IMGP1736The following article was written by Richard Silberman, ACA L4 Coastal Kayaking Instructor.

Weather or Not to Paddle

When planning to paddle, weather is often the decisive element when deciding whether to go out or stay on shore. Weather forecasts, although readily available, are not always accurate and/or may not be true for your precise area. What is one to do?

Rules for weather awareness

  1. Check the forecasts!
    • Notice, forecasts is plural. In addition to the local weatherman, you will want to hear the marine weather forecast which will contain additional information on wind and waves; two critical forces related to paddling safety.  You can get a marine weather forecast 24 hours a day on a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio in areas near the ocean or Great Lakes.
    • Keep in mind that the wind forecasts for most TV weather reports are giving you the wind speeds over land.  Wind speeds over water are usually higher since the water is relatively flat and there are no buildings, hills, trees, etc. to slow the wind.
  2. An excellent guideline is to trust your gut. It is telling you something about how competent you feel at your level of ability in relation to what is happening on the water. Remember the old saying: It is better to be on shore wishing you had gone out than to be on the water wishing you had stayed ashore. There will be other paddling days for those who stay safe.
  3. Clear skies and a good forecast do not guarantee your safety on the water. Here, on the Great Lakes, we mostly watch the western and NW skies since that is where our weather tends to come from.  If we spot a dark line of clouds rolling toward us. . .
  • This is a SQUALL LINE.
  • It brings winds that may be brief, BUT CAN REACH 40-50 KNOTS*.
  • You must seek shelter immediately. GET OFF THE WATER!

(* A knot is one nautical mile per hour.  A nautical mile is slightly longer than a statute mile which is the measure used on American highways.  A nautical mile is the equivalent of one minute of latitude.  To convert knots to miles per hour, multiply knots x 1.15.  A 40 knot wind would be roughly 46 miles per hour.)

  1. Face the wind, extend your right arm straight out to the side:
    • Is it pointing toward that NW quadrant of the sky?
    • You are likely pointing toward the center of a low pressure system
    • Bad weather may be headed your way. Have you checked the forecast?P1000121
  2. Wind Guidelines:
    1. Force: For less experienced paddlers, as the wind approaches 15 miles per hour (or more) consider staying ashore. It takes a maximum effort to paddle against high winds; and, if you should stop paddling, even for a moment, you will drift backwards and have to paddle the same distance over again. Wind speeds over 30 knots will keep even the most experienced kayakers off the water.
    2. Offshore wind: When the wind blows from the land toward the water, the waves will appear flatter at the shoreline than they will be as you get further from shore. You may be fooled into thinking that the conditions aren’t that bad, but by the time you find yourself being blown into the bigger waves, you may be unable to paddle back to shore against the wind if it is strong. Moreover, should you become disabled in such a wind, you will be blown further and further from shore…and help.
    3. Wind produces waves. The stronger the wind, the greater the potential that you will encounter large waves which can result in capsize.  (For more information, see the page on Waves and Surf.)IMGP1181
    4. When going for a paddle, start out by heading into the wind. There are two reasons for this:
      • If you become tired or injured during your paddle, you will have the wind at your back helping you when you turn back toward your launch site
      • When you paddle with the wind (at your back) you will not be aware of any increase in wind speed. These increases can be significant and, upon turning to go home, you may find it too much to proceed or exhausting.
    5. Lightning on SuperiorLightning Guidelines: It goes without saying that we never go onto the water when lightning or thunder is present.
      • It does not matter if the lightning/thunder is overhead or in the far distance. Lightning can strike as much as 10 miles ahead or behind a storm.
      • You can be killed by lightning when the skies overhead are clear. DO NOT GO BACK ONTO THE WATER UNTIL LIGHTNING AND THUNDER HAVE BEEN ABSENT FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES.
      • When driving to the put-in before paddling, listen to the weather forecast on an AM radio station. If there is lightning in the area, you will hear static on the radio broadcast.
  1. Equipment:
    • Yes, you absolutely must always wear a PFD (life jacket)!
    • What if the temperature drops before you can make land? Remember that wind chill can make it feel as though the temperature is much colder than it is.
    • What if it rains? Cotton clothing absorbs water, stays wet a long time, and will suck the heat from your body.  Good thing you’re not wearing any cotton clothing, right?
    • ARE YOU CARRYING THE NECESSARY CLOTHES IN A HATCH SO YOU CAN COPE WITH THESE CHANGES…AND MAKE IT SAFELY HOME? (For more information, see the “Dressing for Paddling” page of this website.)


Everyone talks about the weather but we, as paddlers, can and need to do something about it.  Our lives can depend on it!

Stay safe.