Paddling big water

Looking for advice on kayaking big watters, yes, like the Great Lakes. Background: I’ve been flat water kayacking on rivers and lakes for one year. [Warning sirens go off]; yes, I know, not very experienced yet, but read on for more info.

I have a 13’, douple-bulkhead, sit-in kayak with a skeg and a nylon splash skirt. I’ll be paddling in the summer (avg. water temp ~70 F) and with a partner. I always carry the required safety equipment. My GPS is just my phone in a waterproof bag tethered to my PFD, so I have no VHF radio. I haven’t flipped over (yet), and certainly can’t roll, so I plan on practicing wet exits and re-entries in the coming season. And most importantly, I plan on strictly hugging the coastline; no crossings out to islands, just the occasional shortcut through bays.

Thus my main questions are around how to do so safely. Things like:

  • what’s the likelyhood I will swim (ha, ha, that’s just a teaser question)
  • how to avoid breaking waves
  • how far out to go if the water is shallow and waves are not breaking right by the shoreline
  • at which point to call off the paddle (size of whitecaps)
  • is deeper water preferable
  • possible rocky/cliff shoreline at times
  • winds
  • currents
  • other warnings

I’ve researched the basics, here’s an example: Great Lakes Paddling Safety - Michigan Water Trails but I think there may be more to know from some experience here on the forum. Thanks.

Before everyone else jumps in… if I were you I would plan to attend something like this posted by @Rookie in a different thread.

GLSKS, the oldest sea kayak symposium on the Great Lakes. Held on gichi-gami, the great sea. July 13-17, 2022.

Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium - Grand Marais, Michigan

Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium July 14-18, 2021. Community. Learning. Adventure. This place will change your life. Join us for your best 4 days on Superior


When you have to ask all you did you’re no where near ready. Your kayak is short for big water. You can be 2’ offshore but if it’s a cliff you get out how?

Your need some lessons and to paddle with an experienced group of sea kayakers. There were just three people who died and one near death if you read the threads here recently. It’s no joke out there. You have to know what your abilities are nobody here can tell you you’re good to X size waves.


Not all the Great Lakes are equal risk or the same conditions. There are sheltered bays in Lake Erie that I have kayaked in the summer with bathtub temp warm water, zero waves and sandy gradual beaches. On the other hand, Superior tends to be bitterly cold year round and both it and Lake Michigan are prone to violent and unpredictable storms – and Michigan has some steep cliff shorelines as well as some deep water upwelling that can make even near-shore waters 40 degrees F on an 80 degree summer day. I had two family members who drowned on an August day off Penwater when a rogue storm caught them.


I’m also fairly new to paddling, as this was my first year on the water. The biggest safety tip I can give you is to take a class (or a few) to get instruction on the basics. It will increase your knowledge quite a lot, and with that knowledge you will have a better understanding of not only your boat’s capabilities, but your own as well. With your knowledge and skills improving, you will be more confident in pushing yourself incrementally each time you go out, and you will be able to spot hazards like where the waves are breaking, signs of shifting weather, differing currents, and you will learn how to effectively handle all of them and more. Classes in this will teach you far more than what you can be told in a forum, because the best way to learn is by doing. Once you have the knowledge, you will have a better idea as to the answers to all of the questions you asked here, because there is no “one answer fits all” to them. Some here paddle bigger waves than others. Some see waves and get scared, while others surf them for fun. Some are nervous with boat wake while others will go out and paddle offshore in 10 foot swells. For myself, the first time I dealt with a 2 foot boat wake in my little rec kayak, I found myself shopping for more of a “bigger waters” kayak, because I had so much fun and I wanted to play in bigger waves.

Probably the only one I can answer definitively for you is when to call off a paddle, which my answer would be whenever YOU feel that the risk is greater than your experience level would allow you to safely handle.

