How To Paddle Board Against The Current: The Complete Guide

If you are paddleboarding on a river, there will be a current of some form and if you go one way, you will at some point need to come back, often against the current. Also, on windy days the sea and even lakes can have a strong pull to them. Here are some simple tips to give you more of a winning edge when it comes to paddling against different types of currents.

So, How to Paddle Board against the Current? When standing up on your paddleboard, keep your back bent and hold your paddle lower down the shaft. In this more streamline position use quicker and shorter stokes. If windy, you can also go to your knees, or even onto your chest into the prone position.

However, there are other methods and techniques to combat and overcome on-coming currents and winds. Read on to discover these simple yet effective skills that will keep you going forward.

Great Techniques to Paddle Boarding against a Strong Current or wind

When you paddle against a current, you need to paddle faster than the water is moving. If not, you go backwards. This means utilizing the same techniques as for going fast described in another post here.

Some speed tips are

  • Practice (Skill and experience is important)
  • Work out. Particularly core muscles.
  • Have the right size paddleboard
  • Use epoxy board over an inflatable

In windy conditions on a SUP, (Stand Up Paddleboard) you become a sail. Techniques to overcome this are all based on reducing your surface area facing the wind. This makes you a worse sail, which is what you are going for! It reduces the effect of the wind and it’s pulling on you and your board.

Standing up

  • Bend at the knee and drop your shoulders.
  • Take a wider grip and move your top hand from the top of the paddle onto the shaft.
  • Shorter stroke, ending at your feet
  • Take Faster and shorter strokes are better than longer and slower ones.
  • Make sure you know how to hold the paddle

Bending your knees and lowering your shoulders lowers your air-resistance. The shorter and faster strokes then keep your speed up as you go into the wind.

If you take long powerful strokes you accelerate your board more. However, as you move your paddle back you loose a lot of this speed. In the time you move your paddle forward the wind will stop you and push you back. With a shorter and faster stroke you will loose less speed between the strokes. The net result is going forward more with less energy.

A problem you may experience while paddling standing up into the wind is that the wind get under your board. This can make your board unstable and you might feel as your balance is constantly off. To stop this from happening, move your weight a bit forward on your board. This will drop your nose and stop the wind from entering below.

On your knees

If the headwind is too strong or the water too choppy, it is best to get on your knees. Paddling on your knees is a bit different than paddling standing up.

For knee paddling, the more vertical your paddle is, the more effective your stroke will be. You achieve this with a technique called “stacking your hands”. As the name implies this is done by keeping your top hand straight above your bottom hand. Paddle with the paddle blade close to the side of the board while keeping the paddle moving parallel to it.

Now, on your knees your surface area facing the wind is reduced by about 50%. This translates directly into 50% less energy put into your paddling. You will go twice the distance with the same effort!

Prone

If going to your knees is not enough and you still cannot make headway against the wind, go prone on your board. Lay down your paddle in the middle of your board, curved part upwards. Then lay down on and paddle with your arms to move your board forward (the blade of your paddle will be under your chest, holding it in position).

This prone position is great for really windy conditions as it makes your surface area as small as possible. If you look from the front at someone else on a paddle board you will see them as the wind does. In the prone position, you and your board are almost invisible from the front. The wind has nothing to pull on!

Make sure you keep your legs down onto the board. If you stick them up behind you they too become a sail for the wind to pull on.

The prone position is the safest and most stable position on your paddle-board. It is often used by lifeguards, for this reason, to fight windy and choppy seas when making a rescue.

Lifeguards paddling in a prone position at Paddle Round The Pier Beach Festival, Brighton, UK 2019

Safety

As always safety comes first. Whenever you venture out in moving waters and wind make double sure that you can handle the situation. Having the right equipment for your paddleboard outing and being properly prepared is more important when there are currents and winds to navigate.  Read our guide to getting started or consider taking lessons at first.

Safety basics

  • Check the weather forecast before you go (But still take caution as the weather report often is wrong)
  • Life jacket
  • Leash (Detachable if on a river)
  • Wear high-vis clothing
  • Helmet (if on a river)
  • Check tides and other local conditions
  • Tell someone of your plans, and when you will be back
  • If alone, bring a phone

Never cut short on your safety. Paddle boarding is not a dangerous hobby with proper attention to safety. Without such attention, however, it can be very dangerous and even lethal. When safety is taken care of, you can spend more of your time enjoying your paddle board adventures!

As mentioned, briefly in the Intro, there are many places you can paddleboard where there will be a current, especially once we add wind to the equation. Below we look at the different environments and ways to overcome them.

How to Paddle Board Up Stream

Heading into a gentle current. such as on a stream or a canal, is a moderate workout and very suitable for beginners.

As mentioned earlier there is no difference between paddling fast in still waters and paddling against a current. As you move through the water your paddle-board is pushing surface water forward. This creates a small “hill” of water in front of your board as you paddle. The analogy with a hill is very fitting because your board is literally climbing this tiny hill of water all the time.

From an exercise viewpoint, this is of course awesome. The water makes a moving hill for us to continuously climb. Going downhill for every uphill is for the shore-bound, on the water we are always going uphill! Paddle boarding overall gives you a good workout, similar to the exercise benefit of scuba and the health benefits of snorkeling.

The resistance that the water gives, that is the size of the little hill, is the same no matter if it’s you or the water that is moving. This is what makes paddling against current a great workout.

Whichever current you are paddling in, try and plan your trip so that you start by paddling against the current. That way, when you are tired you can use the current to your advantage and let it bring you back.

How to paddleboard against the wind on choppy water.

The drawback of this approach is that you will get splashed more. If you don’t care, happy paddling. If you do care, go on your knees instead of prone as this will reduce splashing.

