Tofino Kayak: Playing in the Waves
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
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. Here 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
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
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
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 maneuvering 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 powerboats.)
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
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,
be ready to use your paddle and rudder on the down wave 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.
Dan Lewis lives in Clayoquot Sound where he operates Rainforest Kayak
Adventures with Bonny Glambeck. Phone him at 1-877-422-wild, email
at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website at www.rainforestkayak.com