How to Paddle Through Waves: Kayak Technique

The reason for this post is in that recently when I was discussing stability, I was showing the kayak being sideways to a wave. And several people commented, “Well wouldn’t you want to be facing the wave instead of being sideways to the wave?” And while that is true, that’s actually the first tip for this one. That doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself at some point in different positions and orientations that you want to the wave. Trust me. There’s been times upside down, sideways, backwards being slammed against the ground. Sometimes despite your best ability, the wave will decide for you. So if your plan is to only deal with waves, when you’re launching and landing, there’s still a chance you might end up in a different position you’re not expecting on the wave.

All right? So let’s get into the tips. The first one, as I mentioned before, orientation. Usually the best position that you want to be in versus the wave is staring right at it. Your kayak as it is we’ll want to get through it if it’s pointing directly at the wave. The same way, the water parts, as you paddle through, don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of situations that the waves are going to behave very differently. It might pick you up and slam you without you even trying, but lengthwise, you just have a lot more stability than side to side and facing the wave means you can keep an eye on it the entire time. You know exactly where it is.

And lastly, and this will tie into the next tip ,is that you can power into it. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but a fun thing to do as kids is, if you’re in the ocean and waves are coming at you, you wait at the right time and then you try to dive right under it. The idea is if you have enough momentum, you punch right into the face of the wave. You’ll end up on the other side. It can be a similar thing if you’re trying to punch through or over a wave.

So the second tip is, make sure your blade is in the water. And you’re getting momentum into that wave. I know that one of the reflexes we have is as a wave comes, we think, “Oh, we got to lift their arms up and go over it.” If the blade is in the water, you have control of your movements. If your blade is up in the air, you’re not in control, the wave will be taking over. From me to reminds me of my time years ago in Charleston for training, I went out with a group out to the jetty in the Charleston Harbor, and we were playing in a tie race, Nigel were sort of coached that day. One of the exercises we were doing as we were going up and into the waves coming around, and then coming back with the waves, always trying to be in control.

For a couple of us that were just getting used to being in those waves. As we did the exercise, Nigel was next to us and every time a wave was coming, he would just yell out, “Power!”


Similar to the way Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear would do. And the idea was plant your blade in the water. And as you see that wave cresting, make sure you get through. Adding to that tip, be wary of where your paddle shaft is. Make sure you’re not holding it right in front of your face, because if the wave crashes and slams into you, that shaft will slam right into your face. Keep that shaft to the side a little bit just away from your face.

At the same time, a little tip. This is something I really liked doing. I can’t remember who mentioned it to me, but if you get the timing, right, I really like trying to make it so that the wave comes right past my feet. And then I plant my blade on the other side of the wave. So on the back face of the wave, and then I power through, that’s helped me a lot of times with bigger waves because as they slam into me, my paddle is already past the wave and it’s pulling me through the wave. So even though the blade might have a lot of power slamming into me, I am pulling myself right through it, rather than just hoping that I had enough momentum to get through.

Another thing you could do is if something is really going to slam on you, try to present less surface area to the waves. So a lot of people like ducking a bit as you’re doing this so that the wave doesn’t just slam into your body and push it backwards, but it will allow you to punch through the wave a little bit easier, depending on the type of wave you’re going through.

Last tip, which is my favorite and this one might be a little more advanced, so you need to be comfortable in your role and you need to be comfortable in waves to pull this one off. But the idea is, as I mentioned before, as kids, it’s always really fun to try to dive under the wave as the wave face appears, because if you go under the wave just goes right over you. And the idea is the same here as the wave approaches, as long as it’s deep enough under you, you can roll and let the wave go past you and then roll back up.

I know that Kate and Jeff, out in Mendocino, they have a really great blog post and they have a couple of different ways of punching into ways, which I highly recommend reading up on because they also have very different conditions than we do here in New York. They have several other tips and I highly recommend that read, but they call it a turtle dive. And it’s just a lot of fun to do. I think it’s also really good for just feeling more confident with waves. I mentioned previously about managing fear when you’re sea kayaking, where one of the things I like to do is try to go to a setting and then just practice for a while in an area that I feel more confident, or I may feel more comfortable in.

When I was in Oregon for Lumpy, there was a time that we were playing in an area that had bigger waves that I know I could have handled, but instead I chose to play in slightly smaller waves and then I was presenting my side to the wave. I was forward to the wave backwards to the wave. I was getting tossed around and I was doing these rolls as waves came, just to feel more confident.

Recently when I was in Maine, I took a swim when we were playing in current in looking back on that I know it was because I didn’t feel confident enough or comfortable if I had just taken the time, tried a bunch of roles before doing the exercises. We were there three days. The first day I kept thinking, “Oh man, if I miss this wave, I don’t know. What’s waiting for me behind me.” But by the third day I felt a lot more comfortable. And then I felt more confident to paddle better playing in the current. I didn’t take the time to feel more confident. So this is a move that always helps me feel more comfortable in different paddling situations.

Anyway, to wrap up, please do not underestimate waves. The sea always wins, but it’s great to work on skills, learn how to handle waves and do the best you can in them. Please, if you can always work with paddlers that know what they’re doing, either friends or coaches. Don’t go out alone, especially in the beginning, go with someone that can help you out. That can give you tips on the spot. Maybe taking some surf classes, some rough water classes, and the same thing goes for our conditions. “Okay, can you handle what’s in front of you? Have you been watching sets? Do you understand where waves are breaking?” It’s very easy to get hurt and waves, even small ones. They pack a lot of power. If there’s anything you’d like to add, or you have any stories you want to share, or any other tips that you like to have while you’re playing in waves, please comment below. I hope this post was helpful. Subscribe if you’d like. See you next time.

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