Tag Archives: Kayak Navigation


By Vladimir Brezina

Squares lead us onSquares 1Squares 2

… squares and sometimes triangles




and we are by no means the only ones to appreciate their presenceSquares 3Squares 4

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Square.

Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, by David Burch

By Vladimir Brezina

Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, 4th Edition, by David Burch. Falcon Guides, Globe Pequot Press, 2008

The availability of handheld charting GPS units has made small-boat navigation so easy that many kayakers are neglecting the basic principles that must be used to make navigation, including GPS navigation, safe and efficient. And what to do if that magic box fails, as in a kayak it sooner or later will, due to water intrusion or just dead batteries? David Burch is passionate about all aspects of small-boat navigation, and it shows. His Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation, now in its 4th edition (2008), is a classic.

In this book Burch covers

  • nautical charts and chart reading
  • compass use
  • dead reckoning
  • piloting
  • tides and currents
  • GPS use
  • marine radios
  • navigation in traffic
  • Rules of the Road
  • navigation at night
  • navigation in fog
  • chart preparation and navigation planning

and many other topics.

The book is a pleasure to read. Each topic is covered in considerable but never excessive detail, and accompanied by plentiful, beautifully clear illustrations that effectively focus on the point being made in each case.

Burch well understands the difficulties of navigating a kayak that may be awash in waves, where the usual navigational tools are lacking, where it may even be impossible to refold the chart in the wind! This is a book specifically about kayak navigation.

The section on GPS and other electronic resources is inevitably somewhat dated (technology has progressed so rapidly since 2008!) and not so useful. This is not a book for those who want to understand how to use their GPS.

Otherwise, Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation is the one-stop resource for everything kayak-navigation-related. As I said, a classic!

Travel Theme: Numbers

By Vladimir Brezina

Sometimes, kayak navigation is just a matter of following the numbers—

Paddling by numbers 1
Paddling by numbers 2
Paddling by numbers 3
Paddling by numbers 4
Paddling by numbers 5

A contribution to Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Numbers.

A Tale of Two Compasses

By Vladimir Brezina

IMGP1732 cropped small 2

Course: 130 degrees magnetic!

I distinctly remember the first time the value of a good marine compass was driven home to me. I was circumnavigating Staten Island for the first time, clockwise, and had reached the gradual turn around the southwest tip of the island at Tottenville. I had never been there before—everything was new. I had a marine chart, but the very tip of the island was folded over on the other side, just out of sight. It didn’t seem necessary to refold the chart, especially as, as soon as I passed around the tip of the island into the Arthur Kill, I would have to fold the chart back again. And hadn’t I just studied the chart and knew exactly what was ahead? And so, as I made the turn and was faced with the choice of several waterways, I boldly set off toward the Raritan River instead of the Arthur Kill. Only when I was almost in the Raritan River did I happen to glance idly at the compass, to discover with a shock that I was paddling 90 degrees off course, west instead of north…

But as I grew familiar with New York Harbor, the compass seemed less relevant. I dutifully strapped it onto the boat for every trip, but I hardly ever looked at it.

Perhaps because I hardly looked at it, I was able for many years to get away with the Suunto Orca. For a folding kayak, I needed a strap-on, rather than a permanently mounted, compass, and the Orca was one of the few available. But it’s very popular, I notice, even among hard-shell kayakers, who have many other choices.


But when in recent years we started to take longer trips into unknown waters, and I really needed a compass, I found I could hardly use the Orca.

Rather than having an evenly rounded globe of clear plastic, like most compasses, the Orca has a boxy shape, with an awkward bend along the top, just in the wrong place to distort the view of the numbers underneath. And the bend tends to accumulate scratches, making the plastic even more opaque.

But most importantly, the numbers on the Orca’s card are too small. On a kayak, you want to mount your compass as far forward as possible, so that you can keep both the compass and the horizon in view at the same time. But when mounted far forward, the Orca’s numbers can hardly be read, through the scratches and the water droplets that also gather on the compass.

Enter the Brunton 58.1.40241_eA much better compass! It has a rounded globe. The numbers, and especially the letters for the principal compass points, are much bigger than the Orca’s.

Underneath it is nicely shaped to sit solidly on the ridge of a peaked kayak deck, without sliding to one side or the other, like the Orca tends to do.


And, online, the Brunton 58 is even a little cheaper—around $50—than the Orca ($70).

During the 2014 Everglades Challenge, I certainly appreciated having a good compass. On a number of occasions, when we were hesitating which way to paddle among the indistinguishable mangrove islands, a glance at the compass immediately made it clear.

