Getting out on the water is one of my favourite ways to see Scotland. The Scottish west coast is a paradise for sea kayaking. If you are new to the sport, a 2-day introduction course can teach you everything you need to know to stay safe and enjoy yourself. Read on to find out about the course I booked to learn sea kayaking in Scotland – and how it has benefitted my adventures since!
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The Scottish coast is the stuff dreams are made of. Whether you are looking for jaw-dropping cliffs, white sandy beaches, turquoise water or local wildlife – here is where you find them!
To me, there is nothing quite like a change of perspective. I love getting out on the water in any boat of any size to see the coastline from a different side.
Sea kayaking is one of my favourite ways to gain this new viewpoint. A fantastic way to get up close with the rocky outcrops and cliffs of Scotland in a safe and respectful manner, and a great work out on top of that.
But in order to stay safe, it is very important to know some basics – you are out at sea after all, where tides and currents control everything.
I went to Oban to learn sea kayaking from the professionals.
Read on to find out what it was like to take a 2-day Introduction to Sea Kayaking Course on the west coast and what I’ve taken away from the experience. In this post you will find out:
- What even is sea kayaking and where in Scotland can you do it?
- What does a sea kayaking course entail?
- The skills you will learn on a sea kayaking course in Oban.
- What to pack for a sea kayaking trip?
- My personal account of taking a 2-day course,
- and how it has benefitted me ever since!
And everything else you need to know to plan a trip to learn sea kayaking in Oban: how to get there, where to stay and what else to do in the area.
Sea Kayaking in Scotland
What is sea kayaking?
Sea kayaking describes an activity whereby you paddle on open water in long, narrow boats for one or two people. Open water can relate to the ocean but also large lakes. You can technically sea kayak on a lake, but in this article, I refer solely to sea kayaking in the ocean.
Fun fact: the work kayak comes from the Greenlandic word qajaq and it was the indigenous peoples Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut who first developed these kinds of boats.
Most sea kayaks have a closed deck with compartments in the front and back to hold equipment. Sitting in a kayak, you can seal the opening with a spray deck which keeps water out of the boat.
There are also sit-on-top kayaks suitable for use in open water, but usually, covered kayaks are used in Scotland.
Difference between Kayaks and Canoes
The main difference between kayaks and canoes is in the paddle. Kayak paddles have two blades. You don’t have to switch which side of the boat you paddle on. Canoe paddles have only own blade and you have to change sides to move forward.
Canoes have an open deck and higher seat, which makes it easier to get in and out, but also less protected from water coming in.
In my experience, canoes are also a little slower and harder to navigate.
Difference between Sea kayaks and Whitewater kayaks
There are different kinds of kayaks developed for different environments and types of usage.
Whitewater kayaks are designed to be highly manoeuvrable and very responsive. They are generally much shorter than other kayaks and great for use in fast-flowing rivers.
Sea kayaks are designed for use on open water and are perfect for touring. They achieve higher cruise speeds are much more comfortable to sit in for longer periods of time and offer more stability in the water. They are not quite as easy to manoeuvre as whitewater kayaks, but they are much less likely to capsize.
Sit-on-top kayaks are great for shorter outings on flat water.
Where can you sea kayak in Scotland?
There are many places to go kayaking in Scotland. There are kayak outfitters all around the coast and also near big lochs, such as Loch Lomond, Loch Ness or Loch Maree.
The Scottish west coast is Scotland’s hot spot for sea kayaking. There are outfitters up and down the coast. Some of the best areas to learn sea kayaking or book half-day and day tours are Oban, Arisaig, Plockton, Torridon, Ullapool / Summer Isles and the Hebrides (Skye, Islay, Barra, Harris).
There are fewer kayaking spots on the east coast but they are there. You can book sea kayaking tours at the East Neuk of Fife (Anstruther), the Aberdeenshire coast (Stonehaven) and the Moray coast (Fort George).
The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail runs 500 km on the west coast from the Isle of Gigha to Ullapool and the Summer Isles. It passes Oban, Arisaig, Skye and Applecross along the way.
The Argyll Sea Kayak Trail runs 150 km from Oban to Helensburgh and hugs the stunning Argyll coastline – the longest of all regions in Scotland. It passes the Sound of Jura, Crinan Canal, Kyles of Bute and the Firth of Clyde.
Before you can undertake such an adventure though, you should look into learning the basics.
An introduction course to sea kayaking will teach you the skills necessary to eventually head out by yourself.
Note that in order to hire gear and go sea kayaking without a guide, most kayak outfitters require you to have a certain number of days of experience. When you are unfamiliar with the local waters, it is best to hire a guide or book a tour.
Learning sea kayaking in Oban
I chose to book a sea kayaking course in Oban because it is one of the best places for sea kayaking in Scotland.
