How do you go about grading the sea?

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sam waites
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How do you go about grading the sea?

Post by sam waites »

Just a random question from a newbie to sea kayaking (who used to paddle rivers) - How do you go about grading the different classes of sea states for sea kayakers? and is there no international grading scheme like there is for river kayaking?

Do any of the sea kayak coaches on this forum have any of their own personal sea state classification grades or classification schemes - and most importantly how do you grade the gnarliness of the sea - i'm guessing wind force, likelihood of encountering tidal races and overfalls, distance from access egress points, distance from civilisation etc - any advances on these points?

Thanks for your help

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Helen M
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Post by Helen M »

I guess the nearest thing we have is the Beaufort Scale:

http://www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/un ... _scale.htm

A well known coach on here we paddle with will only paddle in a Force 2! No - really. Everytime we paddle with him he tells me it's only a Force 2. I vividly remember sitting on a beach on Great Cumbrea watching the yachts sail at some very unusual angles. Force 2 he said. Of course I do always believe everything I'm told and everything I read in the newspapers. Well - they wouldn't lie - woud they?

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Jim
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Post by Jim »

Easy answer: One doesn't.

More complex answer: One has to make ones own judgement based on weather forecasts, tidal predictions and information on charts and in pilots or almanacs. The weather can turn the sea from grade 0 to grade 5+ in a very short time. Tidal effects can be invisible yet impossible to paddle against, or like whitewater rapids (grade if you like). And it also makes a big difference whether the weather is with or against or the tide.

Conclusion, you can't really grade the sea in any way that will be meaningful to someone else visiting the same spot at a different time, but you could if you wanted to grade the conditions you see/experience.

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Mark R
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Post by Mark R »

Various grading schemes have been outlined, e.g. in Gordon Brown's 'Sea Kayak' book.

No one uses them.
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Cameron
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Post by Cameron »

Sea Kayaking is Art, not science ;-)

Cameron

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Windowshade
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Paddle Canada Classification

Post by Windowshade »

I find the Paddle Canada classification useful.

Flat Water
Enclosed and sheltered with easy landing options immediately present. Calm winds (less than 8 knots), Sea state: calm to rippled.

Level 1 Conditions
Sheltered waters with uninterrupted easy landing options. Light winds (0-11 knots), Current: 0 to 0.5 knots, Sea state: calm to light chop.

Level 2 Conditions
Moderately exposed coastline with frequent easy landing opportunities
Moderate winds (12-19 knots), Combined sea state: less than 1 metre with a moderate sea state, Surf: less than 1 meter, Current: less than 3 knots.

Level 3 Conditions
Exposed coastline with frequent landing opportunities. Moderate winds (12-19 knots), Combined sea state: near 1 metre with a moderate, occasionally rough sea state, Surf: near 1 meter, Current: less than 3 knots.

Level 4 Conditions
Open coast with infrequent and sometimes difficult landing options. Strong winds (near 20 knots), Combined sea state: 1 metre or better with a moderate to rough sea state, Surf: 1 metre or more, Current: 3 knots or more.

There is no classification beyond Level 4. However, some of us have started to refer to advanced paddling conditions as Level 5 and expert (near god-like) paddling conditions as Level 6.

Me, I like to paddle in level 3 conditions. I'm focused but confident in Level 4. I've paddled a few times in Level 5 conditions (winds 25 knots, seas two metres), but I was very happy to get ashore. Level 6 is beyond me.

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Gareth Plas
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There's only three types of sea

Post by Gareth Plas »

One - wont bother loading the kayak because I know it's going to be too bad.

Two - I load the canoe but decide not to go out when I get to the coast

Three - I go out and paddle.

I try to avoid one and two whilst carrying out three by planning.

G

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Post by tommfuller »

I'm sure I read a series of sea state descriptions in Hebridean Waves which were quite humorous. I can't remember them though, which is not the best of punch lines.

Cheers,

Tom.

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steve-m
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Post by steve-m »

I can remember sitting on the cliffs by Carmel Head (north coast of Anglesey) for the best part of 2 hours watching the raging tumultuous seas slowly die down with the tide until we all agreed that yes we could now paddle round the headland.

So it comes down to not just knowing the tricky spots but knowing how to time your passage through them. If there are overfalls marked on the chart then clearly they will be more on the strength of the tide than at the turn, if you want to know if they form on the ebb and/or the flood and how they form you will need to consult a Pilot or talk to some knowledgeable locals. Before we paddled round Neist Point on Skye we talked to a local fisherman who happily told us about all the various sea conditions he had experienced in that area.

