Paddling in Catalina
It's the ultimate one-man dive boat, though only the Californians seem to have discovered the merits of the kayak as a handy way of reaching those awkward dive sites. But you ignore expert advice at your peril, as John Liddiard discovers
I first came across kayak diving in California five years ago. Rather than swimming from the beach to a dive site at the point of the cove, divers were paddling kayaks out. It wasn't really a boat dive so much as a means of extending the range of a shore dive and avoiding entanglement in the giant kelp.
Kayak diving is a big thing on the west coast of America, but is hardly known elsewhere in the world. I have only ever seen one diver with a kayak in the UK, but it strikes me as a concept that could easily be applied to quite a few dive locations here.
How many sites do you know that are just that little bit too far to reach comfortably by swimming from shore, yet are often overlooked because they are too close in to justify a boat dive? How many sites do you know that would be shore dives if only there was access to the beach? Such places inhabit the gap between shore diving and boat diving to which a dive kayak is ideally suited.
Back in California for some out-of-season diving, a kayak-diving experience was firmly on my agenda. I had already been shore diving the kelp forests of the Avalon dive park on Catalina Island for a couple of days, and enjoyed the excellent giant kelp forest and lots of fish, but I was itching to look at the wreck of the Valiant, which lies just outside the boundary of the park.
The Valiant, a 50m luxury yacht, sank in 1930 following a fire. It now rests in 25 to 30m of water about 150m from the shore, and about twice that distance from the nearest convenient entry point.
Perhaps I had better explain how things work here. The Avalon dive park is located just outside the small city of Avalon, and is a gentle 10-minute stroll along the seafront to the casino on the north side of the bay and around the corner. My cylinders and weights were rented along with an aluminium handcart from Catalina Diver's Supply on the main pier. The handcarts are popular rental items and most divers use them to move their equipment between pier, hotel and shore-dive sites.
Another five-minute stroll with the cart along the seafront takes you to Descano Beach Ocean Sports, which rents kayaks - including some that are suitable for diving. These factors came together into a plan to get me to the Valiant without a long swim from the marine-park steps.
New to kayak diving, I picked the brains of Randy, the owner of the rental outlet and previously a commercial diver. He helped me to set up the kayak and advised me on how to paddle it and dive from it.
These specially built canoes are the ultimate one-man dive boats. Although you paddle them kayak-style, you don't sit inside, but nestle in a person-shaped indentation in the top. Behind you is a well, shaped to hold a rigged cylinder and BC. Your weightbelt rests between your knees and a locker at the front takes all the other loose bits.
At least, that's how I set it up, with my camera strapped above the front locker, but other variations are possible.
In principle, using the kayak is simple. You assemble your diving equipment, strap it in place and paddle to the site. As a precaution against losing anything, it's a good idea to attach each item to the kayak with a leash.
If the site is an isolated beach, diving is just a matter of beaching the kayak and shore diving as you would from any other beach. The whole thing gets more interesting if you want to dive rocks or a site further out to sea, such as the wreck of the Valiant. You slide off the side of the kayak, unstrap your equipment and put it all on in the water.
After the dive, as the car manuals say so flippantly, simply reverse the process.
Unsure of my kayaking abilities, I practised paddling up and down and getting in and out along the shoreline, while Randy took pictures with my spare camera. Once confident that I would not get stuck out at sea, unable to get back into my boat, I paddled out to the wreck.
A few minutes later I was at the site. My first task was to tie on to the buoy without capsizing the kayak. I put on my hood and mask, then went over the side, followed by all the equipment and my camera, which dangled on the leashes while I was putting it on.
I put my fins on first while floating on my back, put a quick squirt of air into my drysuit, then untied the weightbelt and rolled into it. Last on was the BC and cylinder, the easiest method being arms into the holes in front of me, then over my head. If you followed a basic training scheme that included the exercise where you remove and refit all your equipment while floating on the surface, this is where it finally pays off!
All in place and connected, I unclipped my camera from its leash and descended the line. As this was my first kayak dive, I was surprised at how well it seemed to be going. No real problems so far, and it had been much easier than swimming out to the wreck.
Five minutes later, I had changed my mind. The kayak part had gone OK, but I had tied off to the wrong buoy!
Back on the surface, rather than go through the hassle of moving the kayak I took a bearing on the next buoy and descended again. This time I found the wreck.
I won't kid you. Combined with exploring the giant kelp forests of the dive park and other coastal locations accessible from a kayak, the Valiant makes a good component of a spectacular and different week's diving, but don't go out of your way to see it.
Save for the bow and stern, which still retain their original height, the wreck has pretty much collapsed down to a few plates either side of the keel. However, strands of giant kelp stretch up to the surface 30m above, and the port side supports a fine spread of gorgonians.