From Oban, you have the isles at your doorstep – it is also called Gateway to the Isles after all. Nearby kayaking routes include expeditions to the Isles of Kerrera, Lismore or Seil; you can paddle along the coast towards Loch Melfort and the Slate Islands, or north towards Loch Etive and Loch Creran.
Oban is well connected to many islands of the Inner Hebrides such as Mull, Coll, Colonsay and Barra. You can bring kayaks onboard free of charge to start your paddle adventures around the islands.
It is also easy to get to Oban and the town offers an abundance of accommodation options, but more on that below.
Activity Provider + Location
I booked the 2-day introduction course to sea kayaking with Sea Kayak Oban (formerly National Kayak School).
They offer courses, tours and expeditions, sell kayaking equipment and provide hire equipment for experienced kayakers.
Sea Kayak Oban looks back at years of experience, employs well-trained staff and is well connected with other local businesses who provide additional transport or services for their tours.
Their shop is in the middle of Oban, slightly set back from the main stretch of the harbour.
It is a five-minute walk to the train station and the ferry port and boats can be launched in the main harbour, 2 minutes walk from the shop.
The 2-day Introduction Course
The Introduction to Sea Kayaking course lasts 2 days and is offered several times a year (usually Saturday/Sunday, but mid-week options are also available).
The course is aimed at complete beginners to anyone who has kayaked casually before and would like to learn the basics from scratch. It lasts from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm on both days.
On Day 1, the group usually launches from the harbour in Oban. The water here is very calm – perfect to get used to being in a kayak.
On Day 2, you might launch from a different spot a short drive away to explore a different stretch of coastline. (Transport included)
While you will paddle on both days, there will also be some units taught at the shop before and after the outings.
The maximum instructor-to-students ratio is 1:6. That way, the instructors are able to dedicate time to each student and ensure that everybody progresses well.
What will you learn?
This course is designed to teach you the fundamentals of sea kayaking in Scotland.
You will learn…
- How to read wind forecasts, nautical maps and tide charts to plan your route.
- Efficient paddling techniques.
- When and how to use your kayak’s skeg (fin).
- How to read the currents and tides when you are out on the water.
- Navigating and setting a course out on the water.
- Safety precautions to take before and during your paddle trip.
- How to perform a rescue of a capsized paddler.
- How to self-rescue if you capsize.
For an additional fee, you may obtain the British Canoeing Start or Discover Award as part of the course. Ask about it when you sign up.
Equipment + what to wear
All equipment for the sea kayaking course is provided. This includes a variety of kayaks to test different lengths, shapes and materials (plastic or carbon fibre), drysuits, neoprene boots and buoyancy aids.
You can wear regular clothes underneath the drysuit, but I recommend wearing just one layer. It gets hot in there! I wore a pair of leggings and a quick-dry t-shirt.
No prior experience is required for the sea kayaking beginner’s course.
You have to be physically fit to spend two full days out paddling (4 to 5 hours).
Please note that this course is aimed at adults. For trips and courses for kids, get in touch with Sea Kayak Oban.
What to bring?
I recommend bringing as little as possible. Your belongings will be stored away in one of the kayak’s compartments. You will only have access to them when you stop for a break and go on land.
Here is a list of things I’d bring in your dry-bag:
- Your packed lunch.
- A bottle of water.
- Sun lotion to put on your face and hands. The sea reflects UV rays back onto you even when it’s overcast.
- Hand lotion and lip balm to apply during the break. The saltwater will dry out your skin.
If you have an adventure camera, put it in its waterproof case and use a body harness to capture your adventures.
I also had my bigger camera in my dry bag and our instructor was nice enough to help me get it out once or twice while on the water, so I could take photos.
2020 price: £190 per person.
What is not included?
Transport to Oban.
Accommodation in Oban. I recommend arriving the night before the course starts and staying 2-3 nights. Find my suggestions for places to stay in Oban below.
All meals. You need to bring your own packed lunch on both days and sort your own breakfast & dinner.
My experience of learning to sea kayak
What the course was like
I had a great time on the sea kayaking introduction course in Oban.
I arrived the night before by train and stayed at a local hostel (see accommodation options below). Since the kayak shop is in the middle of Oban, it was easy enough to do this trip without a car.
We were six people in the group and had one instructor. There was a mother with her teenage daughter, three men who were friends from way back, me and another solo traveller, who I bumped into again on Handa Island on the North Coast 500.
It was a weekend in April, but the sun was shining bright and the wind forecasts were looking good. The perfect weather for a sea kayaking trip.
We met at the kayak shop at 9.30 and after fitting our dry-suits and neoprene boots, our instructor introduced us to the different types of sea kayaks we would be trying out. Then everyone hopped in their kayak on the ground and adjusted their footrests.
