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Sea Kayaking on the Great Lakes tends to have an underabundance of big rolling waves to ride. Often the only way to get this hooting high speed excitement is to ride boat wakes; as big tugs, trawlers and even pleasure craft cruise past, their sterns drag deep gouges in the water, and out of these frothy hollows emerge two sets of waves worth riding.

The first type is the bow wave that fan out to the sides behind a boat. In any boat moving at a constant speed, they will make an angle of 19.5º to the path of the boat according the physics first elucidated by Scottish mathematician Lord Kelvin, and this angle bears his eponym.
The trick to riding these waves is to be close enough to the boat as it passes, waiting for the first four or so to pass you, and then start paddling. If you have an excellent tracking kayak or a rudder, you can usually manage to keep close to the same course of the wake-making boat. By riding down the front of one wave and catching the next, you can eventually get spit out to the front of the set. Moving at this pace is phase velocity; the speed of the waves within the set. However, the velocity of the group is only half of this, so you always do end up outside the set.

The transom wave is entirely different. These are the transverse waves that line up directly behind the boat, and the closer they are to the boat the bigger they are. If you can fall into these, and assuming the boat is traveling at an appropriate speed, It’s as if you had a towline to the back of the boat. The big perks of this are the speed, being sheltered from head winds, and the consistency of the wave—you can literally ride it for miles. The drawback is a big noisy, smelly boat ass in your face.

Finally, I should note that all boats make these two sets of waves, including your kayaking companion’s little boat. Paddling right behind him is not unlike a paceline in biking. It’s not a free ride, but it does make cruising a little easier.

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