Wind, Waves – Kayaking; And the Water Was Blown Flat

Gail Ferris –


It is a good idea to find out what the paddling conditions and situations are before you arrive with your kayak in an area that you have never paddled before, especially what the wind is like and how the ice behaves. 

I find that as an experienced kayak paddler that I shall never become so completely experienced that I can just go paddle anywhere with complete confidence that nothing threatening will happen.

A few days after a storm in 2003 off Upernavik Greenland waves from a residual wind made the water look like this from my kayak bow.  I took advantage of the wind behind me to run for twenty miles on the backsides of the swells and waves down wind.  I felt as though I was just having an effortless paddle with little to worry about because I could relate to the strength of the winds by what I could see of the waves




Below is a photo of crisscrossing waves which I happened to notice while looking out at the water.




I have encountered situations where there were no waves but instead the water was absolutely smooth and did not indicate any wind.

In my account of paddling in Pond Inlet on Baffin Island in 1989 I wrote:

On day nine heading in a roundabout way home to Pond Inlet, once again there was a grey sky with mixed clouds to the west showing some more lenticular clouds indicating strong wind which was coming from the south.  We set off first heading north along the west side to round Cape Knud Jorgensen. 

We made the tip of Cape Knud Jorgensen without much effort because we had the wind behind us.  Since the wind was coming from the south I knew after we rounded the cape heading now south that we had the makings of a difficult day. 

My paddling companions blithely set off from the tip of the cape that they had just made with ease.  Now we were all were heading south directly into the wind on the east side of Cape Knud Jorgensen.

Sure enough from the south was coming a very powerful katabatic wind.  The wind was not blowing horizontally but in this topographic situation, the wind was blowing top down so that it blew the water flat.  From my kayak I could see absolutely no waves at all.  I was shocked to think that there could be such a thing as wind blowing is such a way as to blow the water absolutely flat.  

Usually from my kayak I expected that I could see the wind as indicated by waves.  However as I found out this is not always the case.  Indeed the worst wind can be a downdraft where the water is blown flat.

As we worked our way down the coast, hugging the cock cliffs to avoid as much as possible the inevitable exposure to this fierce wind, there was no doubt in my mind that this endeavor was not only futile, but courted disaster. 

Not only was making the nearest known landing place which was five miles away impossible but trying to turn kayaks 180 degrees to return to the tip of the cape in this wind could easily result in a capsize of a kayak. 

Kayaks are very stable going into a wind, but when run with the wind they do not have the same stability. 

Paddling became very strenuous and this extreme amount of exertion could give a person a heart attack.  I could barely move my boat.  It was everyman for himself, a dead heat battle.

I knew that the only suitably sized landing point in a geologically stable area was south five miles away. 

However on our previous passage running up the east side of this cape I had noted that there was a tiny but useable in an emergency landing area beneath very unstable traprock cliffs at a waterfall midway. Anything in an emergency would be better than nothing, I thought.

Later upon consulting with a meteorologist at Pond Inlet, Hermann Steltner, he said that katabatic wind actually not only blows the water flat but actually depresses the water in this particular area.  Now I knew I was not imagining things.

The picture below is of the general area in Pond Inlet showing some of the igneous geology.




I was told that the Penny Ice Cap south of the town, Pond Inlet can generate severe katabatic winds which will blow kayaks away from shore and can tip them over.  This area looks very innocent in the picture below but on a warm summer afternoon without any warning this type of wind can develop.  The safest solution in this area is to paddle close to shore in the lee out of the wind shadow.

The Penny Ice Cap is on the right to the center of the horizon and Mount Herodier is the pyramid shaped mountain on the left.

This area is impossible to forecast trends only hourly readings on a barometer, instead Hermann Steltner, meteorologist in Pond Inlet told me that a barometer has to be read every few minutes over a half an hour to deduce a trend.  Extremely low numbers can be generated by just the atmospheric pressure from an ice cap such as the Greenland or the Penny ice cap.




I paddled my kayak in Arctic Bay on Baffin Island in 1994 but before I went I spoke with Glen Williams in Arctic Bay who has extensive firsthand experienced with conditions in Arctic Bay.  He told me that Arctic Bay in its early days used to have round houses because of the intense wind. 

To be doubly sure of what I would come across as a kayak paddler, when I arrived at Arctic Bay we sat down and start discuss what kayak paddling conditions I might expect to encounter now that I was there.

Big question on my mind was what would the ice do?   As I looked out the window while flying in from what I saw from the air there was ice everywhere.  This happened to be a year for heavy annual ice.

