Looking for a Lee
Or, How to Put the Flat Back in Flatwater
When the Wind Howls and the Waves Rise
By Tamia Nelson
November 8, 2011
Paddlers tend to specialize. Even 40 years ago, we were divided between whitewater boaters and flatwater boaters. (Sea kayakers were just beginning to make their presence felt.) Nowadays this trend has accelerated, with subcategories emerging in every camp. To give just one example, whitewater kayakers now include creekers and freestylists and squirt boaters. And as is always the case, increasing specialization is accompanied by an ever‑narrower focus. You could even call it tunnel vision. Whitewater enthusiasts and flatwater paddlers have never really understood each other's passions, of course, but today the estrangement is nearly total. River rats tend to see flatwater boaters as amiable duffers — nice enough folks, but not really up to it — while the Golden Pond crowd regard the hard‑chargers who run challenging rapids with the sort of bemused incomprehension that many people reserve for BASE jumpers and fire‑eaters.
I'm oversimplifying, obviously, but the disconnect is real enough. And it reflects real differences. The world of the whitewater boater is dominated by the power of moving water. You can't run rapids successfully without understanding something about currents and the many ways that topography influences hydrology. Flatwater boaters, on the other hand, inhabit a world in which wind is the dominant force. In fact, the term "flatwater" is something of a misnomer. Even Golden Pond can get pretty lively when the wind blows half a gale. Wind makes waves, after all, and if you hope to travel safely across open water, you have to learn how to maintain control of your boat in strong headwinds and breaking seas. I suppose sea kayakers have the best (worst?) of both worlds. They confront wind and wind‑driven waves, to be sure, but they must also contend with powerful tidal currents and such whitewater‑like phenomena as overfalls and whirlpools.
Having said all this, I'm now going to admit that there may be a grain of truth in whitewater boaters' genial dismissal of their flatwater cousins as duffers. In particular, flatwater paddlers who venture out from the sheltered confines of Golden Pond for the first time are often taken aback by the power of wind and wave. While it's certainly true that you can drown in a farm pond, death can seem much closer when you find yourself among big rollers for the first time. As I discovered when I made my initial foray beyond the comfortable world of intimate creeks and small beaver ponds where I served my paddling apprenticeship. It was, in fact, a …
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:
This sketch map shows the lie of the land on that day in Québec. It's easy to see why we got into trouble. And it's even easier to see how we could have avoided it. All we had to do was take note of the wind's direction and spend a few minutes looking at the map. That would have told us (1) that we could expect the waves to increase in height as we moved down the lake, even if the wind failed to strengthen, and (2) that the lake's weather shore would afford a far more tranquil passage than the middle. Had the wind been blowing from another direction, of course, the picture would have been very different. Today's weather shore can be a lee shore tomorrow.
OK. Let's leave Québec and take a look at some illustrative examples a little nearer home:
In this shot, I'm standing on a highway bridge, facing into a Force 5 breeze, and while the limited fetch means that the breeze doesn't raise much of a sea, the wind is strong enough to make handling a canoe a bit of a chore. Look closely at the picture now. Can you see the wavering line dividing the wind‑rippled water from the calm pool to the left? That tranquil pool exists because a broad point of land breaks the force of the wind, creating a lee. If you were paddling to windward, that's where you'd want to be, even if you ended up putting a few more yards under your keel. The savings in time (and energy) would more than make up the difference.
And here's a view in the other direction:
Now the bridge causeway (out of shot to the right) is creating a lee. The ripples show you where the wind blows free, whereas the calmer waters promise shelter. But you don't need to find a causeway or a forested spit to shelter from the wind. Low‑lying land — even a reed‑bed — can also act also as a windbreak, as this photo illustrates:
There's a moderate (Force 4) breeze blowing from the right in this shot, yet the low tussocks that dot the flow create noticeable lees. You can see the same phenomenon in the next photo, taken when a Force 5 breeze was blowing right into the camera:
If you look carefully, you'll see a narrow fillet of slack water in the middle distance. And in this case the only windbreak is a modest reed bed. The resulting lee isn't extensive, but it's big enough for a couple of canoes. To put things in perspective, just face right:
In this shot (taken within a few seconds of the last) the wind is coming over my left shoulder, and I'm looking at a lee shore. The surf isn't anything to get worked up about — the fetch limits the size of the waves to little more than ripples — but as the birch sapling indicates, the wind is an honest Force 5. If you were landing here, it would pay to exercise care. The tannin‑stained lake water does a pretty good job of hiding submerged rocks …
And even a ripple can let a loaded boat down pretty hard on a sharp stone. A stronger breeze would make things lively indeed. There's another hazard associated with lee shores, too. In many places, the prevailing wind piles up impressive collections of driftwood over the years, creating a floating shelf of clashing logs. Here we see the beginnings of just such a barrier:
It's not much to look at now, but give it a few years to grow. Then wait for a gale‑force wind to churn things up. It's at times like those that the phrase "wrack and ruin" comes to mind — and looking for a lee becomes imperative!
Flatwater paddlers don't get much respect from many of us river rats. But even Golden Pond can turn ugly once the wind starts to stand the water up on edge. That's when prudent paddlers stay close to the weather shore. What about you? Do you have vivid memories of anxious days when you sought shelter from a freshening breeze? Well, if so, and if you've read this far, you probably have a better idea how to put the flat back in flatwater — even when the wind is rising.
Related Articles From the In the Same Boat Archives
- "Anatomy of a Lake: Unmasking Mr. Hyde"
- "Taking the Measure of the Wind"
- "The Life History of a Wave"
- "Caught Out! Weathering Roaring Wind and Rain"
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