Paddleboarding in rough water can be tricky business. Wind, tides, currents, boat wakes and rebound off of coastal features can all affect your ride. Wind causes the surface of the water to pile up on itself creating peaks and valleys that move rapidly. This is called chop, and a lot of times these peaks of chop water will collide with one another and ricochet in different directions. At other times they piggyback creating much larger peaks. You may also have to deal with ocean swell in deeper water that moves slower than chop but carries more water over a larger surface area. But even with all of those factors conspiring to knock you off your board, paddleboarding at a steady pace and with stability is still possible. Here are a few tips for paddleboarding in rough water with confidence.
In order to negotiate rough, choppy water you need to have solid paddling technique. You should be comfortable using your core muscles to move your paddleboard forward and not your arms. Your paddle blade needs to be all the way down into the water on the catch phase of the stroke and your back should be kept straight. A longer stroke with a deeper catch is essential in rough water as it will help you power through the chop especially if it is hitting you from the side. Exaggerate your reach and dig the paddle blade deep into the water and start drawing it back only once it is fully submerged. Then release the blade from the water just in front of your feet. It will feel like you are going to fall forward at first but keep practicing. The extra effort you put into the fluidity of your stroke will help you power through the chop and ultimately make you feel more stable. As soon as you stop paddling and straighten up you will be at the mercy of the waves so commit fully, bend your knees and keep it going.
When side-chop is strong it will buck your board from side to side. You will feel your weight shift as you try and absorb each blow. As you tilt to the side, the board will want to turn onto its rail and dump you overboard. The quickest way to prevent yourself from plunking into the water when this happens is to brace. To brace, practice reaching out to the leeward side of your paddleboard with the front of the blade facing the water. It works best if you are moving forward at a good speed. Lean on the paddle just enough to feel the resistance in the shaft against your weight. The paddle acts as a support to keep you from falling over. Start paddling again as soon as you are able to recover your balance. You can practice this on calm days as well as windy days. Trusting your paddle and instincts will take a little getting used to but once you have braced a few times it will become an automatic reflex when you need it most.
photo from SUPPaul.com
Standing with your feet at least shoulder width apart gives you the stability you need for most conditions. But when the conditions are really choppy you may want widen your stance more and move one foot back several inches. This will give you front to back stability as well as from side to side. When I paddled the Cape Cod Bay Challenge last weekend, my feet were planted just inside the top of the rails of my board. We had big side chop for most of the 35 miles so it made sense to get as much leverage over the board as I could.
You also want to move to different positions on the board. Moving back on your board will not only help keep the nose from diving under the water but it will also lessen the amount of paddleboard area exposed to the force of the waves. Some of that side force will go under your board instead of smashing into it. But you do not want to be so far back that you are slowing yourself down, which would make you more exposed to the force of the chop.
Remember to practice your paddling technique first- get that dialed in so that you are efficient and can conserve your energy while maintaining a steady pace. Once you can maintain a good clip for an extended period of time then practice your bracing. As you practice move your feet around the board. Paddleboards are designed to be walked on, so try different stances in different areas on the board and figure out what works best for you. This is the really fun part of paddleboarding- learning new skills and putting them to use in different conditions.