Sea Kayaking in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina

The night prior and the morning of this sea kayak training session my stomach was a bundle of nerves.

Several coordination phone calls to secure a kayak rental added to my intense elevated level of stress.

I woke to a light but steady breeze coming off the ocean and when I crossed the bridge to Sullivan’s Island where our session was to start I could see white caps hitting the beach.

“Don’t look at them.” I thought to myself.

I arrived after a couple of wrong street turn issues finally circling back to the location where other excited kayakers stood waiting to enter the water. Well… excited, was not really how I was feeling, more like I should run fast in the opposite direction.

Scott and Don the ACA instructors for this course assured me that I would be fine once I got on the water.

First was to get my equipment. A Scorpio 16 foot yellow kayak provided by Sea Kayak Carolina, spray skirt, paddle, and PFD. It took more time than usual to get equipment together as I had to get fitted from the start. Joe Campbell owner of Sea Kayak Carolina worked with me and my instructors to make sure that my first experience in a sea kayak was an enjoyable one.

Once we each got safety brief from Scott and Don, and equipment checks were complete, all ten of us were on the water and paddling through the surf. My heart rate jumped as the first wave crested the bow and over my spray skirt. I didn’t have time to think as the next wave hit and I had to keep paddling in order to maintain the direction and stability of my kayak.

I made it past the surf!  I was now on the water and paddling in the heading Scott shouted above the noise and splash of the wind and surf. My nerves now disappeared and were replaced with the constant cadence of my paddle on the water as the kayak bobbed gently forward towards our destination somewhere on the horizon towards the Charleston harbor.

Charleston Harbor

Kayak paddle route into Operation Box for training in Charleston Harbor, SC

Other kayakers moved past me and then flowed back like we were a pod of colorful dolphins. When one of us would adventure out of our pod we were directed to “tighten up” or to “keep together” so we would maintain safety in the group.  Paddling through Charleston shipping channel in a kayak that is low profile in the water and hard to see in the waves can be dangerous for both kayaker and large boat traffic.  Being seen in a large number of bright colored kayaks is a safer way to travel.

We had about a two mile (about 45 minute) paddle to get to the area where we would conduct our training in risk management for the day.  This training was a combination of skills needed for kayakers who lead groups or for those of us who just wanted to practice our emergency water skills.  The training was to include procedures on how to call in an emergency rescue from the US Coast Guard.

US Coast Guard Helicopter and Rescue Boat

US Coast Guard Helicopter and Rescue Boat Charleston Harbor Training with kayakers 11-9-2018 Photo by Michael Walenta; sea kayaker

I found that most of these nine individuals had years of kayak rescue experience and were updating their required skill sets.  Their kayaks were decked out with all the essentials for quick rescue and recovery situations.  Tow ropes, extra lights, signaling devices (flares and smoke), helmets, PFDs, knives, maps, gps, and radios (VHF).  Many had additional backup equipment.

I had packed very little due to my distance traveling from Europe and limiting my  luggage to just carry on.  I had laid everything out the night before to calm my nerves (which didn’t work). Text messages to friends to calm my nerves seemed to help but really I had considered giving into my fear and cancelling taking the class.

My equipment for sea kayaking

My equipment for sea kayaking

In the end, I didn’t take the camera or even the cell phone as I knew I needed to focus on my nerves and my paddling.

The time on the water was spent on working as a team to build rafts with our kayaks in order to provide a larger profile on the water.  One person stood in his kayak to show how stable a raft could be and to be able to stand and wave to a possible emergency water vehicle.  Swells were about two to two and half feet while we were on the water.  It made the training in this wind and waves very realistic.

Once we completed our drills with tow ropes and determining drift we were ready to call in the US Coast Guard to provide a water pick up.  This was prior coordinated training with the US Coast Guard. The young Coast Guard sailors were also getting critical training from this exercise.

We each got a turn using the VHF radios and calling the US Coast Guard helicopter to our location.  It isn’t enough to just say where you are but to give direction to the pilot who is flying a grid in search of the watercraft experiencing an emergency.  This was very valuable training even if I were never to sea kayak again, learning this skill of talking to a search team helicopter could be used in any remote emergency situation where I paddle in Northern Minnesota.

I could feel the propellor spray as the helicopter hovered or passed. The US Coast Guard rescue boat motor swells added to the wind and waves making this a very realistic training for me as well as the other nine paddlers.  Even the instructors seemed to be unusually happy at the conditions and the realistic level of training we were experiencing. Many garnered smiles from ear to ear or commented how cool this was.  I felt it too.  My old military days of realistic training bubbling to the top and placing a smile on my face that replaced all the nerves of the prior few days.  Scared I had been, but here on the water I felt part of a valuable team.

Waves and spray as the Coast Guard practiced a rescue

Waves and spray as the Coast Guard practiced a rescue. Charleston Harbor 11-9-2018 Photo by Michael Walenta; sea kayaker

At the end of the session I paddled back to the shore alongside my other teammates.  The clouds parted and the sun flooded the surface of the water.  The shipping channel pushed large container barges towards the Charleston Harbor to unload as a pod of dolphins fed alongside our kayaks as we came into the shore.

Charleston Harbor 2

Kayak paddle route back to our start point at Fort Moultrie (Station 12), SC

I was spent!  I felt my legs almost buckle as I exited the kayak as my body had been on this adrenaline high for the last few hours, now suddenly relieved that I was standing on hard land again.

I conquered my fear of the surf.  I now felt I had gained some skills that would help me if I ever got into an emergency situation on the water.  I made some new paddle friends.

I want to thank the ACA and the risk management instructors for offering this class and for encouraging me to overcome my nerves.

A shout out to my two friends that talked me through my nerves via text messages the night before. 


Things I learned:

  • That I could paddle in the surf and waves.
  • That safety is better in a group.
  • How to call or signal for emergency help while on the water.
  •  The proper gear for the sea kayaking.  I normally don’t wear a spray skirt, tow rope, or carry a VHF radio but all are very essential equipment to have in the sea kayak world.

Important Contacts in Charleston:


© The Cedar Journal, 2018, all rights reserved