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Paddling In Wind, Waves & Surf By Tom Holtey

rockyThe ocean presents some powerful forces to the sea kayaker. Whether you paddle a sit-on-top kayak, a recreational kayak in an estuary, or a sit-inside touring kayak on open water, one must be aware of the water and wind conditions. The famous waterman, Duke Kahanamoku is credited with the saying “Never turn your back on the sea.” So, take some time to understand these forces, practice the needed skills, and maintain a keen awareness of the sea around you.


Wind is the greatest challenge for kayakers. On days with strong winds:

*Paddle only in protected waters.
*Always plan your trips with the prevailing wind directions in mind.

If you plan a trip where you start and end in the same place, paddle against the wind first, then return with the wind at your back. This way you will have the wind helping you when you are the most tired.

If planning a trip with a different put in and take out, plan to go in the direction that has the wind at your back. Check the weather reports and prevailing wind directions for your area. This information can be found on most weather information websites, via weather radio, or from your local weather news. Make notes and check with local experienced paddlers.

Wave Dynamics -
Waves are generated by wind.

Surf Zone: Begins where the wind blows the ocean over land topography that changes from deep to shallow. This can be a gradual incline, a sandbar, or reef.


Dumping Waves: The land near shore rises steeply creating a “heave & dump” motion, usually difficult for launching & landing.

Long Fetch: Distance between land and open ocean unobstructed by islands, reefs, rocks, structures - results in bigger waves. Hawaian Islands are a great example.

long fetch

Short Fetch: Water is shielded from open ocean wind & waves by islands or land masses - results in smaller waves. Best for landing and launching. Maine is a great example.


Clapitus - Reflecting waves: Waves bounce back after hitting a cliff or jetty meeting oncoming waves, doubling in height; this also happens when water wraps around a small island and meets on the other side.



Wave height: At eye level from a kayak a three foot wave looks formidable, but it is still only a three foot wave.

wave height

What About Wind Direction? Wind often shifts direction mid-day. Pay attention to the local weather report's wind shift information in planning your trip.

Off Shore Wind: Wind blows water out to sea.

On Shore Wind: Wind blows water into land.


Use caution while paddling on a coast with an offshore (away from land) wind. Do not paddle so far offshore that paddling back to shore will be too difficult. Use caution while paddling with an onshore (toward the land) wind. Paddle far enough offshore so that you will not be pushed ashore into the surf zone or other hazards. This can be very important on a rocky coast with breaking waves.

Always be aware of the wind direction and strength. Anticipate how the kayak will be pushed by the wind and adjust your heading and plan appropriately. Winds can change dramatically over the course of the day. One can generally expect onshore winds in the 1st part of the day, with off shore winds later in the day. Wind is usually strongest in the afternoon, sometimes calm at dusk and dawn. Research local weather patterns and forecasts. Plan alternative landing(s) along your route and use it if necessary.

Strong winds can blow an unloaded kayak off a beach and into water, causing your kayak to drift away. Tie your boat to a secure object above the high water mark if such conditions exist.

A paddle leash, or "lifeline" is recommend for windy days. If you capsize, the wind can blow your kayak away from you faster than you can swim. A leash or lifeline can prevent this from occurring.
More info on paddling in wind: Paddling Straight by Tom Holtey

waveWaves, Swells, & Surf

Waves can be a formidable foe, but the right conditions can provide excellent practice and a lot of fun. The best advice is to watch the waves for some time before landing and launching. This will help you get a feel for the timing and the range of wave size. Waves do come in a somewhat predictable patterns called sets. Not necessarily in groups of seven, or any other number. Get a feel for the general pattern and be ready to take advantage of a lull, or watchful for a rouge set. Waves can be judged from the beach, and from outside the surf zone.

When paddling out through waves, from a beach launch, keep your kayak pointed right at them and maintain maximum forward momentum. Your kayak is more stable from bow to stern than it is from side to side. Do not let the waves come at the kayak on the side. The larger the wave the harder you must paddle to climb the wave face or, depending on your kayak's hull design, punch through it.

