Do You Allow Students to Use an Oru Kayak for Sea Kayak Instruction?

In September 2021, I received this message from a prospective student:

Hey, so I have questions about getting some lessons. Situation is that I paddle a foldable. (16ft Oru Coast XT). I have a Trak 2.0 on order for next season. I’ve been able to successfully self rescue in the Oru in quiet waters, haven’t attempted in conditions yet- would prefer to give that a go with instruction. I have flotation in both ends- I likely need more. I have a spray skirt. It functions very much like a skin-on-frame kayak-  and a heel-hook with a paddle float appears the most doable rescue. Cowboy style gets iffy. Because it doesn’t have watertight bulkheads and instead relies on flotation, I’m not allowed to take courses with it at [——- ——- ——].

Just wondering if you’d be willing to work with me (either with my Oru, or with the Trak 2.0 next season). I have a dry suit. The Trak 2.0 has a Sea Sock. I want to learn to roll. Haven’t tried that at all yet.

– Erika O

This was not the first inquiry I’d had about working with an Oru kayak – and it wasn’t the first time I have heard that others won’t allow them to be used for courses.

My standard response to these inquiries – absolutely!

Why the concern with Oru kayaks?

Since I haven’t spoken directly with instructors as to why they won’t allow them, I suspect they see too much risk, or a level of risk they aren’t willing/able to accept/mitigate. 

Oru kayaks are similar to a skin-on-frame kayak (SOF) – a traditional design that dates back several thousand years. They have no bulkheads, can easily fill with water in a capsize, and sink. There’s also the design and construction of the kayak. It’s folded corrugated plastic. It’s hard to see how these things stay together and float. It’s harder yet to believe they can handle scrambles and other recoveries without collapsing.

That’s a scary prospect for an outfitter. And it makes sense why they prefer not to deal with them.

Preparation

Proper outfitting mitigates risk

I have done enough research. Whether or not I understand how a folded sheet of corrugated plastic – that same stuff used in yard signs – is structurally sound, they are capable sea kayaks (within limits). Taking a few precautions will address any design concerns I’d have as well as mitigate those around the lack of bulkheads.

Adequate flotation through specialized float bags (required for my courses), properly placed and installed, works to provide buoyancy and displace water that would otherwise fill the hull in a capsize. Those bags also provide solid structural integrity. The key is how and where they are placed in the hull and properly inflating them (enough to function as intended without negatively affecting paddling or rescues).

Yes, the bags can fail. They can leak, fall out….it happens. But it’s not often. These bags are designed for this express purpose and I trust them. If I have concerns about how they were installed, I’ll check. I’ll also test them by flipping the kayak and seeing if they shift and how much water gets in/trapped.

Sadly, Oru does not include this crucial safety item. You’ll need to purchase them separately. I recommend NRS Split Kayak Float Bags.

Setting limitations mitigates risk

There are still limits on the circumstances under which I will coach students using Oru kayaks – and those happen to be the conditions I’d recommend they be paddled in – what the American Canoe Association (ACA) designates as the remit for L1-L2 assessments:

  • Calm, protected water with constant access to safe landing and within .5 nm from shore.  
  • Winds less than 10 knots  
  • Waves less than 1 foot (0.3 meters)  
  • Current less than 1 knot  
  • No surf – shore break less than 1 ft (0.3 meters)

Why?

Even outfitted properly, Oru kayaks are still made from plastic corrugated sheeting. Unlike hard sided kayaks or those with rigid internal frames (Trak 2.0, traditional SOF models), there is risk of structural failure (they are designed to be collapsible). Any water ingress combined with the stresses of a recovery or rescue could cause them to flex or buckle making re-entry difficult. In an extreme case, they could completely fail – both scenarios are serious with our water temperature hovering between 45° and 55° year-round. Any added time in cold water starts to put paddlers at risk of hypothermia.

Outside the above L2 remit for conditions, recoveries and rescues become more challenging and the structural integrity of the kayak starts to matter more.

