Our Readers Write
The Change of the Seasons, Water Devils,
By Farwell Forrest
Confusing Rules, and Loons on the Brink
October 30, 2001
The days are shorter now in the northern
hemisphere, and the nights are colder. Winter is closing in. Each of us
marks the end of the paddling season in his own way, of course, but one
long-time reader's thoughts on the change of the seasons pulled me up
short. As luck would have it, they've nothing to do with paddling, at
least directly, but they've all the simplicity and power of a
Today was a day of change around here, Farwell. I took the
glass-topped table from the patio and moved it to the deck, putting it
away for winter. In place of the table, on one side of the patio, there
is now a pile of split firewood, ready to be burned in the stove in the
basement. I spent all day Saturday cutting wood at a friend's farm. It
has been a long time since I have cut wood. I cut, and then I loaded the
trailer. After it was full, I came homeexhausted!
My wife and I spent the next day unloading and stacking the wood. Now
the patio has taken on the look of winter. It will be here shortly.
I am sure there is much the same metamorphosis taking place around
your home, as well.
Thanks for paddling along.
Right you are, Ricand thanks. It's been years since I last
cut cordwood, but your note brought those days back as if they were
yesterday. I'm in your debt.
It's hard not to think about the winter ahead, I admit, but autumn's
also a good time to look back at the season just past. Here's what one
reader had to say about a perfect summer day on the waterperfect,
that is, until something strange descended from out of the blue.
Hi! Great articles! You're doing a super job. Thanks for the great
I hope you don't mind me sharing this with you
My husband and I have been enjoying the sport of paddling our little
canoe for the last three years. Usually we stick to quiet lakes and slow
rivers and paddle on lazy, bright, cloudless days, enjoying the peaceful
side of the sport.
But one recent trip was different. It was a quiet, late-summer day,
and we were paddling lake Oconee in north-central Georgia. There were
only a few soft wispy clouds high in the sky, and it was hot and sultry.
We had crossed the lake a couple of times and had spent most of the
previous two hours paddling along the shoreline trying to catch a glimpse
of the wildlife in the forest beyond, when we heard a loud, slapping
sound off the starboard side some two hundred yards away. It sounded like
someone was striking the water hard and rapidly with a very large flat
hand! Looking toward the noise, we watched in helpless horror as a dust
devil (or should it be "water devil"?) spun round and drew lake water up
into a funnel-like spiral. There were no clouds in that part of the sky,
so the mini-waterspout seemed to be coming down straight out of the blue.
It was impossible to tell how strong the wind forces were in the
waterspout, but I'm sure if it had come down on us we would have been in
major trouble. The water devil spun round and round and traveled about
twenty yards or sothankfully not toward us!whipping up the
water surface violently for about five minutes. Then it simply vanished.
We didn't feel any wind before, during, or after sighting this weather
wonder. It was really freaky.
Lake Oconee is a rather shallow lake, and we noticed immediately
afterwards that some large garfish had come to the surface. Garfish are
scary-looking enough in the best of circumstances, but in our present
state they really gave us the willies. They were like weird monsters
rising from the depths.
After our little fright, everything was perfect and peaceful again on
the lake. It was as if nothing had happened. My husband said that he
thought it was getting on toward dinner-time and that we should get off
the lake and head into town. Usually, I balk at the idea of quitting the
lake, but this time I agreed, and so we got out. I've learned from this
experience that even on a seemingly perfect day, really weird things can
You're welcome, Charlotte! Glad you're enjoying In the Same
Boat. And thanks for telling us about your close encounter with the
mini-waterspout. It's quite a story, and it drives home the importance of
keeping an eye on the weather, even on "seemingly perfect day[s]." While
I've seen a lot of dust devilsone blew up in the parking lot of the
local supermarket not long agoI've never witnessed their aquatic
counterpart. I envy your ringside seat.
Thanks again for writingand best wishes!
Not all excitement on the water is the result of natural phenomenona.
Sometimes other recreational boaters stir things up, too, and a paddler
finds himself on a collision course with a bigger, faster boat. What
should he do then? It's a simple question, but it's not quite as simple
as it seems. An earlier
letter on the subject drew this response from another reader.
Does Sail Give Way to Paddle?
Dear Farwell and Tamia,
When I learned to sail in a university PE course long ago, the rule we
learned was that motor gives way to sail, and sail gives way to paddle.
This makes sense to me, given how speed affects maneuvering. Someone
sailing a cat is typically going like hell, and should have no problem
avoiding a kayaker.
Gerry from New York
Thanks, Gerry! I'm not sure I'd agree with your PE instructor,
though. While I certainly wouldn't quarrel with the sentiment behind the
notion that "sail gives way to paddle," the idea finds no support in the
steering and sailing rules embodied in the 72COLREGS, the Inland Rules,
or New York's Navigation Law. That being the case, any kayaker or
canoeist who relies on a presumed right of way is betting on a very weak
hand. This was the principal thrust of my earlier comments in "Our
And, legal questions aside, are sail craft always more maneuverable
than paddlecraft? I don't think so. Faster, certainly, at least in some
cases, but not necessarily more maneuverable. Paddlecraft aren't
constrained to courses at least 45 degrees off the apparent wind, nor are
they subject to uncontrolled jibes. Paddlecraft can also move laterally,
reverse without coming about or wearing, and pivot 180 degrees in a
single boat-length. Few sailing craftand this includes canoes and
kayaks when under sailcan do any of these things.
