Why you should paddle rivers in a sea kayak

By John Drent

I’ve always held the opinion that the ability to paddle in currents is a critical sea kayaking skill that should be practiced in controlled conditions before embarking on any ocean trip that may expose a paddler to tidal rapids. (and that would include the passes within the Gulf islands).

And so I was happy to find this comment by Ryan Rushton. Ryan is an avid whitewater paddler as well as sea kayak instructor who began running programs on the Menominee River to simulate tidal currents.

“During an expedition on the coast of Downeast Maine and New Brunswick, we spent a day at the reversing Falls of Cobscook Bay tidal races. Three of the six expedition members had taken their sea kayaks in current on the Menominee River while the remaining three had not. It was amazing to see the difference in proficiency between the two groups.

Those with the river experience were able to transfer these skills to the new environment instantaneously, playing in the current and moving their boats around with ease. Though the other three were talented paddlers, this new environment caused many tightly gripped paddles, shaky boats and rescues.

How can Great Lakes paddlers and ocean paddlers in areas like southern California, the Gulf of Mexico and many areas in the southeastern U.S. learn to handle dynamic ocean conditions? Whether you want to prepare yourself for British Columbia’s Skookumchuck tidal rapid or notorious races such as Wales’ Penhryn Mawr, or earn top certifications with any of the major paddlesports bodies, paddling high volume class II to III rivers in your sea kayak can improve your skills between trips to challenging tidal environments.

How do river currents compare to the races, rips and overfalls of the ocean?

Whitewater currents are created by gradient, the loss of elevation along the river. The steeper the gradient, the more powerful and technical the whitewater. Ocean currents are created by the tide. The larger the tidal range, the faster, more powerful and technical the currents and features.

Beyond causality, there are differences in the currents themselves. Tidal currents constantly change as the current goes from slack to max and back to slack again (and then turns and goes the opposite direction as ebb changes to flood). Whitewater currents stay relatively constant with the only change due to rising or falling water levels. Many tidal features are significantly affected or amplified by wind and ocean swell, whereas these environmental factors do not really affect whitewater.

Although there are significant differences, there are also many similarities when paddling sea kayaks in these seemingly polar environments. Eddy lines, standing waves and pour overs are found in both tidal and gradient inspired currents. How you manage boat speed and position, angle of approach and edging are basically the same. Eddy turns, peel -outs, attainments and ferry glides remain the most common maneuvers. The ability to surf a standing wave on a whitewater river transfers directly to surfing a standing wave at an overfall. Ditto coping with whirlpools.

When selecting a river for practice. Look for a high volume flow, wide deep channels with swift currents, numerous eddies and standing waves, and a safe wash out zone.

With coaching and practice, river features can prepare you to paddle anywhere the ocean beckons.”

Out here on the west coast we have relatively easy access to ocean conditions and if you take a level 2 Paddle Canada Sea Kayak Skills course, you should get some exposure to currents.

But we still have to hop on a ferry both ways and take the extra time to do it. It’s just more convenient and less costly to practice on local rivers.  Fortunately, we do have a few rivers of the type which are ideal for sea kayak practice (fast flowing but non- technical) and at the right water levels these rivers provide excellent practice opportunities.

Whether you are preparing for such adventures as Surge Narrows, Skookumchuck, or the Room of Doom, or just want to feel prepared for any currents you might encounter on an ocean trip, there are rivers to suit most skill levels. PIKA typically runs club trips on some of those rivers every year, as well as ocean current practice.

For those who are reluctant to test their touring beauty in the local river currents, you can’t go wrong by trying out the Vancouver Whitewater Club. They have low membership fees, loaner boats and introductory courses. The skills learned carry over quite well to sea kayaking.