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Coastal Kayaking: Essential Gear and Safety Tips

Coastal Kayaking: Essential Gear and Safety Tips

Kayaking is a great way to explore Charleston’s barrier islands and coastal waterways. But, when kayaking along (or near) the coast, you need to make safety a priority. Here are 10 gear essentials and coastal kayaking safety tips for exploring Charleston’s shoreline.

Getting on the water affords a perspective that relatively few Charleston residents and visitors get to see. Kayaking in particular affords unique access, as kayaks’ small size and minimal draft allow paddlers to explore waterways and beaches that are not accessible by boat. But, while there are dozens of places to explore along Charleston’s coastline, going out without a plan (or the right equipment) can be dangerous. Paddlers need to have a clear understanding of some basic coastal kayaking safety principles, and they need to make informed decisions every time they hit the water.

In this article, we aren’t talking about going miles offshore—that (more often referred to as sea kayaking) is a different topic entirely. Instead, what we’re covering here are some gear essentials and safety tips for exploring near the shore. From Cape Romain and Bulls Bay down to the ACE Basin, there are tons of coastal areas to explore by kayak around Charleston; and, while this type of coastal kayaking doesn’t present the same risks as kayaking way out in the ocean, it does involve some additional safety considerations when compared to paddling in Charleston’s inland waters.

Gear List: 10 Essentials for Safe Coastal Kayaking

When kayaking to (or around) Charleston’s coastal islands, you’ll want to carry some gear that you might not think to bring on a typical day on the water. Even on a calm day, you’ll most likely be dealing with some conditions that you wouldn’t normally experience further inland. It’s also important to keep in mind that you may be paddling miles away from anyone without a quick way to get back to where you started—so you need to be prepared to take complete responsibility for your own safety.

With this in mind, here are 10 essential pieces of gear for safe coastal kayaking:

1. Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

In South Carolina, you are required to have a personal floatation device (PFD) on your kayak at all times. While adults (and teenagers) aren’t required to actually wear their PFDs, having a PFD onboard doesn’t do you any good if you end up in the water separated from your kayak.

South Carolina law requires a “U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable type PFD.” There are plenty of options out there, including minimalist options designed specifically for maximum comfort and flexibility while paddling.

2. Spray Skirt

A spray skirt prevents water from getting into your kayak while you are paddling. Using a spray skirt while coastal kayaking not only helps keep you (and your gear) dry, but it also helps avoid the need to get water out of your kayak if you encounter a rainstorm or choppy water.

3. Bilge Pump

If you do need to get water out of your kayak, you’ll be prepared if you have a bilge pump onboard. You can get a simple hand pump for fairly cheap; and, while you might not ever need to use it, you’ll be glad you have it if you do.

4. Float Bags

Float bags are inflatable bladders that you place in the bow and stern of your kayak. Their job is to take up space in the event that you capsize or hit a wave (or wake) that fills your kayak with water. Since there is less room in your kayak for water, your kayak won’t get as heavy, and it will be much easier for you to empty (and flip) your kayak. While dry bags filled with gear for overnight kayaking trips can serve a similar purpose, if you’re just going coastal kayaking for the day a set of float bags is a good choice.

5. Dry Bag

Speaking of dry bags, it’s always a good idea to take a dry bag with you when you’re coastal kayaking in Charleston (or anywhere else). As their name suggests, dry bags keep their contents dry—which can be essential when you’re spending hours out on the water. Dry bags come in various sizes, and you’ll want to choose a size that is big enough to hold everything you want to bring with you while still having enough extra space to roll down and create a watertight seal.

6. Carabiners

Carabiners are the unsung heroes of coastal kayaking. While most of the things you will have on your kayak (like your bilge bump and dry bag) will float, you want to avoid losing things overboard if at all possible. There is also the risk that something will fall into the water and you won’t notice it until it’s too late. Carabiners prevent this from happening. You can get a set of stainless carabiners for relatively cheap (and they should last a long time as long as you let them dry before putting them away at home), and you can use them to clip just about everything to the deck rigging on your kayak.

7. Paddle Leash

Your paddle is another thing that should float. But, it is also another thing that you don’t want floating away. Using a paddle leash eliminates this risk. When it comes to coastal kayaking safety, one of the fundamental tenets is that you should do everything you can to keep your paddle either with you or with your boat. You can either leash your paddle to your kayak or your PFD, and that way you won’t be at risk of losing it in the waves or to a strong current.

8. Extra Paddle

In addition to a paddle leash, it is also a good idea to bring an extra paddle when coastal kayaking. You can get a spare two-piece paddle for fairly cheap, and you can strap it to the bow of your kayak with your bilge pump and other essentials. While this is undoubtedly a redundancy, you cannot afford to be in coastal waters without a paddle.

