by John Lull
Editor’s note: It’s great to have another article by our talented Tsunami Ranger John Lull. Welcome back, John! Thanks for the informative post and for the awesome photos, taken from the Golden Gate bridge by your lovely wife June Legler. Thanks, June!
It’s an exciting experience to sit in the eddy just outside the massive concrete base at the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge during a six-knot ebb. The current rushes by on both sides and a dull roar testifies to the powerful tide rips nearby. The eddy is a boiling cauldron full of small whirlpools and conflicting currents. Whenever I’m in this eddy, I glance up at the bridge looming overhead and wonder what the tourists think of these “maniacs” in tiny kayaks below. But all stray thoughts disappear upon peeling out into the main current in search of waves to surf.
After turning to face the current, I’m poised on the crest of an oversteepened swell; a brief battle ensues between the force of the current, trying to pull me out to sea, and gravity, trying to pull me down the wave face. Gravity wins, assisted by a brief flurry of paddling, and my kayak slides down the wave, momentarily defying the drag of the current. Riding these waves, ferry-gliding back and forth across the current, is exhilarating. This is known as “riding the rips” and it ranks as one of the ultimate thrills in sea kayaking. With the appropriate skills and knowledge, it can even be done safely.
Tide rips (not to be confused with “rip tides” which occur in the surf zone) form during periods of strong tidal currents. These currents form in response to the rise and fall of the tide, usually in estuaries and inland waterways which are connected to the open sea. Tide rips range in scale from small ripples and dancing water to huge breaking seas. The rough water results from the release of energy when the current meets obstacles, traps waves, or flows against other forces such as wind or cross currents. Places to watch for tide rips include shoals, areas off points of land, the mouths of constricted channels, and areas of colliding currents (i.e. the down current side of an island). Whenever a strong wind blows against the current, the wind waves are slowed and steepened, creating large, confused seas.
Many sea kayakers regard tide rips as dangerous water to be avoided whenever possible. For the inexperienced or novice paddler, this is certainly true. But for the kayaker who has good bracing skills and experience in rough water (especially surf), tide rips are an excellent place to train and have fun at the same time. Obviously, it is important to start out in relatively mild tide rips at first and work your way up to more extreme conditions as you get used to dealing with currents, eddy lines, whirlpools, and standing waves.
There is an important distinction between playing in tide rips and running them. Running a tide rip is simply a matter of paddling or bracing your way through while being swept downstream. Playing in a tide rip involves paddling in an upstream direction and surfing the waves directly into the current or ferry gliding across the current while holding an upstream angle. A substantial tide rip with fairly steep waves is necessary for surfing. This usually means a current of three knots or more. Playing implies fun, but these maneuvers can also be serious business if you are trying to cross a raging tidal stream and want to avoid getting swept out to sea. The ability to play in tide rips will give you the confidence and skill necessary for paddling safely in areas with strong currents. The following techniques outline how to play in tide rips in a safe, relaxed, and controlled manner.
Before venturing out into strong currents, learn as much as possible about the area in which you plan to paddle; find out where the strongest currents and largest tide rips are likely to be and the location of nearby eddies or escape routes. The really monstrous tide rips are well known to local fisherman and other boaters. Most of my experience with tide rips comes from paddling during spring tides (during new and full moons, when tidal range is greatest) in parts of San Francisco Bay and at the Golden Gate. The amount of water flowing through the Golden Gate is six times the flow of the Mississippi River—about six hundred billion gallons every 24 hours, and ebb tides (outgoing current) can reach up to 6 knots. Local knowledge of the currents where you plan to paddle is very important.
Consult current tables and charts to determine the direction, strength, and timing of currents. Treat these figures as estimates; times predicted in current tables can be off by as much as an hour and current strength is affected by runoff and wind. Nautical charts show the location of major tide rips, but rarely indicate anything close to shore that won’t affect larger vessels. The chart can be used to predict possible tide rip locations by looking for the features mentioned above (shoals, etc.) Keep in mind that the strongest currents generally occur in deeper water and constricted channels. The current is much weaker in shallow water close to shore.
Eddies (areas where the current reverses direction) occur in embayments close to shore and on the down current side of obstructions such as points of land, rocks, small islands, and bridge abutments. It is extremely important to locate eddies, because they can be used as resting places or as a means to travel opposite to the main current direction. It is often possible to use an eddy to move back to the upper end of a tide rip.
The first step is to work on some of the basic skills needed. Surfing skills are essential; you need to be able to surf and handle breaking waves. Try to get some practice in the surf zone before attempting to play in large tide rips. If surf is unavailable, then practice surfing boat wakes and wind waves. Learn to control the boat while surfing by using boat lean and stern rudder strokes. Practice bracing strokes, using a combination hip snap and slap brace. Also practice bracing sideways into breaking waves. Make sure your rescue skills are reliable; you might need them. An Eskimo roll would be very handy, especially if you intend to progress to big tide rips. Finally, many of the skills used in river kayaking (crossing eddy lines, downstream lean, etc.) are applicable to paddling tide rips.
Once you have located a tide rip that looks manageable for your skill level, try to gain some perspective on its dimensions (from shore, if possible). Determine how far the area of rough water extends and how wide the tide rip is; does rough water fill the entire channel? Keep in mind that conditions will change as the current strengthens or diminishes. Make sure the current won’t carry you someplace you wouldn’t want to be. Locate a convenient eddy or area of slack water nearby where you can rest without being swept down current.
