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Kayak Navigation with a Compass: How To Not Get Lost

Leisurely paddles are fun, and require little in the way of extra equipment or supplies. But it is a pretty good bet that at some point, you’re going to want to extend yourself on some longer paddles. Of course, on very short trips, where you really don’t get far out of site from your launch point, you can just guess, use landmarks, and eventually you’ll find your starting point. But if you go very far at all, you need to learn some basic navigation skills.

It may sound a bit daunting, but we’re not talking about finding an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (unless you want to…). Water navigation is not all that hard or technical. People have been doing it for over 8000 years, without the benefit of maps, navigation aids, or even a written language. It wasn’t long before we went to just about every place on the planet that could be reached by water. And for the first few thousand years, they did it in boats not much bigger than yours. If they could do it, so can you.

6 Types Of Kayak Navigation

There are several types of navigation. Each one is particularly suited to certain conditions. You may need to use a combination of types, so you need to be familiar with most of them. There are lots of things that are common to all of them. You need:

  1. Charts and/or maps of the area you are traversing. A chart is a map that has added features listed such as water depth, navigational aids like buoys, lights, channels, hazards like rocks and shoals, etc…. They also have the most valuable thing next to your compass…the Compass Rose.
  2. A handheld compass with sighting lenses. Make sure it is an oil-filled compass, and not just a cheap jittery air-filled one. You also want a sliding ring on it for bearings, etc…
  3. A Parallel Ruler, which is just two rulers joined by moveable struts.
  4. A good pencil with an eraser.
  5. Not an absolute necessity but a protractor is very handy, and very inexpensive. I highly recommend you have one.
  6. A good, reliable watch. Modern digital watches are invaluable with all of the extra functions they are capable of. Get one that is water-resistant and has as many functions as possible. I am very fond of Timex Expedition models. Carry an extra one in case the battery dies in your main timepiece.

None of these items are expensive, or take up a lot of room. They can all be kept in a medium-sized waterproof floating container.

True North vs Magnetic North

It may shock you to learn that Earth actually has two North Poles. True North is the axis on which the Earth rotates. This is the physical North Pole. Maps are drawn in reference to the True Geographical North Pole. Lines of Longitude and Latitude are also drawn in relation to True North. But magnets can’t read maps. Compasses work off of magnetic fields, and these fields are convinced that the magnetic center of the planet is a point around 500 miles from the Geographic North Pole. To complicate matters, this point moves on a regular basis due to shifting of the Earth’s core. It has to be re-calculated every few years. As of 2019, the Magnetic North Pole resides at  86.448°N 175.346°E. So to use a compass to navigate very far, you need to know the declination, or offset angle for your area. The easiest way is to use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Declination calculator. If you don’t know the coordinates for the location you need, you can just enter a street or city name, and it will do all the calculations for you. For instance, I am in Chatsworth, Ga. When I put in my address, it gives me my longitude and latitude, as well as the declination, which is 5⁰, 2’ West +/- 20’. (‘ means ‘minutes’. There are 60 minutes to each degree of longitude and latitude). So to plot a course, I need to adjust the compass reading by 5⁰, 2’ West. If I want to maintain a course of 160⁰ true, I have to maintain a true heading of 154⁰, 8’m (if the declination is East, you add it to your magnetic heading. If it is West, then you subtract from it).

Keep Landmarks At Sight

The easiest way to use a compass to navigate if you will remain within sight of land is to use the sighting lens to find a spot on the opposite shore that is directly on the heading you wish to maintain, then keep the nose of your yak directly on that point while you are paddling. When you want to change course, stop, take a new bearing and paddle directly towards that spot. To get back, just do the same thing in reverse.

Plotting a Course on A Chart

To plot a course on a chart, find where you plan to start and make a pencil mark. Next, find your destination and make a pencil mark. If it is not possible to go straight to your destination, then mark spots for each leg of the trip. Using the Parallel Ruler, draw a straight line marking each leg. Then, while keeping the ruler on your line, move the other ruler to the Compass Rose and note the heading on the inner Magnetic Ring. This is the heading you will need to maintain to stay on course for that leg. Do the same for the other legs. Keep a notebook and note any hazards, landmarks or other pertinent information.  Make sure to write down your headings for each leg, and for how long (we’ll cover that next).

Paddling the Course: The Difference Between Course and Heading

You need to understand the difference between your course, and your heading. The course is the actual direction you are traveling, and the heading is the compass heading you are pointing at. They are not always the same. Let’s say you are wanting to paddle a course of 090⁰. You maintain a heading of 90⁰, but you have a 5 knot wind from 015⁰. The wind will push you South a little, so your actual true course will be something between 093⁰ and 095⁰. This could be enough to cause you to miss landmarks, turning points, or take you into hazards. You have to compensate by steering a little into the wind, say to a heading of 085⁰, which will put you on a true course close to 090⁰. You really can’t calculate a Wind Triangle in a kayak because your speed will almost certainly not be constant. You just have to go by feel, and make your best guesses. Take lots of bearing along the way and make course corrections as needed. The best way to take a bearing is to find something on shore on your heading that has something behind it. Line then up and use that heading. If you take another bearing and the objects are not still lined up, you have drifted off-course, and need to make course corrections. If you can’t find any objects that will line up, you can use one landmark directly in front, and one directly in back of you. If either of them do not line up on the next bearing, you have drifted off-course, Make corrections as needed.

Your timing can only be estimated because your speed will not be constant. You can use average values and get close enough for most purposes, such as turning points, arrival times, etc… Average kayak speeds, absent the effects of wind and currents, are:

  • Average paddler at a somewhat leisurely rate – 2 knots
  • Average paddler with moderate point-to-point paddling – 4 knots
  • Racing, scared, etc… – 5 to 7 knots

You can use these values to make approximate calculations for waypoints and ETAs. But keep in kind, they are not exact, so make allowances where necessary.  Let’s say I have a waypoint to come to heading 275⁰ from a heading of 180⁰. It is 8 nautical miles from my launch point. So, I estimate my speed at 4 knots, which is 2 nautical miles per hour. After 2 hours of paddling, I should be very close to my waypoint. I can double check it by taking bearings on two objects and drawing lines from them on my chart. Where the lines intersect, that’s where I am. I can now make any corrections needed for future calculations. This is also a good way to find out where you are if you feel lost.

There are other ways to navigate, such as by the stars and sun, also known as Celestial Navigation, using a GPS, etc… but they are beyond the scope of this article. I’ll cover them in the future. Check back with us often.

Happy paddling

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