Baptism by Wind and Water
Though it began innocuously enough. We had camped at one end of a good‑sized lake in northern Québec. The outlet, our goal for the morning, lay at the other end. The lake wasn't really very large. It certainly wasn't in the same league as the Great Lakes. But at six miles long and a mile wide it was at least 12 times bigger than any body of water I'd ever been on. Nonetheless, I set off in high spirits. For just about the first time in memory Farwell and I had a following breeze. We even raised an improvised sail — a poncho, suspended between two halves of a breakdown pole — to take advantage of our good fortune. And for a while things went very well. So well did they go, in fact, that we soon parted company with our companions. While they elected to hug the shore, we decided to head straight out to the middle of the lake, intending to make the most of the Old Woman's benevolence.
We should have known better. By the time we reached the halfway point in our journey down the lake, the following breeze had become a stiff (Force 5) wind, with frequent stronger gusts. And the wind‑driven rollers — which had been no more than ripples when we set off — were now two feet in height. Our improvised sail had to come down. But we still had the help of the following breeze, and we were enjoying the ride. I even remember joking with Farwell that our timid friends would be sorry they'd missed the fun. After another couple of miles, however, the joke was on us. It takes time (and distance) for wind to raise good‑sized waves. The longer a wind blows from a given direction and the more scope it has to do its work without obstruction — this distance is known as the wind's "fetch" — the higher the waves pile up. We got to see that process in action. The rollers passing under our keel had now risen to between three and four feet, and whenever one caught up with us, it lifted me high into the air (I was in the stern), tipping our heavily laden Tripper down into what seemed like a bottomless pit. So we found ourselves struggling constantly to keep our boat from burying its bow in the trough and broaching, knowing that to capsize in mid‑lake would be catastrophic. The shore was half a mile away, our companions were nowhere to be seen, and the lake's chill waters didn't make the prospect of a swim seem very enticing. To make matters even worse, an occasional wave was starting to break just aft of us, and we were beginning to ship water over the gunwale. But I didn't dare stop paddling to bail. Even turning toward shore was problematic, since it would put us broadside to the ever‑growing rollers.
Then, just when things were beginning to look truly bleak, a refuge appeared. It took the form of a narrow spit of land extending out into the lake. Waves broke hard on the windward side, but if we could get around the spit and slip into the sheltered waters beyond, it promised a safe harbor — a chance to rest our weary arms, get rid of the water that was lapping at our ankles in the Tripper's bilge, and decide how best to creep down along the shore to the outlet.
And that's just what we did. I didn't know it at the time, but we'd found a lee, and …
A Lee Can Be a Paddler's Best Friend
We'd also found the rest of our party, who'd arrived ahead of us and were already brewing tea. Notwithstanding our brisk following wind, it seemed we'd lost more time struggling to keep our wallowing boat from broaching than we'd gained at the start with the help of our improvised sail. Common sense had proven an errant guide, and not for the first time. We'd also missed seeing the 30 loons that our better‑advised companions had spotted close inshore, all of them diving for their breakfast in what appeared to be a single, convivial, multi‑generational flock. But at least we got to inspect the moose tracks on the spit's sandy beach, while just across the way, on the other side, crashing waves sent spray flying and rolled floating logs the size of telephone poles about like toothpicks. It was an impressive illustration of the meaning of a phrase familiar to sailors but not to me (not then, at any rate): "lee shore." The lee of a spit of land promises shelter and safety, but a lee shore is a place of danger.
What's the difference? It's a matter of perspective. The lee of anything is simply the side away from the wind. So if you're standing on an island with a gale of wind at your back, you're facing the island's lee. Behind you, waves crash noisily on the beach. Ahead of you, in the lee of the island, all is tranquil. In fact, the word "lee" comes from hlēow, an Old English word meaning "shelter." Your point of view changes once you're in your boat, however. Waves now dash against the windward ("weather") beam, while only ripples disturb the small oasis of calm to leeward (pronounced "loo‑ard"). In this respect, your canoe is behaving like a tiny island. But just look downwind toward a distant spit of land. It's feeling the full force of the wind. In fact, it's a lee shore — a shore to leeward of your boat — where breaking waves promise a hard landing to any paddler bold enough, or foolish enough, to attempt one. Shelter and safety for you and your boat lie on the other side, away from the howling wind, in the lee of the spit.
Confusing? Yes. When you're sitting at your computer. But it's easy enough to distinguish a lee shore from a lee when you're in your boat. Luckily, on that blustery day in Québec, we found shelter in a lee, just in the nick of time. And we'd both learned a few lessons along the way, namely:
- The most direct route across open water isn't always the quickest route.
- Riding rollers can be fun, but the line between fun and folly is difficult to judge, and once crossed, it's hard to go back.
- The lee of a spit (or an island) often offers a safe haven on a windy day.
- It pays to check the map before heading across a lake.
Where did we go wrong? Well, when we set out that day, we were looking forward to a wild ride right down the middle of the lake, and we got one. In fact, we got a wilder ride than we'd bargained for. Our companions were more sensible. They hugged the shore closest to their windward gunwales — the lake's weather shore. (The wind wasn't blowing straight down the long axis of the lake, even if that's how it seemed to us at the time.) So, while Farwell and I were wallowing in four‑foot swells, they had only half‑foot‑high waves to contend with. And even if they'd somehow run into trouble in those good‑natured waves, the shore was always near at hand.
We weren't so fortunate — or foresightful. Yes, we lucked out in the end. But safety on the water shouldn't depend on luck. And a few minutes spent studying the map would have spared Farwell and me a lot of unwanted excitement. Here's what I mean: