When You Run Into Rough Waters

I think this is a question for this board rather than something I could glean from literature. When I read about winds in books, I get somewhat confused.

Being a newbie, I wondered, if you went on a long paddle where the waters turned rough, where it was not safe to paddle back to your car, what do you do? Or how do you avoid this situation?

I know there are sites like www.noaa.gov or www.iwindsurf.com to see what the weather and wind are, but I’m not exactly sure how to use them. Then there is www.weather.com which gives you more basic wind info.

I’ve heard mornings and evenings tend to be less windy. Is this true overall?


Basic Steps

– Last Updated: Mar-05-08 5:37 PM EST –

You shouldn't be taking any long solo paddle trips over open water until you have enough seat and skills time to know this answer.

Get a weather radio, and/or a VHF with weather radio function, and listen to it the day or so before you paddle to get a rough sense of the weather, then again the day of earlier and again just before you launch. Stop and get an update again BEFORE you try any major exposed crossings, to see if anything has changed.

Spend some time listening and learning your region's marine weather, including buoy readings and normal wind directions if you are on the ocean.

If you paddle on the ocean or on a very large lake you will at some point be surprised by the weather or the tide or whatever, especially if you are new. At that point, you'll still have to paddle thru it to get home. Until you have learned self-rescue and rough water skills, your only uncontrovertably safe options are to stay within swimming distance of a landable beach, or paddle with a group who can get you home.

Boat control and sel-rescue are essentia

Agreeing with everything above, I’ll add that it is a good idea to keep an eye on the sky. Not just in front of you but behind as well, to see what’s really happening with the weather. Also a good idea to keep an eye on everyone else you’re paddling with.

Learn what is and is not a bad weather sign, because the actual weather you have to paddle in and what the weather report says at that moment can be very, very different…

National Weather Service -NOAA
There are a tremendous number of resources on the web. The national weather service provides detailed wind/weather forecasts and you can get up to the hour projections for maps of where you live. The synopsis sites are very good and very accurate … like this one …


If you make the question more specific to the waters you paddle I bet folks here can provide you with links.

The rule of thumb is never paddle where you would not be comfortable paddling home or to safety in severe weather conditions. If you boat or your experience are not up to it, stay in sheltered areas, and go with groups until you develop the seamanship skills.

Basic nav
You might want to envision what the surface of the water looks like given the direction and strength of the wind over which way the water is flowing. Tidal areas such as where you live provoke alot of “sudden storms” when the current opposes the wind. Your charts will provide plenty of bathymetric detail that when combined with a fresh weather report and current tables for the day, should give you plenty of insight. I highly recommend hooking up with a good instructor to take the mystery out of navigation.


And in addition to all the above
Always have a backup plan, or be able to come up with one on the fly through knowledge of where you’re paddling.

I’ve found that if it really gets too ugly, that there’s usually somewhere you can get off the water safely, or some way to get off safely. It helps to know the area you’re paddling in. Something as small as a jetty can give you a sufficient window to land. That requires learning about wind, currents, and waves, and how they interact with the shoreline. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

When I was a newbie, I once had to swim in holding onto my kayak. I laugh at the conditions that caused me to do that now, but it was scary at the time. But my point holds true even in that situation – I knew I could swim in safer than I could paddle in, so I did it. And then I took a surf zone lesson. You’ll never know it all, so learn what you can.

Some comments
1. Safe outs - Try to identify safe alternate landing sites before you leave. Besides weather you could have some injury or equipment failure that necessitate getting off the water as quickly as possible. If you do not have a safe landing always nearby, then maybe you should only do that route with a larger group.

Of course you need to keep track of approximately where you are at all times as you paddle so that you can choose the appropriate safe out.

2. Paddling directly into waves - Although it is generally a good idea to plan a trip to be wind aided on the return, running downwind in really bad conditions may expose you to more of a risk of capsize. If things really get bad you can turn directly into the waves and paddle just hard enough to maintain your position or even let yourself be pushed backwards if that is a safe direction. I find directly into the waves to be the most stable paddling direction. This is an especially good technique if you think the really high winds and waves may not last that long. This could happen with an isolated thunderstorm or a frontal passage. Of course sometime you have to turn and head home.

3. Watch the weather in your area everyday. Try to get a feel for how often the forecasts are correct. Try to get an idea if high winds usually come earlier, later, or as predicted. By doing this you will have a much better idea of how to interpret the forecast for the day you go paddling.

4. Alternate destination or route - Have an alternate protected route or even a different (but nearby) protected launch and route. If you get to the launch or just start the trip and conditions are not what you thought, it is easier to give up the trip if you have a backup location to use so you do not feel you wasted your day.

Good luck and good paddling


Thank You
Thank you for all of your info. A little background info, I do not go solo. It’s just me and my husband, no group or other people. We have a book that details protected, moderate and unprotected routes, so we pick mostly protected ones, but do go up and down the Puget Sound.

We travel up and down the Puget Sound a lot since it’s a minute from my house. We go into bays and some more open waters, but remain fairly close to land at all times. I was telling my husband that one day we may have to go to shore on a private beach as homes have private beach rights and tell whoevers house we land at that we had to. I’d really like to avoid that though. It would be quite embarrassing, but it’s always better to be safe than in serious distress or dead. I definitely want to avoid being rescued by being prepared as I am w/hiking.

I got my kayak last September, so I will be practicing self-rescue techniques in warm lake waters this year. I have a sit on top Heritage Redfish 14.