Against popular belief, your feet work just as hard as your arms when you paddle. Adjusting the footrests so that they are comfortable, but also easy to push away from is important for efficient paddling.
When everybody was happy with their set-up, we carried our kayaks to the shoreline across the road and launched into the calm waters of Oban harbour.
Our instructor explained paddling techniques, use of the skeg and gave us some safety pointers. Once we were comfortable on the water, it was time to leave the sheltered bay and head out towards the Isle of Kerrera.
The rest of Day 1 was spent crossing the Sound of Kerrera and paddling around the island anti-clockwise, to avoid the worst winds. We landed on the island for our lunch break and returned to the shop in the late afternoon.
Before releasing us for the day, our instructor set up the rowing technique to demonstrate and explain typical mistakes and most efficient paddling techniques. Everyone got a shot at the machine to learn the best practice for the next day.
The next day – after planning our route with the help if nautical maps and tide charts – we set out to the Isle of Seil. It lies approximately 16 miles south of Oban and is connected to the mainland by the Bridge over the Atlantic.
We launched our boats from Ellenabeich, the largest village on the island and paddled over to Insh, one of the Slate Islands. Overall the second day felt like a huge step-up from day 1.
The route was more challenging, but I had also made so much progress with regards to my paddling technique and manoeuvering my boat.
At the end of the day, we spent time in a sheltered bay to learn how to edge our kayaks. Edging is a technique to turn quicker and more efficiently. We also practised rescuing another paddler after capsizing as well as self-rescue techniques.
Back in Oban, I hitched a lift back to Glasgow with one of the other participants. A short, but sweet micro-adventure.
If you ever thought about kayaking more, there is no better way to learn the fundamentals and improve your technique than having a professional instructor to teach you.
Ever since taking this course, I have benefitted massively from the takeaways. I am nowhere near experienced enough to hire a sea kayak and head out by myself yet, but I still apply everything I learnt in the course whenever I go kayaking.
Having learnt and applied the basics for two days in a row has “burnt” the information into my body. When I get in a kayak, my body automatically gets into the right position and does all the efficient moves I learnt in Oban.
It has made casual kayaking even more enjoyable for me, as I can kayak for longer (without additional training) and focus on taking in the scenery.
I thoroughly enjoyed the 2-day sea kayaking course I took with Sea Kayak Oban and can only recommend it.
Oban Travel Guide
How to get to Oban
By car from Edinburgh/Glasgow: From Edinburgh, take the M8 to Glasgow. Stay in this until you reach the exit for Erskine Bridge. Cross the River Clyde on the Erskine Bridge and stay to the left to take the A82 North towards Crianlarich. Stay on this road until you get to Tyndrum. After the village, take the exit for A85 towards Oban and follow this all the way to Oban.
On this route, you will drive along the banks of Loch Lomond and there are many other scenic stops along the way. On the A85, also stop for Kilchurn Castle and St Conan’s Kirk.
Alternatively, you could leave the A82 in Tarbert, take the A83 to Inveraray and then the A819 to KIlchurn Castle, where you will meet the A85 to Oban. On that route, you get to see the Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint, Loch Fyne and Inveraray.
Both routes take approximately 2.5 hours from Glasgow, but the open via Inveraray follows smaller roads. Add another hour from Edinburgh.
By public transport: The West Highland Line runs direct trains from Glasgow to Oban which takes approximately 3 hours. You can book this via Trainline.
Where to stay in Oban
Oban has an abundance of accommodation options ranging from hotels and B&Bs to hostels and self-catering holiday homes.
I highly recommend the Oban Youth Hostel for a budget-friendly option. The hostel is welcoming to everyone, including families and mature travellers – not a party hostel at all – and lies right across the promenade. They have dorms and private rooms, many with sea views.
For something a bit more comfortable, check out The Perle hotel on the seafront.
Other things to do in Oban
There are so many things to do in Oban and the nearby area. Here are a few suggestions:
Spend some time sightseeing in Oban. Climb McCaig’s Tower to watch the boats criss-cross the Sound of Kerrera, take a tour at Oban Distillery, walk along the seafront promenade and visit Dunollie Castle.
Read my Oban travel guide for more ideas and details.
There are many boat trips to nearby islands. Staffa Tours offers different day trips to the Isle of Staffa, Mull and Iona and the Treshnish Isles to see puffins. You can also go on short trips to nearby seal colonies which are advertised around the harbour.
Scotland looks entirely different from the water. Sea kayaking is an easy water sport to learn and offers stunning views combined with a great work out.
Although it is only 2 days long, this introduction course to sea kayaking in Scotland is the perfect opportunity to learn the fundamentals and spend quality time on the west coast.
Add sea kayaking to your bucket list – you will see Scotland with whole new eyes!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.