05 - Downwind Paddling Technique

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Paddling downwind can be fun. Practice and skills developed in controlled conditions can pay off in a free ride or when conditions get difficult.

The key to comfort and even enjoying downwind paddling is practice. Practice in conditions that are controlled and safe. Anywhere on the water with the wind blowing and enough fetch to produce wind waves provides downwind paddling opportunities. But when you are just starting out, choose a place that has protection nearby, a shore to land on downwind and conditions that you are sure are within your capabilities. A nice 10 to 15 knot breeze and 2-3 foot waves is a good starting place. An area with high land at right angles to the wind and a long fetch in the open water will allow you to have shelter nearby and a wind block to let you paddle back upwind in relative calm while still having an opportunity to get in some practice in higher wave conditions. Do not go out for practice in high wind conditions with the wind blowing out to sea! Start small and work your way up to higher winds and bigger waves.

You should study the dynamics of wind waves. Wind waves get bigger as the wind gets stronger. They also get bigger as the wind has more time to act on them and push them higher. The time the wind has had to work on building the waves higher is a combination of the distance over which the wind works on the water, called fetch, and the duration, or length of time, that the wind has been blowing. For any given wind strength there is a maximum average wave size that can be reached given enough fetch and duration. At that point, more duration and more fetch does not add to the height of the average wave. This is called a fully developed sea. As the wind speed increases, the duration and fetch needed to reach the fully developed state increases.

Big tall waves have a longer period and lower frequency than smaller waves. They travel faster and do not dissipate as quickly as smaller waves. Therefore, long period waves travel farther and faster from a windy region than smaller waves. Large waves often arrive hours before a storm and can travel thousands of miles across the open ocean. Large Hawaiian surf waves are examples of long period waves that travel clear across the Pacific from the arctic and pile up onto the shore when the water becomes shallow.

This brings up another characteristic of waves. Waves in shallow water are steeper and more likely to break than waves in deep water. The friction with the bottom retards the bottom of the wave, steepens the wave, allowing the wind to pump more energy into them. Wind driven waves in shallow water will be steeper and closer together than waves in deep water. That is one reason the shallow Chesapeake Bay has such closely spaced steep wind waves when the wind blows hard. Small steep waves are easy to catch but harder to control than some bigger waves with more distance between crests and a lower slope on the face.

Surface waves have another unusual characteristic. They tend to travel in groups. There will be a set of a few wave crests that are larger than the general wave state. These waves travel together. When landing on a beach in surf, you may be well advised to wait for these larger waves to pass in order to catch a smaller set that usually follows. In downwind paddling in smaller waves, you may want to search these sets out in order to get a faster ride.

As you catch a group of larger waves and ride the crest forward, you will find that the wave dies out on you and the big wave you were riding diminishes while a smaller wave behind you builds to the size of the wave you are on. This strange effect is due to the fact that the energy of surface waves moves at a slower speed than the wave crests themselves (the phase speed is greater than the group velocity). You can use this to your advantage in downwind paddling. As you surf the wave forward and it dies out, just relax and wait for that crest to pass you and catch one of the larger ones coming up from behind.

Downwind conditions can cause control problems for many kayaks and novice paddlers. Many kayaks are on their worst behavior when traveling downwind, particularly when the wind is on the aft quarter. This is particularly so of kayaks without skegs or rudders. Frequently a kayak will be very difficult to keep going across the waves when the wind is on the aft quarter, tending to turn parallel to the crests and lie in the troughs of the waves. This is called weathercocking. Rudders and skegs can be used to counteract these tendencies, with a reduction in efficiency. Those without rudders have to work a little harder to counteract this tendency by paddling harder on one side than the other or by leaning the kayak to turn against this tendency. Of course, leaning a kayak for hours while making a passage in quartering winds can get very tiring, as can paddling more, or even exclusively, on one side.

To make a long downwind passage more efficient, you can try any or a combination of techniques. If you know you will encounter this condition prior to starting out, load your kayak with more weight in the stern. This will settle the stern of the kayak into the water making less wind resistance and more water resistance there. Move the bulky but light deck stowage to the front, increasing the wind resistance up forward. This reduces or eliminates the turning tendency of the wind on the kayak. Remember however, that it will increase the problem of trying to turn into the wind or keep a straight track when quartering into the wind should your course or the wind direction change. You can also shift your own weight forward and aft in the cockpit to achieve the same effect, although the change in body wind resistance counterbalances some of the weight shift and it is not as effective as moving the gear. However, it is easily reversible without assistance or needing to land.

Many paddlers use a stern rudder, brace or even back-paddle to correct course when faced with a stern wind condition. While this can effectively get the job done, it really scrubs off speed, slowing the kayak and requiring more effort to get going once again. Unless you are surfing the waves, try to avoid the need to brace and especially avoid back-paddling.

