Kayak Downwinding in Seattle

July 09, 2020 by sitontop_kayak

by Rob Casey

Where I live in Seattle on Puget Sound its 80 miles to coastal surf, so we take advantage of every other type of waves we can get. We surf waves from freighters and tugs, stern wakes from recreational boats and also waves from wind.  When the wind blows in Seattle, we’re paying attention.

Downwinding on Puget Sound is quite good. On big blows such as 20 to 40 knots good rolling swell develops and can provide long runs from a few miles to, well, as long as you want to surf!  Many set up shuttles for the longer runs sometimes up to 15 miles long.

In my neighborhood of Ballard which is located on Shilshole Bay, we’re lucky to have five great downwind runs all depending on varying wind directions.  Shuttles are difficult so we instead have to paddle upwind or find wind protected areas to get upwind to turn around, then downwind! 

My downwind boat of choice is my 19’ Fenn Mako surf ski. Known as a more stable ski, it’s great for really rough water and surf.  I also use my converted sit on top sea Sterling’s Illusion kayak for these runs as I get easy take-offs with the 16’-9” length yet can turn easily and carve on waves due to the boat’s generous rocker.  With knee straps, I can roll or just pop back in after a capsize. I always wear a leash for each boat to not lose the boat, especially if far offshore and paddling solo. 

In this video, I’m surfing my Illusion doing the shortest of the 5 runs which allows for a quick lunch session on weekdays.  The run needs Northerly winds (wind from north) and is about a quarter mile – so I do loops to get a few runs in.  

The waves can get big due to ‘bucking’ or opposing current from the Ballard Locks which drains a few of Seattle’s lakes into Puget Sound. Current can run like a Class 1 river, even up to 3 knots after a night of rain. 

Also, low daytime tides Spring through Summer can lower the water level to just a few feet thus making this section a long surf break with steep wave faces holding up for 100 yards or longer.  As much as I love the coast, these inner waterway waves can be as fun as a coastal session and without the commute. 

Downwinding Tips

What is Downwinding?

Downwinding allows for surfing anywhere there’s wind and water. Once the wind builds and you see whitecaps – that’s surf!  The longer the wind blows the bigger the waves get this is called fetch.  Even on inland lakes, swell can build to produce super fun downwind conditions. 

Where you can Downwind

You can surf lakes, Class 1 rivers and on saltwater.  Famous downwinding spots include Oregon’s Hood River and Maui’s ‘Maliko Run’s.  Hood River gets big due to river current bucking strong opposing winds. Maliko, on the north shore of Maui fires due to tidal current and ocean swell going with the wind.

Depending on the location, sometimes wind or tidal current opposing wind makes better waves or the opposite, when all the elements flow in the same direction.  Hood River’s waves are developed from strong west winds opposing the Columbia River’s outwards flow. These are called progressive waves.

Length of Boats Best for Downwinding

You need long boats such as 14’ upwards to 22+’ to allow for catching waves easier and getting longer glides. Shorter boats will be harder to build speed and won’t get a good glide.

Physical Shape and Skill Level

You should be in fairly good shape and be able to paddle the roundtrip distance of the run on flat water as well as side winds. Things can change you want to be prepared for it.  Surfing and rough water skills are also a plus. Runs like Hood River can get huge!   On one of the runs in Seattle, waves can hit me from three different directions!

Surfing will teach you how to adjust your trim, which is controlling the board’s ability to ‘drop’ into or catch waves. Pushing the bow down to catch waves or pulling the bow out of the water to avoid ‘pearling’ or capsizing.  On kayaks and skis, this is done by leaning forward or back. Boards surfers and paddle boarders walk the board to achieve the effect.

Safety Tips to Stay off the News

Downwinding can be dangerous if you don’t plan right and/or enter waters above your skill level. Several experienced friends have had huge swims from 200 yards to 1 mile in open water back to shore. 

You should have no problem getting back in your boat from both sides in any conditions.  In high wind, it’s recommended to get on from the upwind side to avoid the wind catching and throwing the boat over your head, (seen it!).

Wear a leash so you don’t lose the boat which may require you to swim up to a mile back to shore. Get a coiled SUP leash and attach to your ankle or side straps on your life jacket, then to a very secure point on the boat.

Always wear a bright colored vest style life jacket.  Look for hi-vis colors such as orange, yellow or hi-vis green. You want to be seen by your friends and those from shore. 

Bring a reliable on-water communication device such as a floating waterproof VHF radio (know how to use) or a phone with a waterproof case. Both should be tethered to your PFD. The VHF can be used as a 2-way radio with friends on the water. Choose a non-commercial channel and synch radios on show with friends prior to departure.

Dress for the water temps keeping in mind needing to stay comfortable if paddling hard. Finding the right clothing is a balance. I tend to wear a full surfing wetsuit if paddling solo in big water.  I can jump in to cool off if needed.

A big tip for planning downwind runs.  When surfing, aim for a point that is before your destination. Many aim for their take-outs and get pushed beyond by the wind and/or current. 

Lastly, leave a Float Plan with a friend on shore. Before departure, leave where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, your arrival time back home and a description of your boat and clothing. Once back on shore, check-in. 

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