Like Birds on the Breeze
Several years ago I went on a weekend course to learn to sail. There were four teachers: the skipper, the yacht, the wind and the river. I made some good friends and the wind, which until then I’d abhorred, was one of them. ‘Learn to feel it on your face,’ the skipper said and I realised that the wind was really a stranger to me, in part because I struggled to tell west from south and north from east. The wind also presented a very different personality depending on what quarter it emerged from.
If it blew from one direction it blew consistently, right? But no. Focus on it against your face and you’ll see how much it flickers around, how much its strength can vary. A prevailing wind is not a single tone; there are plenty of other notes in there too and there’s no better guide than the windvane (aka masthead fly). When you sail you spend a lot of time looking up because the wind on your face and the wind at the top of the mast might well be behaving differently.
I learned that what the wind is doing above the Tasman Bridge might be different from what’s happening further down the estuary. It messes with the northerlies rampaging down (and vice versa the southerlies heading up). Betsy Island, the South Arm Peninsula and the Eastern Shore contrive to block the south easterly but wind spills in through the valleys. I learned from the geo that landforms can bend and twist the wind, spread it, funnel it (North West Bay is notorious) spin it, like in Sullivans Cove, deflect it, like at Sandy Point, block it as does Pierson’s Point so that suddenly the sails flap and you’re pooling around in a wind shadow.
There are the winds caused by the big weather systems, like the prevailing westerlies that cycle eastwards in these middle latitudes and then there are more local winds like the sea breeze that arrives in the afternoon on those summer days when the island has warmed enough, and it sometimes arrives gently but often it barges in with its muscles flexed. It may stall for a while at the entrance to the Derwent – you watch that dark blue line of indecision, and then the wind rushing across the water towards you, it’s speed and power influenced by the ‘fetch’ as it begins to fill in and in so doing it might ‘knock’ you inconveniently or give you a ‘lift’ to where you are headed. One thing is for sure, on the Derwent the wind takes a different guise diurnally, a different speed depending on where it happens to be (stronger in the wider zones, milder in sheltered bays) and it differs depending on the season. Katabatic winds prevail, blowing in from the NW and the temperature inversion that takes place as wintery cold air sinks to the valley floor gives rise to the Bridgewater Jerry that moves magnificently south down the river, a beautiful white snake of a cloud, its belly down low on the water and awfully cold to be stuck in.
You and your yacht become that pivot point between the wind and the water, their dance made manifest. You learn to read the wind in the water. It might be barely perceptible where you are, about Force 4 on the Beaufort scale for instance, but further away those yachts all heeled over to starboard? The wind is coming your way and it means business. And so you reef because two of the arts of sailing are observational skills and, as my partner on Birngana’s big mainsail used to say ‘Anticipation’.
There are other skills to be learned by the wind out on the Derwent. There’s patience when it deserts you and there’s staying grounded when it thrashes you, so that you’re all heeled over, hanging on and staring directly down into the water, the boom dragging through it, the headsail ripped, the person on the winch knee deep in the river coming over the coaming.
True wind is the wind au naturel. Apparent wind is when the wind made by motion combines with true wind to change its angle and speed. The more you speed up, the more the apparent wind slips ahead of you, streaming through the ‘slot’ between your mainsail and your headsail and powers you along. In effect, it’s your yacht’s most local wind.
When you’re close hauled and the wind is strong, the sails in tight, it’s a bouncy ride, sometimes tense, maybe exhilarating and then when you come about and the wind slips behind you, you can spread your sails out wide, kick back and relax, and the breeze that seemed to have it in for you when you were up against it, becomes a friendly zephyr following behind you. Yet it’s the same breeze and the way you experience it depends on the way you approach it – much like life.
By the same token, it’s easy to let your defences down and wonder why others have their life jackets on when you’re reaching for your bikini because its glassy out there and your boat is going nowhere. But it could be into a vacuum like this that the south westerly roars, attempting to break its own speed record, taking you and the Met Bureau unawares.
The wind lifts sand from dunes and spreads it along beaches. It might take from one beach and deposit elsewhere. It may work with a high tide to push waves harder and higher up dunes and cliffs, or it may lose its territorial battle and be shoved aside by an opposing, more powerful wind from another quarter.
The interplay is dynamic and affects you whether you’re walking, kayaking, cycling or sailing and the Derwent is a brilliant playground to learn all about it’s subtle idiosyncrasies and its full and merciless fury. While conscious of the wind that fills the sail there are other breezes far higher in the atmosphere that pass overhead unregistered. Aeolian drift in the highest reaches carries tiny beings – small spiders, for instance – as well as seeds over vast intercontinental and oceanic distances, making a mockery of quarantine services. And out on the ocean birds, like sailors, yearn for a favourable wind to support their trip or exhausted from flying head on into stormy conditions, might hitch a ride on a yacht, trying to regain the strength to carry on.
On the river in the bleakest of weathers, the world becomes magical, the rain in one’s face exhilarating, the shoreline intoxicating as powered by that beach making and breaking wind we make our way.