And, as happens with the best equipment, the compass began speaking to me. (No, this was not a hallucination—although a speaking compass would not have been that remarkable among the bizarre hallucinations on that trip…) Rather than sitting there passively, waiting to be interrogated with difficulty only when absolutely necessary, as with the Orca, the Brunton was such a pleasure to look at that I naturally incorporated it into the round of things I looked at while paddling—the waves, the clouds, the compass… It was quietly pushing information at me, constantly telling me that we were on the right course—or sometimes not.

And having a good compass eliminated the conversations with Johna that always went something like this:

Vlad: “See those two islands, the big one and the little one? We’ll paddle through the gap between them.”

Johna: “You mean the big island with the tall trees?”

Vlad: “No, more to the right. The island with the white tower.”

Johna: “I see two white towers…”

Now I just say: “Steer 130 degrees magnetic!”

Or rather, I would say that if Johna too had a usable compass. During the Everglades Challenge, she still had an Orca.

We left Johna’s Orca behind in Florida at the end of that trip. Now we’ll get her a Brunton.

Birds, Aids to Navigation

By Vladimir Brezina

What’s wrong with this picture? (Click on it to examine it in more detail.)

IMGP4382 cropped small 2

There’s a bird standing right where we are headed!

Nigel Foster, in his book on Florida kayaking, tells a humorous story about his researches into the length of various birds’ legs, with a view to using them as a measure of the depth of water in which the birds were standing.

I thought it was just a good story—but that was before we started paddling in Florida. Then I realized that it is actually a very practical measure.

There is so much shallow water in the Florida Everglades—especially in Florida Bay, where it is often just inches deep—and so many birds, that it sometimes seems that all shoals have at least one bird standing on them. You can see the birds from far off.

And if you see a standing bird, you want to keep clear of that spot. The water is too shallow, even for a kayak.

Bird and dolphin

On the other hand, if you see a dolphin, you can probably pass ;-)

A more practiced eye, like Nigel’s, will notice the length of leg immersed. If you don’t see the knees of a large egret or heron, you might be OK.

Heron standing

But if you see gulls standing, you really don’t want to go there!

IMGP5078 cropped small

This last photo was taken on Long Island, NY—so the rules seem to apply beyond Florida, although more research in the field is clearly required… ;-)

Everglades Shakedown, Day 1: Headwinds and Night Navigation

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Through the mangrove rivers and bays

Start: Chokoloskee.
Finish: Darwin’s Place.
Distance: About 21 nautical miles.
Paddling time: Roughly 8 hours; average pace 2.6 knots.
Stop time: Roughly 2 hours (30 minutes lunch plus a 90-minute stop at Everglades City to obtain permits).

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Everglades Shakedown: Challenges and Lessons Learned

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

<— Previous in Everglades Shakedown

Christmas dinner, 2013

Christmas dinner, 2013

The goal of our Everglades Shakedown Expedition of December 2013 was to gain an understanding of the Everglades environment for the upcoming WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, and we’re happy to say it succeeded. Our biggest lesson learned was that we’d largely been worried about the wrong things. Snakes and crocs? No worries, mate! But midges and skeeters can be more than a nuisance—they can derail your trip by keeping you penned in your tent, unable to cook or pee.

Similarly, I’d been deeply concerned about paddling in the Everglades at night. It’s pitch-black (actually, not quite: the lights of Miami loom on the horizon) and the thousands of mangrove islands look all the same. Sure, we do plenty of nighttime paddling in New York—but that is our backyard, and even if you are a visiting paddler, the city is well-illuminated and chock full of landmarks, from the Statue of Liberty to the various bridges, so it’s fairly easy to keep your bearings. Turns out that with a compass and charts, a good flashlight, and ideally a mapping GPS, nighttime paddling in the Everglades is very much doable, as well. (And in some respects, it’s more pleasant than daytime paddling.) That relieved my worry about being limited to paddling only during the daylight hours in the Everglades Challenge itself.

And some things that seemed trivial from our perch in New York were not trivial at all. Headwinds across the shallow water that abounds in the Everglades generated chop and slowed us down considerably—our average pace for the trip was 2.3 knots, and that’s with fast boats and good technique. (Our standard average, in calm waters with no wind or current, is around 3.4 knots.)

Here are some of the highlights of what we learned:

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Planning Kayak Trips in New York Harbor: Tide or Current?

By Vladimir Brezina

I’ve paddled in New York Harbor quite a bit, and other kayakers often ask my advice on the timing of their trips through this tidal waterway. They say things like, “We are planning a trip from Pier 40 down to Swinburne Island to see the seals, like you did last year, and we are thinking that January 8 might be a good day to go. High tide at the Battery is at 7:13 a.m. that day. So, when do you think we should leave?” And I have to reply, “I have no idea.”

I have no idea because the time of high tide at the Battery does not immediately tell me much. I think in terms of current, not tide.

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