Ocean Paddling in an Open Boat

I searched the archive and found this old post.


Lots of good information here, but I can’t believe this was three years ago.

I’m back at the beach again this week on Point Judith in RI. I do all my paddling alone, so I have pretty much given up on trying to surf, but I have done quite a bit of paddling in the open water of Narragansett Bay. I stay outside of the break zone, but I still end up paddling in 1 to 3 foot rolling waves. It’s not bad paddling into them, but paddling with them coming from behind really freaks me out.

I haven’t done a lot of lake paddling, but the rolling waves that you get on the ocean seem different than the windblown waves that I have paddled on lakes. For one thing you get the waves without the wind. Any tricks to paddling with the waves coming from behind?

Up your skills a bit…

That’s a little bigger
than what I am doing.

What canoe
What canoe do you paddle solo out there? Certainly if it has a flat bottem I would be freaked out too. If it has a little rocker and shallow arched or Vee hull with enough freeboard then its a matter of experience and practice. I got caught in some 7-8 foot swells that were breaking on the top for about 1 straight hour out in the Gulf of Mexico as I was trying to make it to the beach from about a mile and a half out. It was nerve racking but keeping the waves/swells quartered behind me was my best approach and using a kayak paddle to keep a proper heading also seemed to be a big help. The surfing was manageable and I wasn’t plowing down into the troughs putting water in the boat if I were surfing straight down the waves directly towards the beach.

I’m in a Yellowstone Solo

This is pretty typical of where I have been going. This is the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus, 215 S Ferry Rd, Narragansett, RI. Sea kayakers come here all the time. From here you can paddle up and down the west side of Narragansett Bay, or cross the over to Jamestown or Newport.

I wouldn’t try to do a crossing, so I stayed close to shore (but out of the break zone) and paddled up to the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge that you see in the distance. On the way out I had 2 foot rolling waves coming in behind me. These are long amplitude rolling waves. When you are sitting in the trough it looks like a small hill of water is moving toward you. I don’t mind paddling onto them, but when they come at you from the behind, even a small change in size or direction can be a little disconcerting.

I’m in a Yellowstone solo
I can’t kneel for a long time but it helps greatly if you can . It lowers your center of gravity and it helps allow the boat to pitch and roll beneath you while you keep your head perpendicular to the horizon. Learn to flex, allow yourself to be loose at the hips whether kneeling or sitting. Also if sitting you could instal foot pegs, they offer assured stability. But still stay loose at the hips, let the boat pitch and roll under you.

And yes, ocean waves are way longer than lake waves, you are in the trough and over the tops longer taking longer to transition. Most 16-17 ft’ boats will span wave tops in a two ft sea on a lake, a 24 footer may very well not in the ocean. You will get used to it ! But I’m not a fan of breaking waves at the tops in any boat in a trailing sea, including my powered fish and ski boat. I’ll take quarter trailing seas anytime but when they start breaking it is indeed nerve racking ( if they are actually breaking, sometimes it’s just the tops being swept off by wind). Just depends how big the top curl is. If its already broken or just peaking that isn’t so bad. But I think my biggest fear is not knowing how large the sea is going to build to, if it stays consistent it isn’t so bad. On Cape Cod I can pick my days in the bay, if to leave the estuaries or not. In any south wind it’s pretty flat up to a mile off shore, in a North wind I won’t even go out there. I’ll stay inside the estuaries boundaries or inner bays in a paddled craft and not go at all in the power boat. it’s too rough here and too dangerous with the canal right out here and the rip tides it produces, standing waves out there turbulent water. Nope. even Barnstable Harbor outside the break water. I’ve seen the whale watch boat go through the rip under power and put up a 5 ft wake behind it that stands out there a mile into the bay for 20 minutes, standing in an undertow. You don’t want to be like a cork bobbing around in that out there. Foolish, dangerous. So the message in that is be careful of estuary out flow-age. Pick your days, I’m sure RI isn’t so different from the Upper Cape, except you don’t have the canal pushing 7 miles out…

Know your limitations. Hey I’ve seen freighter ships almost on the rocks out here from pushing wind and current. I figure when they are rocking and rolling, I don’t belong there.

Really good boat but,
I made that scary paddle in the Gulf in a 16ft Dagger Reflection rigged as a solo canoe and I feel like anything smaller would have been much scarier. Now I have gone out in the ocean many times in my Mohawk Odyssey 14 which is very similar to the Yellowstone Solo in size but perhaps better suited to whitewater or rougher ocean water yet it would have been less comforting in the bigger stuff. The extra length can be a benefit in tracking and maintaining a proper heading. I also certainly agree with the previous post about kneeling,… it REALLY helps your stability. I may suggest you take a kayak paddle next time and see if you are able to keep your heading better. I truly believe I would have dumped out in the ocean and needed rescue if I had attempted to make that scary big wave trip with a canoe paddle.

I’m pretty careful about where I go out

– Last Updated: Jul-27-14 1:30 PM EST –

If there is any wind or whitecaps, I'll go somewhere else. There are a lot of salt ponds around here that are more like the lakes I am use to paddling. Funny thing about these long rolling ocean waves- you don't see them from shore. It looks like flatwater, but boy do you feel them when you are out in them.

Kneeling is much more stable than sitting, and you do need to stay loose in the hips. Actually, I wish I brought my thigh straps - I think those would help as well.

That alumacanoe picture is instructive
The primary danger is having your stern pushed forward so you end up broadside to the wave, from which there will be no recovery in an open canoe.

To minimize this, it would probably be helpful to have most of the weight near the stern. Then, you have to stern rudder with pries and draws to keep the canoe as straight as possible.

Of course, shifting longitudinal position aft isn’t really feasible in a solo open canoe, unless you acrobat yourself behind the central seat before hitting the break line. Alternatively, you could duct tape four cases of Anchor Steam beer into the stern of your Yellowstone.

If I were serious about surfing breaking ocean waves–which I never have been–I’d take a helmet. I don’t see much really bad happening in a dump to boat or paddler as long as they are, respectively, Royalex and 25 year old decathletes.

What is the problem?
What happens when the swells come up behind you?

Does the boat spin? Make it hard to hold your course?

That may be the hull. I quit trying to paddle the Slasher in the ocean after a miserable slog back from the Ovens up in NS. It was fine paddling into the swells on my way out. Coming back the boat would turn hard every time a swell lifted me. I was constantly correcting.

I think shorter more rockered hulls will do that.

Do you feel unstable as the swell passes under you?

I’ve got knee cups in the Magic, no straps. Those keep me pretty well located in the boat. I am going to do the same in the Independence. Since you can’t see them coming you just have to feel it and keep the hull under you. Same as you would in whitewater.

surf video

– Last Updated: Jul-27-14 9:42 PM EST –

from USK kayaking describes the practice in full.

Your boat has no air bag floatation. Standard practice for your travels.

Try mentally identifying what your otoliths are telling you that is hull movements UP UP UP at the stern. Otoliths are your eyes here.

Then practice immediately bracing when otoliths say UP UP UP. and of course you can see the hull tilt ?

A paddle brace turns the single hull into an abbreviated double hull. If you 'throw' a brace paddle into water near gunwale, blade at 90 degrees to hul, flex all body muscles holding the paddle shaft as a lever then bring top hand back toward your torso and lean backwards against the wave force.

This brace should carry the hull over the wave..but if the hull is set at an angle to wave direction then you need to draw or pry setting hull straight down the wave front while bracing backwards....or turn back into the wave n go over the top. Lean into the wave.

buy air bags. find a kayak. a wider longer canoe ?

Good question
While the boat certainly feels less stable with the waves coming in from behind, the real problem is the that it is tough to hold a course. You go where the swells take you. In the case of the Bay Campus/Jamestown Bridge, the swells kept pushing me out into the middle of the bay. I tried quartering the waves back toward shore, but I still got pushed further out. I didn’t want to paddle broadside to the waves, so I finally turned the boat around and quartered into the swells back toward shore. I repeated this a couple of times and finally got where I wanted to go, but it was a long drawn-out process.

Fortunately on the day I was out there was no wind to worry about. Add wind either from behind or from the side, and it could be a complicated problem.

I have flat foam pads (not knee cups) in my Yellowstone. Combine sweat with a little suntan lotion, and those flat pads do get a little slippery. It was most noticeable when stopped to turn the boat around to quarter back toward shore - not a time that I wanted to be sliding around. I would have felt a lot more stable with the straps, although knee cups would work as well.

Part of my anxiety is that I am paddling alone in a boat that I cannot self-rescue, so I need to stay close enough tho shore that I can swim back in (hopefully with my boat). If I was with a group, getting further out into the channel wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

I do have air bags for the Yellowstone
and they would probably make it easier for me to swim back to shore with my boat. I might even be able to flip it over by myself, which would definitely make the swim easier. Even with airbags, though, I have never been able to get back in the boat by myself.

I didn’t find that I needed to do a lot of bracing, even with the waves coming from behind. As long as I kept my mementum up, the boat was fine. In thinking about it, it was actually controlling the course of the boat (and staying swimming distance from shore) that I was finding difficult.

Switching to a kayak is probably not an option for me, but I am starting to see the attraction of sea kayaking.

No surfing for me this time Glenn
I even avoid launching and landing where there is surf. If I had someone with me, I might be a little more adventurous.


its not that you needed bracing but you need bracing practice.

Considering you and I have never met, I’m surprised you know what I need to practice. But thanks just the same.

Swells Pushing you?
I’m thinking that swells don’t push.

Unlike whitewater rivers, where the water moves through the wave, open water waves move through relatively static water.

The only push you would get from ocean waves/swells is gravity. You will tend to get pulled down the face of any wave that is big enough.

All boats that I’ve paddled tend to turn parallel to the troughs. Shorter more rockered hulls seem to be more affected than longer straighter hulls. I’ve been in situations where it seemed as though I was being pushed far more than conditions would warrant. Almost always that push was in a direction parallel to the troughs.

My solution has been to focus on maintaining my heading.

When we got around the point in Little Naragansett heading for Barn Island a few weeks back, the waves and breeze were coming from my left rear quarter. I used a left side rear sweep with a hard stern draw at the end to hold my course there.

When conditions get to where I can not reasonably hold the heading I need, I resort to tacking between straight down the waves and parallel to them.

Sounds kind of like what you did?

seeing some of your pics and vids
datakolls remarks are hilarious to me!

Double barrel 12 gage approach
I also find it entertaining because of the 12 gage double barrel shotgun approach at addressing the topic. I know he is an educated and accomplished paddler when you decifer the intent but it is just so garbled and disjointed its impossible to follow. Its the Youtube generation.

Before I sold my Ocoee I brought it

– Last Updated: Jul-28-14 10:03 PM EST –

...down to a beach(Higgins, Scarborough Maine) with decent surf whose waves hold together and found that the rocker(and airbags) really did the trick for keeping things in control, but its somewhat sharp edges spanked my lacking ability more than a few times. Thankfully I anticipated that and stayed out beyond noseplant depth along with padding the cockpit area and opening it up as much as possible. Essentially approaching the wave as a hole got the mind in the right frame and kept my afternoon safe..;-) Ahh the belly/boogie-boarding heydays of the mid-60s with the daily 15' waves back then.....
The saltwater is a lot of power with density....and then add in chaotic waves.