually more relaxing for the 1st trip.
Have your camping systems down well -- perhaps start with an outing in the forest or a local park. Pack the right gear -- make sure everyone will be comfortable in all weather conditions. Lots of fleece (no cotton!), good foul weather clothing, hats, etc. Remember kids don't usually paddle as hard as adults, therefore they don't keep warm as easily as adults.
Get children involved in trip planning. Let them decide what favourite playthings should go on the trip. Give them a vote on types of food to be packed.
Take plenty of snacks, drinks, and the right types of camping food. Consider prep times and the types of food children usually enjoy at home. Leave specialized backpacking types of food in your backpack! Keep snack foods handy in a fanny pack or water resistant container such as a canteen or plastic peanut butter container. Bring some foods that youngsters can cook (or watch?) themselves over an open fire.
Use clothing systems that allow youngsters to pee easily! Have them pee BEFORE getting into a kayak.
Bring along special blankets and padding that will comfort a younger child once they fall asleep while underway. When the going gets tough, the tough go to sleep!
For school-aged children heading out on a multi-day trip, build in time and ideas that incorporate information on local and native history. Visit a local museum, aquarium, etc. before and after the trip. Bring along story books on intertidal life -- whales, dolphins are always inspiring.
Kids between 7-12 years tend to be more Doer and Watcher types than Thinker and Feelers when it comes to learning new physical skills. They want to be Active -- don't torture kids with methodology. Once you have given the necessary safety information, just hand over the paddle and let them experiment.
I feel children should be at least 7 years of age before offering them any form of instruction. At this age, most activity should be play oriented. From this age upwards, remember to offer lots of encouragement. Creativity in games and progressions is an asset here.
It seems that the most successful instructors of kids are other kids themselves who already possess some experience in the activity. If possible, try this approach.
Keep it fun. This will ensure an enjoyable and long relationship with the sport.
Al Schaffer of the Kayak Institute in Canmore, Alberta is the Dad of two little dippers.