Up the creek — or out on the ocean —with a paddle.Though the state’s seacoast is a scant 18 miles long, there is no shortage of opportunities for sea kayaking. Whether in the ocean or in saltwater rivers, the Granite State is rich in wildlife and scenery for those who want to explore by paddling.Paddling the sea, narrow marshes and estuaries comes with its complexities like tides, winds and weather. It’s a good idea to first try an outing with an outfitter to get the so-called lay of the land.Bill Downey is an experienced paddler. As owner of Portsmouth Kayak Adventures, he leads new sea kayakers out into a wondrous world of water that includes Great Bay, the Piscataqua River and Little Harbor, a tidal creek between New Castle and Portsmouth. “Most importantly is know yourself, your skills and where you plan to paddle,” he says. Downey says the traditional sea kayak runs about 15 to 18 feet in average length. They are narrower than kayaks used for quiet freshwater excursions so they are more adept at going through waves and swells. Many have front and rear storage hatches and can come with a rudder in the rear. Foot pegs are essential. From a kayak, New Hampshire paddlers might see lobstermen in their boats, manicured lawns of mansions and historic places like Strawbery Banke. “That’s the great thing about where we live,” says Downey. “Here in New Hampshire we have such great diversity, from the famous Piscataqua River to Great Bay being one of the best hidden gems.”There is also an abundance of birds and marine life to be spotted — launch a sea kayak and find them.Gear BoxWilderness Systems Tsunami 145 ($1,450, wildernesssystems.com) is a kayak with nice stability and control. There is plenty of storage capacity for food and gear. Keep the binoculars and camera dry inside a Seal Line dry bag (price based on size from 5-liter at $20 to 55-liter at $55, www.cascadedesigns.com). Light and robust, the Aqua Bound Sting Ray kayak paddle ($129.95, www.aquabound.com) is there to maximize strokes and keep fatigue at bay. If you go out with a guide or take a lesson, pepper that pro with equipment questions. There’s nothing like taking a kayak for a test spin before a purchasInteresting FactNovice-friendly Great Bay has some 250 species of birds for paddlers to spot from their kayaks.Expert AdviceBill Downey is a long-time resident of Portsmouth. He is owner of Portsmouth Kayak Adventures, a business that does a lot of work supporting a variety of non-profit organizations. Downey is also an active board member of the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine — he’s known to also paddle up in the Saco River within sight of Mount Washington — and the New Hampshire Coastal Protection Partnership.How is sea kayaking different from paddling on a mountain pond or lake? The first difference is the tide. Here on the New Hampshire coast we have a range of 7 to 12 feet; usually we see between 8 and 9 feet. Current is the second. Lakes and ponds tend to be calmer, but can kick up a “chop” when the wind picks up. On the coast you can take on the challenge of the shore where you can find waves and swell. Most recreational kayakers from the area stick to the many beautiful and relatively calm tidal creeks.What could I learn from going on a group tour or taking a lesson?During “Paddle Talk,” our on-land orientation, we go over the area and points of interest where you’re about to paddle, basic paddle strokes, familiarize you with boat parts, point out potential hazards such as current, sand bars and other boats, and go over general boat safety. Lessons are more concentrated and generally focus on technical instruction, such as self and assisted rescues, chart reading and preparation, such as weather reports, proper clothing, identifying boat parts, learning to identify potential hazards.How do I know when I’m ready to go out on my own? It’s personal, of course, depending on the individual and location. I recommend minimally a guided tour or lesson first, after that going out with a friend or group. Stay close to shore initially, and then once you have the ability to administer a self rescue, that’s the ability to get yourself back into the boat, and assisted rescue ... it’s up to you to know your limits and find your comfort zone.What kind of navigational and nautical skills and gear (map, compass, tide charts, etc.) do I need to have once I decide to go out on my own? Always research your paddle area or trip, read up, ask a professional or simply ask a local if possible. Wear a PFD (personal flotation device). Bring a water pump, a chart and when required a skirt (for rougher conditions). Charts have water depths and maps do not. I would also recommend a compass and/or GPS, paddle leash, create a float plan and bring a cell phone in a waterproof bag for longer distance trips.What kind of wildlife might I see? On the coast it’s not uncommon to see a great blue heron, deer, smaller water birds (terns), striped bass and osprey. I’ve seen an eagle recently. There are also turkeys that inhabit a small island, otter, moose, seals and porpoises in the harbor.
This article appears in the July 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine