Sea Kayak Essentials: Rough Water Boat Handling
Crossing the Line – a self-help guide to mastering moving water
It seems that sea kayakers are never far from an eddy line – our tidal waters are full of headlands, islands, channels and river mouths that constrict the flow and create zones of water moving in opposite directions. Even famously non-tidal paddling destinations such as Scandinavia (excluding Norway!), the Great Lakes and the Mediterranean can boast currents and eddy lines to keep the local paddling community on its toes. Itʼs no surprise therefore, that the ability to cross these lines is a key skill for many paddlers.
This article take a look at the skill of moving from one zone of water to another – thereʼs plenty of information here to improve your confidence over those mysteriously swirling waters. If the fast water of a tide race already holds no fears for you, there are a few new ideas here to experiment with and, hopefully, to develop your eddy line moves. Many of the balance, boat trim and posture ideas explored in previous articles are particularly relevant to the skills outlined here.
Itʼs all too easy to imagine powerful tide races when we talk about moving water skills, but letʼs leave those oceanic beasts well alone for now. What we really need is a simple area of moving water with safe water downstream, a few well defined eddies, room to maneuver and an easy route back upstream. Many tidal channels, river mouths and coastal areas have excellent training venues. The key is to find a place where you can work on refining skills without the consequences that more exposed locations can create. In this article I refer to all venues as ʻtide racesʼ as a generic description for any suitable venue.
Itʼs a good idea to kayak with a couple of other people, for safety and for motivation when working through the range of exercises. Itʼs always more fun to paddle in company!
Check out the big picture & zoom in on the detail
It’s easy to get disorientated by the complex flow of water in a tide race – even simple moving water contains subtle changes in speed and direction that can appear baffling at first sight. Itʼs a good idea, therefore, to look at the overall scene and ask yourself a few questions:
Whatʼs the overall picture – which direction is main tidal stream flowing? Are there significant eddies that are feeding into the tide race – where are they? Whatʼs the wind strength-direction? Is it creating ʻwind-withʼ or ʻwind-againstʼ tide conditions? Are the eddies identifiable – are the rocks creating them visible?
It may be helpful to view the tide race from a different perspective – if a convenient headland allows you to get a little higher, the new vantage point can reveal water movements otherwise invisible from sea level. This new viewpoint can also help you to plan routes between eddies and across zones of faster water.
Itʼs also important to look at the detail of the environment – recognising the exact direction and speed of water is important in choosing the correct boat angle and position on the eddy line. Try to zoom in on precise movements of water – there may be small changes of direction where water flows around rocks or over underwater obstructions, or changes in
speed in different sections of the race. Identifying these will help greatly in planning accurate moves across the eddy lines.
Itʼs all won and lost in the eddy
If youʼre planning to leave an eddy and head into the faster water, remember that you have, at this moment, complete control over what happens next. Youʼre free to choose an exact point to cross the eddy line, youʼre able to select a specific place inside the eddy from where to begin the move, and youʼre able to choose the boat angle, speed and paddle strokes to make the move youʼve planned. Take time to choose all these elements, check that they combine well together and consider your intended outcome. Are you planning to turn quickly downstream or make a longer radius turn away from the eddy line? Are aiming to cross the fast water towards another eddy? Or are you setting up to surf a wave? If you know where youʼre intending to go, youʼve a much better chance of getting there…
Small changes & big differences
When practising turns on flat water, small changes in boat speed, trim and angle tend to produce small differences in outcome. For example, if we edge a little more the boat will be a little more maneuverable – and we therefore experience a slightly tighter turn. This progressive change in results creates easily-understood feedback and allows us to experiment freely with the variables that control the turn.
On moving water, however, the powerful dynamic of moving water creates forces on the kayak that magnify the effects of small changes in elements of our technique. For example, when crossing an eddy line, a small change in boat angle – say, increasing the angle of the kayak in relation to the water flow from 10 to 20 degrees – can produce a dramatically different arc and speed of turn. These ʻbig differencesʼ resulting from ʻsmall changesʼ can catch us out, leaving us fighting the unexpected movement of the kayak. The answer? Try to make the ʻsmallestʼ change to the your boat angle, measure the resulting difference in the move and make another ʻsmallestʼ change. This incremental approach will help to refine your ability to process the feedback from the kayak and will help to develop more precise paddling skills.
Remember, on moving water small changes make big differences! Lead with the head & stay ahead of the boat.
Many people focus on not ʻleaning upstreamʼ to avoid ʻcatching the flowʼ with their upstream edge. The confusion of figuring out which is the ʻupstreamʼ edge can lead to wobbly turns, less confident moves and capsizes. Thereʼs an easy solution to this – look again at the flow of water, identify the eddy line and imagine which way your kayak is likely to turn as you go from one zone of water to another. Itʼs really quite easy to do this, especially if there are other kayakers around. Pick a paddler, track their progress through the water and observe which way their kayak turns as the cross eddy lines. Got it? Now letʼs look at confidently making those same moves.
As you approach a new zone of water, anticipate the direction the kayak will turn and turn your head and shoulders in this direction, looking for a new target on the inside of the turn.
This way, youʼll stay ahead of the kayakʼs movement and will feel the kayak “catch upʼ with you as you complete the turn. Itʼs a dynamic way to commit to your turns and provides a balanced position for your to control the kayakʼs movement.
We can combine this ʻlead with the headʼ approach with other related posture changes that will help in faster water. If you experiment on flat water with a rotation of the head and shoulders – say, to the left – youʼll notice that the left edge of the kayak naturally drops a little as your body weight shifts to the left corner of the seat. This can be a relaxed way to change the hull shape and is highly effective when combined with a heightened awareness of your upper bodyʼs position over (or beyond) the kayak.
Itʼs also a good idea, especially in more challenging water, to combine upper body rotation into the turn with a forward weight shift. This places your upper body over your lower knee, keeps your centre of gravity closer to the kayak and is an excellent coping strategy in bigger water. Youʼre still well placed to paddle dynamically in this position and you can adopt a more upright body position as soon as your sense of balance allows.
Experiment with one element at a time
Boat speed, boat angle, boat position on the eddy line, paddle stroke selection, boat trim and body position are all key elements of successful moves when crossing eddy lines. The problem is, itʼs seems terribly complicated to work out the specific effect of technique changes. Every turn can feel different and finding consistency can seem very elusive. Hereʼs a simple strategy for organising your own practice and taking your performance to the next level:
Start in an area of moving water within your comfort zone, with a working area and eddies that you can return to after each set of moves. Warm up with a few crosses and eddy turns, simply using techniques that youʼre comfortable with. Once youʼre feeling ready to experiment, focus more carefully on the elements of your existing technique. Try to cross the same point on the eddy line, using the same boat speed, angle and trim, the same body position and paddle strokes.
Now you can start to vary one element of your technique – for example, try increasing or reducing boat speed while maintaining the boat angle and position. Then, try making small changes to boat angle while keeping the boat speed constant. You can also keep boat speed and angle the same while experimenting with changes in posture – body rotation and weight shifts.
This is one way to vary practice – an important component in improving performance. You can also build variety into your practice by working with a variety of eddies and by finding a variety of routes between eddies. Versatility and awareness are the key components of quality performance – varied practice goes a long way towards achieving this goal. Here are a few exercises to help develop awareness:
Boat speed: cross eddy lines at 40%, 60%, 80% and 100% of your maximum speed
Boat angle: when leaving eddies, experiment with angles between 5 and 45 degrees. When entering eddies, experiment with all boat angles
Boat trim: use a 1 (almost flat) to 5 (personal maximum) edging/leaning scale to explore the effect of changing boat trim
Body position: pick a target, focus on it, open your upper body in the new direction and ʻleadʼ the kayak towards that target. Experiment with upright posture and forward weight shifts.
Paddle Strokes: make moves using paddle strokes that maintain boat speed, then experiment with paddle stroke combinations that maximise the turning effect on the eddy line. There are more ideas on this later in the article.
Eddy line awareness: stop the kayak between zones of water, with your hips directly over the eddy line. Try spinning the boat without moving fully into one zone or another, leading with the head to encourage your kayak to ʻfollowʼ your body.
You can also make eddy turns and crosses in reverse, building awareness of the effect of boat angle and speed without the distraction of being able to see where youʼre going!
The list of experimentation exercises you can follow is almost endless – use your imagination to build your own repertoire of varied practice.
Plan your route & visualise the moves
Itʼs vital to have a plan of action before you leave the security of the eddy or, if youʼre already in the flow, before your target eddy gets too close. If youʼre in the calm water of an eddy youʼll have time to visualise your chosen move. Try to clear your mind of distracting negative thoughts, focus on the corridor of water through which your kayak will move, imagine the path you and the boat the will take and picture the body movements-paddle strokes youʼll need. If youʼre able to safely close your eyes, visualise yourself making the move and focus on a successful outcome. Take confidence from the ʻvideoʼ youʼve just enjoyed, prepare to make the move and commit to it. If youʼre unable to see a successful outcome, run through it again in your mind and try to work out what changes are needed to make a successful move.
Of course, youʼre unlikely to visualise every move and at times the action occurs quickly enough to make such rehearsal strategies unrealistic. But practising this skill can help enormously in improving your performance, making visualisation less important in a wider range of conditions.
Eddy lines vs eddy zones
You may have noticed that not all eddy lines are the same – depending on the size/shape of the obstruction and your downstream position, the eddy line may appear as a clearly defined boundary between two zones of water or as an indistinct area of recirculating water. Both situations offer different challenges.
