Big Water?

Made another trip up to Lake Superior a few weeks ago to paddle around the beautiful Apostles. Met up briefly with another group who later reported making a crossing in 12ft waves or swells. As a mid-westerner I just never get big water experience so it remains a mystery to me. I had serious trouble with six foot waves several years ago (out of control surfing once we turned around) so I wonder how expert sea kayakers categorize “Big water?” What is “too big?” What is manageable? Is there a wave height beyond which you are careful to avoid surfing? Thanks.

hard to say
You can have huge swells that are smooth and fun, or breaking stuff that looks trivial but is nasty. Clapotis(reflected waves) and currents can make a huge difference.

I’ve been in big surf that was easier to ride than the smaller dumping waves closer to shore.

If it makes me think of the scenes powering along on the surface in “Das Boot”, it’s big water. :wink:

yes, big only one part

– Last Updated: Aug-27-12 11:04 AM EST –

Waves can be pretty high and be okay if not too steep or breaking or confused (coming from multiple directions and colliding). If I have waves over head that break not just on my deck but on me very much then I'm definitely wanting to find some shelter. Lesser rough conditions are mainly a problem if I have far to travel as they can be exhausting physically and especially mentally as the hours go by. As you get more experience some of that mental exhaustion eases a bit letting you do better.

btw the NOAA buoy reports are great for this at least in my area because they show height, period and steepness. After being out on a rough day it can help to learn objectively what the conditions were to better understand the limits.

it’s not the size…
I’ve been out in 5’ “regular” great lakes swells and 5’ irregular chop in very windy conditions. There is a vast difference between the two. Unfortunately on the great lakes, wind and waves almost always go together.

So it’s a tough question to answer. I’d only add that I’m a midwesterner who forced himself to go west and north to get to Lake MI and get out in conditions in relatively safe spots. The more exposure I get the more competent I feel, and the more I want to paddle in challenging conditions.

Big Fish Stories
One thing you want to remember is that kayakers are very bad at reporting actual wave height. When you are sitting at water level a 4’ wave looks like ten feet, to someone who does not spend much time in waves.

A ten foot rolling swell is nothing … if it is actually a swell. A ten foot breaking wave in a sea kayak is not something you want to experience.

One way to check Big Fish stories is to check the NOAA sites for observed waves. A large swell when it approaches shore can jack and be much larger than reported. But if NOAA is reporting 4’ waves and kayakers are reporting 10’ waves, there is a bit of a disconnect.

Now when everyone has gopro cameras mounted on their heads, chests and boats, it’s hard to exaggerate too much, because somebody on the trip has the video for evidence.

one way to minimize this:
Measure the actual distance between the waterline of your boat and the top of your head. For most people it’s under 3’. Knowing that won’t make you more adept but it’ll bring perceived wave height down.

careful to avoid surfing
Nothing smooths out a following sea like the ability to get rides in front of waves. So I would say no, there is not a wave condition where you would try to avoid riding in front of waves or swells through open water if you are a skilled paddler.

There is no doubt that people hit conditions beyond their comfort level, tense up, feel uncomfortable and out of control surfing, and want to and make efforts to avoid it. But that is something a paddler should be looking to outgrow, not an accepted fact of life.

Once you get comfortable with it, the biggest steepest waves passing under you is way more unsettling than surfing along in front of them. At least that’s my experience.

Big Water?
You can avoid surfing any size of wave by timing it right. watching behind you and using some back paddling try to come in on the backs of the waves. this also requires timing the sets - there will be bigger and smaller sets, possibly a lull with very small or no swell in between. pay attention to the lulls and make your move then if you’re landing or launching. if comfortable, if you begin to surf but don’t want to stick your arm into the wave face (like a sea anchor) to slow your speed. sea kayaks are quite fast in waves, any sort of drag is helpful in controlling your movement.

are there kayak surf classes there or anyone to get regional specific info from? i’d say work on your surfing as well so if you’re in big water you can handle it and will only surf while under control.

“Das Boot”

– Last Updated: Aug-27-12 3:01 PM EST –

Oh, those were pretty compelling scenes, weren't they? Really gave me the impression of how insignificant a WWII submarine must have been in the middle of the North Atlantic, while still conveying a sense that those boats were tremendously capable, leading to that majestic sense of adventure.

Assessing Mangeability

– Last Updated: Aug-27-12 7:57 PM EST –

When Jim and I, or us as part of a larger group, go out we don't look at rating how manageable something is by just wave height. As above that is bogus anyway. A very long, tall roller can be a piece of cake compared to a short period, breaking state with half the wave height. A high wind or strong current can add major complications to an otherwise no fuss formation of waves.

What we look at is how likely we, or the group, is to make a successful trip. By successful I mean everyone has a decent time at least and makes it home as planned - no news stories about Coast Guard rescues, no unplanned overnights in a bivy on a pile of rocks somewhere because it was too extreme to make it home. Having to land in other than the intended spot and walk of hike or get a ride to where you launched - that is kind of in the middle. It is successful on the first two criteria but it gives the locals a lot of chance to make fun of you. (and can cost a few bucks to pay them to embarrass you)

The water condition, the weather and things like current and tide are all obviously part of that, but probably no more than half of the total picture. The other factors are readiness of the paddlers in the group to handle those conditions, the ability of the group to manage rescues and to get everyone towed, cajoled or otherwise shepherded back home.

