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PFD Tips for kids:

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Life Vests for kids are sized based on the weight of the child. Each life vest is printed with a weight range. There are three basic sizes. 0-30 pounds, 30-50 pounds, 50-90 pounds. From there kids move up to "adult" sizes such as "youth", extra small, and so forth, based on fit and chest size.

The weight range is printed on the inside of the back panel of the PFD. You will have to look carefully to find it among all the other "legal warnings" and notices. It is not printed in bold letters, so you may wish to take a marker and write the weight range in a more readable way, when you write your family name in it.

Many kid size life vests are quite affordable, so there is no need to purchase a size too large and let the child "grow into it". In fact a wrong size PFD for a child will be considered"no PFD" by marine patrol and could get you a ticket.

Be aware of the weight of the children who will be kayaking and have PFDs checked for size and ready before you get to the water. You may want to consider having a few extra, in assorted sizes, for your kid's friends and for your growing children. This way you will always be prepared with the right size for the right kid.

The 0-30 pound size will feature a large collar that will support a child's head out of the water. This collar will also turn the wearer over face up. A crotch strap to keep the child from slipping out of the vest is a common feature. Many of these "infant" PFDs will also have a grab loop, handy for grabbing and pulling a "child over board" back on board.

The 30-50 pound size will look and feel like a normal adult Type III PFD. It will likely have a crotch strap to keep the child from slipping out of the vest. It will not float the wearer face up, and neither will most adult Type III vests.

The 50-90 pound size is very much like the adult versions, just smaller.

FYI: Kids may not care for those old fashion Type II orange vests. Adults don't either for that matter. In their defense they are very good at floating a swimmer face up.

The Humble "Boat Cushion", throwable Type IV PFD can have good use as a kids seat in tankwells, wet cockpits, soggy canoe bottoms and on rocky beaches. Use only as an "extra" PFD.

Kayaking with Kids: A Practical Guide
To Kayaks, Gear & Having Fun Paddling With Your Children

By John Enomoto
Photos by Tom Holtey, Some photos by Doug Peebles, courtesy of Cobra Kayaks.

John, Lea & Kids in Cobra TandemAny parent can tell you how complex doing anything with children can be. I have to pack for 4 people just to go to the beach. Having a partner helps by splitting the amount of work in half. I'll get all the paddling gear ready while my wife packs all the clothes, food, and drinks. A few years ago we would have to deal with diapers but thankfully that's all over with.

I teach children the same skills I teach adults but it can be a lot more fun since the kids feel like it's all just a game. If they are too young to teach just putting them in the front of my single kayak and giving them a paddle is a great way to start letting them feel what kayaking is all about. Letting a bunch of kids play with the kayak in the water like a big pool toy also gets them familiar with getting dumped and balancing and they learn without knowing it, all while having fun.
See: Deep Water Re-entry w/ Children

As far as how long you can stay out on the water, my wife, daughter at 6 months, and I paddled 28 miles in 2 days in an inflatable kayak down the south coast of Molokai and we were on the water the whole day for two days.

John & daughter in Cobra Fish N' Dive on Windward OahuWe've done similar all day paddles here at home. When the kids were babies we would put them in a baby car seat with its own sun canopy and it was like driving around in the car all day. When we let them out they would splash their hands in the water for hours just enjoying the ocean.

(Note: not applicable to all baby seats. Test the safety & floatation of any child seat before such use. Do not strap your child into a seat).

Because I have 3 kids I have a Zuma Two which is the predecessor to the Zest Two and Zest Expedition. I put kid's backrests (small size seat or back band) in the bow tankwell and the tankwell behind the rear seat. I put my 8 year old daughter in the front tankwell seat and give her her own paddle. She sits far enough forward to not interfere with my wife's paddle stroke and she paddles pretty hard herself adding to our overall efficiency. My 7 year old daughter sits behind me in the rear tankwell and her 5 year old sister sits behind my wife in front of my feet. She likes to lean back on her mom's back.

If you are two adults with one child the short doubles (12 to 13 feet) are perfect and I like to have at least one decent size hatch to carry the gear inside the kayak. In Hawaii where we have a lot of surf, gear stuffed inside the kayak is safer than gear left on deck.

keikiMy oldest daughter started power stroking at 4 1/2 years of age and was in her own kayak by 5. All of my kids started riding with me in the kayaks from 2 months on so all of them were basically born into the sport. I always teach kids by putting them in their own seat in the bow of my Scrambler XT or the Zest Two if two adults are along, and I give them their own paddle so they can start paddling, with me doing all the control work from my seat. The XT is narrow enough on the bow for the kids to get good paddle strokes in. Kneestraps are necessary for me as I always take the kids into the surf zone and with my kneestraps on I never tip over so the kids gain great confidence in playing in the whitewater.

