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Wind and waves 2.0

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Tide Race Conditions in Relation to Wind

Note: This article is intended to build on the original Wind And Waves which I posted on 7/9/19. If you are interested in reading that first, follow the link

My good friend Gary, of RICKA (the Rhode Island kayak club) infamy, recently started a discussion about tide race conditions and their relation to wind. Super interesting stuff. My take is that they are fully wind dependent. Unlike reversing falls and other white water type features, which tend to work regardless of wind direction, a true tide race (including overfalls) can’t work without wind and can’t work well without the wind opposing the current. WW features and standing waves like those found at Blue Hill Falls are point specific where bathymetric features (underwater rocks and reefs) are the driving force in creating the wave(s). Tide races and overfalls tend to have more water depth and/or less flow rate, so the water without wind will cause a subtle rise on the surface and mabey swirls but won’t be able to fully stand up. Further, the waves created in those venues result from faster moving water, flowing over the underwater obstructions, running into slower water caused by a greater depth found downriver from the obstruction. In a white water scenario, a similar situation can set up but the primary focus is on waves going over and around rocks close to or above the surface, forming eddies behind them.

I usually liken the forces at work to holding your thumb over the end of a hose: The water backs up and builds energy behind the obstruction (your thumb or, in the case of a race, an underwater reef line or a sticky-outy-point) and speeds up while squeezing past that obstruction. This faster moving stream interacts with the slower moving, deeper water downstream. In no wind scenarios, this causes nothing but a bulge or a swirling surface. Wind with tide (wind going in the same direction as the current) will seemingly flatten things out entirely but, if you could get your head low and look across the surface you would see soft shouldered upwelling. Wind opposing tide allows for the wind to grab ahold of those surface irregularities and stand them up.

In general, I’ve found situations where there is more flow and less wind to be cleaner than the opposite. In the former scenario, the rare and coveted, glassy green waves can result. Given a situation with less current and higher wind speed, I usually expect steep waves that fall apart and are difficult to link. Beamy winds tend to just stir the pot and make for an unrideable but, usually still fun, mess.

Exact wind direction can be quite critical. Our local races are found, primarily, on either side of Fishers Island which is technically in NY – I do support a succession or outright invasion – that’s the stuff of a future post. Focusing on the east side, there is a reef line that runs roughly east-west from Fishers Island to Napatree Point, Rhode Island. Along that line there are several races that set up with two of the best known being Catumb Rocks and Sugar Reef. These are just a few minutes paddle from each other and along the same reef, both go off on the ebb but work best in different wind directions. If you can get ahold of a bathymetric image of the features, it is pretty obvious why Sugar likes wind with plenty of east in it and Catumb does best on a hard south.

While it’s easy to come to the conclusion that races are a lessor pile of fun than white water style venues, they do have unique aspects that makes them super fun to play. Tide races tend to be wide and deep fields which allows more paddlers to have at it simultaneously and offers plenty of opportunity to link waves for long rides. Safety wise, terra firma (the hard bits that help create the conditions) are usually too deep underwater to hit with boat/body and, in the case of a sticky-out-points, are obvious enough to avoid. In the rare case (ha) that someone is bucked out of their boat, many play spots allow for a paddler to float through safely into the quieter water deeper in the field where rescue options are more humane. Another advantage is that a race sets up a natural circuit so you can run it multiple times. You surf towards the front (downwave but with wind at your back) and can ride the current back to line up for your next round.

If you are interested in building your personal paddle or leadership skills, feel free to contact me.

Sea Sherpa Kayak LLC specializes in coaching kayakers of all levels of experience in the black arts of open water paddling. While located in the Connecticut/Rhode Island area, which enjoys fantastic tide race, surf and rock gardening options, we often do events in far flung, exotics waters including the Pacific Northwest, Baja, California, Tybee Island and most often, the spectacular coast of Maine. We offer group classes, privates and custom events. Check us out at Sea Sherpa Kayak LLC and sign up for our newsletter, or connect with us on Facebook

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