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Guide to Launching a Kayak

Just picture it. A warm spring day. A new kayak ready to get wet. A calm lake. A first time paddler suddenly faced with the challenge of launching a kayak.

Yep, the first time out on the water can have a bit of a learning curve. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. So here are a few tips for making launching and retrieving your kayak as painless as possible.

Practice launching your kayak on dry land.

Know up front that there will be a certain amount of awkwardness in maneuvering your yak and getting yourself in and out. Embrace it. As you get more experience everything will work more smoothly. However, you can reduce some of the potential embarrassment by practicing at home first. Get some experience straddling the kayak and swinging your legs into the cockpit (if you have a sit-in). Or balancing on the edge as you swing yourself on (if you have a sit-on-top). This is also a good time to set your backrest, foot pegs, and any adjustable items. Also check if your most important equipment is within reach.

Pick your kayak launching location.

In general, you are looking for a place to launch that is as calm as possible, allows you to slip into the kayak and begin paddling in your direction of travel without obstacles, and can float your kayak to avoid scraping the bottom.

From shore:

We cover getting (gracefully, maybe!) in and out of a sit-in kayak. But essentially you will point the kayak in the direction of travel (perpendicular to shore) until it is floating, secure your paddle under the dock lines (or alternatively grasp it along with the kayak if your hands are big enough), straddle the kayak, then reaching behind you as you sit, grab the back combing of the cockpit and slip your legs in the cockpit. Retrieve your paddle and begin moving. You will reverse the steps for a beach/shore return.

Getting into a sit-on-top is actually a bit easier, although both require a certain amount of balance. Float your sit-on-top on the water (as above). Secure your paddle or grasp it in your hand. Situate yourself sideways on the kayak (but as close to the center as possible). Sit down as close to the seat as you can and swing your legs around on to the kayak. Get yourself in place as quickly as you can and start paddling.  

From dock:

Again, you can check out our steps for a kayak dock launch location. Float your kayak parallel to the dock. Get low or as close to the water as you can. Grasp the paddle and the dock, if you are able. (Or keep the paddle close to you on the dock). Lower yourself feet first into the kayak from a seated position on the dock. Grab your paddle and get moving. (Reverse the steps for your return. Use the dock for leverage, pull yourself to standing, and flop on or pull yourself onto the dock.)

For a sit-on-top launch, float the kayak parallel to the dock. Keep your paddle close, stay low. From a seated position on the dock, lower yourself feet first to the kayak staying as close to the center as possible. As quickly as you can, lower yourself into the seat and start to paddle.

Plan for launching eventualities or difficulties

In a perfect world conditions would always be conducive to an easy launch, but that isn’t always the case. Here are a few tips to consider when things aren’t lining up.

In rough water:

If you are launching into the ocean with waves or a particularly windy day, you need to take care. Ideally, you would put a pin in it and try another day. If you must launch, do your best to time your entrance between the waves. (This is a bit easier on the ocean than with wind gusts). Launch between sets and move as expeditiously as possible. Keep your paddle at the ready so that you can get moving past the breakers.

With obstacles:

If it is a particularly busy day and you need to launch into traffic or wake, again consider a different day or different put-in point. If you must launch, time your entrance and make sure you are ready to maneuver quickly if necessary.

Seal launch:

If you have a steep launch site, you might consider “seal launching”. In this maneuver, you start with your kayak mostly out of the water, enter the kayak, and then using paddle, hands/fist, and hips, you push yourself and your kayak forward until you are fully floating. Grab your paddle and go. While this process might keep your feet dry, there are a few disadvantages. First, a seal launch can scrape up and perhaps compromise the integrity of your hull. Don’t consider it if you have a composite/carbon fiber kayak. It can also be detrimental to the environment as you damage the ground or leave plastic behind.  

Pro-tips for a smooth kayak launch:

Stretch. That’s right. Kayaking requires physical exertion so it is wise to prepare your body even as you prepare your kayak.

Position the kayak. Check that your seat back is properly adjusted. You will be spending a lot of time sitting against it so it is vital to make sure it is supporting you properly. Check your foot pegs as well as any other parts of the kayak that can be moved and make sure they are in the correct position. You should do this on dry land. Have this set before the kayak hits the water.

Watch the weather. From dangerous tides and currents to imminent downpours, there are a number of ways that mother nature can wreck your plans. Be sure to stay flexible and make the wise choice. It is better to postpone it than risk it.

Save the celebration. Drinking alcohol and kayaking don’t mix. Enjoy your day on the water and save the toasting until you are on dry land.

Take a beat and make sure you are ready before you launch your kayak:

  • PDF secured. Make sure you are wearing it and it is properly fitted and buckled.
  • Paddle secured. Keep a close eye on that paddle. It becomes really difficult to launch if your paddle is floating away from you.
  • Rudders & skegs secured (and double check they are up when you return so they aren’t damaged in shallow water.)
  • Spray skirt unencumbered (i.e. don't sit on it!)
  • Equipment, snacks, devices secured. It is awfully annoying to have items shifting and sliding as you attempt to launch or land. Stow them properly from the outset.


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