The lure of paddling on bays, inlets, and slow-flowing rivers is a siren song. As one begins venturing out on these waterways, the current makes itself known, sometimes in unexpected and inconvenient ways. One can avoid most of these situations with preparation, awareness, skill, and sometimes just plain luck.
The preparation involves looking at your tide and current tables and your chart. There are many current stations, but not everywhere that there is current. Many of the places we paddle are way out of the shipping channels. You will run into currents in shallow, narrow passages between islands, and paddling into little bays through tiny inlets. These are a direct result of the tides, so if you know the direction of the tide when it is coming in and going out, you can often predict how the currents will behave in such situations.
The flow over a shallow area can be exciting, because you may be flying by rocks, reef outcroppings, pilings, and bridge abutments at an alarming rate of speed. The first time this happens, luck will play the biggest role in the outcome. Predicting conditions exactly will be difficult, but with some advance knowledge and skills, you can play it conservatively until you can evaluate the reality at close quarters.
In areas where there are current tables, you will have a good idea of the direction and speed of the currents in the shipping channels. Along shore, you must be on the lookout for hazards like docks, moored boats, pilings, rocks, and trees. There will also be back eddies behind obstructions. These can be your friend or enemy, depending on the speed of the current.
When encountering obstructions downstream, it is necessary to know how to avoid hitting them, which is not always that simple. When you turn in the current, you become broadside to it, and this gives the current more of your boat to push toward what you are trying to avoid. When you hit an obstruction in the current, it will stop your forward progress, and the current will grab your upstream edge and roll it under. This can result in the boat being pinned against the object, and perhaps wrapping itself around it. If you hit a dock, tree, boat, or other floating object, you could end up underneath it.
The main maneuvers to control your boat in current are the side slip, the forward ferry, the back ferry, and as a last resort, leaning your boat into whatever it is you ran into. The forward ferry is handy when you are facing upstream. The back ferry and side slip work while you are facing downstream.
Side Slip: Use your draw stroke to pull your boat to the side as you move downstream.
Back Ferry: Backpaddle, pointing your stern slightly in the direction you want to move. The current will then help push your boat to the side.
Forward Ferry: If you find yourself upstream of an obstruction, and pointed upstream, you can ferry across in front of it.
Lean Into It: If you hit anything broadside to the current, tilt your boat so the upstream edge is up. This way the current will slip under your boat. Maintain this lean while you work your way off one end or the other. If you have hit something that won’t allow this, it may be best to climb out onto whatever you hit, maintaining the lean the whole time.
To practice these techniques, find some current that is two to three knots, with no obstructions or boat traffic to ruin your day. Practice forward and back ferrying across the current, and side slipping while you are headed downstream. Experiment with stationary draws, sculling draws, and regular draws on the side slip. With a little practice and understanding of how the current affects your boat, you will be more confident and capable when faced with current affairs.
John Meyer is a co-owner and head sea kayak instructor at Northwest Outdoor Center in Seattle.