Best way to ride out a storm?

While I was paddling across an open water section of 15 Km (10 miles) I was watching some mushroom clouds forming further south from me.

I estimated the storm to be still a few hours away but I was pretty sure that eventually will hit.

I made it safely to shore with ample time before the storm came.

But it made me think: what if the storm suddenly hit while I was in the open. What would I do?

From experience, what is the best way to ride out a summer storm (usually violent but short) with winds of 40+ knots and braking waves?

Is it best to try to stay in your kayak and try to brace without falling out or is better to be in the water and hold to the stern of your kayak?

How do you keep a group of paddlers together? especially if the paddlers are rather inexperienced (not beginners, since they should never be out that far, just not experienced with surf and waves…)

I would like to learn the options I have rather than find out through ignorance…


A lot would depend on how far I was…
…from shore and both air and water temps. I’m glad

you asked, because I’d like an answer too.

I’m thinking in your boat is better than out of it,

and if everything was nice and warm, I might think

about taking on a bit of ballast which would slow

you down, but make you more stable. Then getting as

low as in the boat and paddle as best you can at 90

to the storm’s direction.

Stay in the boat
Always always. If it’s bad enough that you get knocked over, then do what is within your capacity to preserve energy and stay warm. But any time in the boat is better than time in the water. Water robs body warmth 25 times faster than the same temperature air.

This situation is a reason get and practice a roll, to increase your chances of staying in the boat.

As to keeping a group together, raft up and hope that your wind estimate is a little higher than reality.

lightning storm on open water
Here’s my guess, until the experts chime in.

Stay in the boat, definitely, and maintain as much separation from the water as possible. If you have lots of water inside, stop and bail. Keep paddling toward the nearest shore as long as there is a chance you’ll make it before the storm hits, but if the storm is right on top of you then stop paddling and hold the paddle horizontal but out of the water, except when actually bracing in the heavy wind and waves. Assuming that you’re probably using a long, metal kayak paddle, consider switching to your spare if it is a lesser conductor - ideally, a wooden single blade. Or maybe break the paddle down and just use half, if that is sufficient for the needed bracing.

the group
P.S. As far as keeping the group together, most of what I’ve read says to split up when lightning danger is very high in wilderness settings. This way, a lightning strike will only injure one person and the others are available to help get them back to civilization and medical treatment. A lightning strike could easily put someone into the water and defenseless but not fatally injured, in our hypothetical case here. On the other hand, rafting up could prevent some capsizes, which might be very important depending upon how skilled the least talented are at recovery. Maybe, if the group is 4 or more boats, you could raft up in pairs but keep each pair 30 yards apart.

Safer in boat
One is almost always safer in your boat than out of it.

OK, I get the “stay in the boat” message
but how do you raft up when there are 6 foot waves.

Where I paddle occasionally storm do hit rather quick and violently.

While one takes always the needed precautions with the weather forecast being in open water on a crossing between island is a possibilty.

The readings from weather stations of 45 knots are common in the area I am referring to.

I know that rafting up in the surf is not feasible (we often practice surfing in the ocean) and there is rather impossible to consider being rafted in braking waves.

Would stringing a line between boats be a wise move?

PS water temps are very warm (read tropical)

there is no ‘right’ answer
based on my experience and discussions with kayak pros i know about this type of situation is that essentially it becomes tantamount to paddling solo, until the things change for the better, shelter is found, winds die, etc. each person is struggling to survive and stay upright, and it is all but impossible to lead, or assist anyone else. rafting is out, decision making models go out the window. this probably isn’t helpful, but that’s my take on it nonetheless.

sea anchor
I’ve read a couple of books that suggested using a small sea anchor to help minimize drift and hold yourself bow-to-wind in a blow. Haven’t tried it myself on my kayak. I have used one on a canoe to minimize wind drift while fishing and been impressed at how well it works.

rough seas
In 6-foot seas and 45 knot winds, your boats are going to be subject to radical sudden moves. Thus, any line between boats is going to jerk and snap you about at some point, increasing the risk of capsizing, no matter how long the line is. Also, a rope or several in the water might create some problems with fouling and tangling if you end up in the water. Thus, I don’t think you want to use a line.

Seems like bungee might work well as it would eliminate some of the “yank” that initiates any capsizing, at least in canoes that I’ve paddled.


No ropes between

– Last Updated: Nov-17-08 9:17 AM EST –

Really bad idea, bungie or not. As above, the snapping of boat to boat is hugely increasing the chance of multiple capsizes - try towing someone in that stuff and see how it feels - and now you have an entanglement risk as well with lines that can't be undone like dropping a tow belt.

As to rafting up...this is not the first time the idea of hopping out of a boat to weather a squall has come up - it seems to show up every several months. I have not personally had this experience, but some with a lot more boat time and skills than me on this board have weighed in saying that it is quite possible to stay rafted up in much more significant conditions than most people realize. But you have to resolve to do it.

