Floating docks and current

Scary incident that took place on San Francisco Bay. Would a floating dock pose the same danger on a Great Lake? We don’t have tides, but do have currents.


A floating dock in any type of current is going to act as a strainer. The author of the story points out that sea kayakers are probably less aware of the danger of a strainer in current than river paddlers are. I would guess that most of the time the volume of water flowing under such a structure due to tidal flow may be less apparent than water flowing under a strainer on a river. On a river, the current flow is easy to appreciate relative to the stationary banks, whereas with tidal flow you are sitting in a big mass of flowing water where the velocity of the flow is much less apparent.

Whitewater paddlers know to be especially wary of rocks sticking out into strong current that do not have a “pillow” - water piling up on the upstream side. Rocks that do not have a pillow are usually severely undercut with most of the current flowing beneath the undercut rock rather than around it. With some undercuts a very large volume of water may be flowing beneath the rock without being at all obvious.

Never approach a strainer from the upstream side if you can at all avoid it. If you cannot, throw your body onto the strainer if possible and present your hull to the current to keep your boat from rolling over upstream and being swept beneath the undercut.

Thanks for sharing.
I always simply figure that if I allow the current to push me into something, I’m taking a risk.
If it’s a dock within a current, where you may have any combination of pilings/ropes/cables/string/nets/snagged branches/shoaling involved, decided avoidance effort is probably in order, no matter where you are in the world.

I always figure things like this are the cause of many of the more unfortunate outcomes. The perceived safety of contacting something that is contacting the shore. We have a downtown lined with docks and pilings and ropes and cables, and a cycle of tidal currents, not all that dissimilar to those in this story. It’s not uncommon to see news stories of someone jumping in for a swim, and not making it back out. It’s because there is no safe place to swim out. It’s all pilings and docks. Folks reach out and latch onto things in a way that should have been avoided. But I think in our minds, those fixed-to-shore things represent safety, unless we’re specifically better-informed. Current pushing me into something has always given me the heebie-jeebies. It tends to register a decided sense of fear in me. I hope that’s not a sign of my fate!

All’s well that ends well. Glad everybody stayed above the surface.

Thanks for that insight. Yes, things fixed to shore have represented safety or respite to me. But not for long at the time, to keep my boat from getting battered. I’ll be looking at them quite differently now.

I would expect any current on the shoreline of the Great Lakes to be in the form of longshore drift, which is generated by wind-driven waves approaching the shore at anything less than a 90-degree angle. Longshore drift can be pretty noticeable, but seldom approaches the speed of the current of even a gentle river. There might also be a seiche-induced current within a very narrowed-down mouth of a large bay. If you found a place favorable for setting up that kind of current, the current could be pretty strong, with the effect being just like you’d get from a tide. There’s a little river in my town which exhibits seiche-induced currents well upstream of the large lake that it flows into. The current is unrecognizable most places, but where the river narrows at the location of a pair of highway bridges and a railroad bridge, the speed of the current - in either direction - can reach about 3 or even 4 mph, and that’s pretty impressive. Usually the current speed is much less, though.

Great article and good lessons for everyone here to learn. Thanks for posting it.

@pblanc said:

Never approach a strainer from the upstream side if you can at all avoid it. If you cannot, throw your body onto the strainer if possible and present your hull to the current to keep your boat from rolling over upstream and being swept beneath the undercut.

I don’t often paddle rivers (and never ww) so watched some videos on strainers tonight to try to visualize that.

What’s running through my head is a situation I would not want to be in because of my next question: then what?

Avoidance seems to be a much better option.

Rookie, you don’t need whitewater for problems with strainers. You have lots of rivers close by that have strainers, sometimes in awkard locations. Yes, avoidance is by far and away the best course of action. Unfortuately, sometimes we mis-judge the current or have a lapse of attention. It is wise to have built a reaction (leaning into the obstruction - love your log) that goes against your urge to lean away. Lean in, stabilize, and then figure out how to get out.

The water flow under the dock is one problem which I think has been well addressed by more competent people than me.

But I have seen no mention of the problem which probably caused the whole incident:
Not being aware that you are on collision course with an object in the current, because your apparent heading looks like it will keep you clear of the object

I say this, because I can’t imagine that the paddler was this close to the dock on purpose.

So this is the time to hop on my soapbox and start yelling, because I see this happen over and over in my daily kayaking water. We have up to 3.5 knots of tidal current, and we paddle out from a harbour where jack-up drilling rigs are parked outside the harbour, partially jacked up. When these rigs are downstream of us, a lot of kayakers will choose a heading which seems to steer them clear of the rigs - but it doesn’t. Suddenly they are much closer to the rigs than they would want.

I keep telling other paddlers: In current, you must use transits.

Transits are not only for steering a course over a long crossing (which is usually the purpose described in kayaking books). Transits are also incredibly useful for keeping clear of the buoy or drilling rig just in front of you.

What you should do when you approach an obstacle in current is looking behind it. Does the landscape (or clouds, or buoys or whatever is visible behind it) seem to “come out” from the obstacle on the side where you want to pass it? If it doesn’t, you are in deep sh*t if you don’t do something fast.

So if you want to pass to the left side of an obstacle, you want to see the landscape behind the obstacle coming out on the left side. If instead the left side of the obstacle is eating the landscape, it will also eat you.

Not just floating docks but others, ships, barges, pilings, day marks, other boats, etc.

PS…when paddling next to ships and large boats be wary of thru hull fittings. They sometimes pass water without warning.

