TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Diving

Menai StraitKayak Diving in Britain and Ireland

by Julian Todd

Kayak diving is probably the most under-rated sport in the UK. It's cheap, hassle-free, and much more convenient than lugging around a huge and thirsty dive boat. We have just the right kind of coastline for pottering around in the zone between an unsatisfying shore-dive and a stressful trip out to the deep and stormy water to justify the use of a powered boat. A kayak can take you several miles along a coastline to places where there is no easy access from land for divers and where you can enjoy a sensible, easy dive that is fun and which you have never done before. If it's scary and you don't want to dive, you don't need to, because it's a two-for-one, and you're probably getting enough adventure with the paddling. When the weather gets really bad, you can leave your kit behind and go surfing, because that's what these boats were originally designed for. (photo: Menai Strait west of Britannia Bridge)

Kayak diving is not just for comfortable spots like Florida and California. It also works in the harsher conditions of Britain and Ireland. Unfortunately, the local boat divers tend not to believe this, which means you are on your own when it comes to planning your trip and your days out. It's not normally wise to ignore local advice, but in this case where it is something they don't understand, it's necessary.

dive watchBeckaThe first rule of kayak diving in an unfamiliar place is never do anything you are not comfortable with. You do not need to paddle beyond that scary headland with the big crashing waves, tall cliffs and no way out. And it's not strictly necessary to do this dive on a submerged reef three kilometres out to sea just because you can paddle out to it. It's probably not worth it, and none of your friends will think it's big or clever (they don't think kayak diving is clever in the first place), unlike, for example, dangerous deep diving with weird gas mixtures.

It is reasonable to be cautious. Most of the time when you combine two "extreme" sports into a single activity, you get the worst of both. I am thinking of caving and diving, which is an atrocious combination: you will die if you do not get sufficient training from someone who knows exactly what they are doing. (See TopKayaker.net's Guide To Kayak Caving)

Kayak diving, on the other hand, can be explored successfully without a huge amount of qualified expertise. Just stay away anything frightening, and it will be okay. When you do gain enough experience, then certain things you want to do will stop being so scary. I haven't reached that point with everything yet.

Most of what goes wrong in sea kayaking is a result of capsizing, coming out of your boat, and getting hypothermia -- none of which is likely to happen to someone wearing a diving drysuit on a sit-on-top kayak. You cannot overheat, even on the hottest days, with cool 12 C degree water just there at your fingertips. I favour suits with a front zip, because the zips that go across the back of your shoulders tend to get a little kink every time you stroke your paddle. Also, it means you can land and relieve yourself without any assistance.

Julian ToddAnother common hazard with sea kayaks is that, being so sleek and efficient and with too many hours in the day, there is a temptation to paddle to places so far out in the wilderness that you can't get back easily. Meanwhile, a fully loaded dive kayak proceeds like a peddle-powered battleship calling at ports. You're not going to get very far. Fifteen kilometres is probably the most you will comfortably cover in a day. While this is wholly adequate for having a good time exploring and diving, it's not enough to tempt you to cross to the Outer Hebrides.

One of the advantages you have over conventional sea kayakers (apart from the diving) is the ability to haul out onto quite inhospitable coasts. This is knowledge that only a kayak diver is going to gain through experience and common sense.

What kind of terrain and conditions can you get onto? How far do you have to haul your boat up the rocks to avoid it being washed away while you explore the island? In the most extreme case, you have the option of dropping anchor and swimming ashore with your mask, fins and snorkel that you happen to have with you, and climbing up the coast.

Julian's dive companion, Becka, demonstrates getting into a kayak with your gear on.

Becka 1

Becka 2

Becka 3

Becka 4

Planning your day

In the British Isles, the weather is very changeable. It could be rainy, windy, and occasionally sunny. I start with the most accurate forecast I can find on the day, and look for shelter along the coast. I favour going downwind for a productive day. We often leave a bicycle at the beach ahead of us, and enjoy covering a lot of ground without hard work. (See Safety Tips For Kayak Scuba Divers "Exertion")

flameshellsWind advantages are not always easy to account for. Is it better to have an off-shore breeze, so you can get in close to the cliffs with fewer waves and more shelter, or an on-shore wind where there is no risk of being blown out to sea? Who knows?

On windier days we've tend to start at a single place and paddle into the wind until we've had enough, and then turn around and come home quickly. This is not always so good, because there is something very unstable about a dive kayak going downwind in horrendous waves. I've had several worrying moments, especially when a submerged rock gets between me and the bay.

On good days, when the weather has been with us, I have been able to dive three or four good quality sites listed in the local dive guide book, while following the kayaking route listed in the local sea kayaking book. If you study the maps and sea charts for long enough, you can get a feel for what can be done in a day. If you keep your eyes open while you are out at sea, you should come up with enough ideas to fill the rest of the days -- if you are in a good area.

Of course, if there was a good kayak diving guide for Britain or Ireland, I'd be able to read all the facts I'd need there and not have to guess so much. But boat divers, who write the books, don't have the same priorities as a kayak divers. I argue that if they're going to go to all that hassle of putting their boats into the water, then they might as well go kilometres out to sea and ignore the lovely headland 300 metres along the coast that it would barely warm up their engines drive to.

tompotLocating a dive site is easy with a GPS, now that the guide books publish accurate coordinates. In addition, one of the most vital pieces of equipment is a hand-held sonar. It's about the size and cost of a moderate diving torch, and worth every penny. You do not need to leave the location of the drop-offs and canyons in relation to the ragged coast to guesswork. My sonar dangles off a string tied to the seat and is almost always in my hand.

I have heard of some kayakers fitting expensive graphical fish-finders into their kayaks, that are obviously going to get smashed the first time they heave their tanks out of the water. Completely unnecessary. Leave such gizmos to the kayak fishermen who need to watch TV, and keep it simple.

As the only pair of regular kayak divers in Britain, my partner and I quickly realized that it would be fatal to become separated from our boats. Since the visibility is normally about 3 to 5 metres in the water, it is essential to reel out a dive line from the anchor if you want to guarantee getting back to it. I hate blundering about underwater in the knowledge that I have yet again become unnecessarily lost. Carrying a string is a small price to pay.

One day we dived near a lot of jet-skis, and decided to use a surface marker buoy to protect us from being mown down. However, in the subsequent tangle of string underwater, we realized that the jet-skis were only using our marker buoy for a slalom.

The only way to stop this was to go back and carry the anchor with us to keep the boats overhead. Surprisingly, this offered no resistance. It should have been obvious, because kayaks drift forwards with their own momentum from the tiniest tug. Since then, we have always carried the kayak anchor with us throughout the dive. I suspect it looks very odd to people on the shore who don't know what a dive flag is.

Planning your week

It is not possible to plan a kayak diving expedition in advance, particularly to an area that is new to you with weather that is unpredictable. Each well-planned day, with all its escape routes, destinations, and transport arrangements, is the key to what you do next -- based on what you learn from previous days.

I have tried several times to tag onto boat diving expeditions with clubs I know, in the hope that we'd cover the same ground, and be able to show people how it's done and get them interested in kayak diving, as well as being able to go distances and to places I would not normally go without boat cover to protect us.

Unfortunately, while this is a great idea, it has never worked out. Paddling up to a boat in your dive kayak is a bit too much like cycling over to a car in the rain while you're loaded up with a backpack, and saying to the driver: "Why don't you get out of your car and get on a bike. It's lovely out here."

And the car driver says, "Why would I want to do that? It's hard work and dangerous. And I've got a car."

For lone kayak diving pairs, who don't have any other kayak divers to go out with, dive shops that run dive trips are a lot more useful. You can get your tanks filled every day and hear about sites nearby and in the next bay outside their territory. And when the opportunity strikes to fill a space on one of their really good trips that they do only once a week, you're there. And you've not wasted time and money on numerous of mediocre dives that would have been vastly improved by a pleasurable day kayaking along the coast out to them.

Favorite Dive Sites

Places I have been to -- and would highly recommend for kayak diving -- are Connemara (various locations) and Roaringwater Bay (based in Schull) in Ireland. Anglesey and Lleyn Peninsula (using Chris Holden's guide book) in Wales. Bolt Tail to Plymouth and around Torquay in England. St Abbs on the east of Scotland, and the sea lochs on the west of Scotland including Loch Alsh, Loch Carron, Loch Dunvegan, and Loch Fyne. I'd very much like to look at the north of Ireland and do more in the west coast of Scotland.

There's only one thing wrong with kayak diving in the UK, not enough people are doing it. When foreign diving trips go out of fashion, boats become too much hassle for clubs to own and run, and this fascination people have with rebreathers dies down, I look forward to one or two more regular kayak divers appearing around these parts. It will change everything. I look forward to someone teaching me something, rather than having to work it out for myself all the time.

Please join in if you can by getting some hard plastic sit-on-top kayaks (not the inflatable kind), some paddles, an anchor, and call us out on a trip some day.

Julian ToddJulian Todd is a self-employed computer programmer in his 40s who has dived in the UK since the early 1990s. He lives in Liverpool, England with his kayak diving partner Becka who prefers to go caving whenever possible.

Read more about Julian & Becka's adventures at GoatChurch.org.uk/kayakdiving.html

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