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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Lost Art

Navigating Without Batteries —
Taking the Measure of the Wind

By Farwell Forrest

August 24, 2004

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!

— Ezra Pound, "Ancient Music"

Iconoclast, toady to tyrants, madman or fool or both — Ezra Pound isn't everyone's favorite poet. He certainly isn't mine. But today, as a freshening breeze in a cloudless sky gives notice that summer's lease is short, and about to expire, I can't get Pound's mischievous little jingle out of my mind.

"How the wind doth ramm!" All too soon, October storms will turn tiny northern ponds on edge and drive massive green rollers across the big lakes, gladdening the hearts of wetsuited windsurfers and terrifying canoeists in equal measure. Folks whose fun is fueled by gasoline can ignore the wind, at least until it's blowing half a gale. Not so the legions of no-octane explorers. Canoeists and kayakers, cyclists and sailors — for all of us, the wind is a constant presence, an implacable, elemental force. Sometimes welcomed as a friend, often cursed as an enemy, but always inescapably there. We travel at the wind's pleasure, and we ignore it at our peril.

Not surprisingly, the wind figures constantly in paddlers' tales. Who could forget the sight of a companion caught by a sudden squall? His jacket ballooning out behind him, his double-bladed paddle beating frantically, and his boat scudding backward at a jogging pace — a pace which increased to a run when the shaft of his double-blade broke into two pieces, the sickening Crack! audible even above the keening of the wind.

Or what about the time when a random, gale-force gust, funneled down the cleft between canyon walls, caught your canoe and slewed it sideways just as you were poised on the lip of the first ledge, then spun you right around, so that you ran the whole drop stern first? You found yourself, long seconds later, in a wild eddy, your boat half full of water, butting its stem with metronomic regularity into the car-sized boulder at the eddy's head, and yet, miraculously, still upright. And you? You were dizzy and weak, unable at first to do anything but listen to the eerie chorus of the wind as it whistled through the ventilation cut-outs in your helmet.

I will not forget these things. I was there, watching as my friend did battle with the wind, and bailing frantically in the heaving eddy in the river canyon. Wind shapes a paddler's soul as nothing else can. And it does much more besides. In a very real sense, it defines his world, sets bounds and limits, determines whether he goes or stays. It's always been that way. The voyageurs, already exhausted by eighteen-hour days and 180-pound loads, christened the wind La Vieille, the Old Woman. It was a term of respect, if not affection — this Old Woman had the power to break any young man's heart. She often did, too, and the carefree young men in the big canoes long remembered their frequent humiliations at her hands. They feared the Old Woman. They could not love her.

Ancient history? Of course. But wind still sets bounds and limits to the modern paddler's world, still determines whether he's condemned to huddle on shore or set free to strike out across the water. Yet surprisingly few canoeists and kayakers can take the measure of the wind. For many paddlers, a day is either calm or windy. There's nothing in between. And that's too bad. Every autumn, paddlers with practiced rolls glance across sheltered bays and stare out into the open waters beyond, yet see only the nearby ripples in the placid bay before them. Then, blind to the faint, popcorn-like dots scattered along the horizon, they launch their boats, leaving their spray skirts loose. Later, having threaded their way through the sentinel rocks at the mouth of the bay, their lazy reverie is rudely disturbed by green, open-water rollers hitting them broadside on, spilling gallons of cold water into the cockpit. "What's happening?" they shout to their companions, the first notes of panic creeping into their voices. "Wind's come up!" is the reply. "Hell of a surprise, eh? It was sooo calm back at the put-in. Who'd have guessed it?"

Anyone with an eye to see is the only honest answer. But it's too late for sermons when your boat's already full of water. Better by far to anticipate the need to look ahead. There are as many gradations of wind as there are classes of water. Remember how the world changed when you first learned to fit a rapid into the International River Classification scheme? All whitewater was chaos before then, yet order replaced chaos immediately afterward, and the divide between fun and folly — between prudence and madness — slowly became clear. It's the same way with moving air. Learn to take the measure of the wind, and your world will change.

But how do you do this? Well, the catalogs are full of wind meters. For the price of a good paddle you can get a "thermo-anemometer" that will give you a digital readout of wind speed in your choice of units, along with such helpful addenda as temperature, windchill, humidity, heat index, and dew point. Who could resist?