If this is a common occurrence where you paddle, it seems that you should be thinking about it the same way that we think about paddling in winter here. Once the water gets to gasp temperatures, our paddling circle narrows to include only those with drysuits and well-established skills. In your case, that may mean that you go get some better rough water skills before trying out such crossings.

AS to the sea anchor idea, again not tried it myself but one advantage it could offer is to slow down the speed at which you (or others) could be blown off your original course. It might not make much diff while you are in the soup, but it could help make the paddle back home when you are tired a little shorter and less risky.

head for mainland
I dunno, I’d still be reluctant to attach either a sea anchor or flexible cord to my boat in those conditions. With the sea anchor, sometimes it is going to be pulling in a direction that is at odds with the waves.

And more thoughts on staying together - perhaps the conditions you describe fall into the category where an “every man for himself” response is best. You mention that some of the paddlers might be somewhat inexperienced in terms of handling seas that rough. It seems to me that if there is a chance that a storm that severe could blow up during the course of a crossing, then all the paddlers should be able to handle it on their own. And not only in terms of skills, but also equipment. Each boater should have (and know how to operate) a GPS device, maps, a VHF radio, possibly a locator like an EPIRB(sp?), 2 days of food and water, etc. Also, the group should have a plan before hand for what to do at various points of the transit, like what emergency point to head for and how to rendevous after the storm.

Still, I have a little trouble the risk is that great for any 10-mile crossing, assuming it’s clear when you set out. That’s like a 2-3 hour paddle, right? What if you buy a weather radio (is there a reliable weather forecasting/broadcasting service there?) where you could check it just before the crossing - can it really change that much in 2 hours?

And in the specific example you cite, where you see the clouds on the horizon - perhaps you should not go in those circumstances, if you have paddlers along who couldn’t handle the weather in the worst case scenario.

By the way, I looked at some of the pics linked in your bio, it looks very beautiful down there.

I’m interested in the same, and

– Last Updated: Nov-17-08 10:51 AM EST –

so far I did not see a consistent response. I saw one advice staying at 90 degree to the wind, another - bow to the wind (meaning parallel/against to the storm I presume).

To me, staying at 90 degree (perpendicular) to the wind seems the least stable position, since usually the waves would be then hitting from the side.

Bow against the wind and perpendicular to the waves seems a more reasonable approach to me, except that my kayak seems to want to stay perpendicular to the wind and parallel to the waves in high wind situations, if I stop paddling, so I can't just hang-on and rest in this position...

Having only limited experience in (confirmed by local station on the location) 40 mph wind gusts, 25 mph sustained and small (3-4 foot wind waves) to really know... In that wind, at the time I thought the easiest was to maintain direction against the wind though making any progress was very difficult. If the swells were large and round, I would have enjoyed surfing downwind as well, but as it was in the short steep conditions I encountered it was not much less work to handle the strong rear or side-quartering winds than to stay against the wind and loose less ground going downwind... Staying or paddling easy sideways with an occasional brace into the waves was probably the least energy intensive excercise - the waves were not that bad but an occational breaker could have capsized me if it got me by surprise, though most were small enough not to worry.

Based on the above, I think it would very much depend on the actual conditions and there is no one answer that works best for all conditions...

- If too many large breakers, then staying/paddling parallel to them would be tricky and capsize risk - high.

So, the question to me still stands. Assuming a short violent storm with 40+ mph sustanined winds and that one must ride out on the water and frequent breakers - which would be better?

- Would one want to spend some energy paddling just enough to keep the kayak directed against the wind/waves (albeit moving backwards by the strong winds rather than fighting them to make painful progress forward)?

- Or would one rather spend energy bracing sideways (capsize potential due to breakers hitting from the side) and be blown down-wind, potentially even more compared to staying against the wind?

- Or would one turn around and surf the wind waves (though that contradicts the OP's original note about relative inexperience in wind/surf of some of the paddlers, plus one may not want to loose too much ground going downwind)?

- Or, if the wind/waves are too much to stay upright, come-out and hang-on to the stern OR bow till the storm is over? I think the stern may lift less than the bow in some kayaks, making it easier to hold on to, but on the other hand water will fill the cockpit easier this way compared to hanging off the bow with the bow against the wind/waves...

further details
Since some replies are suggesting that I should not head out in potentially dangerous conditions and I should check the weather forecast just before departure, I should add that most of my paddles are in a group (Club) and extended over several days.

While the forecast is generally accurate it has happened on a couple of occasions that I would lead a group of paddlers that are qualified according to the guidelines set by Australian Canoeing (National Body).

I am aware of the potential danger and possibly I might have the skills to ride out such storm however I am not sure if the participants on the trip can.

