How To Handle Waves In A Kayak? 3 Cases To Deal With

Waves are among the biggest challenges to kayakers. But you will have an excellent and rewarding experience when you can overcome them. 

The best way to conquer the water is to learn how to handle waves in a kayak for a safe trip. If you don’t have any ideas, this post will be your must-read. 

Let’s check the tips, and you are ready for your next excursion! 

how to handle waves in a kayak

How To Handle Waves In A Kayak?

You will encounter the waves when launching your kayak, paddling, and returning to the shore. Here are some tips for each case. 

Launch your kayak

There are two main types of kayaks: sit-on-top and sit-in. They require different methods to get in.

1. Sit-on-top kayaks

The most efficient way to paddle a sit-on-top boat is to point it at the waves. Remember to choose the water that is from knee to waist deep.

Then, get on the top of your kayak and sail through the surf zone slowly but powerfully. It would be best to time the entry. The waves arrive in sets, so choose the flat water to board. 

As your body becomes battered due to waves, you will lose your paddles quickly while trying to get into your kayak. If you accidentally let them go, use a paddle leash to prevent them from going too far. 

2. Sit-in kayaks

The sit-in kayak is more challenging to get on and requires more work. You should launch from a rockier and sandier for a more straightforward approach. 

Start at the water’s edge with the kayak partially submerged. Next, get in the kayak and take a seat. Don’t forget to attach a spray skirt to keep you warm and safe.

Once you’re at the right place, walk or push the boat into deep water for the boat hull to float. Then start paddling slowly yet passionately into the waves.

Paddle through waves

Now, you are on your kayak and paddling. The waves keep hitting you, and the following tips can help you deal with them. 

1. Face the waves

Try to keep your kayak perpendicular to the coming waves. In other words, turn your boat, so the front tip faces straight toward the waves. This tip helps you stay on the boat when in the waves. 

Please note that your boat can achieve better stability when hit from bow to stern than from side to side. This positioning can keep the boat balanced as you paddle through the waves. 

2. Focus on your speed and strength

Kayaking among strong waves requires a lot of strength. Green waves don’t fling you straight toward the shore, so it’s not too difficult to paddle over them. But the white ones certainly do. 

Big breaking waves will hit you straight in the face. They will stop your trip and strike you back a distance. 

3. Handle your paddle properly 

Bend forward as much as you can when a wave starts hitting you, then plant the rear of the wave with the next paddle strike. Try to do it firmly and aggressively. 

When the wave tries to push you back, leaning forward will help you stay in position and give you more control.

how to handle waves in a kayak
Your strength is the key.

Try your best to maintain a steady rhythm with each paddle stroke, which also enables you to gain control over your kayak. 

When a wave strikes, some inexperienced kayakers raise their paddles and arms above their heads. However, these actions allow the wave to control your kayak and body.

Some paddle strokes will help you go through the waves easier. For example: 

  • Stern brace: Push the rear paddle far away from the side of the boat when paddling during a surf pass. It will offer a lot of turning strength.
  • Low brace: Put the flat paddle on top of the wave while your boat is parallel to it. More assistance than you think will come from the wave.

4. Master the pearl dive

You might experience a pearl dive when paddling a sea kayak through a surf zone of waves.

The kayak’s tip may sometimes sink beneath the water when facing down the face of a medium or large wave. 

Bend down a little bit when this incident happens. You might or might not be able to stop what will occur next.

If all happens as planned, the wave should pass, and the kayak’s tip will raise its head above the water.

If not, your boat will start to go vertical with its stern facing upward.

Return to the shore 

Kayaking through the waves to enter the sea is different from returning to the shore as the waves will come from your back. How can you come back safely? 

1. Do not finish at the surf zone.

Your kayak will probably be heavy down with a lot of stuff, and you will definitely feel exhausted. Accessing a surf zone with severe surf will lead to some risks. 

There might be other options. Find calm access to water whenever you can get it to get off the kayak quickly.

Another option is that the waves are weaker in one beach area, allowing a smoother escape. So you can find a headland with lee, which causes the waves to go more slowly and gently. 

There might be a wave-free area in the river channel if the beach has rivers entering into the sea.

Finally, just wait a moment. Big waves rarely remain longer than a few hours because the swell dies, and the tide changes the beach’s pattern.

2. Control your paddle

The most important rule is to keep control of your boat if you head to the surf zone on your way back to land.

When returning from a trip, you won’t be as energetic as before. Luckily, the waves can push you toward the land. But you must still keep your kayak’s tip facing the shore slightly. 

Even when being pushed, you can still control your path by paddling on the backside of the waves. Do it slowly and backward if the kayak points down. 

3. Get off the kayak

As we mention two methods for getting on the kayak, we will also split the exit into two parts:

  • Sit-on-top kayak

Look for a gap in the waves and get out of the boat in knee-to-waist-deep water. 

After that, push the kayak back to land. When the water is relatively shallow, you can maintain complete control. 

  • Sit-in kayak

You must go to the shore on the back of bigger waves to safely leave the sit-in kayak.

It can be challenging as your paddle gets stuck in the sand or rocks as the water becomes shallower. 

How To Learn The Wave Characteristics? 

To handle the waves, you must know their characteristics. Since the primary cause of waves is wind, we will focus on this element.  

Wind direction and strength

The wind’s strength and direction change during the day. Onshore breezes dominate during the morning and offshore gusts during the afternoon.

As a result, it is preferable to avoid the intense offshore winds. Your body may feel the strain from this a lot.

You’ll also have to battle with onshore winds. Make sure you go far enough from the coast to prevent your boat from being pushed back to the surf zone by the onshore winds. 

Pushing back to the shore with marine debris, especially rocks, is dangerous. The rocks will cause harm to your precious kayak. 

Surf zone waves vs. open water waves

The intensity of the wave increases with wind strength and distance covered.

Those waves will break and curl around when they approach the shore. To time your kayaking correctly, you should be aware of where the waves will be hitting.

However, waves don’t often break in deep water. Strong winds can make waves with large swells or deep troughs. There is little chance of a wave breaking. 


Waves are a part of your trip. Although they can be dangerous, your adventure won’t be complete without them. 

So, face and break your limit instead of avoiding this challenge. Always put safety first, no matter how brave you are.

Bear in mind the tips we have shared, and you will have a safe and exciting trip.

Thank you for reading!

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