Kayak Navigation Part 4: Dealing with Tidal Current by Using Eddies and Other Tactics

by Nancy Soares on May 13, 2013

Editor’s note: Photography credits for this article go to June Legler. Thanks, June!

by Tsunami Ranger John Lull

Squirrelly eddyline

Squirrelly eddyline


Scroll back about 25 years:  I’d paddled out the Golden Gate several times already, but this was my first voyage out on the day of a 6-knot ebb.  I paddled across the Gate from Crissy Field and out in the ocean to Kirby Cove on the Marin Headlands during slack tide.  After lunch, the plan was to ferry back across the Gate toward the south tower of the bridge and into the Bay with the aid of a 25-knot wind at my back to help counter the building ebb current.  Simple, no problem.  Right.  Halfway across, I knew I was in trouble.  The ebb was already in full swing and I started paddling for all I was worth right toward the bridge, 8-foot choppy seas bouncing all around with spray flying in the wind, when I realized the bridge was getting no closer.  A side range using a buoy confirmed I was making no forward progress at all, which was somewhat terrifying.  So I resumed my ferry across and was lucky to eventually make it into the heaving, churning waters of a whirlpool-infested eddy just outside the south tower bridge abutment.  At least this was a resting spot, turbulent as it was.  Along with the wind waves a steep ocean swell was moving into the Bay and that’s what saved the day.  After resting in the eddy, I ferried out, caught and surfed a sequence of two-story high wave faces that carried me against the current and eventually to safety inside the Bay near Fort Point, where I could work my way back to Crissy Field in shallow water near shore.

The experience above illustrates some tactics I learned that day, mostly by chance, for dealing with strong tidal current.  With that new-found knowledge, over the years I’ve returned many times to the same place to play, instead of being terrorized, in the waves and current, using the eddy as a launching pad.

Before Getting on the Water

Consult a tide current table to determine the general direction (ebb or flood), speed, and timing of the current in the area you’ll be paddling.  Pay attention to the times of slack current, maximum flood, and maximum ebb.  Once on the water, use ranges to monitor your direction of movement and progress (if you don’t know how to use a range or what it is, see “Navigation Part 1”).

Go with the Flow

Obviously your best strategy is to use the current to your advantage.  Plan your trip to go in the same direction as the current as much as possible.  When paddling with the current, get out in the main channel where the flow is strongest to take full advantage of the free ride.  In some large estuaries, the channel will be narrow and at some distance from shore, so consult a marine chart to locate it.  It may also be marked with buoys.

Going Against the Flow

No matter how well you plan, there are times when you end up having to paddle in the opposite direction to the current.  Either the route you want varies to the point you have to move counter to the current at least part of the way, or you mistimed the change in current direction, got delayed, or encountered a situation you weren’t expecting.  What you want to avoid at all cost is paddling on a treadmill directly into the current, making no headway.

In most cases when needing to move opposite to the current direction, the best approach is to hug the shore.  Unless the channel abuts right up to a steep shoreline, the current will be much slower in shallow water near shore.  In some cases you’ll need to be within inches of the shore, paddling over a narrow shelf of shallow water, so paddle as close in as possible, taking advantage of embayments and eddies along the way.

If you encounter a point of land jutting out into the current, sprint hard and fast around the point, using a very quick stroke cadence and powerful forward stokes.  You’ll probably make it around and into the next cove or eddy!

Using Eddies

Eddies form on the downstream side of any obstacle that rises above the water’s surface, impeding the current.  Such obstacles include islands, rocks, points of land, bridge abutments, etc.  Even a buoy will create a small eddy with room for one or two kayaks.  The water in an eddy is ‘filling in’ behind the obstacle and running counter to the main current.  So eddies can be used to work upstream or as resting places.

A) Punch the eddyline at 45-60 degrees

A) Punch the eddyline at 45-60 degrees

To catch an eddy when moving downstream, it’s necessary to break through the eddyline; a shear zone between the eddy and the main current.  It’s best to punch through near the top of the eddy where the eddyline is sharpest and well-defined.  As you move downstream toward the eddy, set an angle of 45-60⁰ to the eddyline.  Maintain forward speed and paddle hard as you cross the eddyline in order to punch through into the eddy.  Lean the kayak slightly into this turn for stability as you encounter the reverse current in the eddy.

