Is sea kayaking difficult?

In reading the latest issue of Ocean Paddler, I read the article/interview by expeditioner/philosopher- Jon Turk. I really like Jon Turk. To date he has been one of my favorite guest speakers at WMCKA. His Logic vs. Magic video from the Raven’s Gift book really struck a chord with me. It is an interesting paradigm, and one that appeals to my more poetic impulses. As someone who is primarily engaged in technology, data, and logic, I wholeheartedly believe in Jon’s assessment of modern existence. We have choices every day between logic, and dreams. And dreams, fantasy, and magic in nature are more prevalent than we choose to believe because of our focus on pragmatism. For me it is a balance between the two.

Jon’s interviewed covered a lot of ground from his expedition experience. He has more miles under his kayak seat than I ever will. He has also pursued those miles in regions of the earth most people would never dare to pursue, Northwest Passage, Kamchatcka, Japan, Patagonia and more. Jon is also a very talented and athletic telemark skier, and backcountry alpine skier who spends a lot of his time choosing new routes on pristine slopes in the American Rockies. He has also done some bike touring in Mongolia.

John’s new expedition to Ellesmere Island is already underway.

The reason why this is interesting is in issue 26 of Ocean Paddler magazine, the interview asked Jon why two thirds of his expedition team had little to no sea kayak expedition experience. His response was, “I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but sea kayaking isn’t technically that difficult.”

Based on Jon’s experience with expeditions, climbing, skiing, etc, I can perhaps see where Jon is coming from. Do I completely agree, not sure. Certainly sailing is way more technical and requires years and years of training and practice, rock climbing and alpine climbing are definitely very technical. But is sea kayaking just not that technically difficult?

Certainly surfing has been a big challenge from a skill basis, I could probably spend the rest of my life doing it and not be happy with my performance. Sea Kayaking I feel has a skill and an endurance facet to it that I find really engaging and based on this I have never grown bored of it.

What does the peanut gallery think?


  1. Adding my 2 cents, much later than everybody else:

    1. Depends on conditions:

    IMHO kayaking has a very steep learning curve, and a coordinated, fit person can get 75% of the way “there” in a short time. Paddling in a group, this is great for fair weather and fair conditions. In rough conditions, you would like everybody to have enough skill to take care of themselves.

    2. Incident management

    When things go wrong, they can get worse very quickly through compounding mistakes. Experience and practice help make corrective responses second nature, avoiding a “snowball” effect.

    3. Freaking Out

    All the kayaking skills in the world won’t help somebody if they don’t have the capacity to perform during stressful or dangerous situations. If I was putting together an expedition, I would choose a fit person who has a proven capacity for dealing with stress, rather than a “good” paddler with an undetermined capacity to cope with stress.

    4. Group Dynamics

    (Similar to Freaking Out, above). I would choose an interesting, reliable partner over a “skilled” partner.

  2. Depending on the conditions you choose to go out in sea kayaking varies in difficulty physically but technically, or to be more precise, the techniques you use are going to be basically the same.

  3. I smiled when I read this query. When people have been doing something for recreation for 10, 20 or even 30 years (the latter being the case w. Jon Turk) naturally they are not going to find it difficult. If it were, they most likely wouldn’t have persisted. It is, after all, recreation.

    If it is hard for you, the individual, then it is hard, and really, that is what you, the individual, place the most immediate value on.

    The bigger picture is that kayaking can be an ego-ridden sport, as are many of the “adventure sports.” The fall out is that few will admit to struggle, fewer still to be beginners.

    The standing joke is that nearly everyone says they are “intermediate” – whatever that may mean, in the context of the actual degree of skill displayed by “intermediate” paddlers. With so many “intermediate” paddlers, can kayaking be difficult? I guess if so many of us are really, truly intermediate (or beyond) then the answer is no.

    The trick is to look behind the curtain.

  4. I’d agree with his assessment with one exception: I think sea kayaking can be if you want it to be. For example, if Greenland rolling is a subset of sea kayaking, then sea kayaking is certainly as technical as other sports you listed. But, plodding along at 3.5 to 4 mph in swell for 8 hours a day isn’t all that technical.

  5. Prolly a lot like sex.

    Nobody will admit it’s difficult. Especially American men 😉