How To Navigate in Open Water

Photo: Robert Zaleski
Photo: Robert Zaleski

Southern California sea kayaker Duane Strosaker has paddled the double-digit crossing to the state’s Channel Islands more than 50 times. He often leads friends on the 22-nautical-mile crossing to Catalina Island, and has made five of his trademark “Catalina for lunch” round-trips.

To do so, he’s become an expert with a chart and compass, an essential skill in any sea kayaker’s arsenal. “It’s all about practice,” he says. “That’s how you get better at anything, but it’s especially important with compass work.” Strosaker has a few tips to get you started.

Learn the lingo. “Say you’re on one island, looking at another. The bearing is the direction from your island to the other, expressed as degrees on your compass,” Strosaker says. “For example, the bearing from San Pedro to Two Harbors on Catalina is 200 degrees magnetic.” Heading is the compass direction toward which your kayak is pointing, and the course is the actual direction in which your kayak is moving. Because of wind drift, currents, and other factors, your course is rarely the same as your heading.

Plan your crossing. Before you start, mark your intended route on a nautical chart of the area. Now compare the angle of your course line to the compass rose on the chart to find your bearing. “Make sure you use the inner ring of the compass rose, which is calibrated to magnetic north,” Strosaker says. “The difference between magnetic and true north can be significant—here in California it’s 13 degrees.”

Find a landmark-a mountain peak, tree, or even a house-that corresponds to your bearing. Now steer toward that marker, and only glance at your compass every minute or two to confirm your course. If you stare at your compass, you’ll zig-zag and end up with a stiff neck.

Watch for drift. “A 10-knot wind won’t push you as far as you might think, but a 5-knot current will push you off course quickly,” Strosaker cautions. Use a range to check if you’re drifting (a range is any two landmarks that line up one behind the other when you’re on course). Steer toward the closest marker, and if the more distant marker appears to move left or right, you’re drifting. If they stay lined up like a rifle sight, you’re good.

Keep your compass away from metal objects, which can affect its accuracy. Pack cans of food, tent stakes, and electronic devices in your rear hatch or behind your seat.

Carry a GPS as a backup, “but I’d never trust my life to something that runs on batteries,” Strosaker says. “Besides, GPS takes the fun out of navigation.”

Photo: Robert Zaleski
Photo: Robert Zaleski

A version of this story appeared in the March 2008 edition of Canoe & Kayak.


The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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