A safe paddler is ... what? In any given situation, safe paddlers are competent to manage themselves, and even to assist others. They are confident, comfortable enough to be enjoying themselves, even in challenging weather and seas. What does it take to get there?
Paddling is a muscle-powered sport. It takes a certain degree of strength and stamina. This is not to say that every paddler needs to develop an Olympic-level body, but safety and enjoyment depend on moderate levels of strength, stamina, and flexibility. These factors become increasingly important to the paddler who wishes to experience more challenging conditions or longer trips. Endurance & power are safety factors: you may find yourself in unanticipated conditions that require you to paddle more strenuously than you had planned. These same conditions might require you to paddle for longer periods than anticipated. Surely you will want to be in shape if you find yourself swimming: recoveries and rescues take more effort than paddling. Your own personal fitness program need not be anything specially geared to paddling, since cross-training in any aerobic sport or discipline such as Yoga or Pilates, will have the desired effect. Build up your endurance and power gradually, and plan to paddle within your level of comfort. Don't forget the benefits of stretching before and after paddling.
Develop Your Skills
Ever notice how easy things look when skilled people do them? Think of your favorite athlete in any sport you like. In rough water conditions, have you noticed that the skilled paddlers seemed to be enjoying the conditions that made you struggle? Fact is, things ARE mentally and physically easier when the requisite skills are mastered. Develop: boat control (balance and edge control, relaxation and flexibility, strokes); recovery skills (bracing and rolling); rescue techniques (as rescuer and as swimmer). With these skills under your belt, you'll be ready to tackle "conditions" -- wind and rough water, current and tide rips, the surf zone. Once comfortable in conditions, you're ready to think about longer crossings and expeditions, for which you'll need navigation skills (the learning never ends, if you don't want it to). Don't just teach your mind, train your body! Any coordinated physical skill requires more than good information. You need to practice -- frequently -- until your body seems to know what to do without having to consult your mind. Practice soon after your training sessions, to make sure you're practicing what you learned. An excellent instructor we know likes to say, "Practice makes permanent!" You don't want to half-forget and then practice unwanted moves. Good thing that kayak practice is so much fun.
Develop Your Knowledge Base
Seamanship involves integrating your kayaking skills with a knowledge of the sea. This includes knowledge of the current weather and sea conditions in which you may find yourself, as well as potential ranges in these conditions. It also includes knowledge of coastline features, for purposes of navigation and as potential bail-outs, rest stops, and points of interest. This integration will take time and experience. No need to rush it, just paddle and learn.
Develop Good Judgment
You may read a dozen books and listen to a score of paddlers relating their experience and giving you advice -- and you should. None of that knowledge will sink in, however, until you've had some of your own experiences to reinforce it. You'll make mistakes, but that's part of the fun. Use your mistakes as opportunities to learn and to teach (sometimes, mistakes generate great stories). Combine your knowledge with your growing skills to develop a sense of risk management. Paddling involves venturing out into an environment that is potentially hostile to life, with little between joy and harm but the paddler's judgment and skill. To manage risk is to match your own skill and experience to the anticipated range of sea conditions. As you develop, your level of risk may stay fairly constant even as you venture into more and more challenging circumstances.