The sea kayak: an adventure on the horizon
When the tide is high, and the sea is silent, kayak lovers gaze at the horizon. It is a perfect day for kayaking. And on days like these, the kayak slides across the water with no resistance at all and the only thing you can hear is the sound of the paddle. For the last two years I have been taking kayaking classes at the Club Victoria, in La Puntilla, and I still haven’t found a better sea craft than the kayak. Our young canoeing instructor, Paris, who loves this sport more than anything, teaches us how to overcome our fears by practising different paddling techniques.
Everything he teaches us is based on what the Eskimos do in Alaska. For kayak-lovers, there are few differences between the ice of Alaska and the blue waters of the Atlantic; the cold, the seals, and perhaps one or two other little things….
The horizon winks at the canoeist and our paddles part the water. The philosophy of the instructor, who is an expert on sea kayaking and has paddled around the island several times, is that canoeists must take advantage of everything that the sea has to offer. Through the kayak, you can feel a sensation of freedom. At the best moments, the canoeist and the craft are one. So you need two things: technical knowledge and the willingness to open yourself to adventure.
The kayak is a light craft, but when it is used in a constantly changing environment like the sea, precautions need to be taken. As a canoeist, you can enjoy an adventure without running risks. Every time you face the sea and its elements (wind, waves, currents and rocks) you should search for a safe environment, look after your materials, know your own limits, be aware of the weather conditions and the tides and never go alone. Safe kayaking is a mixture of skill, physical fitness and common sense.
Within the shelter of the reef, protected by a spray skirt and a life jacket we learn how to keep our balance. The paddle must become an extension of our arms. Sometimes, the movement of the paddle seems like a rotor. The craft is at the mercy of the canoeist and of the elements. On a good day the kayak can fly across the water, and you can hear its murmuring, see flying fish, and contemplate the beach from a distance. The kayak looks like a yellow sea snake with its rattle and its colourful scales. The only important thing is the air in your lungs, the craft’s bow facing the wind and the energy of the paddle. Using some basic surface skimming techniques, you can turn around with the help of your oar, of your partner, or of your arms. The true secrets of this technique are reserved for experts. Being submerged face down inside the canoe creates chaos. The instructor helps us to lose our fear and hold our breath. Everything is under control… then we learn how to board and how to disembark from the shore next to the ramp, and how to avoid capsizing in the waves around La Puntilla by slicing the paddle directly into the waves.
Heading towards El Zoco
We need to go outside the natural reef to test our acquired, or intuitive, seafaring skills. We go in groups towards Turtle Rock (that big rock in the middle of the sea opposite La Isleta), skirting around the heavier seas at the mouth of La Puntilla. Out on the open sea, the waves are bigger and more powerful. The fear of capsizing disappears as we overcome each new wave, wide and bright. At Turtle Rock, we have to cross a narrow passage just wide enough for a kayak propelled by the wave to pass through. We approach the bay of El Confital without getting too close to the area which is so famous for surfing. Sadly, in some of the smaller bays we can see the remains of old wire fish traps, rubbish and plastic bags floating in the water, and some unscrupulous people even use plastic bottles to mark the fish traps. This paradise is a jewel that should be protected and cared for by everyone.
On the last day of the course we must face “the acid test”: paddling in the open sea towards El Zoco. We are all silent. We leave the beach behind and the calm sea recedes as we relish the breeze in our face. The waves get stronger, weighed down with the huge volume of water, and the sky and sea fuse in a lead blue colour on the horizon. The kayaks make slow progress. We can see El Zoco coming closer. It is a hostile place, a great curtain of water constantly rising and dipping. We return to La Puntilla with that image of a tormented sea, and with the force of the water still knocking against the stern of our kayaks. All the emotion and tiredness get stronger as we cross the reef and come into the calmer waters. For a moment, the paddle feels lighter, almost weightless. We reach the ramp of the Club safely, already thinking of our next kayaking excursion.