Just a warning though, I don’t know what you have for a boat, but don’t be too surprised if you find yourself outgrowing the one you have, or at least considering getting a second one. As your skills develop and improve, you may find yourself looking at other options to further push yourself. It happens, as I found out myself, because I’m currently looking for kayak #3 :grin:


You will get a lot of advice here, a lot of it good, and some of it who don’t really know what they are talking about. The first thing to do is to let people know what area you are paddling. I assumed it was Western Michigan but I don’t know. Lots of people here with good contacts for classes and clubs on the Great Lakes. The second thing you need to do is find classes for (1) rescues, (2) basic paddling skills and (3) How to launch and land in breaking waves, (4 Coastal Paddling Skills, weather reports, reading cloud and wave conditions, hazards and how to avoid them. ( 5) a good rolling class. Winter used to be a great time to learn to roll in a pool, not sure how many pool classes go on with Covid closures. Finally sign up for some group trips with experienced paddlers . Your 13’ kayak if it has a small cockpit and bulkheads should be fine for learning basic big water skills. Learn the basics, meet some experienced paddlers who are willing to take you out, and start with small trips, close to shore with multiple exit possibilities.

“how to avoid breaking waves ?” Breaking waves are pretty much the point of learning to paddle on open coastlines. If you don’t like breaking waves and tipping over, you probably want to try another sport.


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Repeating what was said above - learn how to do self and assisted rescues. You can try these on your own, but many find it easier to take one of the day-long introduction to see kayak classes. Learning how to do this will also make sure that you and your boat are able to do them - some of the sorter sea kayaks, even though they have dual bulkheads, may still not have enough flotation. best to find out before you need it for real.

On to your first question - the general saying is that we are all just between swims. You may go years without flipping, but it will happen sooner or later, and if you don’t know how to handle it, it could be life threatening. So if you can’t self rescue in your boat (for whatever reason), you really need to stay close enough to shore so you can swim back in, as that is your rescue process.

A good instructor who takes you into rough confused water could tell you if you prepared. Asking on the net it will never happen.


All of the above about classes and finding groups to paddle with.

If you do really well l expect you will be looking for a different boat.

Be aware that closer to shore is where the waves are breaking and conditions are more difficult. It is surf. It is not a safe zone for someone without some skills. In bigger water you have to know how to get beyond that stuff and, when needed, land in it.

It is an extremely likely spot for a capsize.


Hence the old saying, “if in doubt, stay out”. But you don’t want to be too far out. Well, what is it? Too far or too close. Experience, which you will be trying to accumulate, will eventually tell you.

A good basic sea kayaking class is always the best way to start. A good class will cover all of the basic safety issues. What you don’t know or know about, is what can get you. It will also go over basic strokes and possibly help you unlearn any bad habits you have developed by learning on your own. A good forward stroke can make all the difference as far as enjoying yourself on the water and keeping up with a group. A good class will also teach you the limitations of you boat. No boat is perfect for everything. They are all a compromise in multiple ways.

Always wear a PFD fastened as the manufacturer intended. In my opinion a spray skirt is an essential part of a sea kayak, not an optional accessory. It is especially important in big open water. Before you wear a spray skirt, learning and being complexly comfortable with a wet exit is critical. Following this, know how to do a self and assisted rescue. Rolling is a very useful skill, but fewer people than you would think have mastered this skill. It all depends on what conditions you plan on paddling in. If you do not have a reliable roll, it is critical you know how to avoid conditions where you may need to. A class, experience, and common sense will help there.

Paddling with experienced kayakers can increase safety exponentially.

I would suggest investing in a VHF radio with a weather alert feature for paddling on open water. Weather can change very rapidly on the Great Lakes. Cell phone coverage on open water can be unreliable and few cell phones are waterproof. A serviceable VHF radio can be had for a little less than $100. How much is your life worth?

Good for you for being proactive! I often paddled my 13’9" Eddyline Samba on Lake Michigan in my second year of paddling (had taken several lessons my first year). Also paddled it at a symposium on Lake Huron. Never swan unintentionally; seat time is a great teacher. I paid close attention to water temp, weather and winds and never strayed more than a mile offshore. Be wary of offshore winds.

If you have not taken lessons yet, would be a good idea to do so or attend a symposium. This one would be ideal: SYMPOSIUM 2022 – WMCKA

GLSKS is a fabulous symposium, but you’ll need to wear a drysuit. Also unsure if your 13-foot boat would be allowed out of the harbor. Lake Superior is massive.

