What’s downwinding we hear you all say? A perfectly acceptable question as the art is still very niche in the UK, whichever craft you choose ride. So, downwinding: utilising wind and associated wind driven rolling swell to enjoy super long glides by riding said swell. Blowy weather will propel you forwards and give additional momentum for ‘bump’ catching. Once on a piece of rolling swell it’s then a case of trying to glide or ride it as long as you can before connecting with another, connecting the dots so to speak.

History lesson

Downwind paddling is believed to have come from the outrigger canoe paddling community – arguably a form of sit on top paddling in its own right. The outrigger is an efficient hull design with secondary ‘stabiliser’ hanging to one side. Efficient to pilot (once you’ve learned the fundamentals) these craft paddle breezier conditions supremely well and make downwinding super fun.
From OC came surfskis which are even more efficient, technical, one hull designs. Surfskis are quicker still when gliding on a few runners and, again, are also part of the sit on kayak family. (See this previous Sitons article on surfskis here – www.sitons.com/articles/no-pain-no-gain-surfski-trials-and-tribulations/).

Sit on tops, while not being quite as optimised for this type of paddling as OCs and surfskis, still make good vehicles for bump catching. In fact, they’re much better for novice downwinders as we all know SOTs are way more plug and play. No need to spend time learning how to paddle complicated craft…

Required conditions and areas

If the above pricks your interest then you should be looking for the next blowy bout of weather in your ‘hood (either inland or coastal). For downwind paddling you don’t actually need that much breeze. Even a moderate 15 knots or so will generate enough wind swell and give you oomph to allow bump catching. What’s worth keeping in mind is wind directions according to where you launch.

Optimum direction is cross shore. Or a direction puffing you towards terra firma – such as in a harbour. Avoiding bang offshore breeze is a good idea – especially if you’re likely to end up in open water miles from land with a monumental into wind paddle back.

Cross shore wind, from either left or right, allow paddlers a relatively easy put in and get out. You’ll then be blown along the coast, scoring long glides (hopefully) in the process. You could choose to head into wind, if the breeze is puffing directly onto land. It’ll be a gruelling process getting far enough out before you can turn and ride but could be a good option if you’re paddling solo.

Puffing along – downwinding for sit on top kayakers 7
It’s worth considering, however, that open tidal water areas might not always be the best. Sheltered spots, such as estuaries and harbours, while delivering small swell, may offer a less confused water state. Plus you’ll have landing points easier to reach. At Sitons HQ there are lots of downwind routes with land mass providing a confidence boosting safety net on many side within the shelter if tidal inlets.

Kit needed

The longer your boat the easier it’ll be to pick up runners. That said it’s still possible to downwind with regular SOT size boats, you just might not get the length of glide you will with something gunnier.

Paddle can be your normal type. The only thing we may be inclined to add is ballast to the rear tank well of your kayak (if you have one). This may sound counter initiative but actually will stop the back of your boat drifting when gliding. We’d then suggest keeping the rest of your sled free of kit. With DW you may end up taking a few dunkings so keeping your cockpit gear free is a good idea.

Puffing along – downwinding for sit on top kayakers 8

Safety and logistics

You may have worked out by now that downwind paddling means riders are heading away from their put in. While wind on backs is perfectly fine there’s no way you’re going to want to paddle back into it – especially if you’ve gone some distance. Plus, this takes the fun away – slogging into a headwind isn’t that pleasant. With this in mind consider transport at your take out. Paddling with a buddy or in a group ensures a vehicle can be left at each end of the route. This may sound like a faff to initially sort out but is definitely worth it.

In terms of safety all the standard rules apply: have an understanding of weather, tides and current, make sure you know what the weather forecast is for that day, wear floatation, wear a helmet, tether yourself to your boat and use a paddle leash (there’s nothing worse than capsizing and losing your paddle or worse, your boat!). Make sure you can get back onto your kayak if you do turn over – practice this plenty of times BEFORE heading off on a downwind run.

Puffing along – downwinding for sit on top kayakers 9
Carry a VHF or mobile phone – especially applicable if heading into open water. Attempting downwind runs alone isn’t wise and always let people know your plans. Plus, and most importantly, don’t bite off more than you can chew! As mentioned downwidning can be done in moderate wind strengths, you don’t need a hurricane! Leave that until you’re more experienced.

With autumn upon us, and winter just over the horizon, the next few months will undoubtedly see some classic downwind conditions pop up. If you’re paddling through winter then why not have a look at this type of kayaking – it could revolutionise your sit on experience.
Thanks to Fatyak Kayaks who helped withthis article – fatyak-kayaks.co.uk