Commute Series: “Wait, you kayak to work???”

Walking, biking and transit are usually referred to as “alternative transportation.” But what I find really interesting are those forms of transportation which truly are “out of the box.”

Two summers ago I decided to kayak to work along the Charles River. I got an inflatable kayak, walked down to the river, pumped it up and then made my way to downtown Boston. I thought it was pretty cool, but then I was surprised to see a friend of mine kayaked to work, too!

I met Ted Sweeney while at the University of Oregon – the bike community brought us together (though he’s much more athletic about it than I ever have been/will be). I thought I would throw him a few questions about his kayak commute, since he does it a lot more than I have. The below Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is your normal, non-waterborne commute like? How far do you usually have to go? 

A: I live in Ballard and work at the University of Washington, meaning that my commute is a 5-mile slog across North Seattle. Crossing the many north-south arterials that run to downtown means that transit is at least 45 minutes. My fastest and most common commute option is bicycling, as the Burke-Gilman Trail (one of the nation’s best and busiest rail trails) starts in Ballard and goes right through the university campus. The bike commute is a consistent 25 minutes, faster even than driving once parking is factored in.

But the most direct pathway from Ballard to the UW, the one with absolutely no traffic, no stoplights, no potholes, no fare to pay, no slick railroad tracks, and no texting drivers, is the Lake Washington Ship Canal.


Q: Why did you decide to kayak to work? Is it for the exercise, the cost, the novelty? 

A: The kayak commute began because I needed calluses. In fall of 2014 I was preparing to do the first ever  Race to Alaska, an engineless small boat race from Port Townsend, WA, to Ketchikan, AK. Before embarking for the race in June, I needed to toughen up my hands because our sailboat had an auxiliary rowing system – I needed to be able to work those oars for potentially hours at a time. Adding kayaking to my commute meant I could work my hands a bit, so I kayaked consistently about once a week that winter in preparation. The race went well, we reached Ketichikan after about three blustery weeks on the wild British Columbia coast. I’ve kept doing the kayak commute off and on since, averaging somewhere around a couple times a month.  I find that what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.

“…what brings me to it is the exercise, the meditative time on the water, the sense of adventure that’s inherent in arriving somewhere by boat, and the ability to get some wide open, solitary space in the middle of my urban day.”

Q: Do you think kayak transportation will ever catch on? Do you know anyone else who kayaks to work?

Kayak commuting is a high-level urban eccentricity, and so it should be no surprise that there are at least a handful of Seattle weirdos who are also out there doing it. I’ve met another guy on the water who paddles Ballard – UW but to a much further point on campus than I do.  I know there are some people in the summer time who cross Portage Bay to the UW on kayaks and paddle boards from the Eastlake neighborhood. I’ve got a friend in Portland who was biking to the Willamette River, kayaking across it carrying his bike on the kayak, then biking to work.  But he got bored with that and now is biking to the river and then swimming across, towing his bike atop some pool noodles.  That guy is sort of my hero.

I think the key to making a kayak commute realistic is to have a safe, calm waterway that at least partially makes the connection between home and work. Making it time-competitive with other commute options is just about impossible – the best time I got from home to desk was about an hour and a quarter when towing the kayak by bike trailer, once you factor in the bike ride, locking the bike, putting on the dry suit, packing the kayak trailer up, paddling, schlepping the kayak up to the office, and changing.  Again, that’s compared to a 25-minute bike commute.

Ted’s Bike Trailer/Kayak Setup

I think safety is a limitation to widespread adoption.  I wear a gasketed dry suit year round when I do this (and of course a personal flotation device (PFD)) and I carry a VHF radio and lights for the boat. Being on the water, even relatively safe Lake Union and the Ship Canal, is no joke.  Taking the safety precautions adds time and complication that makes the commute take longer, but it’s essential to do this in a safe way.  It’s a serious undertaking to be out there, around commercial boat traffic, vulnerable to the weather and in water that is cold all year long.  People should be dressed for immersion, wearing a PFD, able to self-rescue, and aware of what the weather forecast means for water conditions.

Q: What’s the best part of a kayak commute? The worst part? 

A: The best part of the commute by far is getting into Lake Union and getting around Gasworks Park.  I get a wide open view of the downtown skyline and Space Needle over the flat expanse of Lake Union.  In the evenings when I’m not pressed for time I like to paddle a ways out into the lake and just float in quiet contemplation for a while admidst this scene.  That’s a pretty awesome commute perk.

Night shot of the city from the water.

The worst part is just dealing with all the gear involved, as well as worrying somewhat about the security of the kayak – I have a pretty good out of the way spot away from the water to stash it and it’s pretty big to steal, but I haven’t devised any locking method as of yet.

That tranquil water, in the middle of a bustling city.

Q: What else should people know about a human-powered waterborne commute? 

A: Like bike commuting, the first step to a happy water commute is to just get out on the water and learn to safely enjoy being out there, controlling your craft, and learning your limits and capabilities.  If there’s a river or lake where folks live and they haven’t found a way out onto it, I highly encourage them to do so.  It changes one’s whole perspective on the city and its infrastructure.  Once you’re comfortable and confident on the water, the possibilities for creative human powered water travel are extensive – kayaks that fold into backpacks, inflatable stand-up paddle boards, canoes, rowboats, floating bicycles.  Stay safe and enjoy the inevitable gasps – “Wait, you KAYAK to work????”

Ted in action!