Me, for one. My pockets are too full already, and I don't need another piece of gear to get lost in the dark corners of my pack. I appreciate the technical virtuosity that goes into these jackknife-sized packages of chips, sensors, and impellers, but I want something simpler, something that I'll always have with me, something that doesn't need batteries. And thanks to Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer of the (Royal) Navy, veteran of the Glorious First of June (1794), and surveyor of the River Plate, I have it. Back in the days when all the world's ocean commerce was carried in sailing ships, matching the spread of sail to the wind was a matter of no small importance. Carry too little sail, and you risked arriving in port too late to get a good price for your cargo (and make a profit for your owners). Carry too much, and you courted capsize — and almost certain death. You can't roll an East Indiaman upright once she's foundered, and wooden ships with shingle ballast and no watertight bulkheads go down mighty fast. Taking the measure of the wind was a matter of life and death, not to mention profit and loss.

Admiral Beaufort showed the world how to do it. Building on work begun by his predecessor, Alexander Dalrymple, Beaufort compiled a simple table relating wind speed to sea state, the size and appearance of waves in the open ocean. More than a century later, his "Beaufort scale" is still used by mariners. And there's no reason why we shouldn't use it, too.

Here's a short course, adapted to the needs of paddlers. In all, the Beaufort scale comprises twelve steps ("Forces"), from Calm to Hurricane. Most canoeists and kayakers can get along fine by recognizing only three, however: Gentle Breeze (Force 3), Fresh Breeze (Force 5), and Near Gale (Force 7). These three points effectively compass the winds through which it's possible to paddle, while emphasizing the "seamarks" and land signs that are critically important to safety on the water. Let's take a closer look.


Little breezes dusk and shiver
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Lady of Shalott"

You're in your boat, out on the lake. The wind, which was dead calm when you started out, has picked up. It's beginning to push you around. The wavelets are almost big enough to be called waves, and some of the crests are beginning to tumble. You look across toward the far shore and see an occasional whitecap: Force 3. The wind speed? About 10 knots, or 11-12 miles per hour. If you were a novice paddler, and if you were in an open canoe, you'd be thinking about heading back. As it is, you study the trees lining the nearer shore through your binoculars. The leaves are all aflutter, dancing to the wind's tune without pause or hesitation. (You look mostly at the birches and maples, and at the needle bundles of the larger pines. You know that "quaking" aspens didn't get that name for nothing. Their soft green leaves are tossed around even in the lightest airs.)

The dancing leaves confirm your earlier conclusion. It's Force 3 for sure.


The…tossing breeze
—Matthew Arnold, "Thyrsis"

The same scene, an hour later. You're still out on the lake, confident of your ability to keep your boat under control while you paddle into the teeth of the wind, several hundred yards from shore. Things are changing, though. The wind has picked up. You're working just as hard, but you're only moving half as fast. The waves — they're definitely waves now — have grown bigger, and the solitary whitecaps of an hour ago have been joined by many more. The broad expanse of lake between you and the far shore is studded with breaking waves. Now you know what sailors mean when they speak of a popcorn sea. The wind is blowing Force 5. Its speed? About 20 knots (23 mph). You decide to head in closer to shore. You turn cautiously, taking the waves on your beam, and paddle toward a sandy spit, planning to catch your breath in the sheltered waters just behind it. An occasional wave breaks across your deck. You're glad you're not in your open canoe. As you approach the spit, you notice that the young gray birches are tossing back and forth, swaying with each subtle shift in the wind. Looking up, you see that the very tops of the tallest pines are keeping time to the same music.


The gale, it plies the saplings double
—A. E. Housman, "The Welsh Marches"

Another hour has passed. You've left the shelter of the spit. You're strong. You've got a bombproof roll. And you're having the time of your life. At least you were. But you're starting to worry. Despite paddling hard, you've make almost no headway in the last ten minutes, and when you turn to run before the wind, you almost go over. Now the wind is at your back, though. It's quieter, and you're really flying along. Still, as each foamy crest slides beneath you, you've got all you can do to keep your kayak from broaching. When the next crest lifts you up, you steal a quick peek at the far shore. The foam from some of the breaking waves is blowing out to windward, painting occasional white streaks against the dark gray-green water of the lake. Force 7. Say 30 knots. 35 miles per hour. It's definitely time to go. A small island looms ahead, and you know there'll be shelter in its lee. As you approach, you're startled by the sight of the big island pines swaying, their trunks undulating from top to bottom like birches in a breeze. You paddle harder. That lee can't come any too soon.

Summer's lease is ending in the northern hemisphere. Soon autumnal storms will be sweeping across the lakes and seacoasts. There's still a lot of good paddling to be had, but late-season waters are no place for the careless. Fortune favors the prepared mind, right? So be prepared. Isn't it time you learned to take the measure of the wind? After all, it's as easy as 3-5-7!

Want to learn more about the lost art of navigating without batteries? Then check out the other articles in this continuing series: "First Things," "The Three-Fold Path," "A Tale of Two Norths," "Compasses for Paddlers," and "Why Good Compasses Go Wrong."

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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