He said that annual ice is unpredictable.  It will drift into a bay on the tide and sometime later will drift back out again.  When this happens boaters become trapped where ever they might be and it is called “drying out”.  Only someone like Glenn with his ultra light aircraft has any mobility to escape this type of entrapment.

 I had no experience with annual ice.  Below is a picture of annual ice that had drifted in behind me as I paddled down Adams Sound – I got to dry out a couple days.




Below is a photo of that annual ice which stacked itself on the shore 50 feet away from my tent.  The ice stacked itself soundlessly over night.  The next morning I was shocked to see this stack and was very glad that I did not happen to put my tent in that spot.  It was just a tiny spot with an eddy that brought the ice up on shore.




Glen Williams described to me an intense windstorm of 70 knots that occurred just a week earlier on an innocent looking, blue-sky afternoon. The storm did a lot of damage all over town by picking up and smashing all sorts of objects like lumber and including his ultra light aircraft.

Winds of this intensity had come completely unexpectedly so things even though they were tied down hadn’t been tied down well enough to withstand this wind of 70 knots.

He advised me that these windstorms could not be predicted and at the airport in Nanisivik that particular windstorm was only blowing at 30 to 40 knots, but down in Arctic Bay it blew 70 knots.  I could easily see that the straight off the water, dropping in elevation, funnel shaped topography this area seemed to accelerate the speed of the wind to double the speed of the wind elsewhere.




I had been told that if Adams Sound looked dark and threatening when viewed from Arctic Bay to avoid going down into Adams Sound until conditions looked better.

When paddling a kayak it is hard to judge the size of waves when they are being blown away from you.  I discovered this as I was leaving Arctic Bay heading south to the point.  Starting out at the head of the bay, Arctic Bay, the wind was blowing a non threatening speed of 10 to 12 knots.

As I made my way down out of the bay just within less than a mile from town the speed of the wind dramatically began escalating every each few feet. 

It was one of those situations where I told myself, “you better be in control of your kayak and ready to dive into shore once you see a place where you can land when you get out to the point”.

I had already camped there so I knew where to pull in that was easy to bring my kayak up above the tide line on the shore.

By the time I blew madly along to the point near Society Cliffs just two miles away I was experiencing waterskiing conditions only nobody was towing my kayak and to stay upright I had to lean over toward the wind. 

I used a most extreme low brace such that I leaned over the side onto my elbow which was on my paddle blade.  I could automatically feel my need to counterbalance the thrust of the wind by reducing my body surface area presented to the wind and out boarding my center of gravity to the point where I was countering the roll over effect on my kayak from the wind, in other words I leaned out and down until I could feel my kayak was in neutral buoyancy to the wind to keep my kayak upright.

Another situation I came out from a point and started to paddle through a tiny opening into a little harbor flanked by shallow shores near Arctic Bay between Holy Cross Point and Johnson Harbor. 

Just as I without the least suspicion edged my kayak into the opening near Johnson Harbor I cut across the wind sheer line to flat looking water.  Instantly I was blasted by the wind.  Yes the water was flat.  It was being blown flat by the wind indicating nothing. 

I felt as though I had just gotten myself behind a jet on take off. 

Instantly I was in an impossible situation where I could not paddle against this wind and worse yet I had to really not be afraid to hunker down over my deck to lower my center of gravity. 

Immediately without any thought of indecision I applied the full strength of my rudder to get out of the wind and used my body as a sail while I was heading down wind. 

I was glad that I just happened to have been paddling with the full surface area of the “barn door rudder” in the water at this time because often in low wind conditions I would use the most minimal surface area of the rudder to control the bow.

Who would have thought!  It all looked so innocent.  The sky was blue with no clouds the sun was out nice and bright there was no scud hurrying by overhead.

Below is a photo, taken from the town, Arctic Bay, looks south to Holy Cross Point, two miles away.  This photo is showing the back side of very strong wind blowing that is blowing from behind me over the water.  There is not a cloud that would indicate any wind would be blowing.  I was glad that I was standing on land rather than being in my kayak at this moment.

The area I camped at after having been blown out of the bay was on the point to the right of this picture only two miles downwind.



In Upernavik Greenland as I was paddling my kayak as close as possible to the base of the mountain Sanderson’s Hope I have had the experience katabatic winds.  These down drafts were coming off the top of Sanderson’s Hope on a hot summer day.  All the while as I was struggling to maintain myself I looked up to see gulls flying next to the rocks completely unaffected. 

Even though I was as close to the cliffs as possible hoping to be out of the downdraft my strategy did not work.  In such a threatening situation the worst thing to happen is for me to loose my paddle, so I tied my paddle off to my deck line, just in case. 

