A guide to swell and wind, rock hopping and caves for sea kayakers...

When you are choosing a sea kayak, you pick a boat for your ability and what type of sea kayaking pushes your buttons. Is it going to be the touring away from the coast type or the close in exploring nooks and caves type of paddling? If you are into the rock hopping and exploring you may also want a plastic boat.

However, be it plastic or glass, getting in close requires caution and judgement and can be a bit like Russian roulette in the wrong conditions. Here are a few tips to make the right decision

Swell and wind
Interpreting the forecast, swell is caused by the area of water and the time the wind has been blowing upon it. You could have a rough sea state and a light wind and vice versa all depending on the time scale, look at previous forecasts.

An offshore wind is not always a bad thing especially if you are getting in close, it may even give you shelter under steeper cliffs. Look out for downdrafts and wind funnelling around headlands.

Look at what the swell is doing, is it breaking. Or is it being refracted back and just moving up and down in this case it’s probably a safe bet as your unlikely to be pushed into the cliffs. Always watch the swell for a while to check out the pattern, especialy if your going into caves.

Look at the sets for a while, before you decide, most of the time you may want to reverse in, so you can see what’s coming and give you the ability to turn on the power if you want to get out quick!

Be careful of caves with low roofs as you could get rammed into them in a good swell, Some caves you can paddle in forward and turn around if there big enough and carrying a head torch allows you to explore deep dark caves.

Stern rudders are particularly useful in narrow caves combined with a bit of forward speed and watch out for seals who like hanging about in these places.

Rock Hopping
Otherwise known as Close Quartering, basically anything that involves getting in close be it small gaps or close in. All the usual rules apply. Always watch for a while; if it’s through gaps, where is it going to push you if it goes wrong, could you sort out a rescue if it does, what sort of surface are you going to end up on - seaweed covered or barnacle covered.

Always keep a look out to sea to check what’s coming, don’t get blinkered by what’s going on in front of you. Small gaps need good use of boat speed and stern rudders and circular draws. You may find you are dealing with current slow it all down and read the water and decide when to use your stokes: timing, timing, timing.

Remember areas you may think you're familiar with can be completely different depending on the state of tide and the weather. We have our own particular problems on Anglesey, the ferries. This can bring large sets of waves out of nowhere and you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time, be aware of ferry times and its implication’s.

Think about wearing a helmet! It seems to be a bit of a culture thing, a little like climbing many years ago where very few people wore them, this changed and now many recreational climbers wear helmets.

If I am working my students always carry helmets and if we get in close, they put them on. It doesn’t up the ante! But provides extra protection in a potentially dangerous place, it doesn’t take a big wave to cause serious injury. I can’t think of any other activity I do that I don’t wear a helmet when teaching.

For your personal paddling, its up to you. I have seen some very near misses on symposiums and have had two friends who have had very close calls. If you have one at least you can make a decision when to use it!

So get out and enjoy getting in close, you can discover a completely different coast. I have often paddled out to the skerries and missed some fantastic coastline and wildlife. You never know what you’re going to find in cave!


Olly runs his own guiding company Rock and Sea Adventures and is sponsored by Palm and Lendal.