Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Advice: Launching Your Kayak

It seems like a fairly straightforward proposition; paddling your kayak means putting it in some kind of water. However, some consideration and technique can be brought to bear on the specifics of launching your kayak, and I think it's worthwhile to examine what those specifics might be. I briefly touched on launching in my post 10 Tips for Which Kayak You Should Buy, but I'll go into more detail here.
The beginning of your journey

The first thing that always comes to mind when I'm researching a launch location is: are kayaks allowed? Sounds a little basic, right? Consider Lake Cochichewick in North, Andover, Massachusetts - not far from where I live. I've spied this lake as a possible paddling spot for a few years, as it is abutted on its western shore by conservation land, is big enough to offer a couple hours of circumnavigation, and looks like a nice, easy destination to enjoy some fall foliage. After researching this spot, though, I determined that it is suitable only for town residents with closed hull kayaks. Lake Cochichewick is a drinking water supply for several towns. It does offer access to non-motorized boats, but via a town boat launch specified for residents' use. It also requires all boats to not have any possible communication between the water and boat occupants - which means a cockpit drain hole is technically not permitted. So, in this example, kayaks are permitted, but only under specific conditions that don't apply to me and my 'yak. My research saved my a wasted trip and maybe even a fine.

The next thing I think about is parking. I know, the whole idea behind kayaking and other activities in nature is to get us out of our cars and to be surrounded by the natural world. Well, unless you live on a lake, the ocean, or a river, then you're probably going to transport your kayak(s) via a combustion engine. Having a dependable parking spot close to your launch point takes one logistical issue out of your paddle trip. If parking is not close, you will either have to drop your boat at the launch site, then go park, then walk/jog/run back to the water, or, you will need a wheeled kayak carrier to get your 'yak from your vehicle to the launch. In that scenario, you'll have to plan on what to do with the carrier. Does it fold sufficiently to fit inside a hatch? Can you carry it on top of your kayak? Remember, it will add weight, possibly affect you ability to roll your kayak (see my post Safety is a Mindset), and may be subjected to salt water (and therefore, can rust). Also, if you are heading to a new (for you) paddling location, is there more than one parking option? You can't know exactly how busy it will be, or whether any construction or other unforeseen issues will thwart your first choice for a parking spot. Be prepared for unknown parking restrictions (like "resident parking only") as well, and bring quarters for old-school parking meters and a credit card for newer meters. 

After permission/suitability and parking, I think about the launch conditions. Is it rocky or sandy? Will there be mud to slog through? Is the grade to the water a gentle slope, or a steeper drop-off? Do you own a type of kayak you don't want to scratch (it's a good idea to avoid scratching any kayak hull, but fiber glass and wood finishes can be particularly affected by gravel and rocks - which is why my 'yak is plastic 😏)? Are you launching from a beach, from a concrete boat launch, from a dock? - the type of launch can greatly affect the best practices for getting in the water (still mostly dry 😉) and getting out. Different launch types can favor different kayak types. Dropping a heavy fishing kayak off the side of a dock, for example, can be tricky. Getting into/onto your kayak can be tricky, too. Different techniques are required for different launches. A word here about assisted kayak launches (someone giving you a push): in my opinion, don't do it. I can recall a launch off some rocks in Magnolia where some helpful divers, fresh out of the water, offered to give me a hand launching. They pushed straight into the trough of an oncoming wave, and had, without telling me, folded my rudder on top of my 'yak. I plunged bow first off rocks into an oncoming wave with only my paddle to control the boat. Do yourself a favor - leave your launch timing and gear status to yourself, and fully in your control. Folks may think they're helping, but in the end, it's your ass in the cockpit.    

The most versatile and easiest launch type is a gently sloping, sandy beach near flat water. This can be at the ocean, on a riverbank, or on a lake or pond. The gentle slope allows for an easy carry to the water's edge. If the sand is fine grained, you can drag your kayak with minimal scratching (fussy fiberglass hull paddlers might still want to carry theirs all the way to the water). That said, a 45lb kayak can be a tough drag (or tougher carry) for many people. Wheels will roll easily if they are made for sand. Pneumatic tires work well on sand, but thin, hard wheels - not so much. You can pull your kayak half way into the water, get in it, get yourself organized with your gear, then shimmy yourself forward until you're in water deep enough to float. A couple of paddle presses off the soft sand bottom, and presto, you're on your way. 

Mounting your kayak when it's already in deeper water (like on the side of a dock) means an error could send you splashing into the drink. I personally have unceremoniously tumbled into the water (on a return landing, no less...embarrassment is a great teacher 😖).This can be a safety issue in a current, and could float you and your boat away - and away from each other. There are specific techniques for controlling your kayak and bracing off the dock. Here's a video from that shows you how to do it...


Steep drop offs into deep water and rocky launch points add another level of difficulty, so choose a launch that suits your ability. Launching into the surf is for advanced paddlers and deserves a post of its own, so I won't go into it here, aside from saying don't do it unless you have a spray skirt deployed or are on a sit-on-top kayak and know the paddling techniques required to safely punch through waves. Do your research, and practice in small surf first. Getting tossed by waves in a touring length kayak is no joke - it could break your neck. Landing in surf conditions is even more challenging. So, avoid surf launches unless you are advanced. 

Another consideration for your launch point is what will the conditions be like when you return from your paddle? If the tide goes out and leaves nothing but thick mud between you and your landing, that could be a long, hard slog. You might even get stuck. I have lost footwear in thick mud. Trust me, you want to avoid it. This is one reason why known boat launches are good candidates. They have already been vetted for changing tide levels. Launching into a river current might be easier on the entry - the return could require landing at speed. Coming into a dock at the speed of the current can be difficult - you don't want to get smashed into the side of it, or dragged under a gangway.

Like most aspects of kayaking, selecting the right launch may be a bit more complicated than it first appears, but don't let that intimidate you. Your launch point is where you leave your terrestrial life behind and slide onto liquid. It's the gateway to your kayaking adventure, and the port that welcomes you home. Consider it thoroughly, choose wisely, then leave the land and its troubles behind you - at least for a little while.

- TB on the Water  



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