Practical Paddling Details
I have some comments and tips about various aspects of paddling.
There are a few ways to find good places for paddling. At home, I browse through the ADC county maps for the region, looking for public boat ramps, public piers and landings, or places where a road passes close to a body of water. Since I can hand-carry my kayak, I don't necessarily need a boat ramp so I look for any type of public water access. I look in various listings of park facilities (ADC maps, DeLorme maps, state and county internet sites), since parks can have good water access. Plus, of course, I look in books like Maryland and Delaware Canoe Trails. If I'm passing by, I occasionally visit "state welcome centers" along major highways, which can be a good source of printed information. Even though I have lived in Maryland more than 20 years, I stop at these centers to collect information about parks and recreational activities and to get current maps. You can also surf the internet for kayaking or paddling clubs and magazines (which can have trip reports) and commercial web sites (like kayak/canoe rentals) that might have information on where you can paddle and where to put-in and take-out. The commercial outfitters may also provide shuttle services for individuals with their own watercraft.
After accumulating lots of information, I first like to scout new sites before making an actual paddling trip. I pick out several likely sites and arrange them to make a convenient day trip by car, usually when the weather is too unsettled for paddling. As I visit each location, I write detailed notes in my paddle log. When there's a weekend of good weather, I can plan a paddling trip using the notes I took.
There are lots of common-sense details when you're preparing for a trip. Bring the right clothes for the season, and in cooler weather, dress in layers so you can add or remove layers as necessary. Bring rainwear if there's any chance of rain—it's not that you're going to melt if you get wet—getting wet can greatly contribute to hypothermia, a potentially dangerous condition. Bring a change of clothes in a dry bag in case you take a spill.
Bring: drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, map, bailing cup, repair materials, camera, etc. It's possible to do without these things, but why bother? It's so much nicer to have these things with you in case you need them, rather than wishing you had them and suffering without them. To facilitate packing for a trip, keep a list of all your gear so you can quickly pick out things that you need for this trip.
At the put-in, don't leave your wallet in the car. I have heard of (rare) break-ins, so put your wallet in a zip-lock bag and take it with you.
When I consider the weather, I'm mostly concerned with the wind. The wind can directly affect a watercraft, and the wind produces waves, which also affect a watercraft. Since I use a very small human-powered watercraft, the wind and waves can have a significant effect on my paddling.
Naturally, the biggest problem is from too much wind. This has several direct effects on paddling. A strong headwind can make it much more difficult to paddle, just overcoming the force of the wind. Strong winds also can suddenly pull the paddle out of your hands, especially if you grip the paddle loosely as I do. I normally use an unfeathered paddle to make paddling easier on my wrists, but the unfeathered paddle puts the broad flat area of the paddle blade directly into the wind. This might not have a big impact on very short trips, but it can be tiring and irritating over the course of thousands of paddle strokes on a longer trip.The wind also causes the boat to weathervane, that is, to head into the wind. By installing and using the rudder, you can overcome this tendency, but at the expense of some extra effort and care when paddling. Even using the rudder, however, a strong tailwind (with the accompanying waves) can cause the boat to slue around and broach unless you pay attention and steer carefully.
Wind produces waves, and waves can have a very significant effect on paddling. It's important to understand how wind produces waves. The stronger the winds, the bigger the waves; that much seems obvious. But a more important criteria is the distance that the wind blows over the water. This parameter is known as "fetch". When the wind blows over the water for several miles without any obstructions, this is a large fetch which can produce big waves. When the wind blows over the water for only a hundred feet or so, this is a small fetch which will produce small waves. The size of the waves also depends on how long the wind has been blowing. When the wind first starts to blow, the waves are small, but as the wind continues to blow, the waves get bigger. As an example of wind-produced waves, in the fall and winter, cold fronts cause strong northwest winds to blow for hours or even days. These winds can travel straight down the lower Potomac River and effectively have many miles of fetch, resulting in big waves all along the lower Potomac.
