Setting up a kayak for Spearfishing, Free Diving and Scuba by Rob Fort 

One of the most environmentally friendly ways of getting to a dive spot is on a kayak. They are cheap to use with virtually no running costs except for the vehicle to transport you and kayak. Other benefits include unlimited freedom to launch at almost any location with road access and are a stable platform to dive from. Making the investment in one won’t require a deep pocket either and setting up a kayak for diving or spearfishing is as simple as you want to make it with a kayak to suit most budgets.

One of the first things to take into consideration is the type of kayak to use and the sit-on-top type is perfect. They are generally much easier to dismount and mount plus have self draining scupper holes. Ensure the deck layout is right for the job. An ideal sit-on-top kayak will have a decent size rear well with plenty of deck space for storage of gear. Kayaks with hatches that allow below deck storage offer even more carrying facility. When choosing a kayak it is best to do your research and find the right one to suit you and your needs.

The following is a brief introduction that covers the core accessories. 

The most important accessory when setting up your kayak for diving or spearfishing is the anchor and the running anchor system it is attached to. The running anchor system runs from bow to stern of the kayak on a loop with a leader that attaches to a winder with rope, chain and anchor. There are two types of anchor suitable for the kayak diving with the first a grapnel with prongs that bend and suited to the reef environment. The second is for anchoring over sand and is a weighted folding anchor with wide spade type prongs that fold open and lock into place.

Another important consideration if you are a hunter gatherer is storing the catch. Utilizing the rear well or another part of your kayak with the addition of either an insulated cover or bag can instantly turn the space into a catch storage area. Covers and bags not only keep harmful rays from the sun off your quarry, but also act as an insulator keeping your catch cool. Some bags come with a full length pocket incorporated that is ideal for storage of items like fins. Insulated bags that strap anywhere on the deck of your kayak are also a good option if using scuba equipment as the rear well will need to be used for storage of the BCD and bottle. Bags that attach to the deck area can also be utilized as storage for some of your other equipment like mask, gloves etc.

It is very important to have all items secured to the kayak especially in cases where you could roll over in surf. This is done by using purpose made lanyards that have enough line to thread through any dive equipment. In addition to using lanyards it is a good idea to add bungee cords to your kayak that will keep items firmly secure on the deck area. Use a minimum of six millimeter bungee cord with clips at either end for fastening to existing saddles or grab lines on the kayak.

Dive flag display is compulsory when diving and the kayak allows for this with various accessory options available for most kayak models through most kayak outlets.

Other items to consider are first aid kit and marine equipment like VHF marine radio and dry bag for mobile phone. It is a requirement that all watercraft carry a PFD or life jacket and in New Zealand every person on a vessel under five meters must wear one when it is underway. Dive vessels that display a dive flag and are being used for the sole purpose are an exception to this and even though we are diving a PFD should still be worn on the kayak.

When it comes to gear placement there is no hard fast rule and it is your own personal preference that will influence this the most. It is important to consider gear placement when setting up the kayak so its best to have all dive equipment within easy reach of your seated position and so it doesn’t inhibit your paddling ability. As a general guide things like spearguns and floats fit well on the fore deck area. Be sure to position the spear tip so it is not protruding past the outside edge of the kayak for safety reasons. Centre hatches can house masks, gloves and other personal items. Weight belts are better tethered to the deck cockpit area and fins placed at the rear behind the seat along with BCD, bottle and catch. When it comes to getting on and off the kayak it’s easier to put heavy items like weight belt and BCD on in the water.

Techniques for using the kayak

If you have had little or no experience with kayaks it is a good idea to become familiar with the fundamentals prior to venturing out on your maiden voyage. Once you are in tune with these necessary principals you can add the diving element requiring yet another set of rules to consider. The techniques for diving once in the water are the same as if you where diving from any other platform used to get to the destination. Where things change is when you put a kayak and diving together.

