When asked what she loves about kayaking on Long Island, Elizabeth O’Connor’s response was impassioned. “Freedom,” she said. “The freedom to go in places that many other craft cannot get to.”
O’Connor is the founder and head instructor for Sea Kayaking Skills and Adventure, which shares paddling opportunities with all ages and skill levels by running tours and classes throughout the Island. She is also an instructor with Island Park-based Empire Kayaks, they organize tours and rent equipment off Middle Bay’s Barnum Channel near Shell Harbor.
Empire’s owner Mike Fehling found that kayaking opened his perspective. “I discovered how beautiful the waterways are and it piqued my interest in the different wildlife, like the ospreys and oystercatchers,” he said.
While gliding over calm waters is common in a kayak—the Island does not claim any rapids—our topography offers several types of adventures. “For a little more challenge,” O’Connor offered, “there are the protected harbors of the bays and mudflat areas. Still more challenging is Long Island Sound and then the ocean and the surf. Each new level has more demanding skills to master.”
Serious outdoorsman will combine paddling with wilderness adventure, like fishing or accessing remote areas like Shelter Island’s wildlife habitats. But it’s vessel type and launch site that are the keys to enjoying the experience.
Beginners start in stable and easy to maneuver recreational kayaks. They have a flatter base and cockpit roomy enough to stow gear. They are ideal for use on quiet water like lakes, ponds and slow-moving rivers. Besides staying connected with a personal floatation device, the most important thing to focus on is moving forward efficiently. For a focused and proficient stroke pattern, Fehling advised using the whole torso to power through a stroke, not just the arms. Make sure the hips are loose and that the body is centered over the kayak.
The propensity for riders to quickly want a challenge is common. This is where the ocean sides and bay fronts become a playground and sea surf can be a riding experience all its own. Rougher surf requires a sea kayak, which is typically longer than the recreational-type boat. That length, and the addition of a skeg (or rudder), improves straight-line tracking and makes it easy to control the kayak in currents or side winds, albeit from a tighter cockpit.
When moving into more advanced conditions, O’Connor advises taking a lesson and/or tour to truly understand the Island’s conditions and maximize not only skills, but safety as well. Understanding how to work the winds, dressing for the weather (and colder waters) and general seamanship skills are the basis for enhancing a paddling adventure at any level, whether in the Sound, ocean or bays. After that, all it takes is the need to connect with the outdoors.
Experience quiet waters like Forge Pond in Calverton, the Upper Peconic River, Nissequogue River and Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island’s largest freshwater lake.
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