Saugatuck Channel Sea Kayak Wave Play Nov 8th 2008

Saugatuck Channel Sea Kayak Wave Play Nov 8th 2008

Because today is the day of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald it is fitting that this post includes a way to kayak rough water in the Great Lakes without getting killed. I had another experience three years ago today that involved kayak surfing on the day of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, that surf session didn’t go so hot.

John Fleming and I made it out to Saugatuck this saturday to paddle Lake Michigan. It was looking like a huge day on the lake with thirty knot winds. Something that honestly is starting to be a pain. 15-20 is great for waves, but 30 is just heinous and makes all the waves flatten out and squash down. You can’t make progress for very long against it. The forecast for Lake Michigan that day was 30 knot winds out of the west, (onshore yuck) with 4-7 foot waves building to 8-10.

This is best put in the words of Homer,

“It is not possible to fight beyond your strength, even if you strive”

John and I drove to the beach anyway to see what we could see. My B-plan was to play in the channel where the waves funnel through to the Kalamazoo river. John and I suited up and began to paddle up river. John is a newer paddler, but also one of the more skilled newer paddlers I have seen. Having seen his roll, his forward and positioning strokes, it seemed like he would do fine. However this was really the first time he had been out on water this textured.

John also was lucky enough to have just received his new Immersion Research paddling suit.
Considering the air temp which was in the low forties, and the off and on hail and freezing rain, this was probably a wise investment for John. I can’t stress enough how nice it is to have a drysuit for this type of paddling. I may groan about having to wear a drysuit on a summer Lake Superior trip from time to time. But when it gets cold in winter and fall, I love wearing my Kokatat Meridian suit. Nothing can put your mind at ease and allow you to focus on your skills than being warm and dry. There is nothing better for force seven winds and 40 degree water temps than wearing a paddling fleece, running tights and smart wool socks under a complete 3-layer gore-tex suit. I know a lot of newer paddler’s eyes pop when they hear the price, roughly $1000. Though the IR drysuit is a steal at $775.00. The availability of affordable immersion protection is a great thing for paddlesports. I love my Kokatat and I do think it is worth the money. That said if you are on a bit of a budget, the Immersion Research looks like a great suit. Maybe John will comment on it’s performance?

John and I approached the channel and looked at the maw of the beast. Sleet was driving in on the twenty-five knot wind, the waves beyond the breakwall looked like a giant washing machine. Massive whitecapped 8-10 foot waves were building on the outside. The wind was beginning to funnel straight down the river mouth.

I knew I could probably get outside, but then what. I could surf in most likely, or try not surf as the case may be in a sea kayak. But what then?… Often I’ve felt compelled to test my limits against the lake, but it seemed (to continue the metaphor) like sticking my head in the lions mouth. Because Saugatuck has a nice westward facing channel and a long Kalamazoo river approach that winds its way west, we are able to paddle right up to the mouth on flat water. I’ve been wanting to try surfing the river mouth on days like this for three years. I figured it would be a great intro to rough water for John. The only thing, and keep in mind this is a big only thing, is the danger of the break walls on both sides. You do not want to surf a sea kayak smack into a break wall, or have a bad capsize and get washed into one. However in the event of a swim that does not end in smashing into the break wall this is where a good quick tow and a rescue would be very important.

The waves cleaned up and ran down either side of the channel with a bit of reflection waves in the middle. In some ways this was the best spot to be. We were somewhat sheltered from the wind, in an area where the cleanest spilling waves could be found. I may actually take a surf boat next time. The waves in the channel were smaller and more manageable, more in the 4-7 foot range. These waves in the channel were also slow moving enough to react to individually.

It was great to be able to see a new perspective on this pursuit of mine. Watching John’s fearful reaction to the power of the lake funneling down two 6 foot steel and concrete walls right at him made his eyes pop a little, and he visibly tensed when we approached. I gave a few bits of advice I’ve been trying to articulate about rough water paddling.

