Paddling at Sea

Launching and landing require timing because of the waves, especially if they are the dumping kind or you are working off rocks. When going out through waves you want to meet them either before they break or after they are well broken. Keep straight and paddle hard.

For landing, wait outside the break and watch. When you understand the pattern, choose a wave, let it pass and paddle hard on the back of it. On the front of a wave, the boat will almost inevitably broach, and you will then have little control.

Bracing and support techniques are obviously important, especially in breaking waves and surf, and they must be instinctive. You will soon learn to lean into wind and wave, and to watch and feel the waves. Although you can begin sea paddling without the ability to roll, you should make it a priority to learn as soon as possible, for your own safety and that of others.

Upwind paddling can often be a slog travelling downwind can be either fun or frustration, depending on skill and conditions. If you can pick up some waves you will be able to make good speed. When you feel the stern lifting, apply more power. Ease off when the bow lifts there’s no point in paddling uphill. The key is control, and this is where the fin or rudder comes into its own.

Keep the group close together, within speaking distance at all times. In heavy conditions the distance will be about the same, but it will now be shouting distance. Too close is to risk collision, but you need to be within reach of everyone at all times.

When you want to have a snack, sponge out the cockpit, discuss progress, etc. it’s useful to raft up. In heavy seas, however, there is danger of injury and damage. In those conditions perhaps only two boats per raft. It may even be better to face into wind and paddle slowly to maintain position.

The Sea

Weather or Whether? The wind is the critical factor. It is essential to have adequate forecasts before setting out, either from radio, television, or telephone.

Forecasts are also available from the Bureau of Meteorology

The best broadcast forecasts are on the Coastguard network, but they require a VHF receiver. There are also 27MHz networks. Carry a radio with you on any expedition longer than a day so that you can always have up to date forecasts, and if you have a mobile phone and will be within coverage, carry it as well.

Forecast winds are average winds, and, especially with stronger winds, you can expect gusts with speeds perhaps twice the mean. Strong wind warnings are forecast if the wind is likely to exceed 25km, gale warnings for winds faster than 33kn. Learn the effects of wind on wave, and their combined effects on the way your boat handles. If in doubt, stay home.


Waves normally don’t cause problems unless they are breaking. Some of them will have been generated locally, others, the swell, will have travelled thousands of kilometres from storm centres.

If there’s a strong High around, seas will be slight, except where sea breezes stir things up, while a deep Low will generate heavy seas. Sea waves obey all the laws of refraction, reflection, diffraction and interference, which can make the sea very confused in places.

Paddle too close to a cliff with a decent sea running for instance, and you may wish you hadn’t. When you’re looking for landing sites, look in the ends of bays, behind rocky points.


Tides are caused by the gravitational effects of Luna and Sol. Check the tide tables, changes from high to low tide may dramatically effect landing sites.

Where tidal currents are restricted by narrow passages tide races form.


Most sea kayak navigation is really piloting, moving from one landmark to another. Both nautical charts and topographical maps are used, as appropriate. The scale of a nautical chart is the latitude scale on the side: one minute of latitude is one nautical mile, 1.852km.

An orienteering compass can be used for sighting, but for long crossings, especially at night, a marine compass, mounted well forward, is the better choice. Long crossings are timed so that the tidal influence is either minimised or produces known drift that can be allowed for. Transits are useful for short crossings, and general position fixing. It often pays to keep a log of progress. Sea kayaks cruise at about 3kn (5.6km/h), so you can expect to cover around 15nm (about 28km) in a five hour day. In ports and harbours follow your nose, and preferably keep out of channels.


Safety to the sea paddler does not depend on flares, EPIRBs, and that sort of thing, but on a positive attitude and the correct equipment and skills.

Remember: ‘You got yourself into this, you get yourself out of it.’ The sea paddler must know how to attend to problems with boats and people on the spot. Outside aid can never be relied upon. The group (or solo paddler) must be self sufficient, and prepared to turn back if necessary.

Carry a First Aid kit (with exposure blanket) and a repair kit. (You’d be surprised what you can do with a roll of duct tape.)

Careful planning, including alternative landing sites, is important. Leave a copy of the plans with someone responsible at home.