Back on the surface, I faced the prospect of getting back into the kayak. This was the part about which I had been apprehensive, though I had built some confidence while practising earlier.
First, I removed all my equipment except for my mask and fins and attached it to the leashes. Still in the water, I pushed the cylinder back into its place at the stern and strapped it in. Next, I lifted my weightbelt into the storage locker at the bows and closed the hatch over it. My fins I fastened on top of the cylinder, with my mask stuffed inside one of the foot pockets.
With everything tied in place, the final stage was to get myself onto the kayak. From floating in the water, the technique is similar to getting onto a surfboard. You reach across to the far side and pull yourself until your stomach is across the centre of the canoe, then roll towards the back so that your backside rests in the seat, with your feet still over the side.
All straightforward enough, but the hazardous part is where you must rotate 90¡ so that your feet are on the kayak. This has to be a nice smooth manoeuvre, or you could easily capsize. In American parlance, the whole thing can be summed up as "belly, butt and turn".
The kayak rocked but stayed upright - so far so good. However, contrary to Randy's advice to get everything strapped in first, I had left my camera dangling over the side. Now I pulled it up by the leash and realised why I should have stuck to the letter of his instructions. Just pulling it out of the water was enough to capsize me.
With all my equipment safely attached to leashes, nothing was lost. I just had to push the kayak upright and start again, this time following instructions and getting everything on board before climbing on.
Having just been to 30m and made two ascents, I was well aware of the risk of DCI from excessive exercise. I made a point of just sitting and soaking up the sun for 10 minutes, before gently paddling back to the beach.
With confidence gained on a dive in sight of the beach, the possibilities opening up in my mind were endless. Catalina has so much coastline and so many inaccessible coves, ideal for paddling around and getting the occasional dive in. Perhaps I would head up the coast a bit tomorrow.
On a wider scale, I can see the value of a kayak for so much UK diving. A friend once dived the wreck of the Rondo in the Sound of Mull from his windsurf board. It was a stunt, with a cover boat standing by, but with a properly equipped kayak, paddling across from the mainland or out from Salen to dive the Rondo would be a realistic proposition.
Sheltered waters such as those around the islands and lochs of the west of Scotland, where much of the diving is close to an inaccessible shore, would also be ideal. With good sea conditions, I can also think of many opportunities to exploit the idea in Devon, Cornwall and west Wales.
Another advantage of kayaks is the lack of engine noise. They are ideal for approaching marine mammals on the surface without scaring them off.
When it comes to the logistics of kayak diving, I have to be honest. On this occasion I was diving solo and left the kayak unattended on the surface. OK, I agree, possibly not the most sensible of things to do.
I won't go into the argument for and against solo diving here, although there is no reason why kayak divers can't work in buddy pairs or for larger groups. But I should expand a little on the unattended boat angle. This is something that normally makes me extremely nervous, and has been a component in a number of reported incidents. My justification in this case was that I was simply saving a surface swim.
So guideline number one is to make such a dive only where you could swim back anyway. It's a bit like shore diving with a scooter; you have to be able to swim back if the batteries run out.
If you go further afield but use the kayak only to reach an inaccessible beach and shore dive, the issue of an unattended boat is irrelevant. Normal shore-diving procedures apply.
Out at sea, you can always attach the kayak to a reel and use it as a large SMB. And if you are diving in a larger group, two buddy pairs can take it in turns to watch each other's kayaks.
Other safety issues such as A-flags, flare kits and marine VHF radios can be addressed in similar ways to fitting out a small inflatable. Some California enthusiasts even go so far as to fit echo-sounders and GPS receivers to their kayaks.
With the motive power being your own arms, the risk of work aggravating a bend in your shoulders after a dive cannot be ignored. Even on a dive well inside no-stop times, I would recommend sitting and relaxing on the kayak for a while before paddling home at the end of a dive.
For this trip I was using a membrane drysuit. I suspect that a full thickness neoprene drysuit could be a bit uncomfortable when paddling a kayak. I also have concerns over the repeated flexing of a shoulder-entry zip. I don't normally like front-entry zips, but would seriously consider one if I was kayaking all the time.
For shallow diving in the summer I could even be tempted to use a two-piece wetsuit and just leave the top off while paddling. Could be fun putting it back on in the water.
Any other drawbacks with a kayak? Well, you can't unzip your drysuit and have a pee over the transom!
John Liddiard used the Scupper Pro TW from Ocean Kayaks, www.oceankayak.com. The UK importer can be contacted on 0149 365 1007. An equivalent model, the Freedom from Perception Kayaks, is available from Whitewater (01932 247878) or Kent Canoe (01732 886688). A basic hull will cost £350-£400. In addition you will need a paddle, seatback and various leashes, plus any general boat safety equipment.
Appeared in DIVER - June 2000