Water and Weather Conditions That Challenge Paddlers

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor

Our local weather is usually the best in the country, and we are blessed with good quality and visibly great looking water. But there are times that these norms are not the case.

By taking a few precautions, and anticipating hazardous situations, we can become safer paddlers. Here are a few basic pointers, along with some resources to assist with that.


On several paddles over the years, the Wednesday morning group has experienced some pretty dense fog, the kind that can disorient you if not careful. It is one thing to start out in the fog, but quite another to get “caught in it”. That is when you can end up in an unsafe situation. Years ago my neighbor took his power boat off the tip of Pt Loma to do some surfing, when the fog moved in and surprised him. He only had a compass on board, and was trying to “feel” his way back in, when he heard the soft sound of waves. They were the bow waves of a Navy Destroyer bearing down on him in the middle of the channel. When he gunned his boat to get out of the way, the Destroyer was only a few yards from hitting him.


Heading into Mission Bay on a Wednesday morning while hugging the south jetty.

The problem with fog is that it muffles sound, while also taking your normal orientation away. The challenge is to avoid being in a hazardous area when the fog moves in. If you are on the open ocean, keep looking around to see if the horizon is being obscured, as fog is sometimes hard to see in the distance. If you get caught in fog on the ocean, use your compass and a known “base line” to find your way back in. For instance, you paddle out the Mission Bay channel and turn northwest, and are caught in fog. If you know you are well north of the north jetty, use your compass to go directly east, listening and looking for the change in swell height, and the sound of the surf. The beach is now your baseline. When you reach the point where it is unsafe to go further in, turn right, and you should run into the north jetty. Practice this on a clear day, to get the feel of the changing swell height as they approach the beach. If you have a GPS, all this is much easier of course. It is always advisable to never go out on the open ocean without a compass, GPS, VHF, and all safety equipment. And never paddle alone.
If you get caught in fog in the big bay, simply hug the shore to keep away from large boats, and avoid crossing the channel until visibility returns. Boats with radar often cannot see you on the screen, and sometimes boats with only GPS are moving too fast in fog. They may know where they are, but don’t have a clue where other boats are.


A few years back a few of us were paddling out of Mission Bay in the wind. As we moved toward the jetty mid-point, the wind speed increased to such a point that we could not keep our heading. It was blowing us into the north jetty, and it took us several minutes to turn around to head back in. Our kayaks would not have lasted against those jetty rocks had we not been successful in turning around. We should have turned around sooner, and would have been far better off if we were hugging the south jetty, protected from the wind by the rock formation. Anticipating adverse conditions and taking corrective action in the beginning would have been far safer. Checking the weather report, and heeding high wind warnings can save you from unfortunate situations in the first place.


Entrance to the Mission Bay channel with waves breaking all the way across

It does not take much wind to turn a relaxing paddle into a very challenging one. At the end of this article is a link to the Beaufort Scale, with photos, that will give you pause on venturing out on a windy day. If you do paddle, choose a protected area. If an unexpected sudden storm hits you, find protection from the wind and wait it out.

SAFETY ADVICE- Unless you need to cross open water, always “hug” the shore, even on calm days. This will keep you safer from power boats, and if the wind suddenly increases, you are much more likely to get to shore and “wait it out”. If you must cross open water, do so in groups, and only after checking the sky for oncoming squalls. Fast approaching clouds often have high winds proceeding them. In our area, Santa Ana winds can come up fast, so always check the weather report before you paddle.

High Surf / Swells

Moving water, which is what waves are, has tremendous force and power. I watched that surf kayak in the photo below break into several pieces when a wave caught it broadside. Always check the weather and surf report before you leave home. If the surf prediction is 7 feet or more, the lifeguards do not want us to venture out of Mission Bay.  Launch instead at Shelter Island, and paddle out to the end of Pt Loma, where you are protected from the wind and waves. As you pass Ballast Point, you will still have an “ocean experience”.

This surf kayak ended up in several pieces in the Mission Bay entrance

This surf kayak ended up in several pieces in the Mission Bay entrance

Water Quality Issues After a Storm

There are areas along our coast, and in our bays, that are unsafe to paddle after a storm. The runoff, and sewer lines overflow cause the water to be hazardous to your health, and should be avoided for at least 72 hours after the storm ends. The photo below taken in April of 2020 shows the outflow silt and contamination of the San Diego River two days after a heavy storm, extending over a mile from the outlet. The outflow after 8 days still showed signs of silt. There is a website at the end of this article to see where those locations are for any given storm, and also gives ongoing information for sewer line breaks, and the areas to avoid in those incidents.

Areas Prone to Pollution Year Round

The east end of Mission Bay, and the south end of San Diego Bay lack sufficient “flushing” by the tides, and also have creeks that often bring some pollution into those areas. In Mission Bay at the northeast end is also a bird sanctuary, with the associated biological pollution of fecal coliform. When paddling in these areas, take caution to stay out of the water, and rinse off your hands after paddling and before eating. Even though these areas present low risk to the paddler, taking precaution is always wise.

Sneaker Waves

Jim Alsup punching through a wave off Coronado. Two others were not so lucky.

Jim Alsup punching through a wave off Coronado. Two others were not so lucky.

You can avoid getting caught by a “sneaker wave” if you take the time to observe the sea conditions. Spend a while to “time” the sets, and see where the furthest waves from shore start to form. Know where the underwater formations are along your route, in order to stay on the outside of those areas. As you paddle along, look well ahead to observe any waves breaking far offshore. And, always keep an eye out for what the swells are doing on the outside of you. Always be ready to turn your bow toward an oncoming wave, paddle fast, then duck forward, with paddle parallel to your boat, and picture yourself in that photo above. Best of all, get some good training at Aqua Adventures for all this. The more experience and training you get, the safer you will be.

Web resources for further study:

– contributed by Jay Murdock