B) Entering the eddy with boat lean into the turn

B) Entering the eddy with boat lean into the turn

Reverse the process when peeling out of the eddy, punching through the eddyline at 45-60⁰ up into the main current, tilting the boat dowstream as you cross.  Keep paddling until well clear of the eddy.  The kayak will tend to turn downstream and you can sharpen the turn with a strong sweep stroke on the upstream side.  If you want to exit the eddy and maintain a ferry across the current, use a bit less angle and after crossing the eddyline, perform a strong sweep stroke on the downstream side to hold the kayak on an upstream ferry angle.

C) Keep paddling well into the eddy

C) Keep paddling well into the eddy

Using Waves

Wind waves or ocean swell that is moving against the current can be used to ferry-glide across the current or to make progress upstream.  Keep in mind these types of waves are actually moving through the water, as opposed to a standing wave which forms over a shallow rock or ledge and is stationary.  On that day over 25 years ago (see intro, above), the only way I was able to get through the Gate and back into the Bay was to surf the ocean swell.  The swell was slowed and steepened as it ran against the strong current, allowing me to catch and ride the waves forward, making progress against a 5-6 knot ebb.

You can surf waves (wind chop, boat wakes, swell) in this fashion to help fight the current when necessary, or just for fun.  This is a good way to make some progress against the current, but it can get tiring and works best when you don’t need to cover a great deal of distance.

Surfing upstream on steepened ocean swell

Surfing upstream on steepened ocean swell

With a good understanding of the dynamics of tidal current, you can use these currents to your advantage and also have fun playing in tide rips, surfing and ferrying across the current, and getting a free ride on the “tidal express.”  Practice using tide charts to predict the current, then gain experience on the water testing those predictions.  Also practice using ranges to check your sense of movement out in open water.  You’ll soon gain a real appreciation for paddling in the bays, estuaries, and inland waterways that are subject to tidal current.

Using waves to make progress against the current

Using waves to make progress against the current

This is only a basic sketch.  Followup comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Soares May 13, 2013 at 8:12 am

Hey John, thanks for another great post! I have never done any kayaking that required this type of knowledge (yet) but I was struck by how much of this stuff I’ve learned incidentally by swimming in creeks and rivers (see https://tsunamirangers.com/2011/07/26/swimmin-in-creeks-and-rivers/ on this site). Especially the part in the section of your article called Going Against the Flow – I think of the many times I’ve been swimming upstream using eddies and trying to get around some rocky point with “quick cadence and powerful forward strokes” then running out of breath/energy and getting swept backwards by the current laughing. Your experience at the Gate sounds pretty exciting, and not it a good way but glad you made it so we can all benefit from your knowledge!


John Lull May 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Nancy, yes tidal current behaves very much like a river. The difference is one of scale. In a river you can usually see clearly what’s happening because the bank is close by. Out in a bay or large estuary, it isn’t always so obvious. That’s where using ranges comes in. The eddies are the same phenomena and you use the same technique to catch an eddy or peel out as you would in a river.

Of course tidal current changes over time and reverses every 6 hours or so.


Mark May 14, 2013 at 5:39 am

I want to do this !!


John Lull May 14, 2013 at 9:44 am

It’s a lot of fun, Mark. Many years ago I wrote an article for Sea Kayaker called “Playing in Tide Rips”. If you are a river kayaker, it will come pretty naturally, but you have to make the adjustment to a sea kayak. Knowing how to surf is key. Surfing waves in a tide rip is kind of “in-between” surfing ocean waves and river waves. In a tide rip, most waves are moving (like ocean waves), but if there are some shallow areas with submerged rocks or ledges, you’ll get a standing wave, just like in a river.


douglas Huft May 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Nice article.
What paddling on the Bay is all about.
4 stages of bay paddler:
#1: consults tide book and paddles with the flow
#2: consults tide book and paddles with the flow and against using eddies and such.
#3: throws away tide book and paddles where they want by observing the water and using John’s methods.
#4: consults tide books to ensure that the tides are extreme enough to bother paddling on an otherwise boring Bay, Wants to be assured that the play spots are “going off”.


John Lull May 14, 2013 at 3:03 pm

LOL, well said Douglas. However, I wouldn’t ever recommend throwing away the tide book (even using my methods of observation on the water). It’s not just a matter of knowing what the current is doing at the moment your out there, but also knowing what it will do over the next few hours, when it will change, how strong it will get, etc. And I never get bored out on the water; not anymore, anyway.

