Handling Beam Winds in a Sea Kayak
“It is the set of our sails, not the direction of the wind,
that determines which way we will go.”
So, you’ve learned and practiced all the basic strokes: the forward, the sweep, the stern rudder, the draws and the braces. But any paddler who’s been out in the wind and the waves and all that other wet and wild stuff has at some point observed that when floating stationary in the water, most kayaks—with or without a paddler aboard—will tend to turn sideways to the wind, lying parallel to the waves. But while underway and paddling across the wind, most will tend to gradually turn upwind to point their bows nearly into the wind, or within 30-45 degrees. This tendency is a function of several physical forces acting on the boat, each of which we’ll explore a bit, but the upshot is that this phenomenon can make it difficult to keep your boat on your intended course, and can be frustrating and physically exhausting for an unprepared paddler, especially if one doesn’t fully understand its cause.
Sweep and stern rudder strokes may be employed, with varying degrees of success, but the tired paddler may soon find himself getting swung around like Grandpa’s rooftop rooster, and struggling to make headway toward his destination.
There are multiple factors which contribute to weathercocking in sea kayaks, so let’s look at each one, in their order of significance.
Every vessel, whether an oceangoing freighter or a little plastic kayak, creates a pressure wave footprint with a distinctive shape as it passes through the water. When viewed from above, bulbous zones of high pressure surround the ends of the boat (larger at the bow and smaller at the stern), while a narrow zone of low pressure suction pinches the midsection. The precise size and shape of this footprint will vary with speed and hull shape, but it is these pressure zones, moving along through the water with the kayak, which create the bow and stern wakes.
Normally, these pressure zones are symmetrically balanced on the left and right sides of the hull, so the kayak tends to track straight. But when paddling across the wind, the beam wind exerts a sideways, lateral force along the entire length of one side of the boat. Because the larger high-pressure zone surrounding the bow serves to resist this lateral force, and the smaller high-pressure zone around the stern offers less resistance, the overall effect is that the beam wind is able to push the stern further off course than the bow. The resulting force tends to push the stern downwind, and the bow upwind—the familiar weathercocking phenomenon. Because the entire pressure footprint is amplified by speed, and dissipates when the kayak glides to a stop, weathercocking tends to increase the faster you paddle.
Beam winds are certainly the primary culprit, but water is able to exert great force on your kayak’s hull, too. When waves driven by a beam wind strike the side of your moving kayak, they too encounter the unequal lateral resistance caused by the larger bow and smaller stern high-pressure zones, with similar results. So again, the stern will be swung downwind (or downwave) more than the bow, with the same result as above: weathercocking up into the wind and waves.
Find Your Center
Grandpa’s barntop weathervane unfailingly swings around to aim into the wind because the wind exerts more pressure behind the vane’s pivot point than ahead of it.
So too does your kayak. Just like the weathervane, you and your kayak have a central pivot point—your combined center of gravity. If you’ve loaded the boat a bit bow-heavy, the wind can more easily push your stern downwind and pull your bow upwind.
So, with all the forces of Neptune and Newtonian physics conspiring to carry us away, how is a paddler to remain in command of his vessel? Several techniques have been devised to help keep a kayak on a true heading in wind and waves, so let’s look at a few, in order of effectiveness.
Sign up for “Fetch,” the newsletter of Superior Paddling!
Be the first to know about new or featured how-to articles, product reviews, and destination trip reports, plus other sea-kayak events, news, and more.
Skegs & Rudders
When a sea kayak is born on the drawing board, her designer knows early on whether a particular design will incorporate either a rudder or a skeg, and this choice helps determine several traits of the final boat design. Rudders are not interchangeable with skegs, so trust that your kayak utilizes whatever is best for that particular hull design.
When native Arctic peoples developed the first kayaks, they soon realized that those boats whose stern sections boasted deeper, narrow fin-like keels seemed to track better, especially in beam winds. The modern sea-kayak skeg is a figurative and literal extension of this, but is adjustable in small increments for changing conditions.
In essence, by increasing lateral resistance in the stern, the kayak is better able to resist the yawing effect of the beam wind. This stern resistance is balanced with the resistance of the forward pressure zone, enabling the kayak to hold its course.
The degree to which the skeg is extended may be adjusted, depending on the direction and strength of the wind relative to the kayak’s path: stronger beam winds will require the application of more skeg to maintain a crosswind course, while paddling in no wind will probably require no skeg at all.
Borrowed from their larger nautical sisters (sailboats, ships, etc.), kayak rudders function in much the same way as skegs: by providing lateral resistance in the stern. Rudders differ from skegs, however, in several ways. Rather than being adjusted up and down, rudders are either fully deployed or completely retracted.
