Kayak navigation in British Columbia by electronics or charts?

A Deck Topper mapsheet in use: a good visual overview of where you are headed can't be underestimated.

By John Kimantas

When I first started going on long-distance kayaking trips much earlier in the century (and in the end of the last) I used to take along charts. They were cumbersome, needed to be folded over and crammed into a waterproof chart case, and didn't contain the information I needed. What I wanted was something I could look at to get an overview. For pinpoint navigation, I had my GPS. It was the visual of the overall landscape I needed. The GPS with its little screen provided only so much.  

The charts I used did provide generally good nearshore data. Yet for the most part the information the charts specialized in didn't apply to kayaking. Charts excelled in depth soundings and locating rocks. I needed camping locations and kayak-friendly beaches for lunch breaks. Most navigation I could manage simply by keeping my eyes open. The GPS became a tool less for navigation and more just for peace of mind, such as telling me my kayaking speed over ground, which was a savior in figuring out adverse currents. When it hit 0.0 km/h and I was paddling normally, it was a good hint I was caught in a strong eddy or some such.

Oddly, I haven't seen breakthroughs in handheld GPS units for kayak navigation in recent years. To the contrary, many of the early generations I used still exist today. And whatever upgrades, they all still have the same basic problem: small screens limiting the scope of what you can see. Apps can provide timely and important data, such as tide and current information. But even those have limitations. Here are a few:

GPS can have neat real-time data such as currents. That's great for timing crossings. However, I have never been a huge fan of the current information provided by the Canadian Tide and Current Tables. The locations for measured currents are remarkably few, and limited to mainly the areas with the strongest currents. For the rest, you can generally find the tide levels easily enough. But there is very little correlation between high and low tide changes and current changes. Often they can vary by hours. 

Add to this the variations of currents along even a measured waterway. The tide and current table will generally measure mid-stream at the strongest location. By contrast, kayakers will paddle nearshore. Rather than a boost due to a favourable current as you approach the measured tidal channel, you may instead find the nearshore current working against due to eddies and backfill. That can be a major headache, for if you plan a transit to use a favourable current to approach a tidal channel at slack, you may instead be fighting currents most of the way.

And then there are the strong currents along areas not measured in the tide and current tables. The Gulf Islands off southeastern Vancouver Island are a classic area for this. Many times I have been skirting the shores of the Pender Islands or Saltspring Island to find my speed doubled (or thereabouts) by an unexpected but favourable current. You won't find this information published. You just have to discover it. 

(Adverse currents in this situation can often be managed simply by changing your proximity to shore. Countercurrent streams and localized eddies can often be avoided by moving aside a few feet. Conversely, they can also be found for a favourable boost the same way. The simplest rule, though, is to stay close to shore where the effect of wind and currents stand the best chance of being lower. But every situation is different -- there is no hard and fast rule.)

The bottom line is some perks are great, but generally they have limited uses rather than magical answers. The best information is going to whatever you can digest, regardless of the source, augmented with your own experience. So a report of a 5 knot current is great for that particular point at that particular time, but when you're 2 km away and planning an approach, you'll be on your own to figure out the best course of action. For instance, wind can create a surface current that overpowers the tidal stream. No GPS will tell you that's happening.

After several disasters with GPS units, such as eating up batteries leaving me powerless or simply falling overboard, I can attest to the essential nature of a paper chart or coastal map. The reverse is also true. I remember paddling the outside of Nootka Island when a heavy fog bank moved in. Because my GPS had failed by this point on the trip, I had to navigate by the sound of water crashing onto rocks. That is not ideal!

Lastly I suppose is the debate on which paper product to bring. That would be the question of hydrographic charts or our own Wild Coast Deck Topper mapsheets. The mapsheets, of course, were designed to replace the need for charts by providing the information needed for kayakers and leaving out the rest. However, in a recent talk to the South Island Sea Kayaking Association (SISKA), I asked the question of who used which and the answer was a duplicate -- most in the audience used both the mapsheets and the charts. 

I have to agree duplication is a good way to go. It is always better to have more information than less, and at some point you might prefer one item at one point in your trip and another for a different stretch of coast.

Possibly our mapsheets will find their best use at the campsite in the evening as you plan your routes and strategies for the next day's paddling while sitting around the campfire. And isn't that an idyllic thought?

John Kimantas is owner/operator of Wild Coast Publishing, and author of numerous guide books to assist your British Columbia explorations.

Back to blog