If you are not paddling fast enough to break through the surf zone, the waves will push you back to shore, possibly resulting in a capsize. Keep paddling; do not let up on your rhythm. Resist the urge to raise your paddle over your head when a braking wave approaches. It is not like you have to keep the paddle dry. Keep stroking, even if you are buried up to your chest in white water.

When returning back through the surf zone, to the landing, keep your kayak pointed to shore, often at a slight angle is best. The waves will help you back to shore. While heading out though the surf is much like climbing many small hills, returning is like coasting down many small hills. As such you will gain speed with the wave pushing from behind, and you will have to be careful not to loose control.

When returning through the surf, your kayak will want to go sideways and roll, like a log to the beach. To prevent this, you must steer your kayak. You can control the kayak’s direction using your paddle like a rudder, by leaning to one side or the other, and possibly with a rudder system, if equipped. If you steer too much on one side, your boat will go sideways. It is necessary to steer a little bit on one side and then a little bit on the other side, constantly counter steering until the ride is over. I stress that you constantly counter steer for the entire ride.

In many cases you will not really want to ride the wave to shore, but come in to the beach in a slow and controlled way, with a gentle landing. To do so you will want to paddle in on the backside of the wave as it approaches the beach. The strategy is to paddle hard and fast when the kayak’s bow is going uphill on the wave’s back. Then… Paddle slowly, or even back paddle, when the bow is pointing down, on the wave face. The key is not to accelerate and take off while on a wave face.

Small to medium waves can be quite fun, but they can also throw you off your kayak and sweep it away from you.

Once the kayak is sideways, called a broach, in the surf zone there is little you can do to correct it. You can prevent your boat from rolling over by using a low brace with your paddle on the wave face while leaning toward the wave. Hold on tight to the knee straps with your legs (sit-on-top), or press firmly into the thigh pads (sit-in-inside). Lean the hull of your kayak so that the bottom faces shore ward. It will act as a buffer, striking any obstacles that may be in the surf zone.

It is best to lift any rudder or skeg blade before entering the surf zone, and not to use it, during launch or landing. Some rudder systems are robust and can be effectively used in the surf zone. Many rudder blades can bend or break in a broach. You will have to make a judgment call on using a rudder or not, depending on the power of the waves.

Sit-on-top and sit-in-side kayaks have slightly different concerns. A sit-on kayak is self-bailing and more at home in waves than a sit-in, select a sit-on-top if you plan to be in the surf allot. When using a sit-on-top it is often best to wade out into the surf, about knee to waist deep, get on and paddle vigorously out through the surf zone. Upon return jump out in the same depth of water and drag your kayak up onto the beach quickly by the bow handle. Sit-on-top paddlers should use a paddle leash and knee straps for the best results. Typically a skilled sit-on-top paddler can handle surf, and shore break, that sit-in paddlers should avoid.

Sit-in-side kayakers will often launch at the water’s edge, half of the kayak in the water, the other on land. Use your hands to “walk” the kayak into water that will float the hull, and paddle forcefully through the waves. Upon return, a sit-in paddler will want to ride a small wave, or the back of a larger wave, onto the beach. Immediately remove the spray skirt, get out and grab the bow handle to pull it ashore. Typically sit-in kayaks should avoid landing and launching in the surf zone. Use a clam water access when ever possible. Sit-in kayaks should be outfitted with a spray skirt, pump, snug fitting hip and thigh pads, and have bulkheads or well secured flotation bags. Sit-in paddlers should be able to brace and Eskimo roll. A swamped sit-in kayak in the surf zone can be big trouble.