But the feature which perhaps most distinguishes the rudder from the skeg is that it is steerable. Generally controlled by sliding foot pedals, the rudder can be swung from left to right to serve as a trim tab of sorts, to provide lateral resistance in beam winds, similar to a skeg. When a beam wind threatens to weathercock you to the right, apply a bit of left rudder to counteract the wind and maintain a straight track.
This ability to steer is often misunderstood by novice paddlers to mean that the rudder is intended to steer the sea kayak, when in fact it is not. Always employ your sweeps, carves, and stern rudder strokes to make your little boat go where you want. Should your rudder ever fail, or you find yourself in an unfamiliar kayak, you’ll want to know how to properly pilot your craft without a rudder.
Carving & Sweeping
When the wind presses on your right-hand beam and threatens to swing your bow to the right, shift your body’s weight to rest on your right buttock and lean the kayak likewise. By altering the shape of your boat’s waterline as it passes through the water, it will tend to pull to the left, ideally just enough to counteract the rightward weathercocking, allowing you to hold a crosswind course. If you feel uncomfortable leaning too far over, you may steady yourself by bracing on the oncoming waves.
An equally effective but perhaps less efficient technique is to use close, upright paddle strokes on the downwind side, and broader, low-angle sweep strokes on the upwind side, to combat the weathercocking effects of the beam wind. If you find this tiring or bothersome to maintain, shift the entire paddle in your hands upwind, holding it off-center with a longer reach toward the wind to effectively produce sweep strokes on that side.
Cargo & Deck Gear
In general, a kayak loaded with camping gear will handle better in wind and waves than an empty one, since it rides lower in the water to resist the effects of the wind, and by dint of its sheer mass. But it must be packed wisely, to attain a center of gravity near the physical center of the kayak. (For a bit of squirrelly fun sometime, try stuffing a couple of jugs of water into the extreme stern or bow of your sea kayak, and go out to play in the wind and waves. Your boat will tend to swing around this misplaced center of gravity, and you may be challenged to make her go where you want.)
If you know in advance that you’ll be paddling in strong beam winds during the day, pack your kayak a bit stern-heavy to pull the center of gravity sternward and help resist weathercocking.
Gear carried on your decks can affect your vulnerability to weathercocking, too, by offering badly placed windage surface. During a recent trip, my partner, suffering from a bit of carpal-tunnel pain, and paddling a borrowed and poorly designed kayak with too little skeg, struggled with a strong beam wind during a five-mile crossing to another island. We rafted up mid-crossing and I lashed a drybag of gear far ahead on his foredeck. This additional surface area allowed the wind to counteract the bow pressure zone to keep the boat on track, and allowed my partner to more easily complete the crossing.
Don’t Go Off Half-Cocked
If there is any consolation to be found in this weathercocking phenomenon, it is that novice and intermediate paddlers often prefer to take large waves on the bow, rather than the beam or even the stern, since it is easier to see what’s coming and to punch through them. If you happen to be headed that direction anyway, congratulations. If not, you may be in for a very long slog.
But now that you know the causes of weathercocking, and a few simple techniques for dealing with it, you can captain your little craft wherever you command …
What do you think? Leave a question or comment below!
Thanks for the great explanation and paddling tips. I love kayaking but my biggest source of frustration is trying to maintain a straight line in wind or waves. This article clears thing up and i can’t wait to try kayaking in some beam winds.
Les, glad you found the article helpful!
Yes, this can be a source of frustration, not just in kayaking but in nearly all things nautical. But your approach is a good one: learn what you can, then go out in varying conditions and TRY it, or at least become more familiar with the invisible forces at work out in that environment.
Greetings from rainy Costa Rica and thanks for the explanation and the useful tips. I own a Tsunami 145 by Wilderness System and I’m planning some long excursions starting this October. I’m starting with a 83 Km kayak trip at lake Arenal (world famous for wind surfing). I’ll be moving to Lake Nicaragua after that one and eventually will be paddling 1200 Km. from the borderline with Nicaragua to the borderline with Panama (all the Costa Rican pacific Coast). I’m wondering if you could guide me on how to load my kayak. I’m packing as lite as possible but still there’s a lot of luggage to be carried around and I understand there’s a place for each thing on the kayak. Thanks again, E. Ericksen M.
Good to hear from you in Costa Rica! It was many years ago on a Costa Rican vacation that I rather impulsively rented something called a ‘kayak’ and ventured out onto Bahia Coco for an afternoon. I was hooked immediately and have been paddling ever since.
Sounds like you have some great paddling trips planned! If you haven’t yet, check out this article on Packing a Kayak for Camping
I try to cover the basics of packing, and offer a gear list to get you started. Also check out some of the interesting conversations with readers which follow in the Comments section there.
Though a 14.5′ kayak is considered small by many, I paddled such a boat for several years of kayak-camping on the Great Lakes. It helps to think like a backpacker: compact, lightweight, only what is necessary …
I envy you your Costa Rican adventures, especially as we will be entering winter just about the time you embark on your excursions.
