Yesterday I went down to the Columbia River Gorge to do some sea kayak training with George Gronseth under high wind/big wave conditions. The results were both surprising and expected.
We arrived at about 10:00AM and talked theory, ate lunch and geared up until about noon. When we departed, we estimated the winds at a paltry 12-15 knots. However, this is a river gorge and the wind was running opposite the current so even in light wind, the waves get steep. At this wind level, the waves were about 2 feet with whitecaps. We did a few rolls, edged turn circles, some streching and moved out into the main channel to do some surfing upriver.
We surfed to our main training destination a bit more than 2 miles upriver. The spot in question was where the channel halved in size with steep canyon walls on either side. As such, both the wind and current were compressed (in opposite directions) so conditions got more interesting. There were very pronounced foam trails, spray off the tops of waves and 2' to 4' rollers with occasional breaking waves. I'm guessing the wind was in the mid 20 knot range but I'm prone to overestimate. IIRC, the windsurfing forecast was for 18-24 knots. We would surf upriver, fight the wind back down river and repeat. We then did the same thing but backwards surfing. If took a few violent broaches before ruddering in the bow while back surfing became more natural.
I was in my Romany16 with a greenland paddle the other student was in a Romany Explorer with a euro paddle and George was in a Capella with a euro paddle. Due to the short boat and my poor technique with the stick, it was harder for me to catch waves than for the other two. However, after switching paddles with George, I found that turning the boat in the wind was much easier for me with the stick due to the ease of extending the blade and/or using the sliding stroke. The Romany seemed to surf downwind much better with the skeg deployed. I didn't notice any tendancy to capsize but I never broached with the skeg down.
After surfing ourselves crazy we took a break then did rescue drills. We did our rolls inventory up and down wind. It didn't seem to make much difference to me when using the paddle, maybe a bit when doing my still marginal handroll. We then did assisted rescues and solo paddle float drills. We also did intentional pearls, broaching capsizes and generally tried to intentionally do and recover from all the things we normally don't want to do.
Finally, 6 hours later we turned and paddled directly against the building winds back to the put in. Again, with the shorter boat and greenland paddle I was significantly slower. However, George is a very strong paddler, the other student is a more experienced paddler than me and I'm still pretty uncoordinated with the stick. Interestingly, I felt like I was paddling as hard as I could and not go anaerobic but the force of the wind on the paddle blades actually made it difficult to do the extension/catch portion of the stroke so it was hard to paddle hard if that makes sense. Also, even though I was slower, I didn't feel as beat as the other student looked...
Things I learned - I am much more comfortable in 4' swells than I am in 2' confused seas. There were no unintentional capsizes and I really never had to brace except when surfing, etc. However, rescues were just as difficult or maybe more dificult than I thought they would be. Self rescues were especially troublesome, pumping out the boat while bracing on the paddle float, etc wasn't a walk in the park. IMHO, A solid roll is a must for these conditions.
The Gorge is a fantastic place to practice this stuff in controlled conditions. I would recommend anyone in the PacNW give it a try. The scenery is beautiful with eagles and ospey everywhere. The water temp was balmy compared to Puget Sound. Just be sure to save something for the paddle back upwind ;->