Tips on Remaining Safe in Unsafe Waters

Riding the Waves to Safety

The skies were clear with a gentle southwesterly breeze that was ticking the anemometer at 5 knots. The tide was on the turn and I was paddling to one of my favorite fishing holes, especially during these types of conditions. As always the case, prior to setting course, I checked the marine weather to ensure there were no changes in the forecast. This was going to be a good night. I could just feel it.

The sun was slowly fading as it touched the horizon and slowly disappeared into the cool, humid summer sky. I was fishing alone on this evening – something I don´t generally do as I believe fishing with a partner under dark skies is always one´s best choice. But the allure of perfect conditions and the solitude it would bestow on my weary mind drove my decision to fish “solo.” I was only fishing a mile from the launch and if conditions turned, I could always head for shore prior to anything serious effecting my outing. Well, that´s what I thought anyway.

I was fishing just outside of an area where a nice little rip had formed. The tide, running out of the harbor at a swift pace was battling the offshore breeze – the perfect conditions for a well-formed rip along some structure.

My plan was to fish just outside of the turbulent water with a three-wayed eel. The striped bass had been locked into this area for quite some time as they had settled into their summer routine. As I paddled out to the fishing grounds, there wasn´t a boat to be seen. It was in fact a weeknight, therefore the boat traffic was minimal at best, just the way a kayak fisherman likes it.

I made a couple of practice drifts and then set up shop. On my second drift, I landed a fat, healthy 33-incher. Yep, this was shaping up nice.

Although the bass weren´t big on this evening, I was ecstatic that I was catching fish on such a beautiful evening. Apparently, my glee blinded me from the fact there was a large mass of dark clouds approaching from the southwest. During stretches of good fishing, it is easy to ignore your environment, which includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Weather
  2. Boats
  3. Tidal Conditions

The soft breeze, in what appeared to be over the course of a couple of minutes, had dramatically intensified. “Just one more drift and I´ll head in closer to shore,” I thought to myself. By the time the drift had ended, I had water washing over the side of the kayak. The rip became even more treacherous. I placed the retired fishing rod in the rod holder and attempted to paddle in.

To abbreviate the story, I obviously made it back to port in one piece by utilizing some boating techniques to ensure a safe return. The less experienced kayaker may not run into a situation like this for some time, but when you do, you need to be prepared.

Tips on Remaining Safe in Unsafe Waters

First and foremost, do not panic. A vast majority of the fishing kayaks made today are surprisingly stable. Stop your mind from racing and take a look at your surroundings. Set a course on your GPS or compass and start paddling.

Try to avoid tracking straight into waves, regardless of whether they are running with or against you. This is never the smoothest course and oftentimes can get you into trouble.

Direct the yak in a 15-45 degree angle to the wave direction. This will allow for a smoother ride back and avoid getting soaked or even worse, flipped. Furthermore, this will prevent the kayak from dropping off the top portion of the wave (crest) and barreling into the next oncoming wave at the lowest point (trough).

Speed is also a very important factor in navigating difficult water conditions. The goal is to paddle fast enough without leaving the water when crossing the next wave. Try to ensure your approaches are as smooth as possible both on the ascent and descent of the wave.

If you are paddling in with a strong wind to your back, as I was in the story described above, try to avoid riding the waves in the same direction as the water flow. A large enough swell can lift the stern of your boat and either flip you immediately or turn your yak, thus leaving you exposed on a 90 degree angle for the next oncoming wave. In dangerous conditions, this is a recipe for disaster.

Keep in mind, by taking the “angled” approach to paddling with or against treacherous waves, you may be forced to track away from your destination, This will result in a longer paddle back to port and you might find yourself a good distance from where you need to go. But once you are close enough to shore and the conditions rescind, the extra distance you´ll be forced to paddle will be safer and less frantic.

If you have a VHF, periodically check the weather report. As many of you know, especially those who fished Jamaica Bay this year (2006), conditions can turn on a dime. It only takes a couple of seconds to perform this task and will ensure a safe return to the launch.

Mother nature has a way of sneaking up on all of us. Sooner or later, every reader of this article will get caught in a meteorological situation that was not expected. The key is to be prepared for the worst and use the knowledge that you have to ensure a safe return home.

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