I find that it is this amalgam of information and understanding that you need for safe and effective sea kayaking that makes the thing so fascinating.
Steve-M Shropshire

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Post by TechnoEngineer »

Check out John Lull's "Sea Kayaking Safety and Rescue". I'm pretty sure there's a classification guide in there, much of it was based on whitecaps and spray.
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AllanJ
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Re: How do you go about grading the sea?

Post by AllanJ »

sam waites wrote:I'm guessing wind force, likelihood of encountering tidal races and overfalls, distance from access egress points, distance from civilisation etc - any advances on these points?
I think you've just about covered it. The Beaufort scale gives a description of open water sea state for a given wind speed but there are too many variables to give a very meaningful grade. I've not seen anything like the Canadian system that Windowshade posted - that seems like a good attempt; but then how would you grade a trip with very poor opportunities for egress undertaken with a good weather forecast? Level 2 for the weather/sea state or Level 4 for its committed nature?

Perhaps there's no short cut - you just have to study the chart, pilot, tidetables and weather forecast.

Allan

DominiqueS
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Post by DominiqueS »

Maybe an analogy with the climbing world would be useful.

Technical climbing on low-ground rock faces, whatever its difficulty sees few accidents: conditions are known and as long as common sense protection is used (belaying etc) it is very safe. As parameters (the size of the overhang, the quality of the rock) do not change but for readily apparent causes (rain, snow, ice), difficulties can be ranked and ratings given. Very much like on a river where features do not change and flood conditions are usually not sudden. I would call these systems “static”. In such cases grading systems can and (usually) do make sense.

Mountaineering, on the other hand, is more than skill dependent: high-up storms brew quickly, a crevasse may give, an avalanche start. Whatever your skill level you might be caught and the death rate for excellent mountaineers is much higher than for excellent climbers. Such risks are always present and only their violence when they appear can be classified (which is what the Beaufort scale does: classifying the violence of the wind once there). Surviving them depends on the application of common sense and experience about when to go and when to come back to avoid the worst of them. I would call such risks “dynamic”. Like at sea where the wind can suddenly appear or turn, a swell develop etc.

The problem with dynamic risk is that one cannot really grade the risk that something “might” develop, only its effects when there. You could grade everything as if conditions were always the worst possible but then would never go out. You could do the reverse and grade everything as if all was always going to be fine, and possibly become a candidate for the Darwin Awards. So one is back to common sense and experience.

My personal feeling is that rating the “kayaking difficulty” of open sea areas or journeys is too tricky to be more than a very general indication and could even be dangerous if a rating system gains enough credibility that it induces in the less experienced a false sense of security (or of expertise after having gone through a potentially difficult, highly graded area in calm weather).

We all like to have systems and rules so the thinking is done for us. Unfortunately, when dynamic risks are present I am afraid there is no substitute to the application of common sense, prudently acquired experience and the knowledge of the potential effects of dynamic risks on the local static ones (or of how to avoid them).

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Post by Cameron »

Welcome Dominique, who wrote
We all like to have systems and rules so the thinking is done for us.
No we don't, that is why we are sea kayakers. But I understand your analogy and agree with your conclusion. Sea kayaking is bigger than a mere grading system.

The trend to measure, grade and rank is pervading all aspects of modern life and should be strongly resisted. Feel the force.

Cameron

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Post by DominiqueS »

Cameron I agree, with the small caveat that independence of thinking relies on specific knowledge and experience for sound results - something beginners lack by definition.

So I should have phrased it better and started with "when we are beginning to learn something". For an eager beginner in a field, and I would suspect even for a very keen sea kayaking beginner of independent spirit, relying on the "expertise" of a grading system as a crutch to remedy lack of experience in judging conditions is likely tempting.

Hence the point when applied to sea kayaking: if the inherent deficiencies of a given grading system are not well understood, which is likely to be the case for a true beginner, in some cases a dangerous false sense of security could be induced.

Usually my advice to beginners (when asked) is that trying to gain a knowledge of the sea through gradual exposure with knowledgeable partners is as important as acquiring technical skills (which by the way is the easiest part; paddling skills are not as complicated as they are too often made to be, it's just a question of good form and practice. I agree in advance that this is a very personal opinion and that I am not a "pro" - I don't want to open a can of worms here...).

Cheers and happy paddling...

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grading the sea

Post by Ligan »

I usually go for a combination of
wind speed
direction - off shore on shore of across
fetch - distance its been blowing across the water bigger fetch = bigger swell (waves or chop depending)
safe landing areas if it goes pete tong
gut - not last nights efforts or the dodgy fryup, but best put down to experience and if it's a bit lumpy just how you feel about it and most important ask the locals and get good weather info and listen to coastguard
broadcasts.
hope that makes sense

pete

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Post by Richard W »

So many variable that I find it simpler to use the K.I.S.S. principles and rely on 3 basic grades:

No Problem.

Might soil my trunks but I'll give it a go.

Better off in the pub.


Richie

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adrian j pullin
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Post by adrian j pullin »

Same way I grade rivers - yes or no.

There is really a band in between which I suppose is "on a good day".
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Post by Dave Thomas »

Surely, as grading of sea conditions is so dependent on what is happening 'on the day' (weather, tide, etc) the main interest can only be in benchmarking what you have just experienced rather than in predicting what a future trip is going to be like. As such, it becomes a bit 'geeky'.
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Post by Cameron »

Dave Thomas wrote
Surely, as grading of sea conditions is so dependent on what is happening 'on the day' (weather, tide, etc) the main interest can only be in benchmarking what you have just experienced rather than in predicting what a future trip is going to be like. As such, it becomes a bit 'geeky'.
Don't you monitor the weather forecast and check the tides for the weekend ahead and think along the lines of 'looks good for the weekend' or not as the case may be ??

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Post by Dave Thomas »

That's my point exactly - the decision to paddle is based on knowledge of the route (from maps/charts/pilots/guides/personal experience) plus weather forecast/actual weather observations on the day/tidal information. The only bit of that which can be 'graded' in advance is the route knowledge - which more or less comes down to the ABC grading given in eg the Wales guide and Mark's SW guide - how exposed is the route, are there any tide races, are there escape routes/landing opportunities.

Retrospectively one can 'grade' eg a passage through Penrhyn Mawr as 'flat calm' or 'brown pants' or something in-between, but the only benefit of that is in saying 'I have paddled that in those conditions, which arose because of these particular circumstances'.

By contrast, the variables in river conditions on a particular stretch or rapid at a particular grade are much less (basically only level/flow) so the predictive potential is much greater - say grade 3 at low level increasing to 4 at high high level for a particular rapid, whereas on a similar scale of difficulty Penrhyn Mawr might vary from grade 0 at slack water with no wind to grade 5 at maximum springs flood flow against a stiff breeze.

The river grade is useful predictively, but the sea feature cannot be graded predictively on its own - only in terms of the complex conditions prevailing at the time.

Hope this makes sense - just back from the pub!
Dave Thomas

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Post by Owen »

The SCA Touring Group use a three grade system that seems to work fairly well-ish. It grades the intended trip not the sea state; just to give you an idea what to expect.

Grade A - is in sheltered water. Participants should be capable of paddling 20km (12 miles) per day in force 2/3 conditions.

Grade B - is in more challenging waters and may include tidal streams, exposed headlands and open crossings between islands. Participants should be capable of paddling 25km (16 miles) in up to force 4 conditions.

Grade C - Participants should be capable of paddling in more difficult conditions then grade B for a longer time.

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Post by adrian j pullin »

BCU (God bless 'em) have effectively done a grading which is enshrined in the new star tests:

3* is being led force 3, sea state 3 (=0.6m waves, crests beginning to break).
4* is leading in force 4, sea state 4 (=1m waves).
5* is leading in force 5, sea state 5 (=2m waves).

This actually works well in a club setting, as you can post a trip saying who it is aimed at:

Anyone
3* and above
4* and above
5* only.

This seems to work in our club (except that we don't get any 5* only and not many 4* and above trips).
Cheers

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Post by Jim »

Adrian, I'm going to have to ask some questions, not actually of you, but of the BCU guidelines!

What is the sea state that is referenced? There are several different sea state scales, which don't quite tally with beaufort wind, beaufort wind 5 indicates smaller waves, and universal sea state 5 indicates bigger waves but wind more like beaufort 7. Of course each scale is for open water, which is not really somewhere that kayaks usually operate, certainly not when they are driven by people who need stars to determine what they should be doing. Is there some kind of inshore sea state scale I should be aware of?

I suppose I should check with the club I normally paddle with and see if they are going to have to use these new grades - I reckon we have a bit of 5* on every trip (perhaps not the waves due to the oceanography) but I don't have any stars, well no more than 3 that I can recall.

Jim

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Post by Chris W »

I wouldn't totally write off off sea grading.

Dave's beaten me too it- Mark R's own SWSK book contains Pesda's A/B/C grading system (against Mark's better judgement no doubt). From what I can see, the grades are based on commitment (open crossings, sheer cliffs?), exposure (headlands and west facing coast?) and the speed of the tidal stream. In other words, the key factors in determining just how screwed you're going to be if the one big imponderable, the weather, turns against you and your team's 'bomb proof' rolls mysteriously fail.

Most sea kayakers should be able to work it ourselves with a coastal weather forecast and O/S map, without gradings? True, but if they can, they can do without a guidebook too. Not all kayakers do know what they're doing (!)and if the gradings deter less experienced paddlers away from the Grade B's & C's, well, then the gradings have done their job.

Of course, you've then also got to factor in the weather, leaving a list of variables as long as your arm, that make every situation unique. Having said that, wind speed IS a remarkably good benchmark- Julia is usually fine in F1-3 but on her limit in F4, regardless of whether there's a bit of swell and tidal flow.

With creek boating, we have the big advantage that the effect of the weather can be addressed through something objective- water level. Having said that, the current system is very unsatisfactory...

-more often than not the rivers are not graded to a known gauge because there isn't one
-the official definitions are hopelessly vague
-continuous ww is so much harder then stop start pool drop
-gradings are a mish mash of technical difficulty and consequences
-'commitment' is still a big factor
-everything from the easy to the hard seems to be 'grade 4' nowadays

... but we still accept river grading, because it's better than nothing.

Chris W.

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Post by Adrian Cooper »

Jim wrote:Adrian, I'm going to have to ask some questions, not actually of you, but of the BCU guidelines!

What is the sea state that is referenced?
I asked a similar question some months ago and, just as this thread has progressed, I didn't get a categoric answer.

The BCU refer to sea states by a list of numbers but if I am trying to find general information (because that is all that is going to be of any use until I am standing on the beach) surely I would go to the BBC Shipping Forecast which describes sea state in words not numbers.

You will always find someone to support their favoured method of assessment but there does not appear to be any genuine consistency.

I don't know why the BCU moved away from the BBC but presumably there are high level sea coaches on here who contributed to the new syllabi who will be able to explain the reasoning.

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Post by adrian j pullin »

Jim wrote:Adrian, I'm going to have to ask some questions, not actually of you, but of the BCU guidelines!
....

Jim
Now you're asking to much, Jim.

Grading the sea, predicting the weather, coming up with winning lottery numbers and delivering world peace and prosperity are all possible. Getting a coherent answer out of the BCU (particularly the sea star test people) is a different matter.
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Post by Jim »

Knees wrote:Not all kayakers do know what they're doing (!)and if the gradings deter less experienced paddlers away from the Grade B's & C's, well, then the gradings have done their job.
Now this point interests me as well - who (let's not simply assume it was Franco) decided which order to make A, B and C?

The Scout Association uses, or used to use, a scale where A was the most extreme and C was the most sheltered. Similarly the RCD (which applies to craft other than kayaks) defines A as the top of it's scale (Offshore) and even the MCA classification of operating areas takes the lowest number (category 0 in fact) as the most extreme (Offshore, I think more than 150 miles from a safe haven). Is there a sensible precedent for the direction of the scale* or is it simply a case of someone inventing something without referring to similar systems in existence?
* there is a kayaking precedent in that whitewater grades get harder with increased number, similarly with climbing grades.

In response to the Adrian's - I wonder if I would be in any way justified in assuming that someone at the BCU has simply assumed that 'the' sea state scale matches the beaufort wind scale, without doing any research? Or perhaps research was done and it was decided it was all too complex so a beaufort simile sea scale has been invented to simplify the star tests?

Right, enough of my controversy, I have to go and re-invent the wheel.

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Post by Debaser »

Is there a sensible precedent for the direction of the scale* or is it simply a case of someone inventing something without referring to similar systems in existence?
* there is a kayaking precedent in that whitewater grades get harder with increased number, similarly with climbing grades.
Giving the most benign conditions the lowest number/letter allows for progression or a re-classification, without getting confusing. You can always go to Grade D (sea) or 6/7/8 (whitewater). For example going from A to A* or A****** gets confusing pretty quickly. (At that point of course you could decide to reverse the grading, going from A as worst to A as least threatening, and remembering to leave all the old guidebooks as they were, to see who's on the ball. Something similar, but nowhere near so life threatening, happened in the industry I work in when changing from BS to BSEN standards, oh how we laughed at that one). And although we may believe/hope that gradings are fixed, as others have alluded to, there's always room for improvement, or indeed, needless change.
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Post by GrahamKing »

Attempts to quantify sea state include the World Met Org classification.

The descriptive words ("slight", "moderate", etc.) correspond exactly in meaning to those used in the met office forecasts (at least according to the table in Reed's Nautical Almanac).

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Post by NickB »

Or you could use this:

Image
Cheers
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