Skills Clinic: Brier Island Tide Race Weekend

According to the 1891 Sailing Directions for Nova Scotia, “Grand Passage, between Bryer and Long Islands, is narrow and contains several dangers, but the principal difficulty connected with its navigation is the great velocity of tidal streams through the channel.” This is our classroom for the weekend, where we’ve come to play and learn.

Christopher Lockyer has been bringing paddlers to Brier Island for half a decade and this is my third trip with him as a long-term student. Our group this weekend is a mix of long-term students, single-program participants, and a supporting crew of Paddle Canada coaches. Committed 2 The Core trains capable sea kayakers and the tidal races here in Grand Passage and at Gull Rock provide challenging conditions to develop both boat handling skills and leadership experience.

With considerable sea kayak skills and instructor certifications, including the top British Canoe Union (BCU) Level 5 coaching award, Christopher is well equipped to lead a group in these conditions. Safety is our principal concern as we start the day with buddy assignments and briefings describing protocols and boundaries. In this one room schoolhouse, everyone is working on tailored assignments and helping their fellow participants to advance.

Brier Island-Inner race

Gull Rock. The tidal stream runs at the rate of about 4 knots at half tide over the Northwest Ledge

The experience is intended to push us beyond our individual comfort zones. Some kayakers are working on breaking into the flow successfully while it’s still just a couple of knots. Others, with some experience in tidal currents, are improving their placement and trying to surf consistently in more aggressive flow. A few of us are working on efficiency, finesse, and leadership in advanced conditions. “Big” is relative and there was certainly enough “big” to excite us all.

“Dynamic” has myriad meanings in this environment, the obvious relating to the horizontal flow of water and the resulting tidal waves that we ride. As the speed of the flow increases so do the features in their size, speed, and even position relative to the rock ledges that generate them. And as the water level changes with the tide, rocks either bury with the flood or uncover with the ebb, continually shifting the eddy lines. Fog is another dynamic feature that reduces visibility and amplifies the risk of any swims.

Rescues need to be fast in this environment. Four knots of current will move a swimmer away from land and out to sea very quickly. Junior students are learning to be active swimmers by turning their own kayaks up and kicking their way out of the flow into the eddy to assist the rescuer. The senior classmates are considering the big picture as they assess the scenario and apply quick judgement of the optimal rescue approach given the circumstances.

Brier Island-Peter Surf

Working on placement and angle of attack to get rides more efficiently

The challenging conditions expose all of our weaknesses. Stiff paddlers who lack upper/lower body separation capsize as the current grabs their boat and the waves jostle them around. Kayakers with an inefficient forward stroke are unable to generate sufficient velocity to match wave speed to catch a ride. I’m trying to improve my angle of attack across the eddy line and anticipate how my boat will misbehave so I don’t lose speed or have to work as hard to correct course. I’m also reminded, after one rushed and unsuccessful roll, that I’m still sometimes lifting my head under pressure.

We finish the day with a friendly competition among friends: deliberately capsize, wet exit, then re-enter and roll your kayak in the haystacks. Christopher wins but we all have fun doing it, advancing our skill and confidence through the process. That’s why he brings us here: mission successful.

[Photo caption: Gull Rock. The tidal stream runs very strong over the Northwest Ledge […] at the rate of about 4 knots at half tide]

[Feature photo: Digging into the gnar. Photo credit: Jarrod Gunn-McQuillan]


  • Orr, R. H. (1891). Sailing Directions for Nova Scotia, Bay of Fundy, and South Shore of Gulf of St. Lawrence, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from


    1. Nice to get the details of what’s happening, thanks !

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