Does this mean that sailors can run down kayakers with impunity? Of
course not! All vessels, of whatever description, are required to
maintain a lookout, reduce speed where necessary for safety, and take
timely action to avoid collision.
It's a murky and contentious area of law and practice, to be sure,
especially on state waters, and I'd like to see New York's Navigation Law
amended to provide explicit guidance to recreational boaters of
all types. I'm not holding my breath, though. For most
paddlers, most of the time, the best bet is simply to do everything
possible to stay out of the way of bigger, faster boats. This is the
so-called "Gross Tonnage Rule," and while it has no legal standing
whatsoever, it's still mighty good advice.
Thanks again for writing.
A column on the emerging
threat of mercury contamination in eastern waters brought this letter
from an old and valued correspondent, a Maine wildlife researcher and
charter-boat captain. As he makes clear, loons have many other problems
besides mercuryand one of those problems is us paddlers!
Loons on the Brink
The state of loons here in Maine is almost enough to drive an old
Earth Day organizer like me crazy! I was thus very interested in your
recent piece on them.
Been some time since I last thought about Minamata and the terrible
human toll that followed contamination of the bay. A lifelong fan of W.
Eugene Smith (the greatest photojournalist this country has ever produced
in my humble opinion), I well remember his horrific photos of the
deformed limbs of the victims of "Minamata Disease." Not to mention the
price he personally paid for having the courage to bring the disaster to
light. If you haven't read his piece on Minamata, look it up in the
Life Magazine archives.
As to Maine's loons, in addition to the problems they are having with
mercury dumped into Maine's water through atmospheric deposition, they
are also being driven off their breeding grounds by human activities.
I first became aware of this problem way back in the late 1970s, when
I began to encounter an ever increasing summer population of loons on
Maine's coastal waters. This state of affairs struck me as "ungood" in
the extreme. As you no doubt are aware, the rearward placement of loons'
legs, while aiding them in swimming as well as in steering underwater,
makes it very difficult for loons to nest along tidal shores. To wit, if
they place their nests along the shoreline when the tide goes out, the
long walk to the water makes them susceptible to predation, in addition
to being energy-consumptive.
Alas, despite the fact that nesting along coastal areas is difficult
if not impossible (there are cases of successful coastal nests on
record, but not many), the summer population of breeding-age loons along
the Maine coast seems to be increasing.
As an illustration of the scope of this problem, I counted more than
50 breeding-age common loons on tidal water between Bar Harbor and
Camden, Maine, while paddling between the two areas in my sea kayak in the
early 80s. Nowadays, I often encounter as many as 5-15 breeding-age loons
on salt water during 2-3 hour boat tours in June, July, and August. When
I reported this to one of New England's loon experts she was quite
And, as if this is not bad enough, I have also observed another very
troubling phenomena over the past few years: loons in the air!
Why do I find loons in the air troubling? Well in my experience, loons
on the coast more often than not try to avoid flying as the long,
strenuous, take-off run they must execute to get airborne is extremely
energy-consumptive. And yet today I am seeing more and more airborne
loons throughout my research area during the summer months.
While I have not had time to investigate this, I suspect that a
scarcity of food (fish) along the Maine coast may be forcing loons to
forage over a wider territory than formerly. As swimming is at best an
inefficient means of covering great distances, I have little doubt that
loons may be flying more and enjoying it less as a result of food
All of which adds up to an unhappy picture, and I am in hopes that
folks like yourself might spill a little ink concerning just how paddlers
can avoid adding to disturbances of breeding loons found in fresh water.
Lots more to say, but I am desperately tired and must stop. The
"Getting Old Is Not For Sissies!" bumper sticker says it all, and I am
finding myself more and more in the camp of those not quite tough enough
to keep on ticking.
Captain Winston Shaw
Sea Venture Custom Boat Tours
A troubling picture, Winston, and a cautionary tale. The common
loon is clearly under a lot of pressure everywhere in its eastern
breeding range. How much longer will it remain "common"? I'd like to be
That said, Tamia and I certainly will "spill a little ink" on the
subject in future. In the meantime, however, I can at least reiterate the
First Law of Wildlife Watching: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. There's no better
argument for buying (and using) a good pair of binoculars.
As for the inroads of age, I know the feeling all too well. Still, I
take comfort where I can. When, on his seventy-second birthday, the
indefatigable entertainer Maurice Chevalier was asked how he felt about
growing old, he replied simply, "Considering the alternative, it's not
too bad." And I guess he had a point.
That's all for now. Look for "Our Readers Write" again in January.
Next week, however, we'll be rejoining Ed and Brenna on their Trip of a
Lifetime, to be followed later in November by another "Voice from
the Wild" and the conclusion of "War in
Keep reading, keep writing, and keep telling us what's on your minds!
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights