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Playing in Waves

by Dan Lewis

Kayaks go slow -- no two ways about it! You can try paddling faster, but sooner or later, you'll hit 'hull speed', which is the fastest practical speed your boat can go. To move faster than hull speed requires an inordinate amount of extra energy -- definitely not worth the effort. You can try getting a boat with a faster hull speed, but if you pursue this route, you'll end up with a kayak suitable only for racing -- skinny, tippy, and impossible to turn.

There is another way. And that is to learn to work with the energy of the ocean, particularly the wind, waves and currents. David Pinel covered currents in the last issue, so I'll focus on wind and waves.

If the wind is blowing from behind, you'll find that paddling is a lot easier as it takes less energy to move the boat forward. Many people, however, find it harder to steer a kayak in tailwinds than in headwinds. The good news is, most sea kayaks come with rudders! And this is exactly what they're for, especially if the wind is coming from behind and at an angle, referred to as a 'stern quartering wind'.

One thing that unnerves people about paddling in tailwinds is that waves are created by the wind. In a tailwind, these waves sneak up from behind and do funny things to your kayak.

Fortunately, what happens to the kayak in following waves is very predictable. As a wave reaches your kayak, it begins to push the first part of the boat it makes contact with, in this case the stern. So the stern gets pushed in the direction the wave is moving, which causes the kayak to turn towards the wave until it is parallel to it (and could capsize). This is called 'broaching'.

However, knowledge is power. Knowing what the waves will do to your kayak allows you to anticipate what is going to happen, and take preventive measures. When using a rudder, you simply use your feet to steer against the broaching tendency.

If, like me, you paddle without a rudder, you will need to do some fancy hip action and sweep strokes to keep the boat going straight. Say a wave comes from behind you and a little to the left. You always want to lean the kayak towards the wave, so in this case, lift up with your right knee. Your kayak will begin to turn to the left, so the corrective paddle stroke here is a wide arc on the left, in other words, a sweep stroke. Leaning towards the wave and planting a stroke right in it will also increase your stability. With practice, you will be able to laugh in the face of stern quartering seas!

Although for many people, the freakiest conditions are waves from directly behind, as they can't be seen approaching, these conditions are excellent for covering ground fast, if you know how to surf waves. This is where 'cruising with kayaks' really begins!

A good way to practice catching waves is to play in the surf zone. Even if you never intend to tour on coastlines exposed to ocean swell, you will benefit from surf training as it is the quickest way to become comfortable maneuvring in waves.

If you live far away from the open coast and its surf zones, you'll just have to wait for one of those super-windy days when the onshore winds kick up mini-surf at your local beach. I've had great fun catching waves at Kits Beach in Vancouver, getting short rides and having a blast! (Or you can practice on the wakes of big power boats.)

You need two things in order to surf a wind wave: enough speed to catch the wave, and a steep enough wave to allow gravity to take over and maintain your speed as you zoom down the face. A common problem people have when trying to catch rides is paddling too hard, and actually outrunning the waves! Let the waves come to you. Right as you slide off the back of a wave crest, paddle like stink. The goal here is to get the boat up to hull speed just as you bottom out in the trough in front of the next on-coming wave. As that wave picks up your stern, you will begin to slide! Of course, the kayak will want to turn, so be ready to use your paddle and rudder on the downwave side to hold the kayak on course. There is also a chance the kayak will capsize down the wave face, so dress for immersion and be ready to roll.

When travelling in wind waves, you can surf anywhere from 10 feet up to 10 or more yards on each and every wave. We're talking 6 knots here, in a single kayak. And you only have to work hard to catch the waves - after that you just lean back and steer!

The big challenge will be keeping your group together. This technique is best used in small groups of 3 to 4 paddlers of equal ability, so that everyone is surfing together. There is nothing quite like catching a 3 foot wind wave together with friends, and locking eyes as you scream along, howling at the wind! Try it out in small waves close to shore (wear a helmet if it's shallow), and soon cruising with kayaks will take on a whole new meaning.