Paddling in Waves Advice Needed

I have been paddling a couple years. I have a 12 foot Pungo. I usually paddle in creeks and small rivers so I don’t have a lot of experience in waves. We were paddling along the right edge of a lake and a boat passed throwing pretty large waves. The waves were hitting us from the left. Well I mean the waves were parallel to my boat.

I have been told to hit waves prow-on or stern-on, never to the side. Since I didn’t want to paddle further into the lake I turned right and let the waves hit me in the back. That was okay except I realized I was getting further and further separated from my group.

I didn’t know how to turn the boat around - there’d be that few seconds I was getting hit crosswise. What should I have done? Tried to edge sort of 45 degrees across the waves and zig zag or what? I finally got back to the group and they were like WHY WERE YOU PADDLING AWAY FROM US? Advice welcome!

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If you don’t stiffen up and the waves are not breaking just brace on to them with your paddle and keep your body loose. Let your bottom half rotate and keep your top half still. Paddle in the water always helps your stability.
Head on is lots better than rear on as you can see what you are dealing with. If you can head on just keep paddling… I see lots of new paddlers pick their paddle up and hang it in the air. Air braces never work… One paddle in the water. A way to do this is just keep paddling. Stability increases as you are under way.

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I’m getting the impression that you were the only person who felt the need to redirect yourself in relation to the boat wakes. The others couldn’t understand why you had altered your direction. Is that correct?
“never to the side”
Kayaking, seemingly simple and straightforward, has a somewhat complex progression of skills. Skilled people capable of good advice will offer advice based upon where they believe you’re at in your progression. Unskilled people could offer advice based upon their own progression, not allowing so much for differing experiences based upon differing skill levels and priorities.
“never to the side” is not a rule. It can be good advice depending upon wave size, behavior, paddlecraft, and skill level of the paddler. If your friends questioned your need to adjust direction in relation to those wakes, you could probably question it also.
Good luck and keep on paddling!

That can be pretty disconcerting, especially if the passing boat is large, traveling fast, and too close for comfort. They can leave a series of huge wakes which travel quickly.

Your best bet would have been to turn your bow into the waves. A quick strong sweep stroke wouldn’t have taken you further out, just changed the direction of your boat. Here’s a link to some very good videos on the execution of the sweep stroke, low brace, and a few other good strokes to learn and have fun practicing.

Another option would have been to stay in position and edge your boat into the wave, holding your paddle in a low brace against the wave and ride it out. I know that works as I had a similar experience from a 40-foot cruiser operated by a jerk. I got drenched but stayed upright.


There are lots of options. First keep your hips loose and learn to dance with the wave. You have to have a solid connection to your kayak, and you use your body, the boat and the blade to stay upright and blanced. (1) If the waves are not breaking and not very high, just paddle faster and keep your hips loose and let the waves roll under your kayak, make sure as each wave crests you have a positive blade in the water pulling on the side the wave is coming from. It’s not critical, but it is a skill that will help you keep your balance. Learn to do a skulling brace tipping into the water then skulling up.
(2) learn to use a low brace and brace on the wave crest as it approaches on the left side and then again on the right side as it passes.
(3) If the wave is not huge it’s easiest to just take the wave at a 45 degree angle leaning into the wave and using your paddle to pull you up and over the wave. Sometimes hitting the wave head on is the best way to deal with it but you lose headway and a really tall wave will throw you over backward.

Try to keep an out for a day where there will be lots of waves from wind breaking in shallow water. Practice paddling out, turning on the crest of a wave and paddling back in, then practice seating in one spot and letting the waves hit you from the side and using your loose hips and braces to stay upright. This should also give you some practice dumping out your kayak when you do tip over.

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With all due respect to a few above, there are suggestions that I don’t see working in a Pungo. Between lack of clear points for control from your thighs and that huge cockpit opening, there are real limits to what you can do with edging or skulling (sculling?) braces compared to being in a sea kayak. Especially if you are a smaller person in a big wide Pungo.

You can do these things to a degree. What is impossible to tell without being there is whether the amount of leverage you can get from these actions in your Pungo would have been sufficient for managing that particular boat wake.

Are you paddling with people in more like touring kayaks? In that case you need to understand they have some maneuvering options that are not so reliable for you, and come up with alternatives. It is a problem that you left the group in responding to the boat wake, because you put yourself away from potential help.

So very first comment, always towards the wave face. Hence you should have planted your paddle on the right side, not the left. And then a fast hard sweep stroke, leaning forward helpful.

Honestly most people get overly concerned about trying to hit a wave dead on. In fact a 45 or so degree angle is easier to achieve in a pinch, and makes for a quite safe, slithery ride. SeaDart is right.

In a proper sea kayak it takes a lot of wave for me to care whether I am full on sideways to it, in fact in some conditions it is the easiest way to travel. But that is not the boat you are in.

