Direction of tidal currents

How often do you ocean paddlers use current atlases? Do you mainly rely on your or other people’s direct experience paddling a particular place?

I thought there might be some general rules regarding tidal currents, but I just read (in SK Mag’s Handbook of Safety and Rescue) that “No simple relationship exists between the rise and fall of the tide and the flow of tidal current.” A couple years ago, someone told me she “thought” that at high tide, water flowed from larger bodies to smaller bodies, but she didn’t sound convinced.

Current tables
We normally find current tables only available and helpful in areas where there is major shipping, most of where we paddle there are no accurate tables. We find the Coastal Pilot to be a reasonable starting point to gaining local knowledge on geography and conditions that can affect current.

Most of our current experience comes from a combination of chart reading, common sense, and local knowledge. For example an embayment can drastically alter current from tide. (Think of a bottle of Coke turned upside down, all that water jamming through the neck of the bottle). Narrows and constrictions can cause significant increase in current speed. Obstacles in the middle of the tidal stream can cause interesting current situations. Current flowing over shallows or against the prevailing wind can build seas.

A lot of the time local knowledge will identify things that you can miss like a place where the sea bottom comes up quick and the water roughens.

Trying to figure out how the water is moving is actually a fun challenge when paddling on the sea.

Anytime I paddle the Golden Gate
I check the current tables to plan my trip.

local ocean topography and land mass create tidal currents that aren’t always evident to outsiders looking a simple map/chart.

Get a guide like eldridge for the area you’re interested in.


you can’t
even consider a trip around here w/o tidal info. with a 9’ range it’s imparitive that you are on the frontside of the flow.

Planning trips in the San Juans islands is a challenge figuring out the direction and flow and where to go! Throw in the wind/rain/snow and you got a poem. :wink:


You might consider…
…picking up a copy of Burch’s ‘Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation’ or a similar book. The tides and currents section is interesting. Burch is fairly exhaustive but it’s good stuff.

Sing the eldridge book only covers
New England what other books out there have the charts like they have. I have used their books for NE but what about other areas?



Just a sampling from the NW…
Canadian Current Atlas for Juan de Fuca Strait to Strait of Georgia paired with Washburne’s Tables give a great graphic of what is going on in the San Juans at any particular time. There is still a stong need for specific local knowledge, however…when isn’t there?

On the open coast, the Canadian Sailing Directions or the US Coast Pilots give some good info, though currents out there are often a very different animal (rotary currents, etc.) than waterways inland that are exposed to the tides such as the San Juans, Puget Sound or areas to the east of Vancouver Island.

Many paddling areas have some type of tide/current guide, perhaps even one put together by a kayaker. Check with local shops, etc.

Canadian charts
The Canadian charts have arrows showing current directions and velocities at max ebb and flood.

I’m not very experienced and wouldn’t consider relying only on my skill level for a serious trip but they are a good visual supplement to current tables - especially since they tend to put them where it’s important like in narrows or where the direction is odd.

When I was out near the mouth of the Columbia earlier this month, my instructor talked about when the ebb and flood occurred then pointed out the wind direction, the swell direction, and that the river was up with flood water so that it was pretty uncertain which way we would end up drifting at times. Neat place to paddle.

That’s what the Candian Current Atlas
series is for…

Every time I paddle the Strait
I frequently paddle the Strait of Juan de Fuca and regularly consult the current atlas.


Just bought the Killen book
Haven’t read it yet. It too supposedly has a good section on tidal currents.

do they have tidal currents in Colorado?

Flying blind
I did a long trip in AK in 2004 with 3 other people, none of whom were locals there. We had those little freebie tide table books, sure, but I kept wondering how the heck we were supposed to know which direction the water would flow.

To be honest, most of the time it didn’t matter much, the currents usually weren’t strong. But I remember exceptions, some to our advantage (big speed boost! and fun) and some that were not (like if we let up our effort we’d get pushed backwards PDQ). There were a couple of spots that were probably more dangerous than we realized–tidal current combined with shallow obstacles underwater, river mouth current, strong wind, barge wake). I understand the funneling concept but what I’m wondering is the whole notion of the main flow direction in a given area.

I would like to be a LOT better prepared next time. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as current atlases till an experienced paddler who moved here told me there was one for the area we’d paddled. He did say it wasn’t really necessary there, though (as we found out).

Now = not the same as Always
I like paddling the ocean (lived near it for the first 30 yrs of my life). My husband and I will not stay in CO forever. I’m not gonna wait till we move away to learn “seamanship” if I can start now.

Besides, people do travel. The waters here are fine for exercise, most skills practice, scenery, camping, but there’s something missing, and it’s not just tidal currents.

More To Consider
I paddle in an area affected by tidal flows more often than not. I always try and have an idea about what the tide is doing. I have learned that the tidal currents do not follow the tidal heights exactly, and that the currents and water levels are affected by other things in addition to the tide predictions.

The current is affected by geography, the amount of tidal differance, wind, and local conditions. A good example of such a state influenced by other things can be seen with a NE wind in my area. A NE wind will tend to push water out to sea irrespective of what the tide is doing. So, we can have a high tide that actually measures less water than low, or visa versa. Bottom line, local conditions need to be considered when considering what the tidal flow and tide level is going to do.

Happy Paddling,


Reed’s Nautical Atmanac

– Last Updated: Dec-01-06 5:14 PM EST –

Publishes East and West Coast editions annually.

Unlike Eldridge, Reed's east coast edition includes the Maine coast.

(and of course I mean Reed's Nautical Almanac - can't correct typos in headings)

hm … I forgot about that!

Check out John Dowd’s “Navigation” DVD. I’ve enjoyed that a lot. So Canadian, you can feel it. Everyone will tell you to get David Bruch’s Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, and that’s the standard reference, but I enjoyed Lee Moyer’s Sea Kayak Navigation Simplified a lot more. A lot simpler and more to the point. Franco Ferrero’s short Sea Kayak Navigation has many of the same things in tabular form (the 50/90 rule, etc.). Nice to photocopy and stick in your chart case.

JTides and Reed’s
I use two sources for current info. That information along with tidal information is necessary for route planning when you are going to an unfamiliar area.


This is a program you download and it allows you to access accurate tidal and current information both US and worldwide. Great resource. I can’t say enough good things about it.

Reeds Atlas is a good resource to have. I infrequently use the current resources there. I particularly like the hour by hour pictures that they have althrough there aren’t that many of them. I keep my old issues as the pictures don’t change, just the actual data. So combining an old Reeds with an online source for the current and tidal data is all I need for planning.

Although I only paddle on the ocean, I don’t use current data every time I go out. Just when traveling to areas I am unfamiliar with or areas of interest such as Fishers Race, Popham - mouth of the Kennebec or Merrimack River in Salisbury.


Maptech for tides and currents
Maptech is by far the best computerized tide and current source I’ve seen, primarily becuase it seems to list literally all the current stations. JTides, for example, lists 9 current stations for Massachusetts, while there are hundreds in Maptech.

Yes, that hundreds includes a lot of minor ones that kayakers don’t need, like most of the 60+ in Boston Harbor. But many important ones are omitted from JTides, such as the south end of Plum Island Sound, the entrance to Waquoit Bay, most of those around the Vineyard and Nantucket, and so on. These are necessary when planning trips in those areas.

Anyway, Maptech is expensive, and will set you back around $200 for Block Island to the Canadian border or any other single region, or more if you want other regions. It’s also got a clunky user interface. But the information is there, the charts are beautiful – hi-res scans of NOAA charts with digitized features – and there are many trip planning functions that even kayakers can use (and plenty more for power boaters). Plus, the printouts are as good as NOAA charts, though you have to trim and tape the 8.5x11 pieces together.

Also, none of the automated current predictions seem to be reliable for quirky places like Woods Hole. So in those areas you still need to cross-check, consult Reeds or Eldridge, etc.