Updated: Jan 24
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 it's 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 what's 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 it's 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
When paddling a specific course like the HOTD, even a gentle breeze could cause you to be blown off course especially winds coming from the side. This could mean it's a slog to get back to the correct course or even means you might not be able to complete your paddle. As a top tip when you see the wind blowing from the side paddle towards it; this is known as paddling upwind. This way you will remain on course and stop yourself from being blown a long way downwind even if it means paddling a short distance away from your target.
Depending on your location, the wind may 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 it's forecast to be a downwind race. The wind blows across the local land 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 larger lakes, 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, even completely flat. In light winds, it doesn't take very long for small waves to be created 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.
Another consideration is the local land. An area with tall cliffs like kent or Dorset can hide off-shore winds. As winds come over the cliffs they might do one of two things; either bend down and back towards the cliff making it seem like its blowing onshore, only for it to be a howling offshore a couple of hundred meters out, or blowing away from the cliffs in an arc down to the sea and accelerating creating a sudden increase in wind speed going offshore. In both cases double-check and ask someone with local knowledge before heading 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. If in doubt, don't go out.
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 recording river levels and flow, which you should check before heading 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 nowhere 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, it's 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.
Windy is a great tool for checking coastal tidal flows with various options to look at the main tides and local effects. www.windy.com
What to do if you get into trouble in strong currents