Handling Waves in Your Kayak

kayak in water

Waves and wind seem to go hand in hand. Wind that’s blowing over open water will quickly create waves. The average kayaker with the best fishing kayak and a reliable roll can have plenty of fun learning how to kayak in waves. Waves tend to look much bigger and more intimidating from a kayak compared to when you’re standing safely on shore.

Key Takeaway: Even those who are naturally into taking on new challenges should tread cautiously when kayaking in rough waves for the first time. There are a variety of ways to handle choppy water, but the most important thing you should know is how to position the kayak in relation to the wave to prevent it from tipping over and in order to allow the kayak to move forward. There are no real tricks to mastering the waves other than having a heightened sense of awareness and knowing how to carefully handle your kayak in even the roughest waters.

If you’ve decided to try your hand at ocean fishing and you want to learn how to handle choppy waters, read on to learn more. 

Ocean Angling 

If you want to be prepared for your ocean angling adventure, practicing in choppy water conditions prior to bringing along all of your fishing gear is a great idea. 

For some, riding waves in a kayak can be an unexpected adventure, while for others, the rough water conditions can easily ruin an otherwise fun fishing trip. Learning how to ride waves in a kayak does come with some serious challenges since kayaks are prone to tipping or being tossed around. If you learn how to use your weight to steady the kayak you can easily master this type of thrilling ride. 

Mastering the Waves 

A sea kayak is specifically designed to handle rough waves. Being comfortable with rough water will only come with experience and it’s totally up to the kayaker to set their own threshold in terms of how big of a wave is just too big. Most kayakers can easily handle waves that are one to three feet in height. However, a breaking wave can pack a powerful punch and they can be tricky to navigate without the right skill set. An experienced kayaker will be totally comfortable handling waves in their kayak even when the waves are four to six feet high. However, these ocean conditions can make the beginner uneasy. A breaking wave of this size can also be very dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted without the right equipment and the proper experience. 

Kayaking in large waves can definitely be fun, but a beginner must be aware that taking on larger waves can easily result in a capsize. Proper low and high bracing must be mastered before they even attempt to travel in rougher seas. Friendly shore breaks and protected bays both offer great places to practice. Beginners can also sign up for advanced sea kayaking courses and have an instructor work with them on perfecting their bracing techniques. 

As a kayaker, there’s plenty of room to grow and understanding the concept of waves, currents, and wind will be a significant step in the right direction. The best way to learn about challenging water conditions is to get out there and be exposed to them, however, this should only be done with another kayaker or an instructor. 

A Beginners Guide to Ocean Kayaking 

ocean kayaking

First, view the water conditions as you soon as you reach your destination. If you’re totally new to ocean kayaking or kayaking in general, don’t head for the water if it looks rough. The waves can fluctuate and change throughout the day. Safety is the most important thing. 

Before you head out make sure you’re dressed for water safety. While it can be tempting to go kayaking without a life jacket and helmet, it’s a bad idea. You never know when you’ll be tossed upside down. 

Getting into Choppy Water 

In choppy water, it’s best to get into the kayak at the edge of the water where the surf hits the shore. Doing so prevents the kayak from getting moved by the impinging coastline.   The kayak should be positioned at ninety degrees to the waves, otherwise the waves will grab the front of the boat, turning it sideways and basically making it impossible to launch.

When you’re ready to launch you can use your arms under the kayak to lift it up and push it into the water. Once you’ve pushed off into the water, get ready for battle.

Learning how to punch out into waves can be challenging for those new to rough water conditions. It will definitely take some determination and strength on the kayaker’s part. As soon as a wave strikes, the kayaker will need to lean forward as much as possible, placing their forehead close to the foredeck. Next, they’ll need to plunge their paddle into the water vertically, holding the paddle so that it anchors them in place when a wave hits. The next move is paddling as fast as possible in order to get out into open waters before another wave hits. As you can see, you’ll need to move quickly here to avoid being pushed back to shore.

Know Your Waves

The kayak is designed so that the bow is pointed into the wind. In order to accommodate this you’ll need to use a corrective paddle. The rudder can also be used to prevent kayaker fatigue during this time. A deeper understanding of how the kayak moves can help you know how to correctly paddle in a variety of water conditions.

When you’re kayaking, you’ll run into a few different types of waves. The most common type is called beam waves. This type of wave approaches the kayak from the sides. Head to wind are the type of waves you’ll encounter when you’re heading straight ahead into waves, while following sea waves are waves that will push the kayak from the rear.

When the kayak is moving forward it’s the most stable, but most beginners tend to lift their arms and allow the kayak to bob around on the water, making it very unstable. In order to improve stability you’ll want to continue to paddle and move forward.

In order to significantly reduce the bobbing effect try paddling into the crest of the wave, pulling the kayak through the trough. Each stroke works to pull the kayak over the deeper portion of the trough, which will make your ride much smoother.

When you’re dealing with beam waves or you’re paddling head to wind, you’ll notice that there are troughs and crests on an angled path. When you guide the kayak down these angled paths it helps to significantly reduce bobbing as you paddle through a wave.

know your waves

Did you know that most waves travel in sets of five? Between each of these waves there will be a short pause, which is caused by wind gusts. When you’re completing a landing make sure you take advantage of these pauses. Be patient and carefully watch the pattern of the waves before you make your way to shore. Most pros will tell you to ride the last wave of the set back to land. When doing so, you’ll need to quickly take off the kayak’s spray skirt and pull your kayak out of the water before another set begins.

Based on how the waves interact with the shoreline, you’ll choose your landing spot. You should choose the flattest spot possible.

Your First Challenge: Prepare for An Adventure

The first thing you should do is position your kayak perpendicular to the waves, so you can use them as momentum in order to propel yourself forward. Doing so will also conserve your energy while allowing you to work with the waves instead of against them. 

Next, continue to paddle until you’ve reached the crest of the wave. If needed, you can make adjustments in your direction. 

Focus on centering your gravity while keeping an eye on the waves. If a wave passes quickly under you and you happen to be leaning forward too far, the stern will rise, tipping you over. 

 By leaning your weight back and bringing the bow up you can easily steady the stern. 

Now, start paddling backward over the waves if you want to steady your weight to regain control. If you end up in a broken wave, the kayak will most likely turn sideways. Try leaning into the water in order to steady yourself. Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling. 

In order to avoid being tossed stay lateral over the wave. In the event you end up getting turned around you can return to the parallel position right after you ride a wave. 

Using the Right Type of Kayak

A recreational kayak shouldn’t be used in the ocean. The only type of kayak that should be used in choppy water is a whitewater kayak that’s a sit on top model designed for ocean use, such as the Vibe Kayaks Skipjack 90 fishing kayak. This type of kayak knows how to move in rough waters and won’t easily capsize. These kayaks may not be as stealthy as a racing kayak, but they can easily slice through waves and give the kayaker more control over performance and direction. 

Ocean Kayaking Tips 

  • If you plan on kayaking in rough waters always wear a helmet and a life jacket. 
  • Try practicing with small waves before you attempt to tackle rough ocean conditions or rapids. 
  • Don’t go kayaking alone, especially if you’re a beginner. 
  • Learn how to get water out of a kayak before you even consider heading out to sea. Often, pros recommend investing in a kayak pump, which can be a fast, efficient way to bail out water when you’re in a jam. 
Final Thoughts

As you can see, when it comes to how to kayak in waves, there’s a lot to learn, even for experienced kayak anglers. We recommend going out with an experienced kayaker at least three times in order to observe the unpredictable behavior of ocean waves and to get some great pointers on how to handle different types of water conditions, how to paddle in choppy water, and what to do in the event you capsize.