There are lots of potential problems with wind and waves. One problem is when crossing a body of water, starting from the side where the wind is coming from. As you leave shore, the wind blows off the shore across a small fetch, so the waves are very small and easy to handle. You think, oh, this is easy, and you continue paddling. As you get further from shore, the fetch increases, which results in bigger and bigger waves. Far enough from shore, the waves could become difficult to handle, and at this point, it could be difficult just to turn around and return to shore. Obviously, the best way to handle this problem is to recognize the danger before leaving.
Another problem is when the weather suddenly changes. I have been on a few trips in the fall or winter where I was paddling through very benign weather, and a cold front passed overhead. Over the course of a couple of hours, the wind picked up from near calm to 15 to 20 knots from the northwest. In all these cases, I knew the cold front was coming, so planned my trip accordingly to minimize the danger. In some areas (like the seacoast), the weather can also change during the day as the land heats up and causes the onshore winds to increase.
Paddling through winds and waves can increase the risk of capsizing. The winds and waves can also make it more difficult to re-enter the boat and resume paddling. If you capsize, the risk of hypothermia greatly increases once you're in the water. Water removes heat from your body much more effectively than air, so hypothermia can be a danger in all four seasons of the year. Once you get out of the water, you can still be adversely affected by wind-chill. Wind and waves can also cause water to wash into the boat, and due to the difficulties of paddling (bracing to stay upright), you might not be able to bail out the boat. This is one reason to use a spray skirt, but to tell the truth, I don't own or use a spray skirt. If conditions are bad enough that I have to worry about taking on water, I'm going to stay on shore—I am very much a fair-weather paddler.
When waves reach a man-made structure like a bulkhead along the shore, the waves usually reflect off the bulkhead and travel back out to the waterway. This can cause a very bumpy area of standing waves near the shore, where the waves can be much taller than normal. This can be a problem when you're paddling close to shore along a built-up river with lots of houses or boating facilities.
Waves can also be man-made, created by powerboats traveling through the water. The wake from a large powerboat can be a couple of feet or more, and if you're not expecting it, you can take a spill. If you see or hear powerboats operating in the area, watch out for wakes, and if you see a wake approaching, turn towards it and cross it at right angles. Waves can also intensify as they move into shallow water. This can be a problem with boat wakes—the wake might not seem like much in deep water, but the wake can get steeper and eventually break as it travels into the shallow water near shore.
Although I'm mostly concerned about wind and waves, I also pay attention to the temperature forecasts, too. In winter, there are obvious concerns about hypothermia, most of which you can avoid by dressing properly (including proper footwear and a hat). But even the summer can have problems. Where I paddle, once the temperature gets into the upper 80's, it can be downright unpleasant due to the heat and humidity. Like the saying goes, "if it ain't fun, it ain't fun."
One way to minimize the risks from weather is to get a good weather forecast before heading off on a paddling trip. You can listen to the regular radio or TV forecasts, but these are usually for people on land. The wind can be stronger over water, especially a wide-open space like a big river or bay. For example, if the forecast calls for 10 to 15 mph winds on land, the winds on a big river or bay might be 15 to 20 knots, which is strong enough to be a problem.
A better source of weather information is a "weather radio" that can receive special frequencies that contain only weather information. Weather radios can receive several channels, each of which contains information for a particular area. The information consists of reasonably accurate short-term forecasts, current conditions for several locations, and detailed information about watches or warnings. Most of this information is also available on the internet (all forecasts, marine forecasts), but if you use a small battery-operated weather radio, you can take it with you on your trip to receive the latest information. Pay particular attention to the current wind speeds reported around the area, and also to any marine reporting stations or forecasts.