You can never be too careful. If you want to go sea kayaking, here are ten points of sea safety to remember:
1. Keep an eye on the weather. Avoid taking unnecessary risks. Don’t go out in bad weather or on days with poor visibility. Remember that close to the coast the wind and the currents may change suddenly.
2. Check the tide timetable and find out about the prevailing or dominant tides in the area. Study the possible difficulties of your route.
3. Respect areas where navigation is forbidden. Respect other people using the sea: fishermen, swimmers and ships. Never assume that another craft has seen you or that it will manoeuvre correctly.
4. Take into account the daylight hours. Avoid kayaking at dusk. If any kind of problem arises when it is dark and you are not properly equipped, it will be very difficult to find you.
5. Don’t paddle out too far from the coast. Respect swimming areas: keep at a distance of 200 metres from public beaches and 50 metres from the rest of the coast.
6. Use protection against the cold weather: wetsuit, thermal undershirt, a waterproof jacket with neoprene cuffs and collar and reflective stripes, reef walkers with sole, store bag with dry clothes, a thermos with a hot drink etc. Always take a lifejacket and a spray skirt.
7. It may be useful to take with you a sound signal, a mirror to make light signals, a portable or fixed bilge pump, a torch, a knife, a towing rope, a nautical chart, a flare, some water, and some emergency rations with a high nutritional value.
8. Don’t go kayaking on your own; always go with somebody else. Kayaking in a group is safer and more fun (minimum 3 kayaks). Keep visual or audible contact with your route mates at all times and tell somebody that you are going to be kayaking so someone notices if you are late back.
9. In case of accident, never leave your kayak to try to swim towards the beach. Get on the kayak (even if it is capsized) and make signals by moving the paddle up and down slowly. Use every emergency signal that you have (flares, whistle etc.) to attract somebody’s attention. Avoid losing your paddle by attaching it with elastic. Don’t overestimate your strength.
10. Use kayaks with store chambers which close hermetically, with sufficient floatation at the bow and stern, with life lines, and with security rings in case you need to be towed. Try to use bright colours on your paddle, craft and clothes. Mark your craft and your material with your contact details.
Codes and Signals for a Sea Canoeist
1. A raised arm: means “REGROUP” (this signal is reserved only for the leader of the group. Everybody should follow him/her, including everyone who is in front of him/her).
a. “Follow me; this is the way”.
b. “Come here, I need help”, “Emergency”, (a canoeist would give this signal in the water, with the paddle in a vertical position moving it from side to side).
2. “STOP”: Keep the paddle horizontal above your head. “Wait for me”; (this can be used by any member of the group, for example an exhausted canoeist).
a. “Stationary, stop paddling” (this signal is made by the leader of the group to make everyone stop, for example, in the case of difficulty or to save any kind of wildlife).
b. “Danger, get away from me” (if the leader of the group makes signals with the paddle or moves his/her hand to the left or to the right, the group should paddle in that direction and wait for further signals).
3. “S.O.S.”: Keep the paddle horizontal and move it constantly from the head to the spray skirt: “Mayday” means urgent help required, or call the rescue services. (This signal means the same as a flare or an artificial light. This is an internationally recognized signal, move your stretched arms slowly up and down. Make this signal only in cases of extreme necessity, when no one in your group can help you or when you cannot make any of the other S.O.S. signals mentioned above).
Frantic attempts to get in or out of the kayak, made either by swimmers trying to reach the kayak in order to help, or by an inexperienced canoeist, usually cause accidents that end up with broken limbs.
Store the solid rubbish (food remains, aluminium foil, tins, containers, plastics, and papers) that you accumulate during your navigation and dispose of it in a proper manner on your return. The best thing to do is to take it home because sometimes if it’s not the summer season, the rubbish may not be collected from the beach for months.
Emergency Coordination Centre for Europe: dial 112 free of charge.
Translation: Students from the 2nd Year 2008 at the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.