Wind Versus Your Kayak

MitchNeil sup downwinderIn the first part of our wind article we talked about the effect fetch has on the wind and more importantly the water’s surface. In this article we are going to talk about how the wind effects our kayak. I think it is easiest to look at what effect the wind has based on the direction (with regard to the wind) that our kayak is traveling. If we are paddling with the wind coming from our beam (90 degrees) most of the time the wind is going to cause our boat to turn. The question is which way?
To understand we have to look at some simple boat dynamics. When a boat, any boat, be it a kayak or ship, is moving through the water the bow is knifing through the water and actually pushing that water out of the way and off to the side. The result of this is that the bow is under a lot of lateral pressure and pretty much stuck in place. As the water piles up on either side of the bow it will lock the bow in place and make it difficult for the bow to move to the side. The stern of the boat however is traveling through what amounts to a hole in the water, and because of this there is very little pressure on the back of the boat. This is why all boats are steered from the stern because the stern is easy to move and the bow is not.
Back to our little scenario – when the wind hits us from the side, the back of the boat (because it is easy to move) blows down wind. This in turn causes the bow to turn into the wind. Ha! A little weird, right? During classes I usually ask the students to guess which way my boat will turn if I am moving forward but getting hit form wind at my side – 99% of the time they will assume that it will turn me in the direction that the wind is blowing when actually it is the opposite. There is a term for this and it is called “weather cocking.” Since kayak designers are aware of this they tend to add a sharp edge on the trailing edge of the kayak to help counter the tendency of weather cocking. There are a few kayaks where they have put such an extreme sharp edge or built in keel in the back of the boat that the stern will be locked in more than the bow and in a side wind the boat will actually blow down wind which is referred to as “lee cocking”. It’s a fine line for the designers to make a kayak so that it doesn’t weather cock too easily but is still maneuverable.

The easiest direction to paddle with regards to controlling the kayak in the wind is directly into it. Since most kayaks want to turn into the wind anyway it is usually easy to keep a kayak pointed into the wind. This doesn’t necessarily mean that paddling into the wind is easy, it’s just easy to control the kayak. The challenge of course is that it takes a lot more effort making headway when paddling into the wind.

The one direction that should be easiest to paddle is with the wind at our backs. At our rental site we usually tell people to paddle into the wind first so that when they get tired they will blow back with little effort. However most of the time people say that it was more difficult paddling with the wind at their back. Remember that due to weather cocking the kayak wants to turn 180 degrees back into the wind. When paddling with a tail wind you can simply put your paddle in at the stern and use it for steering which will keep your kayak from weather cocking. When done correctly you can travel in the same directions as the wind with very little effort. And if the wind is strong enough you can simply steer with your paddle and may need very few forward strokes as the wind is providing the power.

Mitch Mitchell
ACA Open Water Instructor Trainer
ACA Level 2 SUP Instructor Trainer
BCU Level 3 Coach

Share to Social