9. EPIRB (or a Similar Device)

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) is an emergency signal that allows you to call the U.S. Coast Guard in the event of an emergency. They are for rescue purposes only; and, ideally, you will never need to use your EPIRB. But, when kayaking along (or near) the coast, it is definitely a piece of safety gear that is worth having. If you get caught out in a storm, if you end up getting pulled offshore, or if you have an emergency, your EPIRB will be your lifeline. A personal locator beacon (PLB) is a similar type of device, and there are other alternatives as well.

10. Downloaded Satellite Map

When kayaking in Charleston’s coastal waters, you will most likely be navigating several small creeks and inlets. Even if you’re paying attention, it can be easy to get turned around—and potentially lost. While you will still have cell phone service in most areas, it is still a good idea to download a satellite-view map to your phone. Alternatively, you can download an app that has offline tracking capability. There are several paddling and non-paddling-specific options available.

Geared up for coastal kayaking safety in Charleston, SC
Headed toward coastal waters in the ACE Basin, less than an hour south of Charleston

10 Safety Tips for Coastal Kayaking in Charleston, SC

While making sure you have all of the necessary gear is an important step, there is much more to coastal kayaking safety. Here are 10 tips—among many others—you should follow for safe coastal kayaking in Charleston, SC:

1. Check the Tide, Swell, and Wind Along Your Route

When it comes to coastal kayaking safety, three of the most important environmental factors are tide, swell, and wind. Before you start your journey, you should check each of these at your launch point, your turnaround point, and various other points along your route. Wind and water conditions can vary greatly from inland boat ramps and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to Charleston’s coastal waters, so checking the conditions at your launching point won’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know. Keep in mind that the tide reverses roughly every six hours in Charleston, so you’ll need to check the conditions at the time you expect to be at each location.

2. Keep an Eye on the Conditions Throughout the Day

In addition to checking the tide, swell, and wind before putting your kayak in the water, you should also keep an eye on the conditions throughout the day. If the water gets rougher than you expected, or if clouds start to roll in, take a break from paddling and check the updated forecast. Near the coast, water and weather conditions can change quickly; and, if the conditions don’t cooperate with your float plan, you need to be willing to turn around and try again another weekend.

3. Kayak with an Onshore Wind and Rising Tide

One of the biggest fears people have when kayaking along the coast is the fear of getting pulled out to sea. Fortunately, this is relatively unlikely as long as you plan to take advantage of favorable conditions and have the strength and endurance to get yourself home. With that said, the outgoing current can get fairly strong in some of the narrower inlets along Charleston’s coast—and even strong paddlers may need a rising tide to make their return trip.

But, you can just about eliminate the risk of getting stranded at sea by paddling with an onshore wind and a rising tide (and being sure to avoid rip currents). With both the wind and the tidal current pushing you back to land, there are no forces at play with the potential to take you out into the ocean.

4. Stay Well Within Your Comfort Zone When Exploring New Places

Even if you plan your coastal kayaking trip to take advantage of favorable conditions (which you should), you should also stay well within your comfort zone when exploring new places. Don’t make this your longest paddling day ever, and stay home if the swell height makes you uncomfortable.

5. Use the Buddy System

It’s always best to paddle with at least one other person—and this is especially true when exploring Charleston’s coastal waters. While you should be fine if you plan your trip carefully and prioritize your safety, it never hurts to have someone else alongside you just in case something goes wrong.

If you choose to go coastal kayaking in Charleston solo, then you should definitely leave a float plan behind with a friend or family member. Write down your departure point, your destination, and when you plan to be home, and make sure you trust your friend or family member to seek help if you don’t check in when you’re supposed to.

6. Take All of Your Gear with You

If you have all of the gear you need to stay safe while coastal kayaking in Charleston, don’t leave your gear at home. Double-check that you have everything before you get in your car, and don’t talk yourself into leaving something at home in order to save weight. You bought your gear for a reason. Use it.

7. Pack Plenty of Water and Food for Your Trip

Along with packing all of your gear, you should also pack plenty of water and food for your trip. It gets hot during the summer months in Charleston, so you’ll need plenty to drink during your day of kayaking. Be sure to bring plenty of calories as well. Listen to your body, and take a snack break if you start feeling low on energy.

8. Know How to Approach Waves and Wakes on Your Kayak

If you choose a day with favorable conditions, you shouldn’t encounter many significant waves while kayaking in Charleston’s coastal areas. But, the conditions could change, and you could encounter boaters who aren’t particularly concerned about your safety. With this in mind, it is important to know how to approach waves and wakes on your kayak.