This mountain, Sanderson’s Hope rises straight out of the water to an altitude above 3,450 feet.  It is the only mountain in the world that is like this.

Below is a photo to illustrate wind patterns on the water.  Where the water is flat there is no wind and Greenland paddlers such as Matias Løvstrøm stick to the flat areas to avoid the extra work of having to paddle against the wind.

This picture below illustrates wind shadow on the water.  The picture happens to be taken in the Upernavik area showing Sanderson’s hope the tallest pyramid shaped mountain on the left horizon.  I was approaching Sortehulle at a very oblique angle from its south side I was east of it in my kayak. 

I had just emerged from Torssukatak passage, famous for its waterfalls that come out of the sky, and was between Nutarmiut and Umanaq Islands.  There was not any place to land in that area either.



Sortehulle / Akornat is a straight up and down cliff area on both sides where many sea birds nest.  You can see the extensive white area on the rocks which is the bird droppings accumulation.

This picture below is a more typical view of Sortehulle, which I took from my kayak with a broadside wind of 10 to 12 knots.  As a kayak paddler I am not comfortable paddling through this passage because there are too many miles to go with no place to land, just straight up and down cliffs.




Just to confirm my observation while I was in Upernavik I talked with a motor boater who said Sanderson’s Hope and Torssut Passage are dangerous places where a motorboat can be flipped over by down drafting katabatic winds.  Katabatic winds are especially apt to occur on a cheery summer day without a cloud in the sky.

Below is a photo of the opening to Torssut that shows the sheer basalt cliffs dropping 3000 feet into the water.




As far as barometric pressure change is concerned I learned from experience to watch the clouds.  I have seen clouds come in and turn into a storm while the barometric pressure showed no change for an hour.  Below are three photos that show exactly my several experiences in Torssut passage when a wind storm came. 

This experience arrival of a windstorm while I was on the water my first time happened with such sudden intensity.  I was paying attention to the readings on my barometric watch which were unchanged.  I did not notice that clouds were rushing toward me down the valley between Umiasuqssuk/Umiaq Mountain and Qaersorssuaq Island.  In an instant I was hit by a blast that nearly ripped the paddle out of my hands.  The oily calm, dead flat water was torn up by 25 knot blasts of wind.

I wasted no time deciding what to do.  Using my best emergency tactic I tied my paddle off to my deck line to my kayak so that should the worst imaginable happen I would not lose my  most important tools, my kayak and my paddle.

I accessed the situation and headed for the nearest shore where landing was possible.  I dot out dragged my boat floating it on the incoming waves up onto dry land, tied it off with extra lines to the rocks.  I found a fairly level spot and set up camp.

Later I was unable to stand up in the wind as I attempted to get some water and rooster tails shot up from the waves that crashed into the rocks where my kayak was tied on dry land.

Even though I had been monitoring my barometric watch no change showed until an hour after the storm hit.  The storm had arrived unabated from the open water of Baffin Bay.

Below is a photograph of this area just as a storm is beginning.  Note the dense clouds to the right side of the photo.  The clouds and wind are just starting to tumble down to the water.

I was not in my kayak when I took these pictures but I knew from previous experience that this was indeed another one of those storms I had already experienced in this area when I was paddling here. 


11 Start up 40 kts Torssut


12 40 kts blowing through Torssut


14 Upv 40 knots coming at me

I have learned the value of knowing topographic effects on storms not just simple topography such as a mountain a passage or a sound but the effect the ice cap in an area can have on winds.  Below are some pictures illustrating topographic temperature – air density of cold air effect on a warm air storm coming across Baffin Bay into the passage near Kullorsuaq at Holm Island.

I have experienced cold air pushing me down inside Laksefjord / Eqalugarssuit that was displacing the less dense warm air.  Below in the photograph warm air from the west is being held back at water level by cold dense air from the Greenland Icecap to the east or left side of the picture.  This was a temporary situation that was over come by the power of the storm coming in from the right side or west.  In the picture I am looking south from the village of Kullorsuaq at Holm and Sardlia islands about four miles away.  Holm Island is an east west ridged 800 meter island about twenty miles long east to west.  It forms a barrier to the south from Kullorsuaq.

I was not in my kayak when I took this picture and notice all the icebergs to the left.  These icebergs were blown in by the wind from the north from a storm  a day or two earlier.  Living in Kullorsuaq we were constantly having to think about icebergs being blown into the bay clogging shipping access to the town wharf.



14  Kullorsuaq storm coming between

As a paddler I pay special attention to not only what the clouds are doing on the water but I take into consideration the effect topography and air pressure systems can have on paddling conditions.

Gail Ferris 02/06/09