Martin Chambers

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Kayaking with the kids

published: February 12th, 2017

I first took my daughter on a canoe trip when she was three weeks old. Next week she turns eighteen and the nanoseconds between these two events reminds me in some ways of a long canoe trip. A lot of time spent wondering when we will arrive, moments of laughter, worry, excitement, monotony and much routine. After the trip is over, memories of joyous times crowd out the bad and I wonder why we didn’t do more along the way. So my first hint for enjoying paddling with the kids, either by canoe, kayak or sit on top, is to start now. My second is that the activity is not an end in itself but a means to an end. A baby between your knees, a toddler leaning over the canoe to watch jellyfish, river camping trips, family picnics by the lake while they paddle their own canoe, fun in the surf with a sit on top. Even conversation with a teenager is possible. Paddling is not the only way to these happy memories, but it is a good way. 

Safety concerns. The main concern is exposure. Small people get cold easily so beware hypothermia. Carry a dry bag with spare clothes. Wear sunscreen and hat for protection from the sun and carry drinking water. Apart from that avoid rapids and surf, start on short trips or in areas you know well. PFD’s. Do as I do, not as I say. If you are going to insist that your children wear a PFD wear one yourself. Active paddlers will need a type 2 specifically made for paddling. They have large armholes and a high waist so that when seated they do not ride up. Try them on in the shop- comfort is the measure. Sit down in it and wave your arms about. Type 1 PFD’s float the wearer head up and are not suitable for active paddlers as the collar gets in the way, but they will be your choice for non swimmers and the very young. 

Skills Don’t let skills get in the way of enjoyment, giving skills only as they ask. If you insist on great technique you are focusing too much on the activity and not the event. The only thing I insist on is that kids can safely capsize, right and then get back on their sit on top, or empty and relaunch their kayak or canoe. They need to be able to do this while wearing their PFD.

What age to start? At any age children will feel your mood and not enjoy it if you are not relaxed. From the time they can sit up and see the world around them they will enjoy the magic sensation of being afloat and secure in parents’ arms, watching birds, looking at boats, overhanging branches. From three to about six they will want to copy, so make up a little paddle for them or have them between your knees so they hold the paddle too. Don’t expect too much in the way of technique. As they get older children begin to develop the idea of doing things themselves. Now they will need a proper paddle and their first paddle is a bit like the keys to the car, so make an event of it. Remember that hands are small and they are not strong, your old paddle will not do. Younger children will find a canoe paddle easier to handle, even for a kayak. About eight to ten they will be ready to try out on their own, or to participate in longer trips in the tandem. This is the best age for camping trips and the best camping trips include friends. I took each of my daughters on a tenth birthday overnight expedition, with one friend only. Three of us in an open canoe to a campsite along a quiet river, then they in their own tent sleeping off a diet of toasted marshmallows with hot chocolate, and handing back to her mother the friend, muddy from head to toe. A trip of a few kilometers is all it takes for lifetime memories. Teenagers will still paddle the tandem with you, provided some other social priority doesn’t get SMS’ed at the last minute. To prevent changes of plan at short notice, enroll them in the planning; maps, food, camping gear; and invite friends. For several years we organised an annual Easter canoe trip with four families and put the kids, all about 13yo, in charge of all the food. We just paid the bills. 

What type of craft to buy? A tandem canoe or open kayak keeps you all dry and on the water together. These are also great craft for camping trips on rivers, but are not much use on the open sea or where wind and waves might be encountered. Adjust the trim, the fore and aft balance of the boat, by shifting weight such as water bottles into the bow. If you are feeling a bit unstable, get the kids to sit on the floor. Sit on tops are great for warm climates and on open water where there is the possibility of capsize. Any kayak big enough to carry you will be too buoyant for a child and they will not be able to control it. Ten year olds have smaller bikes than adults, so too with kayaks. Similarly, kayaks that can carry you, mum, two kids and the dog, do not work well solo. It’s not only the seat position but the size. Kids over about 8yo will enjoy a single more than a double. Two 8yo in a double for adults will struggle to control the boat in a wind. Longer boats will be difficult to turn with small paddlers in them and although there are many sit on kayaks in the small category, most are built for adults. They are too wide and have low seats, making it difficult for kids to paddle them. Look for a short kayak, up to 3.0m long, not too wide (about 65cm), low profile, and a shallow seat. 

Keeping their interest up. Vary the locations and experiences and do a little bit more each time. Each time you go out keep it safe and fun; nothing will destroy their enthusiasm as quickly as a cold, scary or dull trip. Try sailing with a held up towel. If overnight, the camp has to be warm and dry. On longer trips games like eye spy, word games, puzzles, telling jokes, reciting poetry (Roald Dahl’s ‘Revolting Rhymes’ is always a hit). Then there is the promise of future trips. There is a three day canoe trip down the Ord River from Lake Argyle where you can paddle right under a bat colony (and up to freshwater crocodiles). Promise that trip to a young boy! 

Where to go. You need only 10cm deep and 500m of water. Narrow rivers, small wetlands, sheltered reef and islands hold far more interest than wide open waterways, with birds, fish, secret ferneries to explore. The great thing about paddling is that you can be versatile and quick. A calm ocean this morning might be an opportunity to paddle out to the reef and snorkel before the sea breeze. My favorites near Perth are Burswood Island right on Perth’s doorstep, Masons Landing in Canning Regional Park and Penguin Island. 
Contact your local canoe club via or the local shire for paddling guides to longer trips and camping areas. Guide books such as Paddle Eastern Aust (reviewed in last issue of Outer Edge) or The Canoe and Kayak Guide to WA are a great source of information.