If crossing a clear and sharp eddy line, it is much easier to spot your approach and to time your actions as the kayak crosses from one zone to another. The trade off is that the forces acting on the boat will be much greater, with potentially faster turns. Balance, accuracy and anticipation are essential elements of a successful move. If planning to turn downstream, consider a longer arc with a more streamlined boat angle as the kayak meets the eddy line. If you have to make a tight turn, commit to a broader angle, pre-rotate to spot your downstream target, stay forward with your upper body ahead of your hips and lead the kayak through the turn. This is also a situation where a precise approach to the eddy line will pay dividends – take the time to look carefully at the flow of water, the angle
of the eddy line, your position from the upstream obstruction and the wave shapes in the flow next to your entry point. Small changes will make a big difference!
If planning to make a cross without losing ground downstream, boat angle and speed are vital to success. Choose a sharp (<20 degrees) boat angle and commit to a higher boat speed that will enable you to cross the eddy line as quickly as possible. Imagine yourself beginning to surf a wave before you reach the eddy line, with the ʻrideʼ continuing until you have completely cleared the eddy line. Remember also that an increasing speed of water as you head deeper into the tide race can also cause a turning effect, so maintain your speed well beyond the eddy line.
If crossing wider, less defined eddy ʻzonesʼ, the issues facing us a little different. The turning effect on kayak is reduced, but the turbulent water of the eddy zone can play havoc with our boat speed and angle. As you approach the zone, look beyond it into the target body of water and focus on making a long enough radius turn to completely clear the circulating water. The kayakʼs natural tendency is to turn more tightly than needed, so be ready to make power strokes or even sweep strokes on the inside of the turn. This is a balanced and natural place to work, as your natural body position will be towards the inside of the turn. Aim to maintain forward boat speed, even if you lose your ideal boat angle.
Sea kayak turns & white water moves
The subtleties of turning sea kayaks give us the option of using both ʻinsideʼ and ʻoutsideʼ edge turns. On open water, away from eddy lines and breaking waves, these choices are often clear and easy to understand. In moving water, however, it can get a bit confusing. If youʼre luck enough to have a white water kayak background, the answer is simple: when crossing eddy lines, imagine yourself in a very long river boat and do what come naturally! If youʼre new to this game, remember that youʼre edging/leaning to stay in balance and ahead of the kayak as it turns and accelerates between zones of water. Commit to your new course, lead with the head, look where you want to go and the kayak will edge in the right direction. In practice, this results in an inside edge turn.
Between eddy lines, depending on your confidence, you can use all the usual techniques for turning sea kayaks. if youʼre feeling balanced enough, an outside edge turn can be an effective way to spin the kayak in readiness for the next move. So be prepared to mix techniques – just look out for those eddy lines!
Passive turns & active turns
If you find a balanced body position when crossing the eddy line, youʼll be free to experiment with a variety of paddle strokes to control the arc of the turn. Many paddlers lean on a low brace until the boat clears the eddy line, but this is a passive approach that depends upon the kayakʼs speed and angle as it leaves the eddy. If youʼre happy to go for a ʻpassiveʼ turn, work on a more balanced position by applying less blade pressure on the surface of the water. With practice, youʼll soon be able to skim the blade over the top of the eddy line, or even keep the blade out the water completely.
An active or more dynamic approach gives us lots of advantages. We can increase or reduce speed, have a reference point for balance, change boat angle and change the arc of the turn. Try out the following exercises for more versatile turns:
Set a speed and angle approaching the turn and aim to maintain an unbroken forward paddling action throughout the turn. Simply allow the kayak to follow its own arc; your job is to keep paddling! It helps to begin with a fairly sharp initial boat angle.
Repeat the exercise, this time working switching to a series of short power strokes on the inside of the turn as the bow of the kayak reaches the eddy line. This will help to maintain speed and will create a longer arc through the water. You can also replace the power strokes with sweep strokes on the inside of the turn. This can feel more balanced and will help to drive the boat further across the flow.
If youʼre looking for a tight turn, you can switch to reverse strokes to tighten the kayakʼs arc. At its most basic, an increase in blade pressure in the low brace position can help to spin the kayak as you cross the eddy line. For more accuracy and control, try rotating into the turn to place a stern rudder in the water alongside the kayak. As the boat begins to turn over the eddy line, a reverse sweep will tighten the arc – simply choose the necessary blade pressure to control the turn. Remember that good body rotation is needed for this technique and be careful not to stall on the eddy line. A decent approach speed in the eddy can help to reduce this risk.
Take it to the next level
The exercises outlined here are simple, basic foundations for a solid performance. So what to do next? They work well in a wide range of conditions, so thereʼs no need to unlearn anything when the the water gets faster. Of course, itʼs a good idea to develop accuracy and control in simple situations – ʻhard moves on easy waterʼ. But if youʼre looking to get out into the big stuff, remember to take a progressive approach, test your skills gradually and find yourself a strong supportive group of friends to paddle with. Thereʼs a world of adventure beyond the eddy line, so letʼs cross it with style!