Generally, it is best to approach perpendicular to the crest. Even if the bow of your kayak breaks through the water, your kayak should be buoyant enough to keep your cockpit mostly dry (and if you have a spray skirt this won’t be an issue). While it can be intimidating at first, and while it is generally best to stay home if the forecast calls for a swell of three feet or more, once you tackle one wave, you will feel much more comfortable tackling another.

9. Don’t Assume that Boaters Will See You

Speaking of boaters, when you are kayaking in Charleston’s coastal waters, you should not assume that boaters will see you. Again, you need to take responsibility for your own safety. If you see a boat approaching, paddle out of the way; and, if you can, give yourself enough room so that the boat’s wake will start to dissipate before it reaches your kayak.

10. When in Doubt, Head to Shore

Finally, above all else, when in doubt, head to shore. If you are concerned for your safety for any reason, you should head back toward land. There will be plenty more beautiful days to go coastal kayaking in Charleston, and there is absolutely no reason to stretch yourself beyond your limits or put yourself at risk unnecessarily.

Otter Islands, a coastal kayaking destination in Charleston, SC
Otter Islands in the ACE Basin, just south of Edisto Beach

Additional Resources for Coastal Kayaking Safety

If you are interested in learning more about coastal kayaking safety, there are some great resources online. Some of these resources include:

Wondering where to go kayaking along Charleston’s coast? Our article, Where to Kayak in Charleston, SC includes a map of public put-ins that offer direct access to the area’s coastal waters. Some of the most popular coastal kayaking destinations in Charleston are Bulls Island, Capers Island, and Morris Island—but there are many more far less visited islands to explore as well.

FAQs: Coastal Kayaking Safety

What is a Safe Wind Speed for Coastal Kayaking?

If you are reasonably confident in your paddling abilities, you should be able to handle winds of up to about 15 knots (about 17 mph). Keep in mind, however, that this will make for a much more difficult (and much less comfortable) day on the water. For beginner paddlers, it is generally best to stay home if the forecast calls for winds in excess of 10 knots (about 11 mph). Also, keep in mind that while an onshore wind will push you back home, an offshore wind will be pushing you out toward the ocean.

What is a Safe Wave Size for Coastal Kayaking?

When coastal kayaking in Charleston, you’ll want a kayak that is at least 12 feet in length. With a 12-foot kayak, you should be able to handle a three-foot swell without too much trouble. With that said, breaking three-foot waves can be dangerous for kayakers, and a short swell period can make for a very unnerving day on the water. For coastal kayaking in Charleston, ideal conditions are a light onshore wind and rising tide with a swell of about 1.5 feet or less.

Is a Kayak Paddle Leash Necessary?

While not strictly necessary, using a paddle leash is a very good idea when kayaking along (or near) the coast. Even if your paddle floats, it could float away faster than you can keep up without a way to propel yourself forward. Paddling leashes are non-obtrusive; and, once you get used to using one, you’ll forget that you have it (but you’ll be glad that you do if something goes wrong). Carrying a spare two-piece paddle is a good idea for coastal kayaking safety as well.

What Should You Do if You See a Shark While Kayaking?

While it’s relatively rare to see a shark close to Charleston’s shoreline, it is possible that you could see a shark while kayaking. If you do, the best thing you can do is stay calm. If you ignore the shark and continue on your way (or give it a wide berth if it is in your path), it will most likely ignore you as well. If a shark approaches your kayak, the general consensus seems to be that you should stop paddling and let it explore until it loses interest, and you should only try to hit a shark with your paddle if it becomes aggressive first.

What Should You Not Do While Kayaking?

When kayaking in coastal waters, the biggest mistake you can make is putting yourself in a dangerous situation. This could involve getting on the water without checking the conditions first, or trying to stretch your limits without adequate instruction or supervision. You should only go coastal kayaking in Charleston if you are comfortable doing so and have a plan (and the gear) for staying safe on the water—and you should be prepared to cancel your trip or cut it short if the conditions don’t cooperate.

Are You Required to Wear a Life Jacket When Kayaking in Charleston?

South Carolina law requires all boaters (including kayakers) to have a life jacket on their vessel. While wearing a life jacket isn’t required (except for children ages 12 and under), it is always best to wear your life jacket when kayaking in coastal waters.

What Are Some of the Best Locations for Coastal Kayaking in Charleston?

There are lots of great coastal areas to explore by kayak in Charleston. These include Cape Romain, Bull Island, Capers Island, Morris Island, and the ACE Basin south of Edisto Island. You can use our map of kayak put-ins in Charleston (linked above) to find a public boat ramp you can use as the launching point for your coastal kayaking venture.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. Always kayak within your limits, and seek instruction or go with a guide when taking your kayak into unfamiliar waters.


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