Editor’s note: Photography credits for this article go to June Legler. Thanks, June!
by Tsunami Ranger John Lull
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is only a basic sketch. Followup comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.