Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blowing In The Wind

Like pepper is to salt, the wind is to the ocean, a complementary soulmate, lifelong partner and eternal ying to the other's yang.  Shaped by the coastal mountains and Vancouver Island, the prevailing winds add a particular flavour to the Georgia & Juan de Fuca Straits (now referred to as the Salish Sea) that mariners need to play particular attention to if they want to avoid mishap.  There's only one thing that causes waves in the water and that's wind, and the more wind the bigger the waves.

Map of Strait of Georgia

Winds are described by the direction they are coming from, i.e. a northwesterly wind comes from the northwest and, for the most part in this area, the wind patterns are either northwesterlies or southeasterlies.  But, depending on the high low pressure slopes of the wind being funnelled out of the coastal fjords, there are a number of other common wind patterns that can occur, such as the nasty southwesterly called a Qualicum which builds up from Port Alberni Inlet and comes out naturally enough through Qualicum. Another is the Squamish winds, a term for strong, violent outflow winds that are pushed by cold winter air in a northeasterly direction out of the fjords and inlets, particularly in Howe Sound.

Sailing in Georgia Strait/Salish Sea
If you talk to anyone with a sailboat they will tell you the winds are hardly ever going in the right direction as they are either looking for a southeaster when they are heading up the coast a northwester going from Gibsons to Vancouver Island, or a nice westerly from Nanaimo to Vancouver.  But if you want to participate in the bi-annual VanIsle race around Vancouver Island you have to make do with whatever the early summer dishes up and, if that isn't enough, you can get into the winter Polar Bear racing series when the winds are generally a little stronger.

Beaufort Wind Scale

The Beaufort Scale is the standard measurement for describing wind speed and associated wave height and sea conditions on a scale of 1-12 with 1 being calm, flat conditions and 12 being hurricane force winds greater than 118 km/hour with huge waves in excess of 14 metres. Once you get past 6 on the scale things generally start to get a little scary and/or uncomfortable for folks on a small boat, with most people wondering how much longer it will be before they get to a dock.  Anything stronger is only for the foolhardy or extreme sports enthusiasts.

Kite surfing in English Bay

Kite surfing near Squamish

For extreme wind and water sports nothing beats the crazy kite boarding/surfers of English Bay and Squamish who come out in droves when the wind is howling and the waves are pounding the beach. Dressed in wetsuits and strapped into a harness that allows them to hang on to their kite while standing on a board, they use the wind to jump the waves and zoom around the bay at amazing speed.  Blowing in the wind was never so easy.