Introduction to the conditions
When planning or going for a paddle, understanding the conditions both from general forecasts and how they behave locally can make a big difference to your paddle. The environment gives us our most significant challenges when paddling, so this blog aims to provide you with a basic understanding and some tips on how to use the conditions to your advantage and when its time to say no paddling today.
To make the most of the conditions, you don't need to spend hours and hours pouring over weather charts. With so many apps available at our fingertips, it's easy to check whats going on. However, it is essential to observe your local conditions alongside broader forecasts and understand how to interpret this information at your location. It's also crucial to gain a 'feel' for the conditions so you can predict or react to changes when out on the water, especially if going for longer paddles.
Here is a list of the apps and sites I typically use the most when planning a paddle:
https://magicseaweed.com/ - Tides, swell and wind
https://www.windy.com/ - Wind speed and direction, tidal currents and swell
https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/ - General weather forecasts
By far, the most significant effect on us as paddlers comes from the wind. We spend most of our time paddling in it, and even a gentle breeze should be respected, especially in exposed locations such as large lakes, wide rivers and at the coast.
Wind direction is usually the first condition taught to you in beginner lessons, and it's the first condition that we start to build our knowledge on as we head out on the water. Whilst we can paddle in any wind direction, your local paddling spot will likely have a more favourable direction offering the best shelter or downwind opportunities, for example. Spending time watching the wind and comparing it to forecasts and live data maps goes a long way towards making the most from the conditions and knowing when its best to stay on land.
Forecast apps such as Windy will show you the direction the wind is blowing, but interestingly wind is usually described by the direction it's coming from. For example, a wind blowing towards the South is called a Northerly Wind after the direction it's come from. Likewise, a Southerly Wind is actually blowing towards the North, so understanding this will allow you to predict your chosen location conditions better.
Whilst strong winds are reasonably obvious to see, lighter winds are more challenging to gauge, so it is easier to misjudge their strength. Even a gentle breeze can blow an inexperienced paddler off course, so treat any wind with an element of caution. However, if you learn to use the wind strength to your advantage, you can open up your paddling window and experience a new area of the sport.
On a day with stronger winds, for example, you can paddle upwind first, then turn and enjoy the ride back downwind to your starting position. Downwind paddling at any level is great fun but always judge the conditions before going out in stronger winds. If in doubt, don't go out!
Here is a link to the RNLI Sunderlands website showing the wind scale and its effects on the water - http://www.rnlisunderland.org/call_outs/beaufort_scale/pg81.html
Depending on your location, the wind may very well act in a different way than predicted. The wind might be coming from completely the opposite direction; therefore, getting to know your local paddling spot can make a massive difference to your paddle.
The Head of the Dart race is an excellent example of how local winds can act differently to the forecast. Some of the regular event paddlers will tell you that you should expect a headwind at some point during the event, even if its forecast to be a downwind race. The wind blows across the local land, bening and being affected, causing it to come from a different direction. More often than not, at the mouth of the joining valleys, you will have wind coming into your face as it's channelled into the central river valley.
By far the most significant danger to us from off-shore winds. Many of the RNLI paddleboard rescues we see on their TV programme involve off-shore winds, and they should be treated with the utmost respect. Off-shore winds are typically associated with the coast when a breeze comes off the land and is blowing out to sea; however, they can also be dangerous on lakes and larger rivers and estuaries.
One of the biggest causes of paddlers getting into trouble with off-shore winds is usually not the wind itself. Off-shore winds can create a false sense of security and confidence as when the wind is blowing directly off-shore, it is highly likely the first 50m of water will be very calm, so inviting you to paddle out. Even in light winds, it doesn't take very long for small waves to be created; however, and the sheer effort to paddle back against the wind can be exhausting. At just 400m from shore, it could be challenging for even relativity experienced paddlers to self-rescue and it's surprising how quickly you can cover 400m with the wind at your back.
If it looks calm and inviting and the forecast predicts reasonable wind levels, double-check the wind direction before paddling out. You may well be able to paddle close to and along the shoreline in relative safety but always stay on the side of caution.
The Tides, Tidal Currents and River Flow
Paddling along a river is an enriching experience. The diversity you can see along a riverbank is incredible, from small to large rivers you can experience lots of different scenery and wildlife. A river's flow can cause paddlers many problems, especially when it travels through lots of changing environments. Whilst a river may appear to be slow-moving in one area, it can quickly change as the landscape and river bed alters, and with no warning, you could find yourself in fast-flowing water.
Different rivers will also behave differently to rainfall and river levels, so getting to know your local waterway throughout the seasons is a must. Speaking to local business or water sports clubs along your stretch of the river is a great way to gain first-hand knowledge of suitable conditions for you. There are also monitoring stations recoding river levels and flow, which you can check the river conditions before you head out. The Shoothill Gauge map is an excellent tool to use.
For major rivers where boating navigation is possible, you can also follow the stream warnings and associated boards. As a general rule, avoid paddling on Yellow increasing river flow and Red boards and always check with your local agency for updates to conditions.Here is an example of a monitoring station at Allington Lock on the River Medway.
Tides and Tidal Flows
Whilst we often think about tides just coming in and out during their daily cycle, they can also behave unpredictably through the influence of the local land, weather conditions and even through themselves at different tide stages. There can be currents flowing in unexpected directions, waves seemingly appearing out of no-where and exposed objects where even half an hour ago there was no sign of them.
It is essential, therefore, to understand how different locations behave when dealing with tides. In some places where there are narrow passages, such as around the Isle of Wight, you can see a double high tide and The Menai Straits between Anglesey and mainland Wales; this experiences powerful tidal flows running in both directions.
In areas of strong tidal flow, its always wise to keep well away from any stationary objects such as mooring posts, buoys and piers. As the flow runs past these objects, the current can be accelerated or swirl, putting you at risk of being knocked off your board. This is particularly relevant if you are out during the midpoint of a tides cycle. A tides cycle is over a roughly 6hr period from low to high tide and vice-versa. During the 3rd and 4th hours of that cycle, the flow will be strongest and create the most risks around objects.
What to do if you get into trouble in strong currents
Whilst it is always better to avoid a problematic situation on the water, sometimes things happen, and we have to deal with what's facing us regardless. When paddling on a river or in areas of moving currents, if we panic and carry on going with the flow, we can end up travelling quite quickly, giving ourselves less time to react to the situation we face. Therefore a great way to give yourself more time is to turn into the current and paddle against it. You can in somecases where the flow isn't to strong hold your position without paddling as your boards' design will be trying to move it upstream, giving you more time to calm down or deal with what you need to.
In stronger currents, its a safer way to then navigate out of the flow by paddling into it and towards one side using a kayaking technique called ferry gliding. If you were to continue facing downstream and try to paddle towards the riverbank, it could be quite challenging to hit your landing position on the riverbank, for example.
How can we help?
At Haywood Sports, we are first and foremost paddlers. We are regularly out on the water covering many areas of the sport and have experience in participating and teaching right across the multiple SUP disciplines.
We run various courses to give you the skills to deal with the conditions you may face no matter where you are paddling. We are also here to help advise you and impart our knowledge so you can go out and enjoy your paddling. Get in touch with us if you have any questions or want to find out more about our courses.
Scotty - Haywood Sports