first appeared in Canoe & Kayak, May 07
by Justine Curgenven
In 2001 I embarked on my first big kayak adventure—the first sea kayak circumnavigation of Wales. I was determined to prove myself to my paddling mentor, Fiona Whitehead, who had invited me to join her.
We started on the island of Anglesey at the northwest tip of Wales and went clock-wise around the country, weaving through the system of rivers and canals along the English border, then rejoining the sea and making great time. Then we reached the expedition's crux—a 30-mile open cross-ing from Aberdovey to the Llyn Peninsula, a rugged spur of land guarding the last few miles of our journey.
The morning of the big crossing, we woke to a force 4 wind–13 to 18 mph–from the northwest, dead on our nose.
"Let's get on with it," I said. I reckoned that if we just battled into the choppy sea long enough, we'd get there, eventually. Fiona rolled her eyes and showed me the forecast for the next day—still force 4, but this time from the southwest. A sidewind.
The thought terrified me. Our kayaks had a sleek adjustable skeg, or fin, but fine tuning it to account for a sidewind was new to me. I protested, Fiona ignored me, and we had a rest day. The next morning we shoved off into the dreaded sidewind.
Cross wind gains more traction on the stern of a kayak than on its bow, pushing the stern downwind and effectively turning the bow upwind. This supremely annoying trick of physics is called weathercocking.
The skeg counters this by providing more resistance against the wind, thus locking the stern into the water. But here's the trick: If you drop the skeg too far,the stern provides more resistance than the bow and the kayak turns away from the wind. So maintaining your course in a force 4 sidewind can take some fine-tuning. Here's how I do it.
When my boat begins to weathercock, I drop my skeg halfway, then take about a dozen strokes to gauge how the kayak responds. If my bow continues to turn into the wind I'll drop the skeg all the way down; if it's now drifting downwind, I pull it up a bit. These fine adjustments continue until I'm heading straight without any correction strokes.
Use landmarks to ensure that you're holding your desired course. If a fog descends or you're far from any landmarks, use your compass. Check your heading, take a dozen strokes, and then check it again. Having your skeg down affects the boat in other ways. It lowers your speed slightly and reduces the impact of any sweep or rudder strokes, making it harder to turn the boat. Edging your boat makes turning a bit easier, or you can raise your skeg as you turn. You'll likely have to adjust it again anyway to suit your new course.
Beware that how you load your boat affects how it performs in a sidewind. When I was paddling solo in Iceland with a very heavy boat, I found that dropping my skeg all the way down didn't stop the bow from turning into even a slight wind. I'd put all the heavy kit in the front hatch so even with the skeg fully down, the wind was blowing the lighter stern away. I adjusted my load and had no trouble for the rest of the trip. Now I always make my stern slightly heavier than my bow and I find that my kayak tends to stay on course better.
As I set off on that 30-mile crossing to the Llyn Peninsula I was sure that I was in for a mis-erable time. Sure enough my bow turned into the wind straight away. Grumpily, I tentatively dropped my skeg about half way and continued paddling. Suddenly I was tracking a laser-straight course across the sound, without any correcting strokes.
Damn, I thought. Fiona was right.