As to the play spots (tide rips), there are some peak times to do that, and equally important, some key places on SF Bay (and I’m sure this is true anywhere with strong tidal current) where the best rips form. I’ll let people discover these things on their own. That’s all part of the fun and no reason for me to give it all away or deprive paddlers of the joy of discovery! I’ll give one clue for SF Bay: Most (but not all!) of the best tide rips form on the ebb tide.


Tony Moore May 16, 2013 at 5:22 am

Thanks, John, for a great article once again. Paddling in strong current is definitely an area where I can use some improvement. I try to get out there for the practice whenever an opportunity presents itself…the whirlpools are still somewhat disconcerting for me. I really do have to learn well the proper techniques, as elaborated on in your article. My strongest point as a paddler is that I can paddle very powerfully, and I have a tendency to use this rather than proper technique to get me through any trouble. But in the really strong currents, sufficient power cannot be mustered to master the situation. Several months ago, I was kayak-surfing at a popular R.I. break, and there were some kite surfers there also, one being a woman. All of them were highly skilled, and performed many impressive moves. I noticed a striking difference, however, between the way the men and the one woman kite-surfed. The men tended to power through everything, holding on tightly, and making it look like a herculean feat. The one woman, however, seemed as calm and graceful as if she were performing a tranquil ballet…it seemed as if she were using minimum effort, but with maximum finesse and grace. That is exactly what I would like to have when kayaking in currents.


Nancy Soares May 16, 2013 at 6:56 am

Great comment, Tony. I’m glad you brought up the point about what for lack of a better description I’ll call power vs skill. Not that the powerful aren’t skilled, but I run into this in the martial arts as well. Some of us, especially we women who are relatively small, light, and weak compared to most men just don’t have the strength to power through much of anything, whether it’s punching through an eddyline or throwing a large opponent on the mat. Does that mean these experiences are closed to us? Hardly. The 3 principles of jujitsu are balance, momentum, and leverage. Strength is not mentioned. Strength can fail you at any time for many reasons – fatigue, illness, injury, age, you name it. I think about Eric and Jim and all the times I’ve seen them paddle and although their paddling styles are different they have one thing in common: maximum effect for minimum effort. Jim, for example, paddles effortlessly. Good technique plus knowledge of how water works in rivers as well as the ocean are the things that can serve you well regardless of how strong you are. As an aside, I wonder what the 3 principles of kayaking would be? Anyone?


John Lull May 16, 2013 at 9:39 am

Tony, I didn’t elaborate too much on specific techniques, just the general tactics involved. You make a great point about using skill and technique rather than ‘brute force.’ The whole idea is to use the natural forces at work (in this case current, eddies, and waves) to your advantage, rather than fight them. Here are a few additional tips:

Those whirlpools mostly form along the eddyline, especially lower in the eddy. So that’s why you want to punch through with some momentum, near the top of the eddy. The speed and momentum is mostly provided by the current as you move downstream toward the eddy. Your job is to set that angle so you punch through the eddyline, rather than stall parallel to it. Also keep paddling forward as you cross. The combination of current speed and paddling speed is more than sufficient.

When in the current or a tide rip, the way to move back and forth efficiently and under control, is to ferry glide. Angle upstream, paddle forward and you’ll glide sideways, depending on which way, and how much, you angle the kayak. It’s a fine line between standing still and gliding sideways. You have to find that specific angle. Practice moving back and forth under control, using sweep strokes to turn the boat one way or the other. If you catch a wave you can use a stern rudder stroke to ‘steer’ or hold your angle.

To do any of this, you need good stroke technique; an efficient forward stroke, sweep stroke, draw and rudder stokes. In a tide rip with waves, the ability to surf those waves is very important.

When sideways to the current, tilt the boat slightly downstream, and into the waves, for stability. You’ll do this intuitively after practicing it for a while.

Nancy, just off the top of my head, 3 principals of kayaking: 1) Balance, 2) Efficient stroke technique, 3) Relaxation.


