Sea Kayak Navigation The Easy Way


Ever wondered what a rhumb line is? Unsure why grid north and magnetic north don’t necessarily point north? Ever heard a lugubrious paddler described as a ‘fathom of misery’ and wondered how tall he was? I may be able to help.

Although I’m new to the club, and pretty new to kayaking, navigation used to be my day job. I joined the RAN as a 16-year-old cadet midshipman and trained as a navigation specialist – a ‘Dagger N’. Among my navigation jobs, I served several times at the RAN Navigation School, and on the staff of the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training. The ships I navigated included the training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and the seabed operations ship HMS Challenger. And I was lucky enough to command the frigate HMAS Torrens and the patrol boat HMAS Barbette.

Over the next few issues of the magazine, I’ll describe some navigational tips and techniques that might help to get you safely through your paddling trips. But there’s no substitute for practicing on the water. Keep an eye on the calendar too for some navigation-themed trips and exercises in the near future, I’ll help set up the navigational tasks to keep you busy.

In a kayak, even though we only draw a few centimetres, we can still be surprised by a bombora over a shoal, or an unanticipated tidal stream. We face many of the same problems of navigation as other mariners, but we have few of the tools they take for granted. And kayaking is supposed to be fun, so while we should aim to keep ourselves safe, we also want to minimise the effort and inconvenience.

How accurate does our navigation need to be? That depends.

The pre-GPS deep-draught navigators used to say ‘outward bound, don’t run aground’, meaning accuracy was less critical at the beginning of a voyage, as they headed out onto the boundless ocean. Their secret, and ours, as very shallow-draught navigators, is to manage the size of the pool of errors, to keep from straying inadvertently into danger. So a lot of kayak navigation can be done by eye, by estimating distances and judging bearings relative to our heading.

So a paddle through familiar waters might need no more preparation than a check of the weather forecast and a look at the tide tables, with a plan as simple as keeping the land to port or starboard.

Paddling on waters less travelled requires more effort: we should familiarise ourselves with likely dangers, the expected tidal conditions, and the available pull-out points for rest and refreshment. We’ll want to take a chart with us, with some means of finding our position. But we need to do as much pre-planning as possible, so we can minimise the amount of time spent focused on the chart on our spray deck.

As we run up the scale of navigational difficulty, with multi-day trips in difficult, unknown waters our preparations must increase to match the difficulty, and so too our efforts to find our position when under way.

And don’t forget, if you practice your navigational skills when it’s not critical for your safety, it should become easier to use those skills when you really do need them.

Some days, safe navigation will mean taking along a GPS, especially if we plan to be out of sight of land. Why not? They’re great machines, I wish I’d had one in my warship as convenient to use as my little Garmin. But paddlers made challenging trips before the advent of GPS and we need to be confident enough in our skills to complete our trip if the batteries fail or if the receiver falls over the side.

If you’re new to navigation, there are several good texts for sea kayakers around, and some of them are even readable! And don’t ignore books intended for other mariners. And of course there’s a wealth of information available on the Internet, some of it useful and some of it dodgy.

Anyway, it’s time you stopped reading, and got out there to start navigating. In the next issue of the magazine, I’ll explain why you need to avoid buying a cheap steering compass off ebay from a northern hemisphere retailer, and a little more on the magnetic compass.