March 2006

By Reinhard Zollitsch

I occasionally join sea kayaking friends or even go on club outings with a group, and I am always surprised how often one or more of them go swimming off the boat, i.e. lose it. Sometimes it turns out to be a beginner’s problem, but frankly, beginners who do not have a solid roll should not be out on open water and rely on the group to get them back into their boat.

Rounding Schoodic Point
Rounding Schoodic Point

More than once, however, I have seen solid intermediate paddlers suddenly flip to leeward when wind and waves are beginning to build. When asked what happened, they replied that they had no idea: “It happened so fast”. They also barely noticed to which side they had flipped. Paddlers with a solid roll will usually come up again on their own, once their face hits the cold Maine water, but I have also seen paddlers being so surprised and discombobulated that they fail to roll up their laden boat and instead come out - a real messy situation for everybody.

So, what happened, and how could it have been avoided? Let’s look at the following two basic situations in open water paddling and see how paddlers can become more aware of what to do and what not.

Situation A: With wind and waves hitting you from forward or abeam:

Point one: If you have a rudder, use it. If the wind hits you on either side forward of abeam, your boat will veer into it, and you will have to compensate for it by either leaning the boat away from the wind and/or paddling harder on the windward side. Both are very tiring and totally unnecessary, unless you are a purist and do not believe in rudders - but remember, you will pay for this “luxury” with lots of brawn and occasional anxiety if you lean into a trough. I’d rather put in a few degrees port or starboard rudder, like a small plane would to compensate for a side wind, so I can paddle more or less normally on both sides again and do not fatigue one arm and shoulder more than the other.

Point two: No matter what you do, keep up speed, never stall and stand still, so you can always accelerate and outrun the approaching breaking part of the wave with a few extra hard pulls, rather than being whomped in the chest by it. You of course could also slow down a tad to avoid the breaking part of the wave, but don’t be a “sitting duck” out there - real ducks do a much better job.

Point three: Keep your eyes and your mind on the water, i.e. watch the windward side and the approaching waves - the other side is totally uninteresting - and don’t try to solve family or work problems in situations like that. Clear your mind. The waves will need your fullest attention - there shouldn’t be anything else besides a brief glance at the compass and your chart mounted and tied down in front of you.

Point four: Most importantly, you need to time your strokes in the waves, because if you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for a lightning-fast flip.

Let’s say a wave approaches your boat from port (left). Your boat will be lifted and at the same time thrown to starboard (right). Now, if you happen to have your paddle in the water on that side at that very moment, your boat will move over your paddle blade and inevitably trap it under your boat, with you still attached to it, but now upside down in the water - not a pretty picture.

This happens so fast, you don’t even know how it happened. The same thing will happen also if you throw a low brace on the off-wind/wave side, to leeward that is. With your boat lifting and moving sideways, your paddle will suddenly point to the bottom of the ocean and lose all bracing power. Bingo, there you go again!

I admit, for most beginners and intermediate paddlers, actually for most people in almost all threatening situations, turning away from danger is a natural reaction. No boxer would think it wise to move into an oncoming blow, but would instinctively move away from it. So for open water kayaking we all have to control our natural reaction and learn the proper response.

Some people have a harder time than others “facing danger”, and thus reacting properly in their kayaks. Check yourself on a swimming beach some time and find out what type of person you are: do you face the oncoming breaking waves with a loud yippee, throwing yourself over the crest, or do you turn your back to the breaking waves? Get the point? Some of us have strong instincts to overcome.

Point five - Lessons learned: The scenario described above, by the way, is still one of the most frequent causes for capsizes at sea. So learn this little trick, if you don’t already know it, and practice facing the wind and waves; don’t shy away from the spray, face it! It is not safer to turn away from the oncoming danger and paddle/brace on the “safe” downwind side.

Trust me, you will not get your paddle out of the water fast enough when a wave throws your boat sideways! So be sure you time your strokes right, and don’t be caught paddling or bracing on the leeward side when your boat is being pushed in that direction by the oncoming wave. This needs practice, because it does not come naturally!

Situation B. With wind and waves more or less from behind:

I am not talking about a pleasant breeze that would nicely push you along with your favorite sailing rig up without stirring a finger. I am talking about real open water paddling with waves breaking from behind, putting you in your boat on a brief glide, but more often trying to slew you sideways into the trough, to be pounced on by the following breaking crest.

This is definitely not my favorite course, and I try hard to stay out of situations like this. For me, the worst thing is that I cannot see the waves coming, see their shape, their size and breaking potential, but merely have to react to what is dished out to me. I’d rather be proactive (handle situation A) than reactive (handle situation B).

Heading Down East
Heading Down East

Even after paddling almost 4000 miles around all New England states and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, I am still not comfortable in this situation and would rather bail out than hack it out under those chancy conditions. There is so much more potential for an upset. So if I feel I have to be out in those conditions for a while, I am almost always extremely tense, hyper-alert and in my race mode, and I am often bathed in sweat, because I am working so much harder wrestling with my boat and the following seas.

So what can paddlers do in situations like this?

Point one: Definitely use your rudder if you have one, and I hope you have checked it thoroughly before venturing out in such conditions, so it will not forsake you when you really need it. Most importantly, you have to make sure your boat is going straight down the waves and is not allowed to broach. When the stern lifts, lean back as far as you can reach, throw a sliding low brace on your favorite side and compensate with your rudder for the slight extra drag.
Point two: Do not carry too much speed, because you do not want to run into the wave crest ahead of you and pitch pole. If necessary, use the brace as a brake.

Point three: Be ready to brace on either side and pry your boat back on its straight-forward course, should you run out of rudder. (It can come out of the water on following seas or stall out.)

Point four: If I know I am going to encounter these conditions, I also make sure that both ends of my boat, but especially my bow, are loaded very lightly, so they can rise more easily and do not dig into waves. Solo boats with most of the weight concentrated in the center are so much more stable in these conditions than two-person boats, two-person canoes being the worst, even if they have a spray skirt.

Point five:  Concentrate, listen to the waves behind you, react decisively right at the beginning of each oncoming wave, and stay cool. You can occasionally yell “OH NO!” (which triggers a strong fight reaction), but never “OH SH..!” (which means you have given up).

That about does it, folks. All you have to add to this picture now is a healthy dose of prudence, lots of practice, and of course a boat and equipment designed to master the above situations. And if you do not already know and practice it, learn to face the wind and the waves, paddle and brace to windward and not on the seemingly “safe” downwind side when the next wave pushes your boat to leeward.

Be safe, be good and enjoy!
Happy paddling! 


© Reinhard Zollitsch