Advice From the Hammock: Paddling- As the Tide Turns

Tip No. 11-  Route Planning with Tides!


During my first summer working as a kayak guide, my parents came out for a visit, and I brought them out kayaking to "show off" my new skills. An hour after launching our kayaks, we were calf-deep in mud, trying to, push, carry, or drag the kayaks to the cut of water I reassured them was "just over there". Several minutes more of hard effort revealed mud, mud everywhere, but not a drop to paddle in. Embarrassed and covered in mud, I led our retreat to where we first left the water, wondering why I hadn't been able to find the cut. 
Well, as it turns out, there is no cut at low tide, and we were at the lowest of tides. It was the first, but not the last, time I'd get tripped up by low tide, and was a memorable lesson in the importance of planning your route based on the tides. 
During our "Off-Season" (I have such a hard time calling it that, as we're never really "off"), we leave our summer paddling grounds of Beverly and Salem and take our weekly tours on the road, hitting incredible locations all around the North Shore, from Plum Island down to Plum Cove.  We plan the paddles at least a month in advance, which means that while we can't plan them based on wind and other weather factors, we can plan them based on tides, as tide schedules are published in advance. 
The first thing we have to think about is the height of the tide. As I learned on that first trip with my parents, there are a lot of places where you simply can't paddle at low tide, for lack of, well, water. We schedule many of our paddles at higher tides, as it provides access to more places and we don't have to worry as much about getting "stuck in the mud". However, there are times we might want to paddle at a lower tide. While at high tide our rivers and harbors look like flooded basins, at low tide they morph into sinuous mazes of channels and sandbars. Paddling during these times gives an appreciation of the underlying bathymetry of our coastal waters, and also makes for some really awesome places to hop off the water for short, impromptu explorations. We often schedule our Misery Paddle tours so that the ribs of the scuttled steamer The City of Rockland will be exposed by the retreating tide.  
In addition to the height of the tide, we also have to think about tidal currents, especially when we paddle in tidal rivers, like the Danvers, lower Ipswich, or Annisquam Rivers. Here, the incoming (flooding) or outgoing (ebbing) tide is funneled into narrow channels. What on open ocean is experienced as simply a rise and fall of the tide becomes a lateral movement, or current, in these confined waterways. The speed of the current changes over the course of the tide, generally strongest at mid-tide (roughly three hours before or after high or low tide, and with some local variation) and weakest right at high and low tide, where very little water is moving. We try to plan these paddles so that we go with the tide, or at the very least, will not be paddling against the current during mid-tide. If paddling upriver, away from the ocean, we might try to put high tide right in the middle of our paddle, so that we'll ride the flooding tide in, and then paddle back out with the ebbing tide. For a paddling route that takes us down river, we might reverse that, or, if wanting to avoid low tide, we might paddle against the incoming tide first when we're freshest, and then accept the help from the tide on the way back. 
Further complicating things is the change in the height of high and low tide over the course of the month with the cycle of the moon. Full moons and new moons experience more extreme tides (often called Spring Tides), meaning higher highs and lower lows. A bridge you might be able to squeeze under at an average high tide might be all but awash on a spring tide, where an area you could typically paddle at low tide might be dry, with seagulls walking around, scavenging for crabs. Finally, because during a Spring Tide there is a greater amount of water moving within the same time period, tidal currents will be stronger.  
When venturing out on your own, without a paddle guide, it's worth getting to know the tides of your local paddling area well, particularly areas of dry land at low tide, and the strength of the current at mid-tide. However, even with this knowledge, it's helpful to have a Plan B route in mind. Perhaps the wind will come up on the day of the paddle that makes your original route either difficult or impossible. Or perhaps, as has happened to me on two recent paddles, your original launch point is frozen over! (One of the oft forgot about hazards of winter paddling.) When paddling in new locations, tide charts can be super helpful in helping you understand how the tide effects the chosen area, and a tide app can give you instant information on the height and speed of the tide near you. (I use Tide Graph Pro, though there are many out there. And, if ever in doubt, call your local paddle shop and ask for information, or better yet, schedule a guided tour! 

Aaron Mearns