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    Sea Kayaking and River Kayaking: 5 Differences

    7 min read

    By Meike Burgess, Marketing & Paid Media Manager
    More by Meike

    What's the Difference?

    As someone familiar with river kayaking for over 5 years, I had quite a few preconceptions about trying out sea kayaking for the first time.

    I’ll be honest, a small part of me thought that it was going to be a bit boring in comparison to river kayaking. With the absence of rapids, rocks and waterfalls I failed to see how sea kayaking could excite me.

    I did the Introduction to Sea Kayaking course and although my river kayaking experience gave me an edge in having marginally better balance and completely unnecessary Eskimo rolling skills over the other beginners, that was pretty much where my advantage ended!

    With a river kayaking mindset, I had all the confidence in the world that I would find sea kayaking easy but was actually pleasantly surprised at the challenges and differences I encountered. Below are the 5 major differences that I noticed between sea kayaking and river kayaking, overlooking the obvious locational factor!

    Here’s the basic list of differences between river and sea kayaking:

    1. You Actually Have To Paddle Whilst Sea Kayaking
    2. 4,000 Point Turns Are Pretty Standard in a Sea Kayak
    3. How Edging Your Sea Kayak Will Help Turn It
    4. Well They Call It SEA Kayaking for a Reason
    5. The Sense of Adventure Sea Kayaking Offers

    So without further ado, let’s get stuck into the details.


    1. You Actually Have To Paddle Whilst Sea Kayaking

    difference river and sea kayaking

    When I mentioned earlier that I thought it’d be boring, I didn’t take into account that sea kayaking requires a certain level of fitness.

    It’s exercise, especially against the wind! My core was definitely feeling the strain by the end of the trip – not to mention my arms. Any kayaker that has done paddling on both rivers and on open water will agree with me that sea kayaking is more of an endurance sport.

    With sea kayaking, you are often on the water for longer and you also need to actually paddle to keep going forward, with the wind not always being in your favour. On the calm stretches of river in between the rapids, river kayakers become some kind of boat/sloth hybrid. Paddles up and heads back, it’s easy to literally go with the flow of the river.

    A couple of hours of active sea paddling is much more rewarding, and I foolishly thought that I may come back a bit slimmer, more muscled, modelesque even – but the delicious Wilderness food provided, made sure that didn’t happen.

    2. 4,000 Point Turns Are Pretty Standard in a Sea Kayak

    A significant but mildly irritating difference between sea kayaking vs river kayaking is that to turn a sea kayak around takes about a year.

    No, I’m not exaggerating. We did an exercise on the Introduction Course to see in how many strokes we could turn ourselves 360 degrees, without back-paddling. It took me 60+ (plus 4 sneaky back-paddle strokes). My ego took a bit of a beating when people completely new to the paddling sport could do it much quicker than me.

    Sea kayaks are the sexy models of the kayaking sport; they are tall, pointy and slim. Which makes them fantastic for paddling in a straight line. However, it also makes them difficult to turn, especially to a river kayaker. The flatter and shorter hulls of a river kayak are designed for quick and responsive manoeuvring whilst the sleeker sea kayaks are made for stability and ease of paddling long distances.

    3. How Edging Your Sea Kayak Will Help Turn It

    The seeming impossibility of turning a sea kayak quickly brings me to edging.

    A large part of turning and directing your kayak is your weight distribution in the kayak. By distributing your weight differently you can sit your kayak on a different edge of its own hull. Edging, if done right, will assist you in turning your kayak in a new direction.

    Now when you’re river kayaking, this is straightforward enough as leaning into the direction that you want to go generally turns your kayak in that direction. With sea kayaking, this appeared to be a bit more random. My instructor Zoe told me to lift the knee in my kayak that was on the side of where I wanted to turn to, edging away from my desired direction. I think any river kayaker will struggle with this, as it is the exact opposite of what you’re used to doing! Edging becomes second nature and consciously changing that is hard. This added to my uselessness at turning a sea kayak.

    river kayaking Moriston

    Elliott Davidson using edges on the river Moriston (photo by Murray Gauld)

    However, it must be noted that many sea kayakers will tell you that leaning into your turn will also work. A little research revealed that the accompanying paddle stroke, type of sea kayak and the speed that you are going before you initiate the turn have a lot to do with it as well.

