Getting Comfortable in the Waves

by Sherri ~ May 19th, 2011. Filed under: Bracing, Edging, Forward Stroke, Skill Development.

A week ago I gave a talk on “Managing the Surf Zone and Paddling in Waves”.   It was very well attended and got me thinking that there are probably a lot of kayakers who didn’t make it to the talk who would still like some suggestions on getting more comfortable in rough conditions.

Not everyone who kayaks is looking for the excitement of paddling in large waves or surf.  Many paddlers would be happy if the seas were always glassy calm and the skies sunny.  However, even when the day starts out that way, there is always the chance that it won’t still be that way when you are finishing your trip.  As a result, fair weather paddlers sometimes find themselves unexpectedly paddling in wind and waves.  When it happens to you, how comfortable will you be?

I’m not going to tackle the subject of “surfing” as an activity.  There are experts out there with a lot more experience than I have in that area.  In fact, there is a good article in the most recent issue of Sea Kayaker magazine by Gregg Berman that I would recommend to any aspiring surfers.  I’ll address the issue of “surviving” in the surf zone in a future blog post, but here are a few suggestions for achieving greater comfort when paddling in deep water waves.

  • Try to remain relaxed when paddling in waves.  I know that can be easier said than done, but the more loose and relaxed you can stay, the better able you will be to adjust to the movement of your kayak in the waves.  You want to keep your head and shoulders over the kayak as much as possible, even when the boat is rocking side to side.  Think of a hula dancer.  The hips are shaking back and forth and yet the dancer’s head stays relatively calm.  When you get tense and tighten up in the waist, your head and shoulders will have a tendency to move out over the water as your kayak tilts to the side on a wave requiring a brace to support you.  That’s what causes most capsizes in deep water waves.
  • Use a lower angle forward stroke when paddling in wave conditions that are beyond your comfort zone.  Using a lower angle stroke automatically puts the paddle blade further out from the side of your kayak.  Putting the blade out further from the side of the kayak acts as an “outrigger” giving you a feeling of greater stability.  You may find it difficult to sit on a balance beam, but it gets a lot easier if you can put your hand out to the side and rest it on a railing.  Think of that moving paddle blade at your side as a railing of sorts. (Notice how much closer the blade is to the side of the kayak in the “high angle” stroke.  You can use an even lower angle than what is shown on the photo of the “low angle” stroke.)
    Low Angle Forward Stroke

    Low Angle Forward Stroke

    High Angle Forward Stroke

    High Angle Forward Stroke

  • In addition to using the lower angle stroke, you can also change the angle of your blade on the water to give you more support during your forward stroke.  Think of the blade angle that you use when performing a sweeping high brace.  This is referred to as a “climbing” blade angle.  You can use just a little additional angle on your forward stroke to give you a little more support.  Using a lot of angle will give you more support, but you won’t have very much forward propulsion to help you get back to your destination.  Play around with this idea of using a climbing blade angle when paddling on calm water to see how much support you can gain and how much propulsion you have to sacrifice.  You can see video demonstrations of this supportive forward stroke in several of the USK In-depth instructional series DVD’s.
  • If a wave is coming at you from the side and looks like it is steepening and perhaps may even break, you need to edge your kayak towards the wave.  You want to use a J-lean when edging your boat as a J-lean tilts the kayak, but keeps your body over the boat.
  • When you need to turn your kayak, try to time your turning strokes so that you are turning when the center of your kayak is on the crest of the wave.  That way the ends of your kayak will be out of the water and provide less resistance to your turning strokes.
  • Learn to use your rudder or skeg to minimize the effects of weathercocking (the bow tends to turn into the wind) or leecocking (the bow tends to turn downwind).  It is very frustrating to have to fight to keep your kayak on course in the wind and takes your attention away from retaining your stability in the waves.
  • When you have the option, it will be more comfortable to paddle into the waves as they come at you.  Paddling in waves that are coming from behind can be very unnerving until you gain experience.  If you can, angle your kayak into the waves so that they aren’t hitting you directly from the side or from behind.  Unfortunately, you may not always have a choice, so the sooner you can get some practice with “following seas”, the better.

Before you find yourself having to paddle in rougher conditions, take the opportunity to start practicing in waves that are just on the upper edge of your comfort zone.  As you become comfortable in those waves, you can gradually start paddling in a little larger waves.  Whenever possible, look for paddling companions that have greater skill and experience.  You can learn from them and they can help keep an eye out for you as you get used to paddling in what for you is more challenging conditions.  With time and practice, you will find that paddling in moderately wavy seas can not only be comfortable, it might just be fun!


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