If the wake was relatively small, say a foot to a foot and a half, the Pungo would likely have been fine taking them from the side. Or if they were bigger but you caught them when they were rounded at the top rather than peaked with whitecap. As suggested above, it is your job to just stay relaxed and let the boat handle it.

Regardless of how you handle it, boat wakes are something you need to manage. If you can’t get help from a fellow paddler locally take a look at the material under Learn on this site.

Later add, always keep paddling. Kayamedic mentions the same thing I have seen, new paddlers get out into a smidge of wave and freeze with their paddle up in the air. A boat in motion is always better at handling any waves, and the paddle up in the air doesn’t do much to advance that. It needs to be in the water and moving. Keeping the paddle moving helps the paddler stay loose rather than allowing them to fully freeze up.

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The best way to handle large waves is to face them and quarter them. That means heading into them, but 30-45 degrees off of perpendicular. The larger the waves, the more important it is to have some momentum going into them. The Washington State Ferry wake is 4-5 feet but feels much larger. Tidal rips can occur in salt water from out of nowhere. Converging power boat wakes, wind opposing the tide, and wind waves with power boat wakes can all be a challenge. Learn to brace your boat with pressure on the water at all times. Wear a spray skirt, wear a PFD, dress for immersion and practice wet exits and self rescue. Practice builds confidence. If you haven’t been knocked over yet you will.

I think you will have best results taking waves in your 29" wide 12’ boat at the 45 degree angle with a power stroke or brace. You have to keep moving.

Here is a link to a discussion on rec boats vs Sea kayaks in waves.

Um, ppine OPer is in a 12 ft Pungo. I am not sure you noticed.

Spray skirt is nearly impossible or useless against dumping waves even if they do want to spend the exorbitant money.
Self rescues on the water are also near impossible in a Pungo in calm water, forget it in anything with waves. We used to sponsor come one come all rescue sessions on a local pond some years ago. The folks who came in boats like the Pungos really tried, but self rescue never happened. Assisted required a weight lifter or multiple other paddlers because of the huge cockpit.

In sum if this person is in situations like tidal rips or 4-5 ft boat wakes, the best thing that could happen for them is to capsize very quickly and swim back to shore. This is not where a Pungo should ever be.

The question might be why did you have to turn and they didn’t? Perhaps a study of what they were doing instead of what we far removed people think is more valid to the conditions at the time.

… all previous comments, plus:
be aware of your surroundings.
Look all around you including behind you often. More often if there is a lot of traffic.
This will give you some advance notice in getting your kayak ready for the soon to be coming waves.

The subject is paddling in waves. I do not pretend to know about cheap little plastic kayaks. But there are concepts that people need to be aware of for paddling in waves, and a lot of them were overlooked so I made a generic post.

I do know to keep a paddle in the water. I took a self-rescue class when I started kayaking and I can get back into a boat. Although as I paddle in Florida with gators and water moccasins my goal is never to end up in the water.

I was with a Sierra Club outing and it’s a recreational group - there’s every sort of kayak you can imagine. The leader knows us and our abilities and tells you if you can/or cannot handle the trip. I like my boat and it is perfect for what I do. Longer boats are tough in the tight turns of little rivers with a lot of deadfall. We don’t paddle for speed we paddle for enjoying nature.

I have handled larger waves in the Intracoastal waterway (basically across the street) but for some reason this day the lake was making me nervous. I know about the 45 degree angle but i made a bad choice and then didn’t know how to correct it.

I think what I can surmise from all your helpful posts is that I would have been fine angling into the wave (it wasn’t particularly windy) and when I made my mistake I probably could have/should have immediately turned around and rode one or two rolls the with a brace until I could get back on a 30-45 degree plane into the waves.

I will watch the suggested videos too. I really don’t agree that I should not have been in this lake. It was just that I knew I could have made a better choice and wanted to hear advice. Probably not going to heed the “don’t paddle a lake with a pungo” but thanks for the other stuff.


It’s cool that you reached out and asked for advice. I don’t think Celia was saying you shouldn’t have been on your lake, she’s just pointing out that your boat isn’t meant for ocean crossings with large boat traffic and if you do ever get swamped it’s probably best just to swim to shore. Your boat gets great reviews. When I’m canoeing (usually with a dog) I’ll often just pause and point my boat into the oncoming boat wake and wait until the waves pass under me…because sometimes driving through the waves will put me further into the main channel and in a more awkward place if another powerboat comes (which is not unusual). I usually paddle close to shore and if you point towards shore you can end up surfing into the shoreline (awkward) or being too close to the waves that reflect from the shore. It’s also smart to sometimes ignore the people you are paddling with and do what’s best for you. Happy paddling!

