Kayaking to Cumberland Island is becoming more and more popular as a result of the growing interest in kayaking. More than ever before, kayaking is accessible to everyone. But the fact that kayaks are easier to find does not mean that kayaking is any safer — especially kayaking in open water, or even more protected tidewaters. If you want to paddle to Cumberland Island, or any offshore destination, there are some things you need to consider about the equipment you will be using if you want to be safe.
For starters, the kayak you choose will make or break your trip. Kayaks are not all created equal. There are many, many styles and manufacturers to choose from for a reason. Some kayaks are for whitewater, some are for recreational use on flat water (such as lakes or ponds), some kayaks are for surfing and some are for open water paddling. There are singles and tandem kayaks; and there are kayaks made from plastic, carbon fiber, fiberglass, wood, fabric, and a number of other materials. All of these factors should be taken into consideration when choosing a kayak for a specific application. For paddling to Cumberland Island, you’ll need a Sea Kayak — preferably one with a rudder or skeg and two bulkheads.
A sea kayak is the ultimate open water craft. Designed to hunt large marine animals in some of the coldest, most dangerous waters on the planet, sea kayaks are designed to handle the ocean just as well as any sea creature. The only question is: Are you? Sea kayaks should have storage compartments in the front and rear of the boat which are separated from the cockpit (where you sit) by airtight, or waterproof, bulkheads. Besides keeping your gear dry, these compartments keep the boat from becoming swamped in the event you take waves over the side or capsize. Another important feature of the bulkheaded storage compartments is that they keep a capsized boat from filling completely with water and sinking. In fact, those air-tight compartments cause the boat to float level, and even higher out of the water than it rests with you in it. This feature enable you to right the boat without taking on a lot of water.
In addition to fore and aft bulkheads to help you keep your gear dry and recover your boat in the event of a capsize, you’re going to want to make sure your kayak has a rudder or skeg before paddling in estuaries or open water. The reason for this is wind, and the wind’s effects on surface conditions. Rudders are typically retractable mechanisms that allow you to steer your kayak with your foot pedals — push on the right pedal, the boat turns right, etc. But rudders should not be viewed as steering contraptions, but rather as a way to minimize lateral movement in beam or following seas. Steering a kayak is accomplished with the kayak paddle and specific strokes and techniques. A tailwind, and the following seas it creates, can create situations where the back of your kayak tries to catch up to and pass the front of your kayak. A rudder will help minimize this tendency. Likewise, when paddling with winds and seas coming at you from the side, a rudder keeps you from having to use turning strokes on every other stroke.
A skeg is a retractable fin in the tail of the kayak that is somewhat reminiscent of a dagger board on a sailboat. It simply deploys and retracts with the slide of a lever, or by releasing the uphaul line from it’s keeper — typically some type of cam-device. Though skegs do not give you the ability to turn your kayak, they do indeed provide a substantial amount of lateral stability and save you a lot of energy on windy days. And, the bottom line when you’re kayaking on open water is safety; if you wear yourself out fighting wind and surfing following seas before reaching your destination, you could be in deep trouble. If you are an expert kayaker, and you paddle a sea kayak without a skeg, you have already taught yourself to deal with certain conditions. But, if you are not an expert, and you are paddling in big water, do yourself a favor and take the right boat. It really could make or break your trip — and even be the difference between making it or not.
Other necessary equipment includes a PFD (personal flotation device) with a whistle attached (this is a USCG regulation), a bilge pump and/or sponge to remove water from inside the cockpit, and a light if paddling after dark. Keep in mind, this is the bear minimum required safety equipment for making this trip in fair weather. Other gear I would recommend taking along would include: 1st aid kit; Marine radio, cell phone, extra food and water, knife, duct tape and some sort of tow line. Ever kayaker will develop their own personal set of gear, but it is important to think through every conceivable contingency and prepare for it in order to be as safe as possible. Kayaking to Cumberland Island is an absolutely fantastic trip in a kayak; and choosing the right gear for the journey can make all the difference in the world.