May 23, 2010

Trail & Error: Count on kayaks tipping, learn skills to stay safe


Highland Lake stretched out in the late afternoon sun like a drowsy sunbather, tiny waves rippling its surface like goose bumps.

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Outdoor writer Shannon Bryan gets a kayak lesson from Theresa Ouellette of Coastal Maine Kayak on the water at Highland Lake in Falmouth.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Outdoor writer Shannon Bryan, on right, gets kayak instructions from Theresa Ouellette of Coastal Maine Kayak and fellow guide Ernie Forgione on the water at Highland Lake in Falmouth.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk offers kayak tours, sales, rental and instruction, including safety & rescue clinics, rolling instruction and private lessons. Rescue clinics cost $99 for a three-hour course. For more details or prices go to or call 967-6065.

For a listing of registered kayak guides in Maine go to

There was little movement, other than the water jostling at the edges of my kayak while I floated there, my paddle resting across my lap.

Splendid scenery, splendid kayaking conditions.

So I inhaled one slow, deep breath, then leaned my body out over the side of the boat and tipped overboard.

Now submerged, I gave a tug to the skirt release loop. My legs freed from the confines of the overturned kayak, I bobbed to the surface with help from my personal flotation device (PFD).

I took a few seconds to reacquaint myself, having been startled by the sudden toss into the water. A nearby voice yelled out, "Hold on to your paddle. And stay connected to your boat."

I'd just tipped over a perfectly good kayak in a perfectly good lake -- and I'd done it on purpose.

This wasn't my first kayaking experience. I'd rented boats before for trips on the Saco River near Camp Ellis or the Songo River Locks near Naples. I'd paddled lazily in borrowed, wide-bottomed boats on relaxed lakes over long vacation weekends.

Kayaking is a low-barrier sport that way. Rental shops abound in Maine, most of which required little more than a credit card and a request that you wear a life jacket. It's not difficult to make the kayak work, as imperfect as your form may be.

The wonderfully easy access makes kayaking a stellar summer activity for novices who want to take in the local scenery. It also means novices can slide their legs into a brightly colored watercraft with little forethought or preparation.

Most times they'll paddle along the waterway, gesturing at low-flying birds or the panoramic tree line. But sometimes, they'll run into trouble.

"There are two kinds of kayakers," said Ros Arienti, a registered Maine kayak guide. "Those who have tipped their kayaks and those who will."

With paddling season on its way, it's an ideal time to prepare for such an unexpected tip.

So I met up with licensed kayaking guide Theresa Willet, who owns Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk, and fellow guides Arienti, Jody Brinser and Ernie Forgione during a scheduled meetup on Highland Lake in Falmouth.

The foursome regularly hits the water to hone their skills and allowed me to tag along and learn the art of the wet exit.

But before I could slide into the cockpit of Willet's lent boat, I needed to properly gear up.

Despite the 75-degree air temperatures, Willet suggested I come prepped with long underwear and fleece. And if I've learned nothing else in the last several months of Trail and Error, it's to listen to the instructor.

Kayakers need to dress for the water temperature, I was told, rather than the air temperature.

I stepped in to a borrowed dry suit, looking more like I was prepping to jump out of an airplane than to tip out of a kayak. While a wet suit works by holding warmed water against your skin, the dry suit is intended to keep your skin -- and your clothes -- completely dry.

To keep the water out, kayakers need to squeeze their hands and heads through tight latex seals at the wrists and neck of the dry suit -- a process akin to putting your head through the open end of a balloon.

Willet joked it was like being "born again" every time.

Then came the PFD, with Willet tightening the belly strap and tugging on the shoulders to make sure it fit properly, and the neoprene cap and gloves.

(Continued on page 2)

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