Most of them do not practice in surf and have no skill with big waves (they tend to paddle in sheltered waters). The same bay that usually has mild conditions suddenly becomes very dangerous because of shallow banks and tidal flow against wind.

I was honestly gathering information and accounts from other’s experience to formulate myself the best plan of defense.

Thank you for your input.


deep trouble
"I should add that most of my paddles are in a group (Club) and extended over several days.

While the forecast is generally accurate it has happened on a couple of occasions that I would lead a group of paddlers that are qualified according to the guidelines set by Australian Canoeing (National Body).

I am aware of the potential danger and possibly I might have the skills to ride out such storm however I am not sure if the participants on the trip can.

Most of them do not practice in surf and have no skill with big waves (they tend to paddle in sheltered waters). The same bay that usually has mild conditions suddenly becomes very dangerous because of shallow banks and tidal flow against wind.

I was honestly gathering information and accounts from other’s experience to formulate myself the best plan of defense."

Thanks for the additional info - it was actually the thought of something like this that crept up on me and made me come back to post those precautions. Initially, I thought you were a southern US paddler like me and that you were asking about how to handle the sudden afternoon thunderstorms that are a characteristic threat of our local environment in summertime.

As you posted more and I looked at your profile, I realized that it was something different. As I thought more about it, it began to sound like a potential “Deep Trouble”-type scenario. It’s something that I have no personal experience of (yet), but something that I find interesting and a field that I want to learn more about in case I find myself in such a situation one day.

Have you read the book “Deep Trouble”? It’s a collection of stories about famous real life paddling disasters, mostly involving sea kayaking. There is a wide variety of stories, but the common thread is of a mix of moderately and highly skilled individuals getting into freak situations completely out of their control, and how they reacted. Some lived and some died, some did the right thing and some did things wrong, but throughout all the stories there are many lessons to be learned.

I think you are doing the right thing to think about possible worst case scenarios, especially since you are leader on some of the trips. Just because the club sponsors the trips and these possibly inexperienced people came out willingly and on their own, does not relieve you of responsibility to tell them that it’s not wise for them to take the trip they had planned to take, if that situation ever comes up. A couple of the stories in DT deal with the group leader’s role, and one story, if I remember correctly, even has some headstrong amateurs who break from the group and go ahead anyway after one such warning. You can imagine how well that turned out.

As far as suggestions go, let me repeat the weather radio one. You say you are sometimes out for days - I guessed that, which is why I suggested the radio - in the US we have a dedicated radio service with its own channels and a special band radio that you can buy (for $50 or less) to pick up the transmissions. I presume Australia has something equivalent. That way, even if you are out for days, you can check forecasts immediately before any given crossing.

The VHF radio is what we use here for marine communications, and a rudimentary one can be bought for $100 or so. With it, some one lost at sea near a commercial traffic lane can be pretty sure of making contact within a day or two. The EPIRB-thing is a lot more expensive and I don’t know much about it - it is some kind of sophisticated tracking device that US rescue agencies are keyed into, so that they can find you even if you’re semi-conscious and buried in a glacier well away from commercial shipping lanes. Either or especially both of these would greatly increase the odds of survival of someone lost at sea and, perhaps even more important, provide peace of mind to inexperienced people caught in a storm that might, theoretically, result in their being lost, even though the odds against it are very long. If sudden storms are a real danger on that bay, perhaps your club could consider buying a few devices to loan to its memebers for certain trips.

And again, if there’s a worrisome cloud on the horizon and you’re leading a group like this, don’t hesitate to change the day’s plans. Even if they object and even if they say they’re ready to face any danger. A group leader is like a ship’s captain - he should be a tyrant for a good reason, the reason being his greater experience and knowledge of what might happen.

best way to ride out a storm
is on the beach, preferably in someone’s cottage.

Discussion is always worthwhile
but is anyone who has actually been out in these conditions able to respond?

40 knots gusting 48
according to the weather station at the light house on the island i was paddling next to, was the worst wind i’ve experienced on the water. was with one other, and we could only muster the strength to stay upright (barely) and finally land on the lee side of the island after 20 minutes of paddling a distance of maybe 100 meters. i could scarcely see my friend who was about the same distance away, and could not communicate or signal to him in any way. once out of the boat all i could do was hope he landed as well and drag the boats up and take shelter. the coast guard showed up an hour later as the light keeper called us in. that’s as far as my experience goes, and i hope to gain no more in wind over 30 knots, which i find virtually unbearable and no fun at all.

Nigel Foster
Derrick Hutchinson and others discuss this in great detail. Pick up some books by the true experts and settle in your chair by the fireplace and read all about it this winter. This way you get the best advice from the best paddlers and they get royalties from your book purchase.

It’s that old Covey “win, win” thing!