What are the qualities of a good rough water paddler

Last year, I solicited opinions on this forum as to what boats I should be looking at if I wanted to get one that handled especially well in rough water. I got a number of helpful and specific suggestions and the discussion was generally very interesting. One comment was something to the effect that what made a good rough water boat was a good rough water paddler. An obvious, albeit delayed, followup then is what makes a good rough water paddler. I’m genuinely curious about what people would say either in terms of general attributes, or specific skills. I would start off by suggesting that an ability to maintain a high level of situational awareness is important. Keeping your eye to the waves…knowing what’s coming towards you, not letting your guard down, knowing how your situation is evolving (either with position or time), that sort of thing. What else?

Don’t freeze. Really. It is amazing what you can crawl thru if you just stay relaxed, even when it is over your usual conditions.

I am not recomending going out in stuff that is way beyond your skills as a steady diet, but if you are on the water long enough you will likely find yourself in that situation. So you just have to stay calm, take things as slowly as needed to find your path thru a mess. As long as you have the time. Obviously moving slowly is not necessary a plan for whitewater, where shit happens really fast. Or if you find yourself between really big rocks at low tide - may be a better plan to power paddle thru the waves straight out as quickly as possible.

  1. Good technique
  2. Good physical fitness and endurance.

Not just for rough water; flat water as well.

Time in conditions is also something that I think is important. Getting used to being in waves, chop, surf, whatever so you learn what you and your boat are capable of. This ties in with what @Celia said - by spending time in conditions, you get comfortable and looser in those conditions.

There are skills that also help, like bracing and rolling. The best rough water paddlers I know are all proficient rollers - where if they flip over, it is a quick roll back up. So a non-roller looks at spot and worries about flipping and whether they can be rescued (or want the embarrassment of being rescued) before going in, a proficient roller looks at it as “can I roll in those conditions” before deciding whether to go in or not, which extends the comfort zone of where they can be. Once that zone is extended due to being able to quickly self-recover with a roll, they start being willing to spend more time in conditions which brings us back to time in conditions making for better rough water paddlers.

Yes the roll is what I want too see. If i have a new paddler that wants to go out and get into surfing in big waves (3 feet and up) I want to know they can roll. If they cant they will get flipped soon enough and now were in the surf with a swimmer. No thank you. Yes bracing is needed but even if there great at bracing in big conditions they will eventually go over. If they cant roll they put themselves in danger along with everyone else now trying to help them.

know your limits and as Celia said relax and don’t panic it never helped any situation I can think of or ever heard of.

Dave, with the boat you have, (Sterling) you don’t have to do much of anything, except relax. I think you know that by now.

Might seem obvious, but have 1-3 bail plans covered. All kinds of good advice here and even more comprehensive thoughts still not weighed in, but honestly, keeping yourself safe comes down to knowing your abilities, knowing (realistic) potential outcomes and having bailout plans. The application of those plans is subjective to your abilities, your boat, and your specific situation.
One of the biggest problems I had when I was relatively fresh, was my desire to go big far outweighed my experience. I’ve been lucky to make it through a few bad uninformed choices. Now I always weigh the odds and stay on the safe side of risk.
Even through the coldest Winter months I’m on the water 4-5 times a week, so I have to really up the ante with good judgment.
So, acquiring skills are great, but knowing how to interpret potential outcomes in any given situation trumps skills in my opinion.
In fairness, the scope of “rough water” changes with your skillset improvement, but even at the highest levels, you gotta use risk management commensurate to your abilities.

Gills would be a bonus.

Unfortunately, due to where I live (Atlanta), I have had limited opportunity to get out into anything other than light chop. Even on my trip home from the west coast, in areas where I might have expected some challenging conditions (e.g., the Apostle Islands/Pictured Rocks area), I encountered unusual calm. Summer is coming though and I will be making some trips to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. I am looking forward to it. For now, mostly just loving the boat for it’s agility.

@magooch said:
Dave, with the boat you have, (Sterling) you don’t have to do much of anything, except relax. I think you know that by now.


“Desire” is what I read between the lines in the responses. I know it was my impetus. I sat on the shore many days and dreamed… before I drummed up the skills to be able to snap this photo from the cockpit one September SCA. That is a 13-15 reflecting wave getting the top ripped off, I didn’t drive through that area btw. Tempered desire.

Good friends to put you back in the boat.

@Johnnysmoke said:
Good friends to put you back in the boat.

Got that right.

I’d say loose hips and a good brace.

Add to that good judgement and a calm demeanor under pressure, and you have a winning combination.
You have to be able to relax, so you can feel the water and help the boat work with it, not against it.

In addition to the other qualities mentioned, mental flexibility is important. Going with the flow applies to both the water AND to other constraints of “situations.”

I know people who plan to the Nth degree and are sticklers for using one of the pre-thought-out options, but when TSHTF they fall apart and panic. They seem so in control…as long as they are in control. But once other forces take over, they become lost at sea.

Resorting to brute force instead of trying a different way is a common reaction when creative thinking is devalued or off the radar. Don’t treat nature as something you can dominate or force into your plans.

How about no whining?

In my humble opinion, a good rough water paddler is someone who:

Learns as much as he can from qualified instructors.
Chooses and maintains adequate equipment.
Paddles with people who can help if needed - more than one experienced person if a newby is coming along.
Remains calm if the SHTF.
Knows his limitations, but prepares for sudden weather changes that may challenge them.
Avoids paddling with people who tend to panic easily.

There are always exceptions, but mostly, ‘kayaks do not tip over, people tip kayaks over’. Every time I have swam suddenly, it was my fault.