Nancy Soares May 16, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I was thinking about relaxation when Tony mentioned the female kite surfer. All the words he used to describe her technique: calm, tranquil, ballet, finesse, are essentially the result of someone who is relaxed in what they’re doing. I like your 3 principles of kayaking. I foresee another blog post on that topic 😉


Tony Moore May 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I’ve been pondering the concept of relaxation being one of the principles of kayaking. At first I thought, well, if you really want to relax, take a nap and don’t do any kayaking. But then I looked up relaxation in the dictionary, and one of the definitions made a lot of sense when applied to kayaking. “To be in a loosened state, not tensed up” made perfect sense. I thought of how many times I had advised newbees not to tense up, but to be loose, to let the boat interact with the water and by relaxing, isolate yourself from all the commotion. To stay loose is critical to balance in conditions, and you can be paddling quite powerfully (eg. into a strong headwind, or punching through nasty surf) and be perfectly relaxed in the sense of staying loose and limber. Another aspect of relaxing is your mental state, and I believe this too applies here. I find that I can isolate my mind from any pain, discomfort, or feeling of heavy exertion…this may be the effect of endorphins, but whatever it is, yes, it is relaxing in a very real sense.


John Lull May 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Well said Tony. Much as I like to take a nap on occasion, as you point out above, that’s not what I was talking about. You have defined it perfectly.

One thing I discovered serendipitously is that by relaxing you conserve oxygen when upside down, under water. I think I mentioned this before in another post somewhere on this site, but I was once (well more than once) in a situation where I was upside down getting worked in the surf and running out of breath. I told myself to relax, then found I had plenty of time to set up and roll back upright. If I’d stayed tensed up, I would have had to panic and bail out. Yet another reason to stay relaxed.


Nancy Soares May 24, 2013 at 8:20 am

I wish I could remember where I first learned about conserving oxygen under water. Maybe when I learned lifesaving at the Y? Maybe when getting certified to scuba dive? Not sure, but I KNOW that if you go to a swimming pool and mess around with swimming distances underwater it quickly becomes apparent that if you’re wound up or you’re “trying too hard” you can’t swim as far as if you’re relaxed. And when using an oxygen tank and regulator agitated breathing consumes oxygen at a greatly accelerated rate. If you’re breathing is relaxed, your air lasts a lot longer. And John, what you said about using natural forces to your advantage instead of fighting them is really important. Fighting uses up energy and air; going with the flow conserves them.


Sergey June 5, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Local knowledge and knowing your personal physical limits is very important in this kind of paddles. On 5kt ebb day tried to get to Angel Island from Horse Shoe strait from Yellow Bluff. Gave up after hour and a half of workout being put on treadmill. Next time tried Sausalito-Tiburon-Raccoon to get there. Everything was fine till the entrance into Raccoon there I was flashed out, again did not get to the Angel Island eddy and rapidly delivered back to my starting point. Should I be stronger I believe I would make it as I did that at 4kt days. Same story about Lime Point where you can stay surfing incoming seas on 5kt ebb day. If you miss the wave you probably find yourself out of the Gate.


John Lull June 5, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Sergy, the article that preceded this one (Navigation part 3: Crossing Currents) addresses one of the problems you had getting to Angel Island. Launching from Horseshoe Cove on a strong ebb will be a real challenge because you have to get around Yellow Bluff. But from Sausalito you can paddle across Richardson Bay to Belvedere Point (at the mouth of Raccoon Strait) and ferry directly across to Angel Island. It’s a piece of cake to make that crossing, once you understand how to set the ferry angle. In this case you can use a range; no need to calculate the ferry angle. By all means you want to avoid the ‘treadmill.’


Sergey June 5, 2013 at 9:51 pm

John, that was the plan. Unfortunately I did not manage to fight the current arm at Belvedere Point which is right near the shore. Not at 5kt day. I have had it done easily at 4kt. That is my point, you should know your physical abilities. I am not a super strong athlete. May be it was all about some rain drainage which added some speed to predicted 5kt. I did this “research” solely to estimate my capabilities and now I know what to expect.


Sergey June 5, 2013 at 10:01 pm

And I need to add that I attempted all this crossing at max current time for the sake of research. Should I wait for 3h it is not a problem at all but boring.


John Lull June 6, 2013 at 9:00 am

Yes, it’s good to know your capabilities and there is a tide rip at Belvedere Pt. Those who aren’t used to strong current or rough water would have difficulty on that score. However, you don’t need any great strength to ferry glide across that rip and then on across the strait, even on a 5k day. It’s all about the angle you take. If you turn too much upstream into the current, you’ll be on a treadmill and get nowhere, or even drift backwards. At that point you need to increase your angle (turn more in the direction you want to ferry) and the instant you find the ferry angle, you’ll shoot across the current. This does require some boat control and stroke technique.

River kayakers do this all the time in much stronger current. It’s all about boat control and the best angle, not strength. This ties directly into what Nancy was saying in a post above about finesse and using the natural forces (in this case, the current).


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