All kayakers should exercise extreme caution if among swimmers, best to be no where near them. Do not stand, wade, or swim on the shoreward side of a kayak in surf. If swimming, grasp the stern, or seaward grab handle and let the waves take you shore. When the kayak is very close to land, quickly maneuver to the shoreward grab handle and pull the kayak out of the water an onto the beach, where the waves will not push it. A helmet is highly recommended. Avoid high surf.
More info on group launching and landings in the surf zone: Group Kayaking: Formations & Communications


You may find yourself paddling across a tidal flow. A strong tidal current is often common in calm water ocean bays and estuaries. A river can also have a strong current. In these situations you will need to ferry across the current, or wind, by pointing your kayak upstream, or upwind, and slightly toward your destination. This will allow you to paddle against the current, or wind, while at the same time reach your destination without being swept down stream, or down wind. The stronger the wind or current the more you must angle against it. Read more on this subject in our article: Crossing Currents & Calculating Ferry Angles.

Know the tide and currents for your local area. Low and high tide change each day, so a tide chart is needed. Tides can flow very forcefully at river mouths, points of land and across shoals. Tides also flow in the open waters, but the effect is not so noticeable. The Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, or similar publication is very useful to have. Amazon.com: Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book

chopOpen Water Swells and Whitecaps.

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
knee straps
Knee Straps
Contoured ergonomic design, padded knee straps, with quick release side-squeeze buckles for safety and ladder-loc for easy adjustment. Suitable for all rough water and flat water activities.

When out on the open water you will encounter waves. They will not be like the breaking waves of the surf zone. Typically ocean swell will not tumble over like a shore wave will, and generally do not pose much of a concern.

Waves are created by wind. The stronger the wind the larger the waves. The greater distance a wind can blow across water the stronger the waves. This distance is called fetch. The longer the fetch, and the stronger the wind the more it will stir up the water. Typically you will see wind make the small wavelets we call white caps.

Very strong winds, or storms, from far away will create a ground swell that travels many miles across open waters as waves. Ocean swell such as this will cause a kayak to rise and fall, much like an amusement ride at a park. These are the kind of waves that break forcefuly on a beach, but never in open water.

When a wave reaches shallow water it will break, in the surf zone, on a shore, across a reef or sand bar, or any submerged structure that lies shallow in the water.

Kayaker need not fear normal waves or white caps while on deep open water. The key is to keep loose in hips and maintain your center of gravity (your head) directly over the centerline of kayak. Let the kayak, and your hips, rock with the waves. Keep your upper body straight and stable. The other skill to practice is bracing. Kayak lessons can greatly help you with bracing and steering strokes needed to handle wind and waves.

Swells can be high with deep troughs. They can be difficult to see over, and you may loose sight of your group members, or your destination, from time to time. Visibility flags can be useful, as well as a deck compass.

When the waves and wind are from behind it is called a following sea. This can cause the kayak to become hard to control. Some kayaks do best when paddled into the wind, others when paddled down wind. A rudder or skeg can be of great help.

Wind swell can be ridden much like a wave in the surf zone ban be. When you feel the stern of your kayak start to lift paddle hard and you will glide at a faster rate as you slip down the wave. While the kayak is climbing the wave, bow heading uphill, you can take rest with relaxed strokes. The waves will come in a predictable rhythm and you can accelerate down each wave face, then rest on the back of the wave, before the next wave comes up from behind again.

WindIslands, points, reef and sand bars shield the kayaker from the full force of the wind and waves. Protected waters, a bay, a lee shore (down wind) behind an island or jetty can offer respite for tired sea paddlers, or an easy practice area for beginners.
More info on a following sea: Paddling Straight by Tom Holtey

While the ocean challenges our skills and knowledge it also can reward our careful practice with the thrill of paddling in a dynamic environment. The ocean can also punish us for lack of attention, and gaps in our skills. Much of what is discussed here about the sea can be applied to lakes on a smaller scale. Take the time to learn skills from a knowledgeable instructor, practice your skills, prepare with the necessary equipment and know what your limits are. You will have an great time when you have all your ducks in a row.

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