In the interim, this is another excellent site to read through:

Have fun planning!

Learning about seas is more important than equipment though I agree yours is too small.
We probably all started out in short boats and as we gained experience learned their shortcomings . I started out in a rec kayak (eek) on Long Island Sound near shore. Never did a crossing or attempted to visit the lighthouse just three miles off shore but I did join a club, got a bigger yak and learned alot by just being mentored by others. We had tides to reckon with so there was that confounding factor( tides generate currents and the interaction between wind and waves can get you in trouble)

I learned…near shore often has the worst waves and the most confused seas( waves coming from multiple directions). Flat calm can be deceiving if the wind is from landward to water. You think you can have a lovely float and all of a sudden you realize you were looking at the backside of breaking waves.

I am grateful for mentors in person…There is nothing more instructive than another person guiding you that really understands how to teach and keep you safe. Instruction may seem expensive. But its a very good investment
You always need several methods of communication. If you are on unpopulated parts of the Great Lakes you learn that your cell phone is a cute ornament , that the radio gets no one. I carry a personal locator beacon.
It took me many years of kayaking to get sufficient judgment to paddle Lake Superior . And I have spent days just on land noticing… She always rules. Not me.

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I second Rookie’s suggestion of the WMCKA Symposium. It is very beginner friendly and is held on an inland lake. One thing to remember is that to get the most out of the Symposium you will be getting wet … Very Wet.

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You have a lot of work to do to get ready for “big whitecaps” and breaking waves.
Try paddling with a group on some smaller lakes.
As an example, how are going to get to shore when large waves are breaking on the beach?

Thanks for the insightful replies. My reason for posting is that safety is #1 on my list. And the #1 safety tip I got is to take classes/symposium and to go paddling with an experienced paddler. So that will be my plan, especially since we’re all “just in between swims”.

I don’t plan on “real” sea kayaking (although heck the surfing looks fun), but I’m pretty sure a boat like mine can at least handle something like this: Lake Ontario Expedition - MARIO RIGBY. And while I won’t be tackling such an excursion, venturing out along the coastline portions of Lake Ontario in the coming years is on my radar. I’m quite familiar with the coastline that was paddled in the above link, and that the eastern shores are really windy (thus many sand dunes and wind turbines), but I’m not familiar with the eastern shore on the American side, e.g. Oswego and Henderson Bay, although it does look sandy as well. As for Superior, well, that’s certainly for another day, another boat, and more experience gained. But I can almost hear the Apostle Islands beckoning.

In addition to classes, especially covering the 5 areas SeaDart mentioned, here’s how I’d handle some of the various situations:

→ Avoid shorelines with cliffs unless it’s calm and I can see the next “beach”.

→ Yes, VHF is worth looking into.

→ Well, I didn’t really mean avoiding the waves. I don’t mind waves, but I do want to avoid swimming if at all possible, and that will require learning to read the waves, wind, depths, and currents in order to…

Questions like this scare me and make me concerned for people’s safety whether it’s here on a watersports forum or elsewhere on the web. Please don’t rely on the responses of people you’ve never met and who’ve never seen you (fill in the blank as to activity) to make a decision about an activity that could jeopardize your well being. The water/mountains don’t care who’s opinion you sought; all that matters is your skills and experience. Experience will provide the answers to your questions. Experience is gained through deliberate practice with someone who is better, more skilled than you who can offer pin-point coaching as to how to improve. All of your questions are red-flags that you don’t have sufficient experience.

Hence all the recommendations to get lessons and coaching, paddle with others. The point being that they can help you with your skills and offer a first-hand assessment of whether you are ready to take on a particular challenge.

The people here are smart and helpful but you need to answer this question for yourself with the help of a coach/someone much more experienced than you > in person.

BTW, I’m not an “experienced” sea kayaker by any measure of the definition but my day job is coaching people to avoid deadly mistakes.

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Someone else heard the Apostle Islands calling. I think three out five drowned. Water circulation from the bottom upward was 45° in August or early September.