Allan Olesen brings out a very good point. I think many of us expect boats to behave more or less like the cars we drive anticipating that they are going in the direction they are pointing. A boat in current is much like an aircraft in a strong crosswind or quartering wind. It may actually be heading in a direction very different from where it is pointing. I have seen boaters who are new to paddling in current tripped up by this reality many times. By the time the paddler realizes what is going on, it is often too late.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few decades on the water is NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF WATER. I think many people believe since water is soft, we drink it, bathe in it and swim in pools, that it’s not dangerous. As this video points out, when it’s moving it can be life-threatening. Even when it looks benign.


I guess from paddling on the Columbia River for so many years, it is second nature to avoid situations such as the subject of the original post, but it was a very good reminder to double up on awareness.

Wondering if my own conditioned reflex would be to dodge something coming at me, rather than lean/grab on to it as advised by rival51 and pblanc. It’s one of those bits of good advice that I’ll file in the memory bank and hope it pops out if needed.

Did find this video showing the rescue of a gal who grabbed on to a strainer, Not sure if her hull was positioned correctly, or if she could have done anything about it.


While we’re talking about currents, what about rip currents? Would a paddler even know he/she is paddling in or across a rip current?

Fine example of a well-executed strong swimmer rescue carried out by an individual who kept his head and knew what he was doing. The video shows the potential usefulness of a Type V PFD with a quick release tether. The rescuer quickly assessed that the pinned boater was stable, and took his time to plan the extraction, making sure plenty of downstream safety was available to recover the pinned boater and her gear and paddle if necessary. The only thing I saw that might have been done differently was to set better upstream safety to cut off upstream traffic as one boater did paddle through during the rescue, and could have become entangled in the line tethering the rescuer. Perhaps there was upstream safety and that boater ignored them, or was unable to eddy out in time.

As for the pinned boater, I think she did as well as she could, stabilizing herself on the strainer and keeping the bottom of her hull turned against the upstream current.

The Cheoah River was long completely or near completely dewatered since it is used for hydroelectric generation and the normal flow is usually mostly diverted. As a result, saplings have grown up in the stream bed and wood has been an issue in multiple pinning events. The Cheoah just started having scheduled releases a few years ago.

I also think Allan Olesen’s comment was excellent. I use a variation of that method quite often when rowing on open water, out in the middle of nowhere, to make accurate compensation for wind drift. Once your mind get’s accustomed to the practice, it’s pretty much automatic.

I’ll add another thing. It’s good to practice last-minute avoidance moves. I think every paddler, especially those who use boats that don’t pivot on a dime (like a sea kayak) should learn to make switching to reverse strokes a very automatic thing. In the case of the article that was linked by the O.P., a back-ferry initiated at the last minute surely would have prevented that paddler from getting up against the dock, but of course Allan’s recommendation for how not to be fooled into drifting in so close in the first place would have been even safer.

Here’s one example of what makes me think of learning to automatically resort to reverse strokes. I was rowing my guide-boat on a back channel of the Wisconsin River in a brisk current a few years back with some friends. I hadn’t looked forward (as a rower, that’s behind me) in a bit too long of a time span and when I glanced back I was only 10 feet from ramming a fallen tree. I planted the oars so hard that they bent like crazy, and immediately brought the boat to a stop relative to the current. At that point I as only a few feet from the tree, but I knew that keeping reverse power applied would allow a quick and easy back-ferry by which I would miss the tree. “Whew.” But no. What did the very experienced sea kayaker who was following 20 feet behind me do? Even with all that extra distance to assess the situation, he was unable to think about anything other than steering, and since for a sea kayak going downstream, 20 feet isn’t nearly enough distance to accomplish any kind of turn at all, he simply rammed me with his boat and prevented me from executing my back-ferry. This was a guy with several times as many years on the water as I have, and a very good paddler, and yet he was completely incapable of figuring out that he easily could have avoided the collision by reversing in the same way that I did. People need to practice such things.

Many years ago I was pinned against a tree going downstream on a river in a spring current when I was too casual about making a u-turn in my lake boat. For sure one overall theme on this thread is to give a wide berth to obstacles!

Here’s an example just from today, a nice solid tree attached to shore that has been that way a long time. But from experience I know that as you approach it from either upstream or downstream you may get bumped by branches from other sunken trees…right as you near the bigger obstacle. I’ve had my paddle jammed by sunken trees many times. Plus the current is up a bit today, maybe two knots. Overall it’s more dangerous than it may appear.

Fully agree with GBG that one also needs to be prepared to paddle backwards vigorously and this is something that must be practiced because you don’t want to try it for the first time when you may be about to hit something.

For those unfamiliar with paddling in current and the back-ferry you need to know that you also must set your hull at an appropriate angle to the current you are in. If the clear path is to the right then you need to have some angle to the right. How much angle depends on current speed. The faster the current, the smaller the angle to the current.

Along with the transits it is also useful to focus on where you wantto go - the clear channel. If you focus on the obstruction you are more likely to end up there.

Good conversation going here. And I am learning some out of it (that look for pillows of water stands out as a key point of one of the things I have learned).

I know Kim and Drew well. I was even invited to join them on the paddle, but didn’t due to scheduling issues. Drew is a decent paddler and strong combat roll. Not sure if he has done any river paddling. Kim is an ACA Lv4/5 instructor (his 5 may have expired due to not doing the every 3 year update) and a BCU 5 star paddler. He (yes, Kim is a male name in this case) paddled down the Grand Canyon last year in a P&H Hammer, and has done some river paddling.

@Rookie - you asked if you had currents like this to worry about in the Great Lakes. I don’t know what you have, but I do happen to have a video from about 9 years ago (back when I was much less knowledgeable about this stuff) that shows the currents along the SF waterfront that is likely representative of what they were seeing: