tips for paddling tidal rivers?

Hi. My husband and I have been kayaking on lakes for several years and want to start paddling some of the tidal rivers in Connecticut. (Specifically the Farm River in East Haven to start.) I would appreciate some tips for paddling tidal rivers. Things like the best way to time your outings as far as the tides are concerned and what to look out for. We would like to paddle upriver and then return to our original starting point, so I’m thinking we should start out as the tide is coming in? So the tide can help us go against the current? To make matters more complex, we have had significant amounts of rain here, so I suspect the river’s current is probably faster than normal… Any help would be appreciated! Thanks. – Jill

Find some local friends
Best thing to do is to go on a few trips with experienced paddlers who know the way tide affects where you will be paddling. Extreme shifts in tides can create some very impressive features in the the water in unexpected places. General guide lines may not apply. Of course the place where you want to paddle might be quite tame, but do it the first time with experienced paddlers, a club or an outfitter. You’ll want to have some instruction in moving water at any rate.

tidal paddling
online tide prediction sites are abundant… find a tide station near where you will be & use that as a guide. If there are several, you can usually make reasonable interpolation between them, improving as you learn the area.

Look at

– Last Updated: Jun-25-11 12:11 PM EST –

You may find some info there, or be able to post a question with the local experts at

I'm not familiar with CT geography, but you should be able to find NOAA tide predictions close to where you want to go here:

Just do it
Probably the trouble you will have depends more on what Lake Saltonstall is discharging.

I never paddled it but did the East River in Guilford many times. I liked to float in with the tide mostly because I did not want to have to get out of the boat in foot sucking mud but even paddling at low tide revealed lots of hermit crabs.

Never had much of a problem with the current on that one though paddling with the tide is nicer…also there are significant tidal delays… You might start at the mouth and end several miles upstream both at the apex high tide and find that the low back at the start point is lower than you had hoped.

There is an old saying that the tide runs hardest the middle two to three hours of the cycle… Launching an hour or two before or after high tide should not make much of a difference.

And when you get a little attuned to the tides and how they can run your paddling life come to Maine for some boating in tidal races where the tides actually make whitewater, they run so strong. Sometimes you literally can’t get theah from heah.

Thanks guys. Your advice is much appreciated! I have posted over on the connyak message board, so hopefully I will get some area-specific info there.

Find CURRENT predictions
The very most important thing to know is that high or low tide does not correspond to slack current or maximum current.

The daily current cycle is offset from the daily tide cycle. The offset changes the farther upstream you move, and with the height of the tides in their monthly cycle.

And everything can get upset if there is significant rain, or weather off shore.

So, tide predictions are pretty useless. You need to find some current predictions, then figure out how other stuff interacts to alter the base predictions.

Farm River

– Last Updated: Jun-25-11 8:58 PM EST –

I have only paddled the Farm River once but if you want to go up river past the Sluice you have to make sure the tide is in your favor and wait for it to change before you can get back through the Sluice. Other options in that area are the East River(Madison) which is very nice and paddler friendly. Also check out this spot in Westbrook.

wind too can change the tides
most evident in the Everglades where the tide tables get regularly put on their heads…less so in the CT area…especially on those little estuaries.

Its a good area to learn about tides without serious consequence for miscalculation. I learned a lot in the twenty years I paddled CT tidal rivers.

Don’t overworry.

If you were going into Long Island Sound that would be different. Its not unheard of to go out of Branford on a seemingly benign sea and find you going out toward Long Island and not be able to get back due to the tide and that sea looked calm was an illusion…a wind shadow of narrow width…then you find out that the wind coming out of the north is howling and what looked like a gentle water is now impossible to negotiate.

You cant get back…and then you are done for.

Know the Rule of Twelfths

– Last Updated: Jun-25-11 10:52 PM EST –

[Don't know your specific river, but here's a general explanation of ideal strategy for paddling up tidal rivers I prepared for another forum in 2005.]

You should know the "Rule of Twelfths" to help answer your question.

A full cycle of high and low tide takes about 12 hours. That means, on a coastal river the tide will come in for 6 hours and go out for 6 hours.

As it starts to come in, 1/12 of the incoming flow will happen the first hour, 2/12 the second hour, 3/12 the third hour, 3/12 the fourth hour, 2/12 the fifth hour, and 1/12 the sixth hour. So, the incoming tide flows the swiftest during hours 3 and 4 and then slows down.

After the sixth hour the tide stops AT THE MOUTH of the river (or, actually, at the tide station) and begins to reverse. The tide will then flow out over a six-hour period following the Rule of Twelfths.

But note that the tidal reversal at the mouth won't be felt until a later period on up the river. In other words, the water won't reverse 6 miles up the river at the same time it reverses at the mouth. There will he a lag. How long a lag? Don't know. Depends upon the volume and gradient of the riverbed.

Now think about how fast you will paddle to determine how far upstream you will get. That depends on what kind of boat you are in and how fast a paddler you are. A sea kayak should be able to cruise at 3 mph and a canoe 2 mph on unmoving water. If you are riding an incoming tide on a slow river, that should add at least another 1 mph to your speed.

So, let's say you would move at an average speed of 3.5 mph on an incoming tide. If you launched at the mouth 3 hours into the tide, you would travel 3 x 3.5 = 10.5 miles up river before the tide reversed at the mouth. But the tide wouldn't reverse on you that far up the river until maybe an hour later, taking you a total of maybe 14 miles (in 4 hours) up river before it reverses where you happen to be. Then it would take you 4 hours to get back to the mouth at 3.5 mph.

If that's too long a trip for you in time and/or miles, then I would launch about 4 hours into the incoming tide. That would take you up probably 7-9 miles from the mouth.

All this so far assumes you are trying to exactly catch the best tidal flow in both directions, turning around at exactly the reversal point. As a practical matter, your trip schedule needn't be driven by the exact tide cycle. But it's helpful to analyze it this way.

Practically, since the water flows so slowly in the first hour and a half of the tide cycle, you usually can paddle against the current during those periods fairly easily, at a loss of average travel speed.

Other factors
For completeness, I should address two other factors that will affect current flow in a tidal river and how fast you will go.

First, is there a lot of natural freshwater flow in the river or very little? A lot of natural flow will, of course, slow down (or even cancel out) the inflow speed of an incoming tide and augment the outflow speed of an outgoing tide.

Second, how high are the tidal elevations as the mouth of the river. If there are 25 foot tides as in Cobscook Bay, Maine, the incoming and outgoing tidal flows may exceed 10 mph, much faster than you can possibly paddle against. If the tidal elevation is only 2 feet, then the tidal inflows and outflows will be so weak that you can probably easily paddle against them except in the narrowest of constrictions.

As in any river, the current will be the slowest near the banks and fastest in mid-channel. So, if you have to paddle against current, stick near the banks and try to use available eddies to work your way up the current.

An important distinction

– Last Updated: Jun-25-11 10:51 PM EST –

[In these follow-up posts to my initial post above, I'm pasting some replies I made in that other forum six years ago. This is the last one.]

There is another distinction if you are not familiar with coastal paddling.

I would make a distinction between river-like fingers that are really just tidal sloughs (though they can be a couple of miles long) and the coastal mouth of an actual inland river.

The tidal slough may lose all of its water at low tide and end up being just a trench of mud. If you get caught up one of those as the tide races out, you may have a muddy experience.

Coastal "real rivers", such as those in Northern California, Oregon and Washington, usually will have some freshwater remaining (depending on the season) even at low tides.

Checking with a locals is a very good idea.

Also extremely helpful is a mapping GPS with topo maps loaded in and tide station capability. With it, you can see realtime graphs of the nearest tide station elevations and you also can see exactly where you are on the river.

Sometimes no progress, Skirt the Edge
2 points:

1st, I have trained in ripping tides and tried to maintain my position in narrow cuts for almost an hour in the Everglades. The point here is I was mentally preparing myself that a normal 4 mph pace could be reduced to zero depending on the cut and the tide. When I was done training as my paddling buddy caught up from the launch, I ferried to the bank where the tide slackended and eddies actually pulled me along. So keep paddling ata normal pace and stay relaxed, even if GPS shows little progress, no progress, or actually backwards progress.

2nd, if the tide or wind are nasty, skirt the edge of the waterway. The flow will be slowest on the edge of the waterway. Also, the eddies may pull you along as noted above. This trick also helps in big wind.

Paddle with someone familiar with the river, take all your safety gear, and dress for immersion.

Good luck!

Man Made Flood Gates Are a Factor Too
And be alert to the fact that flood gates are opened by various municipalities…the upper farmington comes to mind.

you guys have to look up this
particular river.

Though I have not done it…mostly its a series of small ponds and I drove around it getting lost last winter. I never wanted to do the Farm as it used to be full of garbage…a friend had a house on it and never ceased to moan about that. I see things are looking up…with a new state park. Did all the rest of the rivers and it got me in tune with the rhythm.

There is almost no elevation change in this part…its salt marsh country.

To compare with Cobscook is insane and the reason that Cobscook is dangerous is not so much the speed (though it is over 15 kts) its the huge haystack on the incoming that will flip sizeable boats.

Bear in mind that the tide flows fastest in the channel and slower along the banks. and at high tide the current in channel may have begun to flow out but along the banks the tide may still be flowing in or vice versa on the low tide change

If you have to paddle against the tide try hugging the bank.

Ask any sailor who has sailed tidal rivers.

Get the marine charts first

– Last Updated: Jun-29-11 8:36 AM EST –

As you see in the above comments, there are tidal rivers and there are tidal rivers. The kind with well dispersed low flows that it sounds like you are discussing and the kinda river/kinda marsh stuff around Cape Cod tends to be more inconvenient than dangerous. Your biggest risk is catching the tide wrong and having to slog thru nasty mud or getting stuck on a mud flat until the water comes back. But rivers where there is a stronger or higher tide, with sudden narrowing of the river or changes in depth that constrict the flow of water, can be knarly. You'll hit both pretty dimensional water with high and steep chop, and need to use a tremendous effort to paddle against it.

At the outer edges of difficulty, if you catch the tide wrong you are stuck until things change enough that it is safe to get thru.

A good marine chart will give a lot of this info. Look for depth and shape of the river and the opening, check against references for the direction of tidal flow and the tide chart for the nearest harbor(s), and you can estimate the difficulty fairly well.

Here is an online version of the Farm
River chart

Note the depth and the vegetation on the shoreline.

Now do not extrapolate this to paddling at the mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook…that can be hairy with the river bearing down full and the tide and wind coming in…

But the Farm is a good place to start…

Did we lose the OP? Who definitely will want to float in with the tide…otherwise its a lot of mud.

Confusing Tides with Currents
I think it’s easy for people to refer to “Tides” and “Currents” as the same thing, but it’s more accurate to treat each of them separately.

Tide is the rise and fall of water, Current is the horizontal movement of water. So if you’re wondering which direction the water will move upstream/downstream on a tidal river, you need to look at Current Charts.

Tide Charts will tell you how much water is under your boat at any given time, but won’t tell you which direction that water is moving.

Similarly, the rules of thumb for estimating tidal height (like the Rule of Twelfths) are only good for telling you how DEEP the water is, not whether it’s moving in and out of a bay or river.

For estimating current speeds you can use the Rule of Thirds or the 50/90 Rule (the latter being more accurate than the former).

you will find the difference quickly
in the finger areas of Maine… the tide may apex and the current continue to flow in for an hour…even an hour and a half after “high”

I usually use a current table…the tide is not particularly important other than to tie the boat appropriately out of the water.

Here is a site I have used in the past

If you look at Lower Hell Gate, the current table kind of explains why you go where you go and where you do not always go where you want to go.