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How Water Currents Can Affect Kayaking

Learning to read the water can have a huge impact on kayaking safely and efficiently. As you continue to grow as a paddler you will find more and more enjoyment in the sport. Becoming literate at reading rivers, eddies, swirls, waves, and more will have you improving your kayaking experience.

Even if you don’t plan to run a Class III rapid, you can still benefit from being aware of water currents. Anytime you get on the water, it is important to remember that the water doesn’t care about you, you need to care about the water. Therefore, your greatest asset as a kayaker is your paddle. It gives you control when it is in the water, but not when it isn’t. Many first time paddlers will freeze when they encounter a powerful water event - and hold their paddle out of the flow. This leaves you at the mercy of the current. Learning to use your “best friend” and you will be much safer and more efficient.

Water Currents Affect Safety When Kayaking

  • Check before you go

Unfortunately, way too many kayakers skip this vital first step: check the water level at your destination. Rivers particularly are impacted by water levels and spots that are a benign class I at low levels become raging class III after a storm. High water levels might also hide eddies, underwater debris, or cause rapid flow.

  • Know your skill level

Now that you know the water level, you must also know your kayaking skill level. Don’t risk rapids or flow that is outside of your ability. It is vitally important that you not let your ego lead you where your skill can’t back it up. Take your time and incremental assess and take on challenges. This might mean kayaking a section at lower water levels and getting comfortable before trying it again at another time, slowly building up your familiarity and experience.

  • Avoid hazards

Be wise and keep an eye out for obstacles that would land you in trouble. Particularly, low head dams. Many of these have been removed because they are such a danger. But some “strainers” are caused by natural occurrences like trees or underwater obstructions. These small drops / hazards can create such force against them that paddlers (no matter their experience level) can get stuck under hundreds of pounds of pressure. They are called drowning machines for just this reason. If you see or know of a weir/low-head dam, turn around or portage around it. And remember that just because it wasn’t there yesterday, doesn’t mean it isn’t there today. Don’t take chances!

Another danger that needs to be avoided on rivers is foot entrapment. This is most likely to occur if you capsize or find yourself walking in a river. This can be extremely dangerous because the current moves and shifts rocks on the bottom all the time, and it is all too easy to find that your foot slips into a crevice or gets caught between rocks. Always, avoid walking in a river, if possible. If you do capsize, use your kayak to float you to the shore before attempting to stand and re-enter the ‘yak.

Other obstacles like rocks, eddies, and waves can’t always be avoided, but are generally approached best head-on (figuratively, if not literally). If you find yourself pushed alongside a rock sideways, make sure that you don’t lean away from it or you risk capsizing. Push off the obstacle with your hand and continue on. Or even better use the paddle to skeg to keep your approach well away from danger. Approach a wave with your bow to reduce chances of capsize.

The last hazard to avoid is kayaking solo. It is always wise, especially as you are learning and gaining confidence, to paddle with a group, a class, or even a friend. Embrace the community of paddle sports and let them work with you and for you. 

Water Currents Affect Efficiency When Kayaking

As you gain more experience as a kayaker, you learn more about how water moves - and you can begin to use it in your favor. Crosscurrents can make you stray from your path while bow currents (coming at you) can slow you down and make you tire quickly. Also, be aware when wind and currents are going in opposite directions.

Look for clues to gauge the wind (flags or other wind impacted signals) or the directions of current (floats or buoys).

  • Drifting with wind and current

Much of your time kayaking will be spent in the main current of smoothly flowing water. Finding that current and staying with it will move you along quickly and efficiently. Use your skeg or paddle rudder to keep yourself moving with the flow.

  • Moving into and out of an eddy / whirlpool

Sometimes when you’re kayaking, you might want to move out of the main current and slow down. Eddies are spots of calm, flat water. They might be over an underwater obstruction like boulders, sand bars, or islands. They are places you are protected from the main current, but you need to take care when entering or exiting.

When entering an eddy, lean into the direction of your turn a bit and slow yourself with your paddle once you cross the line.

To exit an eddy, get up a bit of speed and cross the line upstream a bit. When you enter the main current, it will take your bow and move you into the direction of flow, lean into the turn a bit.

  • Encountering waves / breakers

If you encounter waves or breakers in the main current while kayaking, make sure to keep paddling forward and meet it head on. That is your best chance of avoiding a capsize. If you get hit from the side, it can mean getting flipped. Sometimes, hitting a big wave means you take on water. Use your bilge pump or sponge to remove it.

Water currents will only work for you when you know how they work. So spend time learning to “read” the waves when kayaking and soon you will be ‘going with the flow’. Happy paddling!

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