  • Stay Loose: if you tense up and don’t allow the water to move under you- you will lose and go over. I’ve seen many competent paddlers go stiff in steep conditions that may not have knocked them over and ended up swimming anyway. Being relaxed in the hips gives you an edge. You can steer much easier with your hips and your paddle than with your arms alone. Keep your grip relaxed on the paddle, you’ll only wear yourself out trying to crush your paddle in an iron death grip.
  • Allow the kayak to settle: In the event of a capsize, allowing the kayak to fully capsize is the best way to make sure you only have to roll up once. By rushing to roll before the kayak is fully capsized and your body is in the setup position, you are more likely to be too far beneath the kayak and then struggling to bring your head up for air. Better to let it settle, hold on for at least a two mississippi count, and then rolling up. In the event of getting tossed around a bit by a wave, wait for it to release you before trying to roll up. This is the hardest mental gymnastics to get down. You just have to stop panicking and wait, wait, wait. Because waiting with no breath for a few seconds is always easier than swimming.
  • Visualize your path: this is the hardest for newer paddlers to achieve as they have no ability to conceptualize which way their kayak will travel when it starts to plane out on a wave. If you can picture your kayak lifting at the stern and starting to rush downwave and how you are going to react when the unexpected happens, you will be able to hold on, brace, rudder, or roll. Practice in conditions is the only way to develop this skill

John did really well. He started off a little tense, but proceeded to unwind a little bit when he realized there was a manageable way to predict the waves coming in, and to pick the waves you wanted to turn on, and the waves you wanted to paddle for.

I did see him paddling up a particularly steep face that was at least six feet, I was worried for a second that he might get tossed ass over tea-kettle. He paddled hard and came out on the other side unscathed. He had a few capsizes and managed to roll-up from each.

I caught a few wild rides where I managed to edge off from the wall pretty well. Sea kayaks are so easy to get moving at top speed. It’s funny to switch in between surf kayaks and sea kayaks at times.
A surf kayak will easily turn and spin out from danger, but really needs a quite steep wave to fully plane out. Where as a sea kayak will surf a very small wave very fast, but once you’re headed down wave, forget about carving off in the other direction.

John Fleming hopped out of his kayak and got these shots of me from the south side of the pier. My camera will evidently have to go in to Pentax for service.


  1. New Guy is relative, it’s like buying a used car, it’s new to someone….. Thanks for coming out, and if all holds well we might actually paddle this weekend instead of surf. Thanks again for taking the pictures.

  2. Quite a trip for this ‘new guy’.

    I though you were stoking my ego until you mentioned my popping eyeballs as we paddled towards the maw of the beast. The conditions looked BIG, at least for me. It was quite interesting to feel the progression from the initial irrational fear, to rational fear, to “how soon can I do this again?!” (More prosaically: “Oh, f#ck”, “Oh, f#ck it”, and “f#ck, yeah!”) Quite a bit of fun, and continued respect for the power of the Lake. I was actually a bit bummed that I didn’t get sent for the reverse loop, as that could be embellished into such a great story.

    Keith, one thing to consider when paddling into 30 knot gusts, is that I could hear about half of the advice you were giving me. Something about “paddling the Mississippi”… Actually, I DID understand that part – good advice. Also, the bit about back-paddling rather than slamming into the wall, that was good, too. :^)

    BTW, the Immersion Research suit is awesome. I have paddled a lot of hours in their jackets, and this suit shares their excellent build quality. I am really happy about two things: The first is simply paddling in a dry suit, making the great leap forward in comfort, from cahone-roasting neoprene shorts, to capilene and fleece. The second is that this drysuit is designed really well. Once it is on, I forget about it, which is perfect. I have used the suit on a couple of warmer days, and it seems to breath very well, too.

  3. We were hoping you’d go for it and have a good time, Keith! We sat this one out, but hope to paddle with you soon in conditions that aren’t quite so punishing.