In choppy water going down on your knees or going prone helps. Not only against the wind but it helps you keep your balance as well.

When you are on your knees, your center of gravity is a lot closer to your board. This pays off directly as you now have a much easier time keeping your balance. This helps both for tipping sideways and the feeling of tipping backwards when you get buffed by strong gusts of wind. If you go prone this effect is even bigger.

The drawback of this approach is that you will get splashed more. If you don’t care, happy paddling. If you do care, go on your knees instead of prone as this will reduce splashing.

How to Paddle Board on a windy lake

On most lakes, except the very big ones, there are no real currents. Moving water on a lake comes primarily from the wind. So if you are paddling into the wind, you are also going against the current and the waves.

Make full use of all the tips mentioned in this article and plan for all eventualities. Winds can change!

How to Paddleboard in a hard current on the sea

If you want to go against a hard current at sea the thing to do is select an appropriate current. You again, want to time your effort so that you spend most of your energy at the beginning of your outing. But be very careful, going against currents at sea is not for beginners. Arguably, not even for intermediate paddlers.

When going against the tide, always paddle out against the incoming tide. If you find yourself hard-pressed the tide will take you back. You can coast along on your paddleboard. Beating the current is a great feeling and when you do so against the incoming tide, you can paddle back on high tide with normal effort.

Paddling against an outgoing tide, on the other hand, is very dangerous. If you can not beat the current you will be swept out to sea! Make sure you can read tide-tables and understand the tides. Talking to local people with knowledge of local conditions is also a very good idea. For a beginner, it is very easy to be overpowered by even a slow-moving tidal flow.

If worst comes to worst. Never abandon your board! If you cannot paddle a current you most assuredly cannot swim it. On your board, you are visible and can more easily signal for help. If you swim this is not the case, you are hard to spot and even with floating aids, help might not arrive on time.

How to Paddle Board Upriver

Going against a faster current is a bigger challenge as well as an even better workout. Having the following in mind will make your experience more enjoyable.

Techniques for rivers

  • Always look forward, never down at the board
  • Head straight into the flow of the river
  • Heading cross-river, angle your board only a little bit off the current
  • Use a paddle that can take a beating

Near the edges of the river, there will be backwaters and eddies. Backwaters are where the flow of the river goes backward, literally. Eddies are a smaller phenomena that occur when different waters meet.

As the river is flowing down, the moving of the water creates friction against the sides and bottom of a river. This friction turns into rotation and swirling in the water. Sometimes these swirls creates large pools of water that are rotating between the flow of the river and the shore. This is the backwater.

Backwaters can be so big that you can even get caught in the. The backwater often occurs before or after bends in the river or obstructions like big rocks. In these places the water changes speed quickly and this makes backwaters more likely.

When waterflows of different direction or speed meet the water “tears” at itself. The eddies are the water’s way of dealing with this “tearing”. Usually an eddy is a smaller water phenomenon that often looks like a little whirl. They can, however, be very big and even pull things down.

Both the backflows and the eddies can be used for a break in paddling and also to slingshot you upriver. Sling-shotting from eddy to eddy is a great way to make upriver paddling easier.

Entering and leaving eddies is an art-form unto itself according to (supworldmag). Some tips:

  • Take a surf stance to aid balance
  • Tilt your board against the current (so it won’t flip your board)
  • Enter eddies at a small angle of approach

For a surf stance, one foot is placed forward parallel to your board. The other foot is placed backwards and across your board. Both feet are positioned right on the center of your board. For your back foot this means toes on one side of the board and heal on the other side. This stance enables you to quickly shift your weight around. You can react and correct changes faster and keep your balance.

If you are paddling in a fast river a helmet is a must. Around eddies and crosscurrents falling is part of the package. At least while you are learning how to get around on these waters. Rivers have many hidden dangers that can cause head injury and helmet guards against this. The Board Basement carries these 3 wakeboard helmets that can be used for paddle boarders, too.

Remember also that you want a leash attachment that you can quickly access and release. This is particularly important on rivers as being trapped is a constant danger. Keeping well away from piers, pilings, rock formations or anything with water flowing under it is also good.

White water

It does not matter if you are heading out on a beach against breaking waves or riding down rapids. White water paddle boarding is an awesome experience and a dream for many riders. Whitewater is a churning mass of mixed air and water, it does not behave like “normal” water. Hence the thrill!

It does not matter if you are heading out on a beach against breaking waves or riding down rapids. White water paddle boarding is an awesome experience and a dream for many riders. Whitewater is a churning mass of mixed air and water, it does not behave like “normal” water. Hence the thrill!

On the ocean, you will find whitewater where ever there are breaking waves. The actual breaking waves are an obstacle you will have to overcome. To surf, yes you can surf your paddle-board, you have to get outside these breaking waves. From there, you can surf the same waves back in to shore or paddle the ocean as you please. You will need practice and probably some instruction, breaking waves have a lot of power!

Have a look at surfing on SUPs!

In rivers there are rapids! As the river narrows or goes shallow, all the power of the moving waters turns it into a churning mass of foam and spray. The rapids are a maze. In some places there are so much air mixed in with the water that your board does not float! In other places the water is compressed and feels like a wall.

There are many places where you can test your skill against the rivers. Make very sure to talk to instructors or other SUP riders as intimate knowledge is needed. Finding the right place to ride is A and O for river whitewater.

Here you can watch Spencer Lacy taking river SUP to the extreme.

With mastery, you can find waves to surf in river rapids and make riding down rapids and waterfalls seem like a breeze.

Be patient, practice and the adventures are endless as you progress with your SUP!

Paddle safe my friends!


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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