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
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
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
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
The dancing leaves confirm your earlier conclusion. It's Force 3 for sure.
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
Tale of Two Norths," "Compasses for
Paddlers," and "Why Good
Compasses Go Wrong."
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights