Canoeing: Coping with Wind

Few moments in canoeing are more blessed than when, after a long and wearing day, the wind suddenly comes to life, pushing steadily at your back, easing your work, saving wear and tear on the muscles. But for each such moment comes another not quite so blessed. The wind is head-on, slowing your swift progress to an aching fight against uncooperative elements or blasting your canoe to one side or the other, stubbornly challenging you to use all your skills to maintain directional control. Light breezes are no particular problem in either lake or river canoeing. A breeze from the stern is actually helpful, and even a head-on breeze is only a slight nuisance. Beam winds, on the other hand, require more pry and draw strokes. Strong breezes on a wide river or lake can become a big problem. This section offers guidance for dealing with the hazards caused by wind and waves.

Makeshift Sails 

Let's study the fun stuff first. Stronger breezes and light winds from the stern can be wonderful if the water is reasonably calm and you rig up a temporary sail to let the air speed you on your way. (Unfortunately, only tandem paddlers can do this; solo canoeists would need special rigging.) For the tandem team, the sail is rigged in the bow and can be achieved by one of two methods. In the first the bow partner dons a poncho and stands with arms outspread; the bottom of the poncho is firmly held between the sides of the legs and the gunnels. In the second method paddlers slip the arms of one or two sweaters or jackets onto the handles of two paddles or poles. The bow partner sits on the bow seat and holds this "sail" aloft. When under sail, directional control is maintained by the stern through the lazy technique of lying back and using the paddle as a rudder.

The Canoe Catamaran 

If you are lake canoeing, you can lash two canoes together and erect a poncho sail between them. The canoes are tied catamaran-style with a long pole fore, a second aft, and the canoes spaced so that the bows are 3 to 4 feet apart and sterns 5 to 6 feet apart. The spacing keeps water from piling up between the two canoes. The two bow paddlers jury-rig a sail (anything that works; ponchos held aloft by the two bow paddlers are excellent). The stern paddlers? Relax and steer.

Trimming the Canoe 

On an open body of water, it makes sense to adjust the placement of gear so that the bow sets slightly higher in a tail wind and slightly lower in a head wind. In no case, of course, should the bow or stern be balanced to ride high out of the water. This is an invitation for the wind to push and shove your canoe around. On a river keep the canoe trimmed so that it rides reasonably level. Currents shift suddenly, the winds changes direction at each curve, and you must control your way through rock gardens and even mild whitewater. Under these changing conditions a level canoe is least vulnerable to the wind. In both situations gear should be stowed so that as little as possible is above the gunnel to catch the wind.

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Tail Winds 

Running before a breeze is a breeze, except when the tail wind is strong enough to start piling up high, mean waves. A tail wind then becomes a menace to your safety. In a sturdy tail wind, both the wind and the waves outrace the canoe. As the waves racing up behind the canoe grow bigger, a high wave rolling forward underneath the canoe can push the bow so high that the stern slides backward and the next onrushing wave overruns the stern, pouring water into the canoe. In such a situation a quartering maneuver is usually the one maneuver you can use to ease yourself out of danger. Swing the canoe so that it rides at an angle across the waves. Be careful, though-in a quartering swing, the wind is coming at you from an angle. Such a wind can push the canoe at right angles, so the craft is parallel to the waves and at risk of broaching and overturning in the troughs. As a general rule, paddlers do not have to change sides to keep a canoe on course in a tail wind. Canoeists can get some assistance by fashioning a sea anchor and tossing it over the stern. The drag will keep the canoe from being swung broadside in heavy seas. A sea anchor can be a large pot or kettle tied to the stern painter. A word of warning: If possible, tie the painter to the towing link on the stern bang plate. If the painter is fastened too high, such as on a thwart, it may pull the canoe into the water instead of stabilizing it.

Light Head Winds 

When paddling into a head wind with no shifts in the direction of travel, the canoe offers the smallest possible target to the wind. The slightest movement off-course, however, will allow the wind to push the canoe broadside. To avoid this, paddlers must stay alert to the constant need to face directly into the wind. This is not terribly difficult on open water, but river paddlers may have more trouble staying centered when every curve means a shift in wind direction. The best solution in this situation may be to paddle to shore until the winds subside.

Moderate Port and Starboard Winds 

Paddling at an angle to the wind may require a shift in the side you are paddling on to maintain a course with the least amount of increased effort. For example, if a wind is from the port (left) front, the bow should be paddling on the left with the stern on the right. Usually if the bow converts a power stroke to a modified draw and the stern simply uses a sweep instead of a straight power stroke, the canoe will remain on course. If the wind, however, is from the starboard (right) front, it may be easier if the stern switches to his or her left, so both bow and stern are paddling on the same side. Remember, the force of the wind is constantly attempting to push the canoe at a right angle to the direction of the wind; this is the force that must be neutralized. On the other hand, if the force of the wind increases, it makes good sense for the stern always to paddle on the windward side so that he or she is in a good position to throw a quick recovery stroke if the blast is strong enough to threaten the stability of the craft. (Don't forget that in any type of threatening wind situation, both bow and stern should give up the comfort of their seats and paddle from a kneeling position.)

