SCRS – The Sea Conditions Rating System

by Nancy Soares on October 2, 2017

My good friend Moulton Avery of the National Center for Cold Water Safety mentioned recently that perhaps it was time to revisit the Sea Conditions Rating System (SCRS) on this website. Since the sea is dangerous and unpredictable, I think he’s right, so here’s a post introducing the Sea Conditions Rating System.

Rate These Conditions! TR Misha Dynnikov working a cascade.

Rate these conditions! TR Misha Dynnikov working a cascade.

River kayakers have the River Difficulty System which rates rivers from Class I (moving water with a few riffles) all the way up to Class VI which is extreme conditions with violent rapids requiring an expert team. Sailors have the Beaufort Scale, but neither of these rating systems apply to a small kayak in surf, caves, or rock gardens. To remedy this, Eric came up with a rating system for sea kayakers, and it works really well. You can access his article about this system in the link entitled “Articles” at the top of our website.

The most important thing to know about this system is that its primary function is to encourage kayakers to take time before setting out. Eric recommends accounting for the worst case scenario when using the scale. It’s worth pointing out that while your put in may be calm and mild, around the corner there could be big winds and/or seas. Or your take out may have breaking waves. This is what happened to us when we went on retreat last year. One should also account for the passage of time. For example, the tide ebbs and flows, and winds and swells typically, but not always, pick up in the afternoon. Fog can roll in, and if you’re out for a long time, fatigue can become a factor.  

There are ten factors to consider when using the SCRS. The first is water temperature. You add one point for each degree below 72 degrees Fahrenheit up to a maximum of 40 points. Water temperature starts at 72 degrees because that is a temperature most people are comfortable swimming in. Cold water is the number one killer of paddlers, so it receives a lot of weight in the algorithm. You also automatically add twenty points if you’re paddling in rocks.

This scenario is rated Class according to the SCRS

This scenario is rated Class 5.9 according to the SCRS. Looks really benign, but there are a lot of factors to consider: the water is cold, there are no breaking waves in the photo but there will be at the beach take-out, they are paddling through rock gardens and caves, their boats are fully laden, and swim distance to safety could be up to a mile if they’re where I think they are.   

Each factor should be addressed thoughtfully if you’re solo; if you’re in a group the factors should be discussed as a team till consensus is reached. When you’ve totaled the points for each factor, add them up and divide by twenty to get the class level.

In the SCRS article, Eric offers a detailed exploration of each factor. He gives a sample scenario so you can see how the system works, and he also uses the scale to assess his own experience kayaking across San Francisco Bay in storm sea conditions. When all the factors are considered those conditions rated a Class 6! He probably shouldn’t have been out there that day. But he lived, and went on to create the SCRS so others can avoid preventable life or death experiences.

Hobuck Beach in September, 2017. This beach would be rated Class 3.7. The three factors bringing it up from Class 2 are: breaking waves up to 4', cold water at 52 degrees F, and the presence of other surfers.  

Hobuck Beach in September, 2017. This beach would be rated Class 3.7. The three factors bringing it up from Class 2 are: breaking waves up to 4′, cold water at 52 degrees F, and the presence of other surfers.

Eric winds up the article with some caveats and encourages people to take the time and effort to assess the complex factors which affect us on the unpredictable sea. It’s true that we are often eager (nervous?) before we launch and it’s easy to look out and go, oh yeah, great day, let’s go! But maybe you were scouting from a bluff, and things look a lot different, i.e. bigger, from the beach. Or maybe you just watched the ocean for five minutes or so and you didn’t see the gynormous set that came in right after you turned your back.

Please check out the SCRS. Share it with your friends. You’ll enjoy this article!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony M. October 4, 2017 at 6:30 am

Lots of really good points, especially about changing conditions. As sea kayakers, we know by experience that conditions can deteriorate within a few short minutes. Thanks, Nancy!


Nancy Soares October 17, 2017 at 10:40 am

Hey Tony, glad you liked the SCRS. I really had fun looking at photos and doing the math. One thing about this rating system is that it tends to up the danger level of a scenario, but that’s actually realistic based on the changing conditions you mention. It’s hard to rate a sea kayaking scenario because unlike on a river, so many things can change. The longer you’re out, the more things can happen, and as you point out things can change very quickly. By rating a situation higher than it might initially appear kayakers can pause and plan well.


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