Safety

As with any water activity common sense is the only way to approach using a kayak and safety must be your primary consideration when doing so. One of the most common areas over looked by about ninety nine percent of people using kayaks for fishing is re-entry to the kayak while out on the water. This can be practiced in the relative safety of a calm sheltered bay on a nice day. It is a good idea to get someone to be there to assist you on another kayak if possible but if this is not possible get a friend to help from the shore. Using a tether line which is attached to your kayak will enable your helper to hold on to the kayak if on the shore or another kayak while you practice. Your kayak is best setup without any gear on it except seat and paddle. Always wear your PFD (lifejacket) with wetsuit you dive in when practising this procedure. Doing this exercise is a good idea because while trying to flip the kayak over you will find out how much it takes to actually tip out and capsize. Once in the water you will need to flip the kayak back the right way up and this is done by reaching across the hull to the other side and grabbing the deck line then pulling the kayak back towards yourself. Now that the kayak is up the right way you must attempt to re-mount it without any fins on your feet and this is the hardest part of the procedure. You will need to use your arms and legs to do this spreading your body weight as evenly as you can over both sides of the kayak. Doing so will make it a lot easier as you attempt to climb back on. Once you achieve this a few times the whole procedure will start to get easier and by doing so will aid you further when attempting to re-enter the kayak after a dive. Learning the skills required to man oeuvre, navigate and paddle your kayak at sea is also very important. Sitting one of Coast Guards day skipper course which now includes sea kayaking can also be of benefit. If you are not familiar with conditions encountered at sea then getting to know the environment slowly is well advised and only time on the water will truly prepare you. If you are in this situation or new to kayaking then learning from someone who has experience in this field can make a big difference to your knowledge development. I strongly advise that before going on any kayak trip you ensure that a thorough check is undertaken of the kayak ensuring it is totally sea worthy. As part of this insure all hatches/bungs and fastenings are tightened down and inspect the hull for any adverse wear. Make sure every piece of equipment that you have on the deck of your kayak is attached by way of lanyard/tether or you could lose it if you tip over. Tucking your mask and snorkel into one of your fins while threading onto your tether line then placing into the pocket of the rear well cover will help to keep your mask and fins protected during traveling. When utilizing the rear well for catch storage it is a good idea in warmer conditions to place large ice packs or frozen water bottles in the rear well to help cool the catch down keeping it in better condition. While out on the water it is important you are clearly visible to all other watercraft.  Select a brightly coloured kayak and use reflective film on your paddle blades to increase the ability to be seen. In certain parts of New Zealand bylaws are in place for the surrounding harbours which can require any kayaker to have reflective film on paddles and kayak, light and flag. Another addition you can wear is a fluorescent hat that has a reflective strip like the Sharkskin Hi-vis cap which really stands out. The advantage to using a bright hat is that it can be seen in any direction as opposed to a flag which will not be seen if the wind is blowing in such a direction to make it have very little profile. The rules require all vessels carrying out dive activities to display a dive flag no smaller than six hundred millimeters by six hundred millimeters so this will also help you be seen when paddling to and from dive sites. Carrying and wearing a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) when kayak diving is a must. Other kit should consist of any signalling devices like whistle, signalling mirror, handheld VHF radio and or mobile phone in a sealed waterproof bag attached to your life jacket. In a waterproof dry bag (which should be kept on the deck) carry day/night flares, first aid kit, sunscreen and a survival kit. You should also have enough water and food to fuel your body for the duration of time on the water. Our body is the motor that drives the paddles which in turn moves the kayak along so drink and food are very important.  An optional extra which can be carried under the hatch inside your kayak is a bag containing thermos tea/coffee/food and supplies if you are out for a full day. It is best to use a compass and or GPS (handheld or fixed), laminated copy from a chart of your designated area that you are diving for navigation purposes. Before you go on the water make sure you check the local area marine forecast, for wind speed and direction, sea state and any gale warnings or expected changes in weather likely. Talk to local Coastguard, other kayakers and boaties about conditions in the area and what to expect. Check the tides, tidal flow and range. Leave your trip intentions with a reliable friend or relative and include the following: launch site, expected return time and overdue action time to contact Coastguard or Police. We are no different on a kayak to any other vessel out on the water so why compromise your own personal safety and at the end of the day how much is your life worth?  