I’m going to have my husband look over the posts here also so we can both talk about them and make sure our plans are well thought out. I do have back up plans, places to kayak when I arrive at a place where the water looks rough.


“Quartering” and hiding
Don’t get too hung up on going directly perpendicular to the waves. You can take very large steep waves at a 45 degree angle and make progress in that direction if it gets you to protected area.

You can also make progress by hiding behind waves and swells and paddling like he!! in the wind shadow and then taking the wave, going over the top, and paddling very hard again.

Jeff Renner
of KING 5 weather fame has written a good book on NW marine weather called (not suprisingly) Northwest Marine Weather:


If you have a VHF radio, it’s good to develope the habit of writing down the WX forecast. After a while you learn the format and can get it the first time. :slight_smile:

Missing the Puget Sound …

Don’t mis this article

– Last Updated: Mar-06-08 12:03 AM EST –

A recently posted article on paddling.net covers some of what you are asking:

Truthfully, I think currents may be more of an issue. In the SF Bay Area, the Queen Mary (the new big cruise ship) came to visit last year. She entered during a strong ebb tide. A bunch of BASKers paddled to watch her enter, and stopped to take photos right near the north tower of the Golden Gate bridge. Some got sucked out past the tower as they were taking photos, rather than paying attention. They tried in vain to get back, but the current was too strong. Ended up going to a beach outside the gate and waiting for the tide to turn (though, someone came and got them before that happened).

Of course, currents also make waves. So it may be good to learn about tide rips in your area - how they form, what they look like, etc. You definitely have them in Puget Sound. These types of rough water are often avoidable when you know what to look for (or for advanced folks - they go into them on purpose for the thrill).

If you do have an emergency, any safe landing point is fair game in my book. Private land, military base, whatever - life and limb takes precedent over private property. There is a story about a pair of guys surfing off of Anuo Nuevo (famous for elephant seals, which are shark bait). One guy's boat was bit by a great white, which punctured the bulkhead. He landed at Anuo Nuevo, which is a no-no. Ranger came down to kick them out or ticket them, but quickly changed his mind once he heard the situation.

Emergency landing
“If you do have an emergency, any safe landing point is fair game in my book. Private land, military base, whatever - life and limb takes precedent over private property.”

EXCELLENT point, and a point of law in some states, too.

Here in CT, shoreline property owners are required by law to provide a public right-of-way to the water specifically for the case of emergencies. Most people don’t know that, especially the new breed of uber-wealthy shoreline property owners who think they own the water, too.

Maritime emergencies trump property rights in many places. If it’s a real emergency, land ANYWHERE YOU CAN. Trespassing is the least of your concerns at that moment.

Tides in your area

– Last Updated: Mar-06-08 8:24 AM EST –

Second an above post - you don't have a profile so I couldn't figure out where you were. As a standard practice, you should pull up the tide charts for the harbors around where you paddle. Poke around on the web and you'll find them. Stick them up on the fridge door or similar and refer to them as part of your trip planning.

It'll help you avoid climbing uphill nautically during your trip, and also alert you to the times when an area of exchange between something like an incoming tide and water that would like to flow the other way causes chop. (Post from Dog) It may help spot bail out points too - areas that are viable landings during some portion of the tide.

good posts
From these two above, they cover it well. I’d like to second the eyes on the sky. Even if the weather is benign you can learn a lot about how weather changes and the subtle signs that precede those changes.

Tide link


Rule of the Sea
any port in a storm.

RE: Mornings and evenings
Around here, if the weather is stable and there is not a big difference between water temp and predicted daytime high temps (air), morning and evenings are likely to be calm, with some wind in the afternoon.

There are several catches to this, though:

  1. If the water is cold and the air temp rises very quickly, there will be a breeze rushing from water to land sometime after sunrise, and the reverse after sunset. During heat spells, I can pretty much count on it to become calm by late morning and stay that way through the middle of the day (unless thunderheads are building). Other times, afternoons are usually windier.
  2. Any time a front is heading in, there will be wind, usually much stronger than what we get in #1. It could be any time of day.

    Your location and climate could differ. Learn as much about weather patterns in your area as you can. Last year I was “turned on” to Eric Sloane’s illustrated books about weather; they are clearly written and easy to understand.

More on AM/PM

– Last Updated: Mar-06-08 4:26 PM EST –

In Maine on the coast in summer, the mornings and the evenings will have less strong offhore or onshore winds because the temp diff's between the land and the ocean are less. But about mid-morning on a sunny day that starts to change, and what was maybe a 5 knot breeze will easily be 15 by 2pm. Thru the day the wind will more often than not switch direction, and it'll often be calmer towards dusk.

All bets are off if a front is coming thru of course.

The other thing to be cautious about on a board like this is that, if I recall correctly, the dominant direction in which winds can circulate and adjustments to compass headings are different where Capri is than on the east coast. A book that really talks about navigation local to the area can be an invaluable resource.

Identify bailout spots on your chart.

Avoid “destinationitis”. If you find that you feel unsafe on the water, get off the water. You do not have to get back to your car. Worrying about trespassing, getting to your car, or back home in time should be secondary to worrying about your life. There are worse things in the world than walking three hours to your car, mising a flight, or calling on the cell phone to get picked up.

Have some bivvy stuff with you. A change of dry clothes and some sort of tarp to stay dry once you get dry. Have a bivvy bag, or a cheap old sleeping bag.