Oz versus North America [28]

How Does The Australian Sea Kayaking Scene Compare?

By Norm Sanders

We in the Antipodes often feel that we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to new developments. This attitude even has a name: “The cultural cringe.”

When I set out recently to revisit the country of my birth, one of my goals was to assess how the kayaking scene in Australia compared with the North American situation.

I was surprised to find that the differences were so great that the North Americans seem to be participating in an entirely different sport. Sea kayaking in Australia is just that — punching out through surf on open beaches and meeting the ocean head on.

With the exception of the Tsunami Rangers, Roger Schumann, the Brozes and a handful of others, the North Americans do their paddling in sheltered waters behind breakwaters. These breakwaters vary in size from harbour protection structures to the chain of offshore islands which runs from Seattle to Alaska. Paddling inside these barriers is more like kayaking on a big lake. Enjoyable to be sure, but is it SEA kayaking?

North American kayak design reflects this calm-water approach to paddling. Hatches are huge and not particularly watertight. Why should they be if the only water on deck comes in the form of rain? In addition, many designs have no bulkheads! Flotation is in the form of foam in the ends and blow-up buoyancy bags.

I first learned about this situation in Southern California’s King Harbor when I rented a Dagger Seeker. I asked the instructor-owner of the kayak outfit if I could do a roll. He said, “Sure. But wait a minute. I’ll get the rest of the guys to watch this. They’ve never seen a roll before.”

Overwhelmed by the audience, dulled by jet lag and losing my grip in the un-padded cockpit, I blew it. “Never mind,” I thought, “I’ll just do a re-entry and roll.” As soon as I popped the spray deck, I knew something was wrong. If I had looked when I climbed into the Seeker, I would have noticed the lack of bulkheads — but I naturally assumed that ALL kayaks had bulkheads.

Needless to say, the Seeker filled with water and behaved like a soggy log. We managed to drag it out on the dock and get it emptied. This was my first inkling that kayaking in North America simply isn’t the immersion sport that it is in Australia where several dunkings per day are the norm.

As I travelled further north on my odyssey the water got colder and the idea of total immersion became less and less appealing, but the water was WARM in California. Maybe the scarcity of good instructors kept paddlers from exploring their limits.

When I got to the San Juans I got another insight into the different attitudes. I went paddling in a borrowed Tyee One (a pleasant, early fibreglass design) with a group of long-time kayakers. I climbed into my wet boots, heavy poly top, bathers and paddling jacket and slid into the placid water. My companions simply put on rubber boots and set off in their street clothes which consisted of heavy, water resistant coats and jeans. No spray decks either.

In Alaska, I found the kayakers wore more conventional (to me) paddling gear, but still favoured the knee-length rubber boots. When I later met Chris Cunningham, editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine, I asked him what happens if these boot-wearers capsize. “They die,” was his matter of fact reply.

Fortunately, North American paddlers rarely get dumped in their benign waters. This is at first surprising because many of the people I met had minimal bracing skills and absolutely no knowledge of, or interest in, rolling.

The reason that they generally stay right side up is that most of the North American kayaks are very stable, beamier than many of the Aussie designs. Of course, this stability leads to a lack of manoeuvrability which accounts for the almost universal use of the rudders so abhorred by the cognoscenti in Australia.

Rudder dependency is an epidemic in North America. Even experienced Alaskan touring kayakers who I paddled with had the disease. I suppose that rudders, like automatic transmissions, allow people to operate their machines with a lower degree of skill — which is advantageous for manufacturers and dealers eager to sell kayaks. However, once the rudder habit gets the hooks in, it’s hard to kick. This is in spite of the well known 10 percent drag penalty of rudders plus the obvious difficulties caused by equipment malfunction.

There is a certain irony in the fact that some North American manufacturers call their appendages “surfing rudders.” Very few of their craft would ever encounter surf, which is a good thing. Rudders in the surf are at least useless, if not dangerous when they catch during a broach.

The major exception to the rudder rule is the Mariner Kayak line. Cam and Matt Broze of Seattle have developed a range of kayaks which respond to technique rather than rudders and feel right. (Although bulkheads aren’t standard even on the Mariner kayaks.)

The sweetheart of the Mariner fleet is the little Coaster. Only thirteen and a half feet long (4.5m), the Coaster proves once again that small is beautiful. I have always felt that most sea kayaks are sized to accommodate gear for expeditions which they will never make. The Coaster is a popular fun boat, easy to turn without a rudder, good in the surf, and attractive to women.

The number of woman paddlers in North America was a pleasant surprise. Women in kayaks are as scarce as hen’s teeth in Australia. In North America, they seem to outnumber the men. I first found this situation in California, where there were flotillas of female-powered sit-on-tops.

Fascinated, I asked the women what they found so attractive about kayaking. The consensus was that it was a nice way to be on the water. The SOT’s were easy to paddle and felt safe. The sea was warm and the air balmy.

Further north, the women paddled normal kayaks, but they were still numerous. Sea kayaking In Australia is considered the province of the Iron Men. In North America, the waves are smaller and there is less emphasis on testosterone.

I coveted a Coaster, but was repelled by the price — US$1987.00. This converts into $2,600 in Australian currency, plus about $1000 freight. The equivalent Australian kayak (the slightly larger Inuit Classic) sells for about half the price, even without the freight. The Coaster‘s US pricetag is actually on the low side for North American fibreglass kayaks. Plastic boats, on the other hand, are considerably cheaper and more on a par with Australian prices.

So who wins, the Aussies or the North Americans? Neither. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I’d say the Aussies win on the basis of technique and equipment for sea kayaking, but the North Americans have developed kayaks and attitudes which well suit their own sheltered waters. In addition, the North American approach seems to attract far more women to the sport — something for macho (but lonely) Aussie males to think about.