So dreadful conditions with five paddlers all of whom can handle the nasty stuff and help each other if needed (everyone misses a brace sometime) and are able to paddle strong if need be are not such a big risk. Two paddlers like that with three others who are over their heads and likely to end up swimming, or maybe even panic and need to be towed home, is a group that should not be out there. The ratio of rescuers/tow belts to possible swimmers and panicked paddlers doesn't work.

There is a particular paddle that goes well offshore we try for each year in Maine, but we have only managed it every other year because the weather window and the number of paddlers are hard to put together. The last time we bailed on it I was the one who pulled the plug. We had three paddlers, the very tall person in our group couldn't see me over the waves and we were still well away from the open water part. [Later add - and they were very closer period.] One blown shoulder from a hard brace three miles out among three late-50's paddlers - not the most unlikely event - and we would have blown our margin. One paddler was making mutterings that sounded seriously like wuss, but once I said no further and the other guy agreed they did not have a lot of choice. (That paddler ended up having to have both of their shoulders done within the next two years which put them out of a boat for two seasons.)

Wave Sizing
For me, I always measure the wave by the size of the boat. When my 17’ kayak is fully on the face of a swell and there is still water beyond the boat of the boat, I generally think, “humm, that’s a pretty big swell.” Sure, from trough to peak, it looks like a 20’ wave (which is what some would call it), but those who care about technical terms would call it a mere 10’.

So yeah, I guess I and others exaggerate a bit at times, but, let’s face it, what matters is the power of the water when that wave breaks from 7-10’ over your head, not the actually “technical” size of the wave.

What I can say is that playing in 3-5’ dumping surf is much harder than paddling 6-7 foot waves where the energy is distributed over some distance. Paddling in gentle 17’ swell is impressive (and not uncommon out here), but swell half that height when the wind starts blowing the tops of those suckers can make them seem like 30’ waves.

So, wave height just isn’t as important as the other conditions around them and I give folks a bit of leeway when they give a measurement. What matters is, really, are conditions within or without your skill set. If the latter, a bit of exaggeration is fine with me :).


Funny how small waves can look …
… Standing on the shore, but so big when you’re sitting with your butt at the water line … Even a 2 foot wave can look big.

I check NOAA out before going on the water so I now what the wind and wave are supposed to be. There have been times when I thought man are they off! For kicks, I have sat on the floor at home and held up a ruler, only to discover NOAA was right … and perhaps feel a little disappointed that waves I was taking on so bravely were 1 - 2 footers.

size does NOT matter
There’s a big difference between chops and swells, as pointed out by others. But until you see some really big swells and … well, how harmless such big swell really is, you wouldn’t believe us. :wink:

I happened to have the good (or mis)fortune of encountering quite big swells one time. How big? We were spread out ON THE FACE of the wave! So the swell was longer than 2 (or maybe even 3) boat length! I can’t tell how high the swell was but when I reached the crest of the wave, the boats on the bottom of the wave look really tiny! :frowning:

But we did nothing special in those conditions. The waves were smooth as glass. Just curved glasses, that is. The wave length was so big we couldn’t even get any surf out of the swell. All we did was going up and down at something like 20 second interval!

“Elevator ride”, that’s what someone called it. Great conversation peice yet not at all difficult.

Roar of the waves breaking …
… On the rocks can be intimidating, even when those waves are really 2 foot gentle swells. When they rear up on the rocks you can get a sense of the real power behind them.

Now that I am venturing out a little, poking out into the edge of the ocean around the Rhode Island coast, I’m pushing my comfort zone. I can handle 2 - 3 foot waves, chop, confused, just fine … as long as the overall surface is not going up and down on those ocean swells. Even a lazy gentle ocean swell with 1 foot of chop on top makes me sweat.

I haven’t been on anything that big, but you’re right – big smooth swells can feel like a cross between an elevator and a porch swing. Things appear and disappear behind smooth hills of water. Great fun.

I can think of one
Paddling along a seawall with reflecting waves. Clapotis can make surfing much more challenging, when you’re riding a 4’ wave and get hit by a 3’ reflection wave.

Also approaching a cobble beach.

I was surfing like Fred Flintstone would
I should backtrack and say that measuring these waves was not something we could do very well. They were over three feet. Sometimes I think four, five or six feet. I really have no idea. They were from the South-West toward Devil’s Island. When we went out we headed straight into them with empty 17ft plastic boats and the strangest sensation I remember was the difficulty of paddling – it was like paddling uphill. I was really pulling hard on the paddle. We went out maybe ten minutes and then decided it was time to turn around, and well, as soon as I turned around I was surfing, and I was surfing up high on a wave with six feet of my boat sticking out of the water. All I could do was desperately try to aim my boat for the gap in the break-water at the Devil’s dock – and I did make it in there before flipping.

camera doesn’t lie?
“Now when everyone has gopro cameras mounted on their heads, chests and boats, it’s hard to exaggerate too much, because somebody on the trip has the video for evidence.”

I have been shooting on-water footage with cameras for a while and the last couple of years with GoPro as well. There are tricks to make that 2’ wave look so much bigger if you know what you are doing, and vice versa, especially deceptive with a super wide angle camera. The same can be said when one uses a long lens and compresses the field of view to make that kayaker disappear behind gentle swell and make it appear different than what was perceived on the day.

The closer you bring your POV to the surface of the water the bigger it looks.

Just for giggles look at this video and see what I mean:

The waves were actually very small…


camera making them small…
I’ve had a camera on the front deck pointing back while surfing some three foot slow breaking waves. So not big but still in the video you see me starting to crank hard but you can’t really see the wave coming. It looks odd to see me cranking away for apparently no reason. Only when you see me doing a stern rudder and see some spray off my stern can you really tell I was surfing.