Last Saturday one of my instructors and I decided to paddle across Puget Sound, a distance of 4.5 miles from Seattle neighborhood of Ballard to Fay Bainbridge State Park on Bainbridge Island.Daily I inform my students about paddling distances and what to do per their various levels. I point to Bainbridge Island pointing out it’s distance, the skills required to make the crossing as well as the appropiate type of board to do so in a reasonable period to time. 14′ to unlimited race board will take you about 1 to 1.5 hours whereas a surf style all arounder will take awhile longer.  Usually I joke, “Bring some ferry money just in case.”

While 4.5 miles seems a short distance for many experienced paddlers the width of Puget Sound does include light current, wind can whip up quickly from 0 to 30 kts in 15 minutes, and there’s considerable shipping traffic to avoid.  Some crossings feel like a cinch, while others can take considerably longer depending on the conditions.

During our weekend crossing I realized half way across that I left one of my power bars on the roof of my car and had forgot to bring my wallet in case I wanted to purchase more fuel near our destination. This was a last minute trip, with Joe and I deciding to do it only 2 hours prior, so the rush to get ready left us somewhat unprepared.  It ended without incident but we did both bonk (run out of energy) 1-2 miles from Seattle on our return trip. We paddled in at a snail’s pace. During this period I realized I should pass on our mistakes for the day to my readers!

Here’s a few tips on planning for successful day trip…

– Determine Your Route. Here on Puget Sound our crossings are short and we can see the other side SeaTrails which help me plan my route. Chart reading skills are necessary in using these and other charts by NOAA, an important skill.  Ask local paddlers about routes as well to get personal info to save you time. Starpath.com is a nautical publishing company that has many books and other info on gaining these skills as well as online classes.

View of Seattle from Bainbridge Island

Text or call a buddy or family with your trip plans, depart/arrival times, and contact info. This is called a Float Plan.  There are a few apps where you friends can track your movements via phone as well such as Boat Beacon and even Google Maps.  Make sure you have a full phone charge.

Check weather and Tides via local weather sites and those with real time stats such as NOAA, National Weather Service, etc.  If in coastal waters check for swell and wind direction/size with NOAA again and surf sites such as MagicSeaweed, StormSurf, Surfline, etc.  We have a local version I use often.

– Determine Skill Level – Once at the beach determine if the conditions are safe for your trip and skill level.  It’s ok to cancel even if you’ve been planning this trip for weeks or just drove 4 hrs in traffic to get there.  Live to paddle another day.

Always travel in groups – or not? If the group members are not skilled enough for the conditions and/or can’t pay attention in rough water to you, then you may question if they’re ready for the trip and/if you need to find more experienced friends to paddle with on that type of trip.

– Type of board. This is determined by your distance and how fast you want to get there.  A 11′ surf style board will take a few hours to do  the 4.5hr crossing on way.  But a 14′ or longer race board can cover that distance in a fraction of that time (with a good stroke). Both work.  Just a matter of your pace, time available, etc. I prefer my 17′ and 18′ boards for most efficiency long paddles.

Check for Marine Traffic – Doing an open water crossing in a busy shipping area? We saw 4 cruise ships before we crossed back to Seattle. We had to determine whether to cross before the last one came our way. We decided to take a rest (as a sailboat did as well next to us).  Use Marinetraffic.com and similar apps to get real time data on shipping traffic. You can also contact the Coast Guard to tell them your position and plan. They will broadcast your position to shipping traffic to watch for you.

– Skills. To paddle distances efficiently and injury free (no shoulder pain) learn how to get a great forward stroke using your torso/core for strength.  Straight ish arms, reaching from your waist, paddling straight with a vertical shaft, exiting at your feet and feathering the paddle will get you there a lot sooner with a lot less effort.  Take a class and researching distance paddler techniques, will help.

Additional skills to consider depending on your route and location preferred – learn to get comfortable in rough water up to waist high waves, self rescue (getting back on in bumps) and helping others get back on (flip rescue, etc), towing using a tow system (not your leash).

– Physical Condition. Our paddle on Saturday ended up being 15 miles which included a round trip crossing of Puget Sound in open water. At one point we had to book it across the shipping lanes to avoid an incoming cruise ship.  Aside from being low on fuel we had the stamina, cardio and overall endurance to make the trip without a problem. My paddling buddy like myself regularly races, surfs and downwinds in up to 30kts of wind.  We could tow each other if needed.  We also knew when to turn around. We wanted to explore more but knew where our stopping point was to get back safely.

– Fuel. Race paddling and long distance touring are similar in regards to looking at nutrition, hydration and preparation for a trip even days before. A 3 mile versus a 32 mile paddle will have different requirements for preparation. Check out Suzie Cooney’s new online book “How to Increase Your Stand Up Paddling Performance” on Amazon for tips on this. She has done several channel crossings and interviewed others on that topic.  A friend loves her Coopers V02 Max Test to determine his personal health plan for preparing for long paddles and races.

During our paddle, I left with 2 bars and several liters of water. We refilled our water bottles at a state park. I was using NUUN hydration but don’t have a plan down with that product. Most racers I know test their hydration and get it down to a personal recipe that works for their body type.  Looking back, I needed approx 3-4 Cliff bars (or similar) and extra items such as the trail mix I left on my desk at home.  I’d rather have too much then run out.  And bringing my wallet meant I could purchase additional food if available.

– Storing Gear. Coming from sea kayaking I’m use to carrying gear. Most SUP’ers are minimalists and refuse to carry any gear even if their life depends on it.  I have NSI plugs on my 18′ boards which have spectral loops to attach my kayaking style deck bags. For our trip on Saturday, I have one Seattle Sports parabolic deck bag which carried my essential items and water bottles on top under bungies.  Some boards have leash plugs on the deck to attach gear to.  You can add leash plugs on a fiberglass board if you or a friend has the skills to do it properly.  I don’t trust suction cups.

Basic Stuff to Bring:

First Aid kit.  I this I have my migraine medicine which goes everywhere with me. Also electrolytes (NUUN tablets), band aids, Advil, aspirin, Tylenol (in mini travel tubes), cake icing in case my buddy is diabetic, Benadryl in case my buddy has bee issues, and Nauzene for seasickness. Chemical heat packets, sunblock. This is a super basic kit – add more or less per your situation and people you’re traveling with. Eli-Pen, an inhaler or other prescriptions would also go in this kit. The kit is in a dry bag that is placed in the dry deck bag.

Repair Kit. Foil tape for dings (cut into strips); elect tape roll, carabiner, para cord (for leash string, pfd and other repairs); extra fin screws, bungie, multi tool, super glue (or Solarez & 5 min epoxy).

Safety Stuff.  Rocket flares, reflective mirror, whistle (on body), VHF radio (I use the floating and waterproof Icom products); paddlers laser (option for night paddling); waterproof flashlights to attach to PFD, etc.

More Safety Stuff – PFD & Leash – Since a recent high profile death of a pro paddler the industry and public are finally on high alert about safety.  We always had our leash and vest PFD on, now it’s the thing to wear.  But interestingly, the less is more SUP crowd is still trying to weigh between a leash or a PFD. For us it’s a no brainer, we always (Wear) both.  Choosing to do none or one or the other in open water has a bit of Darwism going on – your choice! PFD on board but no leash means you loose you PFD when you lose your board.  Again I choose to gear myself up so I can paddle another day.

Stay tuned for future posts! Give me a holler for any questions! 

About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” Rob owns SUP and Kayak school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races.

Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips

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