Another way to maintain course is to time your correcting strokes to the best advantage. When rising on a wave the wind resistance on the bow will be the greatest, use this to push the bow back downwind. As the wave passes under you and the bow clears the water, the kayak will be easy to turn through the water. Concentrate your stroke to make the most of this moment. Lean the kayak to counteract the broaching tendency as you come down the face of the wave. Use a stern rudder if required and get ready to do the same thing on the next wave.

As an example suppose your kayak is turning right into the wind. As the bow of the kayak is rising on a wave, do a stroke on the left side. The greater wind resistance of the bow going up the wave will counteract the tendancy of a left side stroke to turn the kayak further right. As the bow clears the top of the wave, plant your paddle for a right side stroke, and as the kayak becomes balanced at the cockpit with the bow partly out of the water, make a strong stroke to turn the bow to the left. As the kayak comes down the slope of the wave, lift your left knee to tilt the kayak up on the left side turning it to the left or at least counteracting the tendency of the kayak to turn back to the right as it comes down the slope of the wave. Then repeat as the next wave begins to lift the bow again.

Finally, consider not trying to hold your course all the time but to average out to the correct course. Run straight downwind for a while, then run in the troughs for a while, zigzagging back and forth (tacking) so that on average you are getting where you want to go. Although this will create a longer distance, the easier and probably faster paddling will get you there in the same amount of time and with less effort. Remember that going straight downwind more readily leads to uncontrolled surfing and a possible broach in big waves, while lying in the trough can cause problems where breaking waves can cause a capsize.

When paddling in the wave trough, watch out for the wind catching the paddle blade and pushing you over when paddling across the wind. Make sure your paddle has its leash attached to the kayak and let go if the wind catches your blade too strongly. Practice your braces and be ready to use a slap brace, low brace or high brace to keep from going over should a white cap or breaking wave come down on you.

If you are headed downwind or nearly so and the wave heights are within your comfort level, you can double your speed by surfing the waves. It is possible to maintain speeds of 7 or 8 knots for long periods if you surf well and efficiently. The crests of waves greater than 1/2 meter move at speeds in excess of most kayakers cruising speed. Using the sloping face of a passing wave to ride that wave is what surfing is all about.

Small steep waves are relatively easy to catch. Some large ocean swells may have a height of several meters, but be so long in between crests and have such a low slope that they are of little real surfing interest, although paddling when on the down slope and relaxing on the up slope can increase the efficiency of your passage in such conditions.

Some big waves are just too fast to be able to catch. Most waves will require some paddling and use of several strong power strokes in order to catch the wave. If you have ever body surfed, you will have a good idea of what is required. You kayak must have sufficient speed when the wave picks you up or otherwise it will pass beneath you and you will slow on the following upward slope. Start paddling with a power stroke as the trough is under your cockpit. As the wave picks you up, paddle with a quickened stroke rate. This process can be made less tiring and more effective by shifting you weight forward as the wave begins to pick you up. Then shift your weight back, shooting the kayak hull forward, as it gets on the slope of the wave. This will put your body back over the rear deck, settling the kayak into the crest of the wave and giving you more control. Tilt the kayak to maintain your course down the wave as you would a turn on flat water. As the kayak gains speed, a kick-up rudder will become more and more useless as the high speed will cause it to deflect out of the water. Near the crest of the wave, a rudder may be completely useless, hanging only in the air on the other side of the wave (skegs, being farther forward and non-rotating, are seldom susceptible to this problem.). This is why it is important to know how to control your boat using tilt and paddle braces.

As your kayak speeds down the face of the wave, the bow is slowed by the water in the trough and the stern is pushed by the speeding crest. This means that your kayak will have a tendency to broach, or turn into the trough, as it speeds down the face of the wave. Leaning back to keep the bow up and bury the stern into the wave will reduce this tendency, as will an appropriate tilt. But when surfing along at speed, frequently a stern rudder will be needed to keep things in control. Performing a stern rudder on the side opposite from the direction of the turn can keep the kayak from turning into the trough. A stern rudder where you strongly push the blade away from the stern will keep the kayak on course down the wave without losing too much speed. If the kayak keeps turning into the trough, you may need to lean on the paddle more and turn it into a stern brace. If the kayak still keeps turning into the wave it will eventually broach and you will need to switch sides in order to lean into the wave with a low or high brace (depending on the height of the wave). Deciding when to make the transition from stern brace to broach brace is dependent on the characteristics of the kayak and only practice will tell you when that point comes. Holding a stern brace too long is a sure invitation to rolling practice!

When practice raises your skill and comfort to easily gain surfing speed down a wave face, the joy and exhilaration as you race across the water can be intoxicating. On small wind waves, shooting down one of the larger waves and scooting across the smaller waves to gain the next steep wave face to start the process all over again is one of the great moments of kayaking.


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