On the weekend the first round of the Harbour Race series was run in Sydney. It was a 15km course that had, as it’s major challenge, strong 20 – 25 knot winds. Most of the course was through a cross wind but the last bend saw paddlers heading directly into the wind. I was asked for some advice on how to get the best out of paddling in windy conditions…..
Into the wind
When paddling into a head wind many paddlers shorten the stroke at entry (the catch) far too much. This is critical as it is the most important area of the stroke that helps maintain boat speed. When you head into a head wind it is difficult to get effective boat run as the wind keeps stopping you. By maintaining a strong catch, a 'slightly' shorter stroke and with a clean exit, you will keep up boat speed. This is the most efficient way to paddle, as it will maintain that speed with the added bonus of preventing injury through poor stroke technique.
Maintain concentration and focus on the exact direction that the wind is coming from. Pick a point towards your intended finish and work your way toward that point as near to direct as possible.
The exception to this would be steering slightly, both left and right, to avoid crests of waves. Banging over waves rather than steering over waves will make the boat thump violently and decrease boat speed. Steering through channels or dips in the approaching swell reduces the thump and loss of speed. The talent comes when you can get the best balance of paddling directly into the headwind and steering through the swell.
In this shot Will, if he had time to react, may be best to veer slightly to his left to avoid the peak of the swell directly in front of him. This would only be a minor alteration but he would not crash over the peak and slow down. Again the choice to alter direction is a balancing act and the right choices will come with practice.
A side wind
With a side wind you should keep to the same principles. The major difference is where to position your boat in terms of the side wind.
We covered a little of this earlier in our blog ‘Picking the best lines’. Pick that end point, paddle left and right with any runners but aim for a distance point. If you don’t have a particular point to aim for you will end up paddling further by getting off course (read the last few paragraphs in Sheuy's last update in his 'dream' section). If you don't know where you are going, you will go nowhere. Keep firm on your pedals and steer a little out to sea with the wind then veer back into the side wind.
The temptation is to lean forward and crouch. That makes you feel stronger and you may feel faster. In reality you are just stopping your lungs from filling and contribute to technique floors. Keeping your head up and keeping a constant rhythm of breathing will keep a clear mind and maintain your technique.
A smart racer has a clear mind - this person will always do well.
Whenever there are tail winds there are runners. For more ideas on catching those runners you should watch Episode one from our Podcast on that topic. Again keep your feet hard on the pedals so that you can react to changes in those waves. Steer and surf the waves rather than being pushed along. Avoid nose - diving, as this will slow you down. In smaller swells that are close together, look for valleys in front of you so that you can skip across to the next swell, trying to run as many together as possible.
These videos show some nice runners. Watch them with the advice above in mind. Rambo's one (the first one) is sensational.
A point on Safety.
Boats are being made lighter and lighter to provide a competitive advantage. If you fall out in a strong wind it is possible for your boat to roll or blow away quicker than you can swim after it. In windy conditions you should use a leg rope to attach yourself to the boat (provided you are not riding waves) You can also use a paddle leash. The paddle leash will slow your boat and the paddle will act as a sea anchor, should the boat begin to blow away.
Remember that this is a danger time for paddlers. LIfe vests can help you float and leashes can keep you close to your boat but, if you are in the water and out of sight, you are still in trouble. If the wind suddenly picks up and blows against the direction of home you should use the wind and go with it to the nearest safe spot. It is not a bad idea to plan your paddle before you leave and make sure you are aware of exit points along your route.
You can try waiting for a lull in the wind, then work hard until the next blow, rest then paddle again. Work your way upwind using headlands, boats or even other paddlers to give you a break.
For begginer paddlers the best way to stay safe in strong winds is not to enter the water in the first place. Know your limits. You can always check conditions on sites such as Seabreeze before you head out.