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I have paddled a lot of Florida in a recreational kayak. Never had much problems with gators, power boats or wind. You can add a float bag to the bow of your kayak. You can sign up for a symposium, ie Sweetwater in Feb, to increase your knowledge and skills. But you really need miles and hours to develope the comfort with kayak conditions.

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“Although as I paddle in Florida with gators and water moccasins my goal is never to end up in the water.”

I can understand your reluctance to end up in the water with nasty creatures about but if you paddle very much at all someday you are going to end up capsizing. The problem with having a fear of capsizing makes you more likely to capsize because you tense up and freeze up when you should be relaxed and dancing on the waves. The problem is somewhere out there there is a monster boat wake or storm wave with your pungos name on it. It’s very easy to capsize in still water in mangroves or overhanging limbs. My friend once capsized us by getting his paddle stuck in an overhanging branch. Pungos are not very hard to paddle in waves once you you know how, At sometime when it comes time to look for another boat, I would look at a sleek ~ 12’ sit on top kayak. This would allow you to use thigh straps to give yourself lots of control and if you do tip over it takes about 30 seconds at most to be back in the boat safe and sound with no water to bail. I do suggest you do learn what to do when you fill your pungo with water when there are no gators or snakes around.

To kayzee55 -
TomL has it. There are significant differences between a lake or relatively quiet river and situations like tidal rips. The latter are basically moving water roughly similar to the force of class 2 or 3 whitewater. I doubt you will find that on a lake. Or in most cases ferries that throw the kind of wakes that those going against ocean forces will. Though I can’t vouch for what kind of wakes the ferries on Lake Champlain throw.

I never indicated you should not use the Pungo on a lake. Just that it was not designed to have the same talents as a sea kayak. It is the same stuff that is said on the manufacturer’s web sites, though admittedly much of the writing is put together to blur out some rather crucial details. The Pungo is a rec boat and there are things a sea kayak can do that a rec boat is not designed for. On the other hand, the Pungo will sit flat on the water in calm stuff without the wiggle that some find disconcerting in a narrower sea kayak.

As to that day, IMO anyone who says they have never made the less good choice in a boat due to nerves doesn’t have much time in a boat. You stayed upright and didn’t need to get rescued, so I am not sure I would call it a mistake.

What it did show up was that the lake represented an environment where you had less confidence. Whether it was being more out in the open than usual - often something that alters paddlers’ response - or just one of those days, the cure is more time out there.

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The Pungo 120 is a very stable boat and all kayaks are more stable when you are moving. The best way to handle the situation you describe is to keep paddling and angle into the waves. The higher the wave the closer to perpendicular you will want to meet it. Unless the wave is so big that it threatens to break over the side, you probably don’t need to change course at all. The perception of beam waves is more unsettling in a wide rec boat as they tend to follow the water surface, while a narrower sea kayak tends to stay more upright. In either case keep your hips loose and body upright as the boat tilts. It takes quite a wave to capsize most rec boats.

A float bag in the bow is strongly recommended. Without one any type of rescue is nearly impossible as the cockpit rim will probably be at or slightly below the waterline if the boat is swamped… With hundreds of pounds of water in the boat emptying it on the water is nearly impossible and even towing it to shore will be extremely difficult. Always carry a pump. Periodically check to see that the rear compartment is essentially watertight. There are many reports of the rear bulkhead leaking in this boat. A slight leak is generally not a problem.

A spray skirt is useful to prevent the stray wake or wave from getting water in the cockpit. While an essential part of a sea kayak, they are not seen as often in rec boats. With the large cockpit a dumping wave will often implode them. Keep in mind though that it only takes a few inches of water to dramatically decrease the stability of a kayak. Rec boats in general are not designed for big open water where larger waves are common. Never wear a spray skirt if you have not learned and are fully comfortable with a wet exit.

I suspect that with more time and experience in the boat you will quickly become more comfortable in waves.

Hi kayzee55, welcome to the forums!

In a nutshell, what I think you did wrong was to turn away from the wave rather than towards it.

When you turn towards a wave and paddle into it, your net speed will be low because you will be moving your kayak in the opposite direction from the direction the wave will be pushing you. When you turn away from the wave, you’re paddling in the same direction the wave is pushing you, so you will be going fast.

As a separate observation from a longtime lake kayaker, most wake waves do not have breaking fronts but instead arrive with gently rounded tops. The rounded-top waves are harmless if you stay loose at the waist, allowing the boat to tilt however it wants while keeping your torso vertical and centered over the kayak. Once you get the hang of that, there is no need to change direction because of such waves.

Oh, and you probably already know this, but just in case: it’s important for balance that you keep the horizon in view. You never want to stare fixedly at a large oncoming wave to the point where you start feeling dizzy or disoriented!

Never turn your back on the ocean, big lakes or power boat wakes. Head into them with impulsion.
Quartering waves usually helps a lot and adds stability.