Yesterday I was talking to a fellow who was interested in getting into kayaking and one of the questions that he asked about was how well kayaks deal with the sometimes very large waves that ships generate. My answer was that in all my years of paddling I couldn't remember any ship wakes that were breaking waves as long as you were in deep water and that the large swells they sometimes produce are no big deal.
After our little talk, I went ahead and launched at my favorite spot on the Columbia River for a day of paddling. The river was fairly calm with very little boat, or ship traffic until early in the afternoon when ship traffic picked up. As I recall it, there were about three ships that passed by in fairly rapid succession. I tried to surf some of the waves from the first two ships, but they didn't amount to much. The third ship was not as big as the other two, so when I saw it coming, I really didn't give it much thought except that I was in a position by then that would allow me to get a pretty good ride if the waves were right.
I began to paddle toward the ship to get into even deeper water and increase my distance from shore to afford a longer ride if the waves were right. I was somewhat surprised to note that the initial waves from this ship were quite steep and breaking at some distance behind the ship. I started looking further back to see if the breakers settled down, but started to reconsider my plans as I saw new breakers being generated even further behind the ship and by this time they are not that far away.
With the last few seconds that I had left, I started looking for a spot where the waves were a little less daunting, but there just wasn't any opening. And if things weren't already exciting enough the spot that I was committed to, seemed to well up even higher and definitely looked like it was going to collapse right on top of me. It must have been the speed of the wave and what little forward momentum I had that allowed my boat to pierce through the thin, translucent curl without a problem. I think due to loss of buoyancy at the crest of the wave, a little water closed in around the cockpit, but that was only for a split second until the bow plunged into the deep trough behind the wave. At this point I was resigned that I would be toast to the second breaking wave and I was right, but also surprised that it also passed so quickly that all I really got was a big splash and came out the other side just a little wet. The third wave was just a speed bump.
I guess my point here is that the incident was a good reminder that freaky things happen on the water, no matter how much you might think you've seen it all. Needless to say, I didn't turn around and attempt to catch those waves for a joy ride. First I don't think I could have and at that point I was still sorting through what had just happened.
I hope I see that same fellow again real soon, so I can ammend my assurance to him that ship wakes don't break in deep water.