Thank you. Clear well written helpful
On a totally different note, I would like to ask an experienced kayaker like yourself the following two part question. …concerning seasickness. Does a person eventually just stop becoming seasick with enough times or (other than popping daily seasick pills) are there things you can do to eliminate this phenomenon. .. ? Thanks.
There is evidence among sea captains and NASA astronauts that you can indeed train yourself NOT to get motion sickness.
Your excellent questions have prompted me to write an article on seasickness while kayaking, where I address the causes and offer some preventative tips to avoid the green-gilled monster!
Check it out here: http://superiorpaddling.com/Dev2017/seasickness-while-kayaking/
Hope this helps!
I you know you are likely to get see sick. Do not retrieve anything from your day hatch, your self. Let some one else remove it for you. While you look at the horizon. The concentrated effort too look close can set you off.
Great teaching, I think I am going to add some weight to my Kayak both fore and aft to see if this helps it out. It is a rather light 14′ Tribute, with tracking into the wind great, however going across wind or waves a bit challenging. I instinctively tried the different fixes mentioned, just couldn’t hold them for very long. Thanks for the info.
Norman, yes adding some balanced weight to your kayak should help, as most kayaks are designed to carry some cargo and will tend to wander a bit when paddled unloaded. As the article outlines, you can also experiment with various fore/aft balance points to improve handling in wind.
Hope this helps!
Thanks for the suggestion, I will try them for sure… covering a lot more water then I need to, it’s like playing golf and hitting the ball in the ruff all the time, you play every inch of he course.
Hi, Norman again. How do you find these balance points? Should I first add weight to the stern or add equal amts of weight to both bow and stern?
Norman, yes I’d start by loading your kayak evenly from bow to stern; this may help ‘set’ your boat into the water better to avoid being pushed off course. If this doesn’t help enough, pack your kayak a bit stern-heavy to pull the center of gravity sternward and help resist weathercocking.
Thank you very much, I will do this right away.
A couple of weeks ago my partner and I were kayaking in a double kayak across some open water in Vanuatu and couldn’t figure out why we kept pulling east (into south easterly winds) despite our best efforts to keep a south-by-southwest heading. Moreover, on our return journey when we thought the wind would give us a bit of help, the tendency for the kayak to turn east was even worse making it even harder to maintain our heading. About halfway back we took a break and figured out how to use the rudder, which we’d ignored until then, being inexperienced kayakers. The rest of the journey was a breeze, so to speak.
Now, having read this piece, I understand what was happening. Thanks for the explanation.
Yes, most kayaks are designed to be used with either a rudder or a skeg, and while it’s always helpful to learn how to paddle without such aids, as you found, there are days when we simply must use them.
Glad you found the article helpful in understanding one of the many mysterious forces at work on our kayaks.
Thank you for an excellent article! It will definitely help me with my new 26 lb 18 foot CD Solstice.
Glad you found it helpful! The more you know about the unique characteristics of your kayak, the more you’ll appreciate it.
“Generally controlled by sliding foot pedals,” – the worst design ever for steering a kayak. Good design foot pedals are often called gas-pedals and allow bracing against for leg power to the paddle stroke.
“This ability to steer is often misunderstood by novice paddlers to mean that the rudder is intended to steer the sea kayak,” – Of course it is there to steer the kayak so that every stroke is a power stroke in the direction the paddler is going. And we’re not talking novices, we’re talking about paddlers who circumnavigate Australia, Britain, Alaska, New Caledonia, South America, etc. – real kayakers.
“Should your rudder ever fail,” – and it is why they teach passengers to run up and down the cabin of a 747 in case the rudder fails…
In the southern hemisphere it is windy and this generally leads to good rudder design and the knowledge of how to use them.
My point regarding rudders is only that paddlers should not become over-reliant on the rudder for steering, as, like any complex mechanical device, it may not always work correctly. A kayak can be steered using only strokes and leans, as evidenced by the countless skegged sea kayaks playing the oceans and lakes, and every paddler should know how to do so.
Ruddered and skegged kayaks each have their advantages, and their advocates. Personally, my kayaks are almost equally divided between the two designs, and each one excels in different paddling environments, and I choose the boat accordingly.
Certainly, this age-old rudder-vs-skeg debate will not be settled here, nor today. Fortunately, human ingenuity being what it is, we have choices!
Excellent explanation! I’ve read about weathercocking from several sources and had several people teach how to compensate for it but never really understood why it happened and therefore the compensations are slow to become second nature. thank you!
Joyce, glad you found this helpful!
I think the invisible and variable nature of wind makes it especially mysterious, and often frustrating for us paddlers. But that mystery is also somewhat intriguing, and learning how to manage it can give us a real advantage.
Thanks for visiting, and paddle on!