There are many common phrases that have nautical origins. Some examples include “by and large”, “chock-a-block”, “close quarters”, “give a wide berth”, “loose cannon”, “panic stations”, “shake a leg”, “taken aback”, “the bitter end”, and “the cut of your jib”.
Another term that has loose origins in the watery world is “headwinds”. It is used frequently – literally and figuratively, often describing challenging economic conditions. This newsletter focuses on headwinds from a rower’s standpoint, the curse that has more influence on progress (or lack of) than any other force.
Last month we highlighted five rowing/paddling challenges – Jerome Truran’s kayak journey around Vancouver Island to try to break my speed record set in a rowboat, Sarah Outen’s row across the Pacific Ocean, a rowing race around Britain, an attempt to be the first to row through the Northwest Passage and Steve Price and my attempt to break the all-time human-powered speed record from Whitehorse to Dawson City in a rowboat.
Before giving an update on each of these quests, let me describe the effect headwinds have on a small boat. We all have experience with headwinds, whether from the saddle of a bicycle or simply walking down a sidewalk in blustery conditions. On land however, it is only the force off the wind we have to contend with. On water, it is the sea conditions created by the winds, which pose the real challenge. The longer the winds blow, and the greater the fetch (the distance for the waves to travel), the bigger and more powerful the waves become. It is the waves that pack the real power, crashing into the boat and arresting forward progress. Inertia is lost and the rower has to repeatedly re-accelerate the boat into messy seas. Generally the rower is wet and cold, hands blister from the extra force applied to the oars, and muscles fatigue. From a psychological standpoint, it is extremely frustrating to work so hard, yet make almost no progress.
While June was a busy month as far as rowing challenges were concerned, it was also the month of headwinds. Jerome Truran was forced to give up his quest circling Vancouver Island due to persistent headwinds. He completed the most challenging parts off the NW coast, but time was running out and his headwinds weren’t. Sarah Outen has faced relentless and atypical contrary winds, delaying her so much that she is already rationing food. She has been on the Pacific Ocean for almost three months, and still has two thirds of the crossing ahead of her. We all have our fingers crossed for a return to usual weather pattern.
Ornery winds have also been testing Kevin Vallely and crew as they attempt to be the first to row through the Northwest Passage. They left from the Mackenzie delta a few weeks ago, and have been plagued by northeasterly and easterly winds (headwinds). Normally in this region winds come from the west, but not this year. As a result, their progress has been painfully slow. They’ve even taken to towing their boat like sled dogs in some of the very shallow water they’ve encountered. At this point they’ve covered about 200 km with 2,400 km still to go. Again, fingers crossed for more favourable conditions.
Headwinds also played a major role in the outcome of our Yukon River challenge, a 715 km stretch of the Yukon River Steve Price and I hoped to row in under 49 hours and 32 minutes (the record for the fastest time, which was set by a 6 person voyageur canoe).
We suspected the biggest variable we would face was weather conditions on Lake Laberge, a 48 km stretch of open water notorious for heavy winds. After analyzing weather data from previous years, we learned that the early morning hours statistically have the lightest winds. To optimize our chances of success we left Whitehorse at2:00 AM, so we would arrive at Lake Laberge at 6:00 AM.
Unfortunately, luck was not on our side and we faced the heaviest winds of the day. Winds blew at 20-30 km/hr, funnelling down the long lake and whipping up three foot waves and whitecaps. Steve and I took turns rowing while the other bailed, barely keeping up with the waves coming over the boat. In total, it took us almost eight hours to cover the 48 km instead of the six hours it would have in calm conditions. As soon as we crossed the lake the wind mellowed, and we later learned that for the rest of the day conditions were glassy calm.
The boat handled superbly on the windswept lake and on the turbulent river, which both delighted and relieved me. I had just finished building and designing the Oxford Wherry, and except for a one-hour row in the gentle waters off Comox marina, it was untested. Needless to say, it was a little daunting beginning a two-day non-stop marathon run on a turbulent river in a brand new untried design.
Yet everything worked as I hoped. We laid a Thermarest mattress in the forward section so one person could rest while the other rowed. I was apprehensive about shift changes on the Yukon`s roiling waters – we`d never had a chance to test this in advance – but Steve and I shuffled past one another a total of 24 times without capsizing. This arrangement allowed us to maintain a speed of 8 km/hr on flat water without current indefinitely. On the river, the current pushed us to faster speeds.
We rowed from Whitehorse to Dawson City in 50 hours and 42 minutes – missing our target by one hour and 22 minutes. While we didn’t break the record for the fastest time ever, we did break the record for the fastest unsupported (not picking up any gear or supplies en route) voyage. Although it was an amazing experience, it also felt pretty good stepping ashore after being in a sixteen foot rowboat for more than two days, especially since it was followed by a bacon and egg breakfast.
You may be wondering about the rowing race around Britain. Well, that`s the one quest where headwinds were not worse than average, and two teams did very well. The fastest team, a four-person rowboat ended up breaking the all-time record and taking home the purse of 115,000 British pounds. Well done!