I've been paddling for decades. I lead paddle trips in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound. I've also paddled in the Salish Sea that surrounds the San Juan Islands. In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I have encountered paddlers paddling inexpensive kayaks, not using a spray skirt, or wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). So when a saw a recent post from a woman fairly new to kayaking wanting to know if kayaks sold at Costco are suitable for paddling in the San Juan Islands, I knew a teachable moment was at hand.
Her question was a fair one, and I was glad she asked it. Too many people buy boats from discount, department, and sporting goods stores without any real training or information provided by the salesperson. What I will tell readers is the same thing I told the woman in response to her question: No. I would not encourage the use of recreation kayaks in either the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Salish Sea, or the Puget Sound. Why?
Because winds can come up quickly and catch paddlers off guard, inexpensive kayaks like the ones you can buy at Costco, Walmart, Dicks, and other such retailers are not recommended for use in large bodies of water. Kayaks you buy at those retailers are designed for lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers.
In the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Salish Sea, you need a boat fitted with a spray skirt, but more importantly, you need a boat with bulkheads fore and aft. Inexpensive boats lack one or both bulkheads. Why are bulkheads fore and aft critical? They provide sealed pockets of air that provide buoyancy in the case of a capsize. Bulkheads also keep the boat from completely flooding. A totally flooded kayak can be extremely difficult to empty during assisted rescues; in rough water with high waves, it can be downright dangerous to the rescuer. I don't allow those types of boats on any of the trips I lead in the Puget Sound or Strait of Juan de Fuca for those reasons. Those boats are meant to be used close to shore where in the event of a capsize the paddler can tow the boat to shore and drain it.
Another concern with using inexpensive kayaks in the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Salish Sea is that these bodies of water are prone to strong tidal currents and wind-tossed waves. Inexpensive boats are not equipped to handle such currents or waves. They don't track well due to their size and shape, which means in strong waves or current, the boat can get turned sideways, causing a wave or the current to capsize it. While recreation kayaks have great primary stability—that’s what makes them so stable to get into—they lack secondary stability—the ability of a kayak or canoe to tilt on its side without flipping.
Tour operators I've spoken to in the San Juan Islands and Port Angeles don't recommend a boat less than 14 feet in length.
Lastly, paddlers should be wearing either dry suits of wetsuits depending on the water temperature. I’ll discuss this further in an upcoming blog article. For now, I would refer you to www.coldwatersafety.org.