Wind Or Fast-Flowing Water - Which Is More Challenging?

Posted: 11 January 2022


ASI Master Trainer, Glenn Eldridge, owner of Ocean Sports in Carbis Bay has spent a lifetime invested in paddle sports. He has encountered every possible issue across his years of paddling, and here he takes some time to offer an insight into two of the more problematic areas from the paddleboard realm. Wind and fast-flowing water.

Over to Glenn...

When it comes to wind or fast-flowing water, let’s face it, neither are great. Particularly so, if both elements are in opposition to each other making for torrid paddling conditions. While both represent significant challenges, one is more subtle than the other and can easily catch the unaware off-guard.

 As paddle boarders, or any human powered craft for that matter, in most instances paddling into the prevailing conditions is always preferential to going with the conditions. A tough lesson learned as a young paddler training on the coast, going with the wind revelling in how fast I had been going and distance covered only to realise the stark reality of the very long, arduous paddle back to the beach that now faced me.

As a stand-up paddler wind is the greater of the two evils. It is easier to see and feel and to work out which way to paddle first.

Water flow, however, can be deceptive, adding what seems to be only marginal assistance to your speed and therefore not much to overcome on the way back. Yet, aside from slowing the return leg home other issues can arise. On rivers, banks and bottom contours are uneven. As water passes over them eddies can either spin out from the bank or upwellings of water plume at the surface making staying upright a real challenge. 


What to look for:


  • Check wind direction and strength forecast
  • Cat’s paws! When the wind gusts above a specific wind strength a particular pattern emerges on the water surface as the gust gathers momentum. Wind travels faster over water than land, due to less surface friction, as it does it creates a darker rippled patch of water which rapidly moves in the direction of the wind and sometimes across it. If cat’s paws are seen, you should question whether going for a paddle that day is safe.
  • Know your Beaufort scale. Beaufort was an Irish Naval officer in the Royal Navy who created a scale that linked what sailors saw on the water surface and how much sail should be rigid or not rigid. Well over two hundred years old and the scale still has relevance today. By recognising sea state we can quickly establish the current wind speed and therefore determine which direction we should paddle, or if we should paddle at all. With practice this can be a very accurate method to gauge wind speed; for example, knowing the difference between scattered white horses with occasional wave crests and frequent white horses with small waves becoming longer can mean the difference between paddling in wind speeds as low as 8 mph (beaufort three at 7 knots) to highs of 18 mph (beaufort four at 16 knots) and a safe and enjoyable paddle.

Water flow:

  • Always paddle into flow first and come back with tide or back down stream to where you started.
  • Know which conditions are likely to ‘blackboard’ your river (close it) due to excessive flow.
  • Know which water speeds represent a significant challenge for you and your groups current paddling capabilities.
  • Understand the rule of thirds and tidal flow, the middle two hours of tide, i.e. hour three and four, will, as a rule, have peak water flow during these times irrelevant of tide size (spring or neap).
  • Know which way the tide is moving, i.e. ebbing (going out) or flowing (coming in).

How to deal with it:

  • Firstly, prepare for your paddle, check weather and tides (if appropriate).
  • Choose wind over tide. In most situations as stand up paddle boarders, wind will always have a greater effect than tide (while stood up), particularly as our boards have almost zero draft and are therefore affected less by the water flow underfoot. Preferably, paddle when wind and water flow are in the same direction, however, this is not always the case and when a choice is needed factor in the effect of flow but choose to paddle into the wind first.
  • If necessary, paddle on your knees.
  • If wind or flow is too great, don’t go!

It is always difficult to come up with any hard and fast rule, however, the following can help guide paddlers in making an informed choice of when they should, or importantly, should not go for a paddle.

As a rule, novice paddlers could paddle in wind speeds up to six knots comfortably and even up to 12 knots provided they are supervised by more experience paddlers on enclosed water locations. Wind speeds between 13 and 18 knots are really the preserve of experienced paddlers with a good level of physiological conditioning. Anything more than this really is the preserve of the elite, who, in themselves should also be taking appropriate safety measures and ensuring appropriate people/authorities are aware of their intended paddle location and route.