Navigation may not be something you need to think about if you’re on a guided tour since you are probably more inclined to follow the route your guide has chosen for the day. But just as on any journey - walking, cycling, driving etc. - if you have a map and you know where you’re going, you may find you appreciate the trip on a whole new level. You’ll pick out features on the water such as marker buoys or small islands, you’ll get an appreciation for distance and how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B and you can adjust your paddling accordingly. And you’ll be a lot more aware of your surroundings when you’re kayaking if you look at a marine chart before setting out and while you’re paddling.
Kayak navigation can be a fairly complicated task but for our purposes here where we are always - except in fog - in sight of the land, a few basic pointers can have you following your course and doing some basic navigation. For kayak navigation like any other navigation you need to know where you are at any point in time and where you want to go. You’ll need a waterproof marine chart and a compass and plan on spending some time with your chart before you get on the water to make your plans for the day. Get a copy of the chart sealed in a ziplock to carry with you on the deck in front of your seat.
Marine Chart showing green nuns and red cans, water depths (in feet) and land visible only at low tide (light green).
When you’re about to put in at the water’s edge, orient your chart using visible landmarks which are also marked on your chart or visuals at sea, such as a buoy or a small island. Next, locate the compass rose on the chart which will tell you the direction of true, or magnetic, north. Now you know your exact location and from your planning session earlier you know which direction you’ll be going.
Compass Rose showing magnetic (true) north and geographical north.
As a beginner who is probably not following a plotted course, there a few things you can try on the water to test your navigation skills. If you are in a current or have a broadside wind, glance at your deck compass as you’re paddling and you’ll find that you’re probably drifting off course and having to compensate by adjusting your stroke to go in the direction you want. Continually looking down at your compass can be disorientating, so try using ranges to maintain your course. To do this, try to identify two features in your course which line up, such as a headland, a tree or a marker buoy. As you paddle you can compensate for any drift by keeping the two points lined up or ‘in range’. If the two points drift apart, then you know you’re going off course. You may find that ‘ferrying’ your boat at an angle to the direction you want to go will compensate for this drift. This will take some practice.
Once you get the hang of this, then try finding your position on a chart using ranges: first, identify two objects, then draw an imaginary line on your chart that joins these two objects; now line up a second pair of objects and draw another imaginary line. You’ll find you can determine your exact position by seeing where those two lines intersect.
A third thing you can try is to identify the marker buoys on your trip, see top figure above. All harbors, large rivers and bays and well-traveled coastal zones will have a series of marker buoys. The principle buoys you’ll see are red with a pointed top (nuns) and green with a flat top (cans). Shipping channels are marked with alternating red nuns and green cans. As you leave a harbor the reds will be on your left, greens on your right and conversely for when you come back (red right return). Greens will have odd numbers and red will be even-numbered with numbers decreasing as you leave a harbor. So as you paddle, keep a close eye on the marker buoys and with your chart you should be able fix your position and from that point identify aids to navigation you might see onshore. Have fun navigating!
“The winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators” - Edward Gibbon