Maintaining the proper boat lean is important whenever you get broadside to the current or cross eddy lines (see below). When broadside to the current, keep the hull on a planing angle by leaning the kayak slightly down current. Lean the boat, not your body. Do this by tilting the boat with your knees and thighs, keeping your upper body over the boat. This can be practiced in flat water; practice tilting the boat sideways (by pushing up with one knee) and hold it in position without a using a paddle brace. It is also important to lean the boat into breaking waves. Because the current carries you into the waves, you will also be leaning down current.
Crossing Eddy Lines
An eddy forms where the current reverses direction, usually on the down current side of an obstruction. The shear zone between the reverse current (in the eddy) and the main current is known as an eddy line. Eddy lines can be sharp (narrow) and fairly obvious or broad zones that are not so obvious. They are sometimes marked by floating debris. Wherever you suspect an eddy, note where the current changes direction to determine the location of the eddyline. This is important because when you cross the eddyline, you must make an adjustment in boat lean in order to prevent capsize. The basic rule to remember is this: When traveling with the main current and turning into an eddy, lean into your turn as you cross the eddyline. The opposing current will grab your bow and swing it around into the eddy. By leaning into this turn, you will be presenting the hull at a planing angle to the opposing current in the eddy. When the currents get confusing, just remember to lean the boat in the direction the bow gets pushed.
With a well-marked eddy and sharp eddy line, the best way to make an eddy turn is the same as on a river. With the bow pointed downstream at about a 45 degree angle to the eddy, power across the eddy line, using a sweep stroke to initiate your turn into the eddy. As you cross the eddy line, lean into the turn while planting a high brace in the eddy on your turning side. You can also ferry (see below) into an eddy if the eddy line is not too extreme. To exit the eddy, reverse the procedure: Facing into the main current, power out of the eddy at about 45 degrees to the eddy line. As the current grabs your bow, lean into the turn on a high brace, pivoting around into the current. If you wish to exit the eddy into ferrying position, use a smaller angle into the current and paddle hard. As the current grabs your bow, use a sweep stroke on the down current side. This prevents your bow from being pushed down current.
Ferrying is a technique used for crossing currents. By paddling upstream at an angle to the current, it is possible to move directly across without getting swept downstream. Practice ferrying back and forth across the current. The faster the current, the more you will have to angle upstream into the current. Watch the shoreline or use a range (line up two stationary points) to determine your direction of movement.
In strong tide rips with waves, the only way to ferry without losing ground is to surf the waves while ferrying across. This is known as ferry gliding and is a very efficient (and fun) way to cross a tide rip. The trick is to set a ferry angle, paddle hard, and surf across the upstream wave faces. Adjust the ferry angle so that you continue to move across the current while surfing.
Use a ferry angle whenever you want to move laterally in a tide rip. When tired or if conditions get too difficult, don’t panic; just ferry over to the eddy or slack water which you located ahead of time. If you have trouble holding a ferry angle and find yourself fighting the current going nowhere, point more toward shore, paddle hard, and accept some down current drift. This way you will at least make progress toward shore.
Tide rips tend to “trap” waves. As wind waves, ocean swell, or boat wakes flow against the current, they are steepened (sometimes to the point of breaking) and slowed. Where the current flows over obstructions, standing waves can form. The steep upstream faces of these waves can be surfed. To catch the waves, paddle in an up current direction and ferry over to the waves. As your stern is lifted, lean forward and paddle hard. Once on the wave face, use stern rudder strokes to steer. If your bow digs in, lean back. When you lose the wave, be ready to catch the next one. Ferry back and forth until you find the best waves. If you get swept too far down current or out of the rip, ferry over out of the main current or into an eddy (if one is present) and paddle back to where you started.
One trick to catching waves in tide rips with choppy, confused seas, is to watch for wave troughs under your bow as you paddle up current. When a trough appears under your bow, lean forward and paddle into it. While surfing, steer and paddle into consecutive wave troughs to keep the ride going.
Surfing can be used as means of resting or holding position in a tide rip. To “rest” while facing against the current, save energy by easing up on your paddling while on the wave faces and otherwise paddling just hard enough to maintain position. If the waves are not standing still, but are moving up current (this is often the case), progress can be made against the current by surfing each wave as long as possible. When you lose the wave, keep paddling and catch the next one.
Rolls and Rescues
In strong current, it is easier to roll up on the down current side. If you try to roll on the up current side, you are forcing the boat up against the current. But it is too disorienting when upside down under water to know which way the current is flowing. One way to handle the situation is to try to roll on your “strong” side first, then switch sides if the roll fails. Another option is to wait a few seconds until boat speed matches current speed, then roll up.
Everyone paddling in tide rips should be well-versed in deep water rescues. If someone capsizes and bails out you will be faced with a rough water rescue. This should not be a major problem if you have practiced rescues under varying conditions. In some cases it might be prudent to wash through into calmer water before doing the rescue, if that option exists. It is very important to hang onto your boat for dear life if you end up swimming in current on a windy day. If you let go, the boat will go with the wind and you will go with the current and “never the twain shall meet.” It is probably a good idea to set up a buddy system in case a rescue is needed. But you should also have the ability to do a self-rescue if necessary (re-enter & roll, paddle float rescue, or with a sit-on-top kayak, remount).
Paddling in tide rips is a great way to improve your kayaking skills and learn to handle strong currents. It’s also a lot of fun! But be sure to prepare yourself with the appropriate basic skills and knowledge. Start out training in small tide rips before trying the stronger ones. Don’t tackle “hellhole rapids” at maximum ebb during the full moon the first time out. With practice, you can play safely in moderately strong tide rips and learn to use the current and waves rather than fight them.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this informative article by TR John Lull. For questions and comments, please click below. Thanks!