    4. Well They Call It SEA Kayaking for a Reason

    Sea kayaking beach picnic

    Now I realise that I have spent quite some time describing the practical variations between sea and river kayaking, ignoring the fact that they take place in completely different settings and function accordingly.

    On a river, you get to see some really beautiful places like gorges, waterfalls and amazing geological features shaped by the river. However, whilst you’re crashing your way down a rapid trying to focus on staying upright, you have relatively little time to enjoy the scenery. Sea kayaking allows you to absorb the area that you’re paddling in.

    The first thing that I noticed was just how varied and interesting the coast is from the water. Sea kayaking is a great way to go exploring, paddling gives you access to places many other people just can’t reach or even know about. Discover secret bays and beaches for lovely private picnics. Admire the steep cliffs of jutting headlands and their residential birdlife otherwise hidden from the human eye. Enter an almost alien world as you navigate your way through patches of thick seaweed and past rocks covered in mussel clusters. If you are lucky you will also get the chance to get up close and personal with seals who are very interested in sea kayakers and will pop by to investigate.

    5. The Sense of Adventure Sea Kayaking Offers

    Sea Kayaking Team Sport

    River kayaking is generally known as an extreme sport, whereas sea kayaking isn’t.

    I wondered if I’d get the same adventurous satisfaction from sea kayaking as I would after a successful river trip. On the river you are avoiding obstacles such as trees, rocks and ‘holes’, sometimes even whilst you are in the middle of a rapid! Difficult to see how you could beat that particular brand of adrenaline.

    In sea kayaking, you’ve got all the challenges that come with open water such as waves, swells, deep water rescues, navigation, skeg tactics and strong winds. Although you may not experience a full-on burst of adrenaline whilst sea kayaking (and definitely not when on an introductory trip), the sense of adventure is definitely there. On my introduction trip we only briefly ventured out onto real waves but when we did, we all loved it! The stunning scenery, the wildlife, the camaraderie and the sheer accomplishment of paddling for hours on end in various conditions will leave you on a high.

    The Verdict?

    I left my introduction to sea kayaking feeling that I have spent years missing out on an essential part of paddling.

    In time, my technique will develop and I’ll stop feeling irrational anger towards the long and difficult to control sea kayak. I always preferred the calmer and easier rivers when kayaking for the exact same reasons that I have decided that I love sea kayaking. It’s a great and different way to get outside and be active. Along the way you get to see some incredible places from an unusual perspective as you’re so low down and close to the water. You are generally dependent on other people to do the sport safely, making you develop strong bonds with the people you paddle with. I would definitely love to go sea kayaking again and would recommend it to any river kayaker who hasn’t tried it yet.

    Paddle Along the Beautiful Coastlines of Scotland?

    If you’re still not sure you’re ready to brave the waters alone, why not try one of our sea kayaking trips led by our expert guides. Certainly, our Introduction to Sea Kayaking tour is the best option for learning the ropes with like-minded adventurers. We work hard to get the right guides so that they provide the support needed while bringing the landscape and culture to life too, check out our sea kayaking reviews here.

    Check Out Our Sea Kayaking Trips

    Meet the Author: Meike Burgess

    “Having grown up travelling across the world I've developed an addiction to all things spice and to travel! When it was time to go to university I wandered off to Scotland for a new adventure and now 10+ years later I've not managed to leave yet. Scotland's welcoming culture, beautiful scenery and a Scottish man captured my heart. Moving to Scotland has made me develop a passion for the outdoors and I love heading out for an explore.”

    View profileMore by Meike

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