Paddling the Ocean Blue: Sea Kayaking on the Central Coast

We floated through the ocean swell dipping our paddles gracefully as we glided by the coastline of Santa Barbara County. Our destination on our sea kayaking tour was El Capitan Beach where we would disembark, take our camping gear out of the kayak’s cargo hold, and spend the night at the campground. So far we had covered about six miles and the paddling was easy and uneventful. Suddenly something broke through the surface of the water on either side of our little band of kayakers. “Dolphins,” somebody cried. Sure enough a pod of Pacific dolphins were joining us on our journey. What a thrill to be so close to these magnificent sea mammals.
Later on as we neared our shore we struggled a bit to paddle through a mess of kelp, but just as we were about to mumble and complain we noticed several little brown heads pop up and about six sets of eyes centered upon us. Wrapped securely in the fronds of the kelp were southern sea otters, resting as they do, so as not to float away. Again, we were thrilled to be able to see these creatures in their own environment. Carefully, we negotiated out of the kelp to give them their space, and for a time we just drifted in our boats watching them.
Sea Kayaking 101
This is sea kayaking at its finest and here on the Central Coast we’re fortunate to be able to participate in an activity that not only is good for the body but is nurturing to the spirit.
The Past
Sea kayaking has been around for a long time. It all started with the native peoples of the Arctic, Alaska, Greenland, and northern Canada. They were hunters and they built their form fitting crafts out of wood and hides and used them to go out on the open ocean hunting seals and walrus.
Kayaking Today – Sea Kayaks
Sea kayaks have changed over the years. Fiberglass, carbon-fiber, Kevlar and plastic kayaks are now the most abundant types although there are still wood, fabric, and inflatable boats being used. There are many designs with the most popular being long, flat bottomed vessels, usually with foot pedals and rudders for steering, and a cockpit which can be covered with a spray skirt. Fiberglass, carbon-fiber, and Kevlar are lightest in weight with plastic being heavier. Length of a single sea kayak can be from 14 to 20 feet and doubles from 18 to 24 feet with weights from 40 to 70 pounds. They come with cargo holds in both front and back to carry gear. These are the types of kayaks used on long sea kayaking expeditions.
Recreational Kayaks
Shorter boats known as recreational kayaks are from nine feet to 12 feet long and have wider cockpits. These are also sea worthy craft and can be more maneuverable than the larger vessels, but are usually used in quieter waters such as bays and lakes. Sit-on-top boats became popular in the last 25 years as it was felt that these boats would be easier to get back onto should a person fall off. They did not always perform as well in the open ocean but in recent years new models have emerged with sleeker design making for better and easier paddling.
Kayak Equipment
Along with the kayak the other most important piece of equipment is the paddle. These are made from carbon-fiber, wood, plastic, and aluminum. There are two flat blades and most paddles can be taken apart and carried in two pieces. When secured together the paddle can be set as feathered or not. Feathered paddles have the blades set at an angle and require the paddler to twist the angled paddle blade down before making the stroke. The advantage to a feathered paddle is that as one blade is cutting backwards through the water, the other is flat, cutting through the air reducing drag. Not everyone likes a feathered paddle and beginners often have difficulty establishing a good paddling rhythm with one.  They also can exacerbate a carpal tunnel problem in the wrists.
Central Coast waters are usually very cold. Wet suits or dry suits are recommended and paddlers should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD).Other things to have with you on an ocean kayak tour are flares in case of a problem, a whistle to attract attention, a kayak pump, plenty of drinking water, sunscreen, and snacks.
Transporting Kayaks
Kayaks are carried on top of vehicles, tied down securely onto racks or in saddles, and also secured front and rear of the vehicle.
Paddling Technique
Beginners often tire out quickly because they paddle only with their arms. For proper form, paddlers should use his or her back. Paddling a kayak is not the same as paddling a canoe. It’s not necessary to dip the paddle deeply into the water as is done with canoeing. A paddler should use their back by slightly twisting on one side while extending the paddle forward into the top of the water and then drawing it back. As the paddle is drawn back on one side it is conversely extended in the same manner on the opposite side, slightly twisting the back and bringing the paddle forward into the water. As the paddler continues these motions a paddling rhythm is established.
The Eskimo Roll
Launching through the surf and coming in for landings are the two times that there are possibilities of getting wet. Cockpit kayaks with spray skirts keep the paddler dry at this time and paddlers on sit-on-top kayaks often wear wet suits for protection from the cold water. There is very little reason for a paddler to land in the water while sea kayaking. Experienced kayakers who go on extensive touring expeditions do learn how to use their paddle to assist them to get back into their boats should they have a mishap and fall out. The other technique is the Eskimo Roll where the paddler utilizes the paddle and forces the kayak over making a complete underwater turn.
Never paddle alone. Should you happen to fall in the water your companions can help to steady your kayak as you climb back in your boat.  Always check the weather before going out. Kayaking is very difficult in windy conditions not to mention during a storm. Waves can be dangerously high in these conditions.
Kayak Surfing
Certain sea kayaks are used by enthusiasts of kayak surfing. A kayak that cleanly cuts the water is best. Some kayak surfers use white water kayaks for this sport. Others prefer the sit-on-top kayaks.
When to Paddle
Winter months always bring higher surf and more difficult conditions. In spring there is wind to contend with. Summer months are the calmest at sea. Area kayak companies offer guided ocean kayak tours. Outfitters in Avila Beach and Shell Beach regularly take people out into the ocean. Waves at Avila Beach are often the smallest in size and this is a good area for beginning sea kayakers to practice getting in and out of the surf.
By Ruth Ann Angus
Where to Launch on the Central Coast
Avila Beach – The area between the Cal Poly pier and Harford Pier is one of the easiest places to launch.
Cayucos Beach
William Randolph Hearst State Beach at San Simeon
Santa Barbara – from the harbor area
Monterey Bay – near the Coast Guard jetty
Shell Beach
Morro Bay – out of the harbor mouth
Cambria – Moonstone Beach
Santa Barbara beaches – north of the city
Spooner’s Cove in Montana de Oro
Morro Bay – north of the Rock
Kayak Outfitters
There are a number of kayak outfitters in Morro Bay. Some offer tours and lessons and rentals. None of these outfitters allow customers to exit the inner bay and harbor area.
Rock Kayak Co. - Rentals, tours. 845 Embarcadero #11, Morro Bay. (805) 772-2906.
Kayak Horizons - Rentals, tours. 551 Embarcadero, Morro Bay. (805) 772-6444.
The Kayak Shack at State Park Marina – Rentals. 10 State Park Rd., Morro Bay. (805) 772-8796.
Central Coast Outdoors - Guided tours through the Kayak Shack at State Park Marina. (888) 873-5610.
Sub Sea Tours - 699 Embarcadero #9, Morro Bay. (805) 772-9463.
Momentum Paddle Sports - Tours, classes, rentals. Harford Pier, Avila Beach. (805) 723-4009.
SLO Coast Kayaks – Tours, rentals. 3915 Avila Beach Dr., Avila Beach. (805) 704-6902.
Central Coast Kayaks - Tours, classes, rentals. 1879 Shell Beach Rd., Shell Beach. (805) 773-9767.
Pismo Beach Surf Shop - 470 Price St., Pismo Beach. (805) 773-2089.
Good Clean Fun – Rentals, tours. 136 Ocean Front Ave., Cayucos. (805) 995-1993.