by Tsunami Ranger John Lull
Kayak navigation is the art of knowing (and keeping track of) where you are and following the best route to get where you want to go. The best route may or may not involve paddling on a straight course from point A to B. Sometimes when making a crossing in wind or current it’s more efficient (safer and wiser) to “put some money in the bank” by setting a course on an angle up-wind or up-current so you can eventually drift down to your destination. Obviously when meandering through ocean rock gardens you won’t be paddling in a straight line. But you will be making constant choices regarding which route to take, depending on wave/surge action, location of rocks and breaking waves, and the areas you want to explore. The best strategy is to use the water dynamics to your advantage whenever possible, while avoiding danger zones.
It helps a lot to know your paddling speed. This will give you a good idea of distance paddled over a given period of time. To determine paddling speed, time yourself while paddling at a comfortable cruising speed over a known distance (more on this in Part 2).
In this article, I’ll discuss a few key techniques of navigation without any special tools, aside from a map or nautical chart. Navigating in a kayak necessarily has to be kept simple. Mostly you’ll navigate using visual landmarks for reference. This is known as “piloting.” Where no landmarks are visible, or on open water in dense fog, you’ll be “dead reckoning” and you’ll at least need a compass. Compass use and dead reckoning will be covered in Part 2.
Line of Sight: Navigation by Inspection
The most basic navigation technique is to simply follow a shoreline or paddle by line of sight to a destination you can see (an island, point of land, beach, etc.). You can also link up a series of landmarks along the way to a given destination, keeping track of where you are by noting each feature as you pass it. Look for prominent bluffs, headlands, points, coves, beaches, or seastacks that are easy to identify. If the trip is of any length, a nautical chart or map will be very useful, especially if you are paddling in unknown waters. You can locate the features you see on your chart and use it to track your progress. The key is to keep track of where you are as you go. Don’t wait until you’ve passed so many coves and beaches that you can’t identify the one you’re looking at. A chart can also be used to plan your trip and look for interesting areas to paddle.
When making a crossing in open water to a destination you can see, if conditions are mild, visibility is good, and there is little or no wind or current (check a tide book) to push you off course, you can simply paddle across to your destination. That’s a lot of “ifs,” but nature sometimes cooperates. When you can’t see your destination, due to dense fog or a long stretch of open water, you’ll need to use a compass to navigate (I’ll cover that in Part 2). When crossing a relatively strong current or wind, you’ll be pushed off course, so you need to set a “ferry angle” into the wind or current. If visibility is poor or there are no landmarks, you’ll have to calculate this angle and alter the heading (the direction your kayak is pointing) accordingly, using a compass. However, if there are any stationary landmarks (rocks, buoys, islands) visible ahead, you can use a very powerful navigation technique – a range, using only your two eyes.
The single most powerful and accurate line of sight navigation technique for a sea kayaker is the use of ranges. A range is taken by lining up two stationary objects, one nearer than the other. Since two points define a straight line, you will be located precisely on the “line of position” defined by the range. Using a front range, for example a rock or buoy aligned with a distant headland, and holding those two objects in line as you paddle forward, you’ll stay on course until you reach the closer object. This works even when crossing a current or side-wind, in which case you’ll end up on a ferry angle into the wind or current. All you have to do is hold the range visually, even though your boat will point off to one side to compensate for the drift.
A side range can be used to monitor your progress. If you can find a range to one side, watch the more distant object (the background). The rule is the background will appear to move in the same direction you are moving, relative to the closer object. So if you are paddling into a strong current or headwind, you look off to the side at a buoy, and the buoy appears stationary against the distant shoreline, you are not moving forward. You’re on a “treadmill” going nowhere, so you’ll need to change course or paddle harder until you see the background appearing to move forward. It’s nice to see that movement and know you’re getting somewhere when paddling into a strong wind, and even more important to know if you’re not moving!
By using ranges you can maintain a straight course forward, as well as monitor your direction of movement. Whenever possible, watch for ranges, both to the front and to the side. You can even check a range behind you if there’s no other option, although it’s obviously more difficult to keep looking over your shoulder. You can also identify useful ranges on a chart and draw in the lines of position to use on the water.
Fog and Reduced Visibility
Piloting, the navigational technique discussed here so far, is dependent on visual references. In very dense fog you won’t be able to rely on what you see for the simple reason you can’t see anything! In the extreme case where you have no visibility, you’ll need a compass or GPS device (to be discussed in Part 2). However, if you stay close enough to shore, you may be able to pick out key landmarks, such as major headlands, as they emerge out of the mist. This works best in areas that you know well, but if you pay close attention you may be able to keep track of your position with the aid of a chart, when paddling less familiar waters.
The above is only an overview. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, and keep the discussion going on kayak navigation by piloting.