Big Lake + Big Wind = Big Seas & Great Day

Sep 24, 2012

As we were standing together on the shore of Lake Superior, one of my students from Sydney (Australia) said "this is not a lake, it's an ocean!"  When I meet paddlers on my travels and explain that I live in Chicago, I hear either "Al Capone, Bang, Bang" or something to the effect of "how do you become a sea kayaker when you live no where near an ocean?!?". The answer is easy - we have really big, I mean "Great", lakes in my corner of the world.   When high winds blow for a sustained duration in the right direction, we get some brutal (fun) conditions to paddle in.  These ocean-like conditions usually take place in the spring or fall when the cold winds blow from the North (and I'm quite happy to have on my Barrier Drysuit), but a rare summer north wind blew down the length of Lake Michigan, giving us warm water and large seas.

[caption id="attachment_7450" align="alignleft" width="300"] Beauty Shot of swells and paddling partner Haris with sun setting. Waves crash against breakwalls and high winds throw spray into the air.[/caption]

The nearshore marine forecast for Chicago was for seas 10-14 feet with winds 30 knots, gusting to 40 knots. With wind speeds that high, there is no point paddling any direction but downwind. Good thing a downwind run is one of my favorite things to do in a sea kayak! Chicago police were closing the public beaches, but we managed to slip past an unaware officer and launch for an 8 mile downwind run.

One of my favorite sayings, is "when on the sea, go with three". There is safety in numbers. While I am usually inclusive any time I head to the lake for a surf session, these conditions dictated that this was a "invitation only paddle".  I sent out a few message and was joined by two fellow coaches at the Geneva Kayak Center - Scott and Haris.

Paddling downwind is the only way to make progress against 40 knot winds, but large following seas and clapotis from the concrete and metal shoreline would make this a challenging paddle. We also knew that there was a shoal ahead which would cause the large swell to become powerful breaking waves. High winds would also complicate any potential rescues should anyone miss a roll.

[caption id="attachment_7454" align="alignright" width="300"] Large swell and wind make paddling downwind a fun and challenging endeavor.[/caption]

Many sea kayakers find paddling in following seas to be quite unnerving. One tip for paddling in these conditions is to increase your boat speed.  If you can get the kayak surfing or at least keep it moving, you're not as likely to get jostled about by confused waves caused by swell reflecting of hard surfaces. It's when your boat stops moving that it gets more twitchy. While surfing is one remedy for an unstable boat, catching large swell in sea kayaks can be a lot of work! Paddling hard, good timing and a steep wave are the ingredients to turn a downwind run into a surfing "extravaganza".  A really good paddler can maintain about a 4 - 5 knot pace on flatwater.  Haris had a GPS with him and his top speed for the day (while surfing a wave) was almost 14 knots! There is pure joy being in a boat moving this fast!

[caption id="attachment_7459" align="alignleft" width="300"] Expecting water to put my paddle into...getting air![/caption]

Sea kayaking Chicago's shoreline is one of the best urban paddles around. Massive skyscrapers and concrete/metal shoreline are juxtaposed by green space, beaches and historic buildings.  As we paddled south, the shoreline did not afford many good landing spots - mostly hard breakwall and a few pocket beaches with surf landings.  The breakwall created another challenge for us - clapotis. Clapotis is caused by the swell reflecting off cliffs or breakwalls and colliding with incoming swell. When the two waves collide, they send up plumes of spray. One moment you're paddling along, and the next there is nothing under you but air!

If you haven't tried sea kayaking in big water it's a blast! On this day, both skyscrapers and companions disappeared as the boat glides into the trough and then re-appeared as you moved skyward towards the crest. The rising and falling sensation continued as we flew down the coast until the shoals came into view. From a mile away, we could see a line of breaking waves extend from the shoreline out to sea. The relatively deep water we had been paddling in (which kept waves as "green" - not breaking) gave way to a sandbar that stretched out into the lake. We had two choices 1) pick the line of least resistance and attempt to weave through the breaking waves or 2) try to paddle out and around the shoal.  With gusts to 40 knots, the likelihood of paddling sideways to the wind (to attempt to get around the shoal) and not being pushed into the shoal was low. We chose to try to weave our way through the shoal.

[caption id="attachment_7462" align="alignright" width="300"] Attempting to punch through a 10 foot wave in the shoals.[/caption]

I compare "picking a line" through breaking surf similar to reading whitewater. On this day, we were attempting to pick our line through waves a half kilometer away and these were only the waves on the north side of the shoal. Once we entered the shoal, remaining upright would require solid paddling and instinctual reactions. This is where we had to rely on a "roll" as the only legitimate method of rescue.  Attempting any assisted rescues, no matter how skilled the paddlers, would have only put both the rescuer and swimmer in danger. A scramble re-entry or re-enter and roll would have been extremely challenging to pull off. Rolling was Plan A, B & C.  The paddler in the yellow boat (Scott) got to test that theory with an extremely long (upside down) sidesurf before rolling up a couple hundred meters away.

Only a couple miles remained after paddling through the shoal. We landed at dusk, packed up the boats and gear and headed for some grub and a pint. No "fish tales" needed on this day when estimating wave heights -  it was just "big" out there.

I love a good downwind paddle. However, paddling in these conditions is an endeavor that should not be taken lightly. Every time we head on the water we should properly assess both the risks and our skill level. It was a pleasure to be joined on the water by Scott and Haris  - both top notch paddlers.  Here's a few picts to wrap up this post:

[caption id="attachment_7465" align="alignleft" width="300"] The shoreline of Chicago is a mix of concrete, rock, steel and beautiful pocket beaches.[/caption]









[caption id="attachment_7469" align="alignnone" width="300"] View from my Tiderace Xtra sea kayak[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7467" align="alignleft" width="300"] Looking up at paddlers on the crest (note the skyscrapers in the background)[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_7466" align="alignnone" width="300"] Helmets are the only sign of paddlers down in the trough...[/caption]

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