Both of my older children have their own Kea kayaks from Ocean Kayaks. These are basically children size Scrambler kayaks from the same company. Another good small kayak is the Cobra Play but it requires longer legs to fit it so it is better for kids from 10 to 90.

You size a kids paddle the same way you size an adult paddle. Put the paddle shaft centered on the top of the head and have the child reach up from their elbows to grip the shaft. Move the paddle shaft down to chest level and move the hands in about an inch and a half. I will usually put the drip rings on the outside of the hands as a reminder of where the power stroke lies and tell them they can move their grip inboard and inch or two if they like but to slide their hands back out to the rings if they need more power. The width of the kayak determines how far the drip rings are from the paddle blade. My kids are as spoiled as I am and since I am a Werner Paddle nut they have 200cm and 210cm Little Dippers with small diameter shafts. This is the best combination of traits that I have found for a children's paddle and just like adults the paddle is the most important part of the kayak since it is the part that you will work with the most intimately.

John, Lea & Kids, Cobra Triple, Windward OahuThe $20.00 kids PFD's from Stearns are good but if they are paddlers, like my kids, the Lotus Half Pints are better. My kids started wearing the "30-50 lbs PFD's" when they were only 20 lbs because they could swim better than the "infant PFD's" (0-30 lbs) which made them float on their backs. Since the "30-50 lbs PFD's" have a crotch strap they couldn't slide out the bottom and could bob strait up and down using their arms to swim around. Only use this PFD if you are in reach of your kids at all times until you are sure they are in control of forward and backward strokes and able to right themselves at all times.

I am a hard core believer in kneestraps and have been teaching my kids how to use them from the moment they started paddling their own boats. Have them practice kicking their legs out strait to get out of the boat when you tip it over. Kids love this kind of play at the beach and it makes them comfortable when it happens for real. I have surfed 4 foot faces with the Scrambler XT with two of my kids on board with relative ease as I use kneestraps to keep the kayak in control.

My wife used to admonish me for this until she accidentally caught a 5 footer with the two younger kids on board. Everyone on the Mokulua Islands was cheering as I watched on in astonishment! She said that she has to catch the wave or "eat it" so they rode the wave for about 150 feet from pretty far outside until they were close to the island before she huli'de (flipped) right in front of everyone. I will usually put the heaviest child in the back while surfing but put them in front on flat water to give them a chance to paddle.

John - Scrambler with Kids in Ocean Kayak KeasLeashes are an absolute necessity on any sit on top kayak for kids or adults. If you tip over in the wind and you are holding onto your paddle you are holding onto your boat too!

If you get blasted out of your kayak (because you don't like kneestraps) then the paddle will stay with the kayak stopping the kayak from blowing away on the wind and allowing you to swim after it with both hands free. I will disconnect my leash when I know conditions are safe but will always reattach when I enter surf zones or the wind start getting stronger.

John EnomotoI have always had a stern line on my kayak from our old camping days when someone would be flooding in the surf zone and I would race in, hook my stern line to their bow line, and tow them out to open sea before trying to pump out their boats. I found that putting an inner tube between my stern line and my wife's bow line made and excellent way to turn our singles into a double when she needed help in the wind before rudders were available for our Scupper Pro's.

So of coarse that funneled down to towing tired kids after being out all day and/or staying up past their bed times during the fireworks show on the 4th of July and New Years days. They did fall asleep when they were younger (kind of like taking them on a car ride) and I would recline their backrests and slide their butts forward so their heads would rest on the backrests like pillows. Pull a hat over their face to keep the sun off and they would be out for hours.

To keep the kids from getting bored we all watch for marine life like turtles, dolphins, and whales. It's kind of like the license plate game for us. The kids also love to fish when they can. Hey they're kids! They never get tired of the beach or the ocean!

We have always made going to the beach, kayaking, or sailing on our Hobie Cat, fun for everybody. The kids will usually relax when we take their minds off whatever is bothering them with doing some of the paddling, a game, a hug, some food and/or drink, or if it's a baby a change of diapers.

John Enomoto is the owner of Go Bananas Kayaks in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a father of three children. He is a certified ACA Kayak Instructor & has been paddling, surfing, diving, fishing and camping with sit-on-top kayaks for well over a decade. (photo courtesy Jo Hu)


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