Personal Requirements 

Because we are doing two types of physical activities it is important that you don't go past your personal ability. Free diving, spearfishing and scuba can put lots of demand on the body by itself so it is a good idea to adjust slowly to the extra demand put on your fitness level. What one person might be able to handle may be different to you and if the conditions change are you going to be able to cope. One way of gaining stamina is learning how to paddle correctly and efficiently. Perfecting your paddling technique will add to your overall ability to paddle for much longer periods of time and greater distances. Another thing to consider before setting off is paddling in your wetsuit and how it affects your performance. In the case of specialized free diving and spearfishing wetsuits these are very flexible and won't restrict your paddling as much as a standard dive suit can. However heat will and depending on conditions it may not be ideal to wear the entire wetsuit. Also chaffing under the arms can occur during paddling especially if you are going to travel a fair distance to your chosen dive spot. One way of overcoming this is to leave your wetsuit top off and wear a suitable paddle top like those found in the range of Sharkskin clothing along with approved PFD. Once you arrive at your destination either go ashore to change into the wetsuit or do so on the kayak. If the dive site is a short paddle away then you may choose to get fully kitted up in your wetsuit before heading off and if so it may be desirable to go for a dip in the water. Wetting down both the wetsuit and yourself will help keep you cooler during the hottest of summer days. While paddling you can splash cold water on your face allowing any water to drip down into your wetsuit top. By doing so will not only cool you down but also help to bring on the mammalian effect if the water temperature is below nineteen degrees.

Getting Ready For The Dive

Once you have arrived at your dive site lower the anchor to the sea floor and insure that the kayak is secure. Make sure you have fully recovered from the paddle before entering the water for your dive. Prior to dismounting the kayak put all your equipment on except for the weight belt and BCD/bottle in the case of scuba  leaving them attached by way of a tether line. As mentioned previously distribute your body weight evenly on both sides of the kayak using your arms and hands to lift you up and with both legs over one side launch yourself into the water. Now that you have successfully dismounted the kayak it’s time to put the weight belt on (taking care not to drop it) and grab any other gear required. Explore the terrain within a two hundred meter distance of the kayak and when you are ready to move simply pick up the anchor and swim along with kayak in tow. Once you have moved far enough just drop the anchor again to continue diving. Something you can do to advantage with the anchor when free diving if conditions allow is to use the anchor as an extra weight (drop weight) to help overcome the negative buoyancy stage of the descent from the surface and once on the bottom you can simply let it go. Extra care must be taken when using the anchor in this way so as not to become tangled with the rope attached to it.

Predators & Storing The Catch 

If you are spearfishing where predators like sharks are known to frequent then having your kayak close by for instant catch containment can reduce the risk of having your fish stolen from float lines as you tow the catch around. Quickly dispatching and securing the fish you have speared then immediately placing onto the kayak will further reduce risk of any predator close by being alerted to your activities. The kayak is also perfect if you need to quickly get yourself out of the water like when a shark has shown up looking for an easy feed because it was attracted by the vibrations of a struggling fish. The kayak also offers an excellent means to store your catch especially the rear well area that can have an after market insulated bag fitted. This will keep your seafood in good condition plus contain crayfish and scallops. 

Using Kayak Stealth 

Snapper snooping is regarded as one of the most challenging fish to spearfish. They are very easily spooked requiring you to be as quiet as possible when hunting them while diving. Using a kayak to gain access to snapper spots will greatly improve your chances of being undetected when compared to the sound of a boat motor and noisy anchor. Because the kayak is extremely quiet when moving along on the water it is possible to reach spots known to hold this species without them realising you have arrived. If you plan to do so then take extra care not to make excess noise when arriving at any given location. This can be achieved by paddling with less power in your stroke and ensuring that you don’t bang the kayak while anchoring and putting gear on. Try to dismount the kayak in the smoothest possible way taking care not to make too much splashing when entering the water. The less sound you make the better so be careful not to bang your weight belt against the kayak when removing from the deck once you are in the water.  

Using a kayak for spearfishing, free diving and scuba to gather seafood or explore the marine environment will inspire any keen adventurer/hunter/gatherer to get on our ocean more often and doing this has given me countless hours of once in a lifetime experiences. The diving opportunities that kayaks can offer are endless and once familiarized with using them as a dive platform you will discover just how effective they are. With benefits that include unlimited adventures, no running costs and a zero carbon foot print kayaks have a place in our quest to discover the marine environment.