Though structural failure exists as a risk when paddling an Oru in bigger conditions, the constant strain from recovery practice while learning increases the odds of something going wrong. There is a limit, I suspect, on how much abuse Oru kayaks can handle. I’d rather not find it when coaching.

It’s also worth noting for anyone paddling one of these, that the structural design of Oru kayaks will make advanced rescues, like the scoop and hand-of-god more challenging at the least. In more significant conditions, that can add undo risk to a paddler should be considered before heading out.

Experience mitigates risk

There are two areas of experience that matter:

  1. The instructors competence in working with students performing recovery and rescue practice.
  2. The instructors experience performing recoveries and rescues with kayaks not having bulkheads. .

I don’t see the former as an issue for any instructor or outfitter offering these courses. None of them would disallow the use of an Oru kayak on those grounds. The latter – experience there matters. 

If an instructor has limited (or no) experience working with sea kayaks without bulkheads, there’s increased risk. As previously mentioned, even proper outfitting can fail for a variety of reasons. Beyond outfitting, component failure is a possibility. The plastic strips holding the kayak together could break or loosen – especially under the stress of practicing. That means a flooded boat that needs to be emptied. Or even one that sinks. Both leave the student in the water longer. Both potentially mean getting them back to shore another way.

I’ve worked with paddlers in classic Mariner sea kayaks. Many of these have no bulkheads. Others just one in the stern. I have learned how to drain the kayak should a bag fail. I don’t see substantial risk with an Oru as a result. I know I can handle what can go wrong, while still knowing my limits – and the venue I choose helps further reduce the risk.

Should the kayak fail in such a way that a student could not re-enter it, I have the skills set to get them back to shore.

More risk with an Oru, but it can be mitigated

Oru kayaks do present more risk than a rigid one with multiple bulkheads. However, the combination of proper outfitting and my venue choice with comfort in my skills as an instructor mitigates much of that increased risk. As a result, I am happy to help work with paddlers using them.

And given that more of these are on our local waters, it’s imperative, as instructors, that we be willing and able to work with anyone paddling one.

“I think there’s great value in allowing just about any kayak into a Level 1 or Level 2 type course. People need the opportunity to discover the limits of their craft in the relatively ‘safe’ coached environment of L1/L2.”

~ Scott Fairty

Scramble self-recovery practice with an Oru kayak during a Salmon Bay Paddle course.

We need to adapt as instructors

The COVID pandemic has seen a surge in popularity within the sport. It means more Oru kayaks being ordered and paddled. SOF kayaks have seen a big increase in popularity. Add in models like the Trak 2.0 and recreational kayaks, and the number of kayaks on our local waters without bulkheads is growing. I see that number continuing to grow.

People will paddle with or without coaching. 

We need to make sure we have individuals who are in a position to provide instruction for those paddlers wanting it. We need to be able to provide training to keep them safe – whether that is teaching the hard skills or helping them understand the limits of what they are paddling.

As sea kayak instructors, learning how to adapt what we normally teach to fit the circumstances we encounter is vital.

It’s an opportunity for me

Beyond teaching paddlers, working with Oru kayaks is a learning opportunity for me. The more I understand their limitations (and capabilities) and the more I learn how to improve outfitting for them, the better my ability to teach others…and help someone in a real world scenario. 

With more Oru kayaks on the water, it’s only a matter of time before I find myself needing to render assistance to someone paddling one. It’s nice to have the skill set in place as I do with modern kayaks if – when – I need them.

A final caveat

Oru (currently) offers five kayak models for sale. For sea kayaking instructional modules I offer, only the Bay XT and Coast XT may be used. These models use a more traditional cockpit design that accepts a spray skirt. 

If you have another one of their models, I will work with you, creating a personalized class to help you understand their capabilities and limitations. These, in my professional opinion, should only be used in warm water lakes and environments where a capsize means you can get to shore quickly. The open cockpit design makes them more susceptible to flooding and re-entry far less easy (possible). This makes them risky for use on Puget Sound, in open or coastal waters, or cold lakes where rescue time is critical.

Own an Oru kayak? and want to learn?

I’d love to work with you.

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