Many of the paddling locations I've visited are on tidal waterways. Tides can have a significant impact on your paddling trip. First of all, as the tide changes, this can cause a current to flow in the waterway. The current can be a knot or two in wide waterways, but can be several knots if the waterway passes through a narrow channel. Rivers also have currents, and if you're on the tidal portion of a river, the tidal currents can add to or subtract from the river current. The river current doesn't necessarily reverse when the tide changes. The current might always flow downriver, strongly when the tide is going out, and less strongly when the tide is coming in.
It might be tempting to take advantage of a current by paddling with the current, but you have to be careful. It's very easy to paddle miles downriver with the current, but it's much more difficult, tiring, and time-consuming to paddle back upriver against the current. It might take one easy hour to paddle downriver, but four or five tiring hours to paddle back upriver. I frequently start my trips by paddling upriver against the current. I start out fresh and full of energy, but I know if I get tired later, it will be much easier to paddle back downriver with the current.
If you know how to play the tides and do careful trip planning, you can definitely take advantage of the tidal currents to make long trips easier to paddle. The time between high and low tide is about six hours, but it varies by location. The times of high and low tide also change day by day. You need to look up in printed guides (like Reed's Nautical Almanac) or check internet sites (like the Maryland DNR tide calculator) to find the times of high and low tide at the locations you're paddling. The details are somewhat complicated and beyond the scope of this discussion. But as an example, let's say you're making a paddling trip that's several hours long. You can plan to put-in on a river when the tide is going out and have an easy paddle going downriver with the strong current. Then you can wait for the tide to change and start coming in, especially at mid-tide when it's coming in strongly. This will reduce or even neutralize the river current so you can paddle back upriver with less effort.
Tides also affect the water depth, sometimes by up to several feet. The effect varies by location, time of day, and phase of the moon, so you need to check tide references and nautical charts. Many sounds and bays have large areas of shallow water that can be pleasant to paddle at high tide but can be difficult or impossible to paddle at low tide (your kayak will be aground on a mudflat). Be careful in your trip planning to make sure you don't get trapped in a shallow area when the tide goes out. Rivers can have shallow areas on the inside of turns or where the river widens. By checking a nautical chart and following the main channel, you can avoid excessively shallow areas where you might get stuck. The changing water level can also affect conditions at a put-in. If the ramp or shoreline slopes very gradually towards the water, when the tide falls, there may be an exposed mudflat between the shore and the water. You shouldn't count on being able to walk across this mudflat, even if you wanted to. The mud can be so soft that it's impossible to traverse.
Sometimes I paddle in areas frequented by powerboats. If you see or hear a powerboat approaching, realize that you may be hard to see. If it looks like the powerboat doesn't see you, wave your paddle around (and be REAL obvious) to help out the situation.
You might find some enticing put-ins while driving around, but they require you to cross private property. Don't cross private property without permission, especially if the property is posted "Keep Out - No Trespassing". This also applies when you want to get out of the boat during a trip to take a break. If the paddling location requires permits or launching fees, be sure to comply with the regulations. Be quiet when paddling so you don't disturb wildlife or other boaters. Don't pass close to fishermen on shore or in boats (stay farther away than they can cast). By behaving properly and showing respect for others, we demonstrate that paddlers are reasonable and responsible people who deserve access to the waterways and deserve to be treated with respect in return.
If you're paddling when there are significant risks (like winds, waves, or cold temperatures), be more conservative in your trip planning and paddling style. Many big problems start out as little problems that get worse due to difficult circumstances. It becomes important, then, to try very hard to avoid little problems, since once a little problem occurs, it might irreversibly proceed to become a big problem. Of course, I assume you always try to avoid big problems in the first place. To scrupulously avoid all little problems, you have to be a much more conservative paddler than normal, which might be difficult. For example, dressing correctly, having and knowing how to use all appropriate safety gear, perhaps carrying a marine VHF radio in case of problems, knowing when to turn around and go back, and having enough good judgment to avoid situations beyond your ability.
The most important safety rule is to always wear a PFD. It's like wearing a seatbelt when driving a car: you hope you never need it, but if you do, wearing it can save your life.
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