Lake Kayaking

Lake Washington Rules and Tips

The short:
  • Only UKC members may use UKC gear
  • Wet exit test required before going out on lake
  • Always fill out yellow card
  • Paddling only during WAC open hours
  • Paddle with a buddy, or be well-practiced at self-rescue
  • October-May: wear immersion protection (wetsuit!)

The long (read it all, for your safety):

The University has a fleet of kayaks available for club member use on Lake Washington and many of you have joined the club to take advantage of this great resource. In making these boats available, everyone has a responsibility to observe some basic but important safety precautions. Please remember that you must be a club member to use our boats or other gear (friends on campus can join the club, folks from off campus can rent a boat from one of the local outfitters including the WAC office which has canoes).  This includes the double kayaks.  BOTH paddlers of the double must be current club members.

Boats should only be used on the lake when the WAC office is open.  The hours change with the seasons and can be found here.  If you are paddling during hours that the WAC is not open then you must follow the guidelines for a club trip (a minimum of three boats and an approved trip coordinator). You are not allowed to paddle after sunset unless part of a club trip.  Sunset may occur before the WAC office closes, and it is your responsibility to know the time of sunset.

You should check the weather forecast before you go out, and be sure the winds are not expected to increase beyond what you can tolerate. The Lake Washington buoy can tell you current wind speed and water temperature. Before paddling in winds over about 10 knots or waves with whitecaps, you should be competent in most of the basic kayaking skills, and also practice deep-water re-entries at a sea kayak rescue session.

To access the club room, give your card to the WAC office and they will give you the key.  Unlock the door, prop it open and give the key back to the office immediately.  Never take the key into the club room or out on the lake!

First, make sure you fill out a Yellow Card. This is important to document use of club gear and is important for making decisions regarding gear purchase and university funding.  Please try to fill out the name of the boat (e.g. Wave Sport Project 52 or Perception Shadow, not just "sea kayak" or "red boat") so we can tell which boats are most popular.  As you leave the WAC and get ready to launch your boat, make sure you are wearing a PFD (life jacket) that is snugly buckled and zipped, not just loosely hung over your arms. Wearing a wetsuit will provide additional buoyancy as well as insulation in case of a swim.

When on the lake, we recommend that you paddle with a buddy. Other outfitters on the lake (NWOC, Agua Verde) do make kayaks available for individual paddlers and our boats are also available in this manner but paddling with a buddy provides an additional measure of safety.  

Once you have completed the wet exit test and annual membership paperwork, you may take any of the river or sea kayaks out on the lake. If you do not have prior kayaking experience, you should first ask for instruction at a pool or lake session in the basics of kayaking: forward stroke, sweep stroke, draw strokes, edging and bracing. It is STRONGLY recommended that you remain very close to shore until you take a rescue skills clinic (these are typically informally organized by sending an email to the sea kayak trip coordinator list: ukc-skl). This is particularly important during the months of October through May, when the lake is coldest and there are fewer other boaters out who might be able to assist you.

We allow you to take boats throughout Lake Washington, but use careful judgement when venturing out beyond the immediate WAC area. One of the greatest dangers on Lake Washington, particularly during the winter months, is exposure to cold water in the event of a capsize. Wet suits are available for your use when the water is cold (most of the year!) and provide an additional layer of safety. Without a wetsuit, swimmers can become helpless or drown within minutes.

More on the dangers of cold water, and also the attractions of cold water.

If you don't have neoprene booties, take your shoes off and store them behind your seat or in a compartment, or tuck shoelace loops and ends under the crossed-over parts of the laces between the eyelets so they are completely hidden, since loose loops could get caught on your footpedals and trap you inside the boat during a capsize!  Drowning due to this mistake will not look good on your resume.

Make sure that you have float bags. Some of our boats will sink without flotation. An inflated float bag is an essential piece of safety gear. They are typically removed from boats during storage, but must be used when paddling on the lake. The only exceptions would be some of the newer sea kayaks with two-piece hatch covers and trustworthy bulkheads. If a boat looks old, has single-piece hatch covers or is a river boat, it is likely to sink without float bags.

Whitewater boats work best with shorter paddles (under 210 cm), while sea kayaks are used with longer paddles (follow this link for advice on SK paddle fitting).  The ideal paddle length depends on the size and shape of the boat, the size and shape of the paddler and your preferred paddling style, so you should discuss this with several more experienced paddlers to get their opinions.  Similarly, different spray skirts fit different groups of boats. You should have received an orientation to which groups of gear go with which boats when you joined the club. If you are uncertain, please attend another pool session or ask the officers. You may use the club paddling jackets when it is raining, but do not use the dry tops (with black latex rubber wrist and ankle gaskets) unless you are practicing rolls, since the gaskets are uncomfortable and also rip easily and are laborious to replace.  Whitewater boats are slow and tend to wander off course easily, so if you want to cover long distances (more than half a mile), a sea kayak is usually a better choice.

If you are just learning, stay within the relatively protected waters of the Arboretum or paddle along the north shore of Union Bay. This is also the best way to avoid large boat traffic.  You may have right-of-way, depending on the situation, but it is better not to force a conflict with another boat. Travel through the Montlake Cut is not advised until you have developed some bracing skills and balance in the boat, unless there is little other boat traffic . Waves from larger boats can create a significant hazard in the Cut, particularly when several powerboats are traveling through at the same time.

As your skills improve, you can travel to more exposed parts of Lake Washington.  Sand Point (Maguson Park) is a good destination which lets you go 7 to 8 miles while staying near shore and having a good place to get out and stretch your legs mid-way.  

If you want to cross the lake near the highway 520 bridge, be aware that waves will reflect off of the bridge, making for much more difficult conditions near the bridge on its windward side if the wind is more than very light.  Stay on the leeward side of the bridge unless you want to try rough conditions.  Practice bracing and self-rescue skills in calm conditions near shore or in the pool until you are confident that even if someone is trying to flip your boat over, you can resist them with a brace most of the time, and dress for a cold swim.  If you go out to play in these clapotis (reflected waves), it would be prudent to be in a group of at least 3 boats and take a tow line, just in case.

Finally, we have two fiberglass boats that require a more advanced skill set. These are the Impulse (a sea kayak) and the downriver race boat. If you do not have strong stroke, bracing and self-rescue skills, or have not received training in these craft please do not use them. If you have any questions regarding use of our more specialized boats please do not hesitate to contact the officers.

Subpages (1): Winter lake attractions