Strong Head Winds 

Danger from a powerful head wind sweeping up a long reach of open lake is comparable to the danger from a strong tail wind. When waves pile up to 3 or more feet in height, the bow rides high as the wave crest hits the canoe, then drops swiftly as the crest passes under the stern. If the waves are powerful, the bow can drop into the trough as the next wave sweeps against the uptilted canoe, breaks over the bow, and swamps the canoe. The obvious solution in this situation is to deliberately quarter the canoe, riding the waves at an angle.

When the waves are high and the canoe is quartering, two problems can arise. First, the canoe can be swept into a broach and rolled over by an oncoming wave. Second, the canoe may veer sharply off-course when the bow rides onto an approaching wave at one angle and the stern drops into the wave at the opposite angle. In either situation the bow must be prepared to throw a brace and to maintain a strong forward momentum, relying on the ability of the stern to keep the canoe from swinging into the trough.

Paddling into a head wind or struggling with a loaded canoe in a tail wind is enough to make any canoeist, novice or veteran, cautious about crossing a wide lake. As long as you and your partner can handle a canoe with sufficient skill to keep the waves from crashing over the bow or leaping into the stern, you should feel confident you will arrive safely at your destination.

Beam Seas and Crosswinds 

A beam sea (when the waves are crashing into the canoe parallel to the keel line) creates another set of hazards, which can make any paddler question the wisdom of paddling when the wind is blasting the canoe from the port or starboard side. In the face of these crosswinds, frail craft may seem very frail, indeed.

An empty canoe on a beam sea will stay at right angles to the wind and will rise on the wave as the wave sweeps against it. It will lean to the opposite side of the wave, hold firmly erect for a brief moment as the wave crest passes, then slide down the passing wave, leaning again in the direction opposite to the movement of the wave.

When two canoeists and all their gear are aboard, this slight rocking as the wave passes beneath the canoe is sharply magnified because of weight added to the craft above the waterline. In this situation the canoeists must relax and become as flexible and fluid as a downhill skier. While the skis edge and shift constantly, the skier maintains a fluid balance. If the skier becomes rigid, so do the skis, and disaster results. In a beam sea the paddlers face real trouble if they forget to relax and remain fluid.

Two wave patterns cause particular problems in a crosswind. In the first pattern the crests of the waves are twice the distance of the canoe's waterline. The time period between waves is short, and the canoe rides up crests and down troughs so quickly that the paddlers have trouble adjusting to the rate of the roll. The second challenge involves breaking waves. In this situation the canoe is hit by water falling from the crest of the wave as it starts to ride up the lee side of the wave. The canoe can fill with water in this way very quickly. In these patterns, only one solution is practical: Quarter the canoe into or away from the wind and head for the nearest shoreline.

On the other hand, if the waves are manageable, you may be able to control the situation by bracing to the lee side. A solo canoeist can achieve this by leaning the canoe slightly to the lee side and paddling on that side. In a tandem canoe the stern paddler should be on the lee side and the bow paddler on the windward, since the stern paddler's brace stroke is more effective than the bow's. The bow also can either sweep or draw to maintain the canoe's balance as it slides up to the crest and slips into the moving trough.

Adjusting Your Course 

When canoeing a beam sea with all your attention focused on keeping your balance at each wave, remember that you probably are being swept off the course you'd be paddling in a calm sea. To maintain your course you have to quarter into the wind and waves. Shorter waves should pose no particular difficulty; you slice at an angle across them. Longer waves appear more challenging, but they offer a maneuver not possible in a short wave pattern-ride in the trough briefly, then quarter upwind to adjust your course. In breaking waves, however, you'll find it impossible to ride a trough because the foaming crest to windward will add enough water to your boat to swamp it, whether you're paddling solo or tandem. In such a case you have no alternative but to alter your intended course in order to remain afloat. There will be time later to return to your planned course of travel.

Time to Stay Ashore 

Now and again, no matter what the canoeists' skill or experience, prudence dictates: Get off the water; it's too rough for your safety. As a general rule, it is easier to make your way to shore by running with the wind rather than paddling against it. As you search for a take-out, avoid a shore battered by oncoming wind; the waves near shore will become higher and meaner. Stay clear of waves breaking on shore until you can paddle to the security of the lee side of any land projection. When the winds are playing rough and you are still ashore, stay ashore. You may reach your final take-out a day late, but you and your party will be safe.

Excerpted from The Complete Book of Canoeing by I. Herbert Gordon with permission from Falcon Publishing.

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