If you are canoeing on a lake and the wind suddenly starts blowing to the point where there are whitecaps, what is the best direction to head to get off the lake?

Would it be the shortest way back to the shore or would one take the direction of the wind into account?


5 Answers 5


I was always taught that it is best when possible to "three quarter" the waves, whether your intended direction of travel is up or down wind -- either way this avoids most splashing, and the boat will float over surprisingly large waves. It also allows you better control, as the wave is less likely to "catch up" to your forward speed and broach you, as it can in a following sea.

So either:

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If you are trying to go directly up or down wind, you can alternate directions every so often, moving in a zig-zag pattern to get where you are trying to go. (IIRC it is better to turn in a trough than a peak, but don't quote me on that!)

I'll see if I can find a reference; I expect this is from Boy Scouts, but I can attest it works quite well in practice. (especially with practice!) A beneficial side effect is that if the wind is in the same direction of the waves, (as it most often is on a lake) you can balance the tendency of your paddling to turn the boat with that of the wind, resulting in very strong strokes with reduced need for j-stroking.

Boy Scout Handbook, 1911, pg. 178:

When it is necessary to cross the waves in rough water, always try to cross them "quartering," i. e. at an oblique angle, but not at right angles. Crossing big waves at right angles {177} is difficult and apt to strain a canoe, and getting lengthwise between the waves is dangerous. Always have more weight aft than in the bow; but, when there is only one person in the canoe, it may be convenient to place a weight forward as a balance; but it should always be lighter than the weight aft. A skillful canoeman will paddle a light canoe even in a strong wind by kneeling at a point about one third of the length from the stern.

  • Could you perhaps comment on how having or not having a keel can affect how you control your canoe?
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 19:44
  • 1
    Sure @ShemSeger -- are you talking about the small strip along the bottom of the hull, 1-2" deep, or a deep daggerboard style that you strap across the top? Most canoes designed for lake use (especially older ones) will have the former -- the latter is rare and mostly used if you are mounting a sail.
    – jkf
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 17:38
  • The former. I had an old aluminum canoe with a full length keel, and it performed much better in the wind than my clipper tripper which doesn't have a keel. The latter you're referring too is what I know as a "lee board".
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:37
  • Could you elaborate on why exactly 'quartering' is better than directly rowing into/against the waves?
    – fgysin
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 7:15

There are a lot of factors to consider in a situation like this, so there will never be only one best answer but:

In this case you have 3 issues, wind, waves, and distance.


Wind usually causes more problems than waves. Most canoes will tend to turn broadside to the wind if left to their own devices so your paddling will have to correct for this in addition to moving you forward. If the wind is strong enough, the corrections can overwhelm forward progress and you will get pushed downwind. Generally heading straight into the wind requires the least corrections but is the slowest going.


Waves are usually not as big an issue as wind unless you are on some pretty big water but generally your canoe is most stable when going straight into the waves. This may be wet and will certainly be slow going, but if your main concern is stability, head straight into the waves. Waves coming from behind will tend to broach your canoe, which is turn it broadside to the waves. It generally takes a lot of experience to keep a broached canoe upright in waves with any height.


The safest place is generally land (there are exceptions) so if you can get to land that should be the first option to consider. You may have to wait out the conditions or walk back but this is usually the safest option.

  • 1
    All true statements. My answer is probably a little biased because I really enjoy surfing waves.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 17:41

Much depends on wave size. A sudden strong wind will kick up small white caps on a short reach. Not much to worry about. Give the wind 10 km or so of water to run over and it doesn't much wind to kick up large waves.

Canoes generally are loaded stern heavy. If you travel downwind, you can get to the point where waves are breaking around the steersman. The bow weathervanes downwind, and is very difficult to point to a quartering run to shore. If you are going to paddle on windy waters, learn to trim your canoe to make it more controllable in wind.

When going into the wind there is a size of wave where the bow is in the crest, the middle is in the trough, and and the bow can't rise fast enough to keep water from coming in over the bow. This is why you often will quarter (meet the waves at a 30 to 60 degree angle) This is often a useful technique in haystacks on rapids.

Having waves directly on your beam is very unsettling, and requires practice, and a really solid low brace.

The hazard also depends on how heavily loaded you are. Bill Mason in one of his films is out on one of the great lakes playing in the surf. But it's an empty canoe, and he's better than most of us. Anyway, a lightly loaded canoe rises to the waves faster. Day tripping vs weekend trip vs month long expedition will give very different results.

Generally even with a couple weeks stuff, on small lakes, the being able to control your canoe in the wind is a more serious problem than the white caps are.

I used to work with a school that sent voyageur style canoes (21-26 feet long 6-9 people per canoe) all over Canada. These canoes are more heavily laden than tandem canoes are, drawing 6-9 inches of water and having about a foot of freeboard in the middle.

Our group's safety manual specified:

  • With significant whitecaps, travel was to be within 1/2 km from shore. (Option to get to shore quickly if conditions got worse)
  • If the wind was blowing off shore, travel was to be closer to the shore than the whitecaps. (Off shore winds can push you further off shore to where both wind and waves are much larger)
  • In the event of a squall or sudden wind, head to shore, quartering if wave size warranted.
  • An experienced (senior) staff member acts as sweep, watching for trouble, and making sure everyone gets to shore.

We traveled on some serious water: Superior, Reindeer, Wollaston, Athabasca, Great Slave, as well as many lakes that were "only" large enough to not have a visible far shore.

Mountain lakes are even more dangerous, as you can see less sky, and the winds are far less constant. I have been on Lake Abraham (N. Saskatchewan River) and have had winds go from 30 kph headwinds to calm to the same speed as a tailwind in the space of minutes. Going into the wind we were confident. Shore was close, and you could see the waves break. Once it became tail wind, we went to shore and waited it out.



The first time I got caught in open water with whitecaps was when I was 13. We were on a multiday canoe trip and the winds picked up on the last day when we had to cross the lake. Instead of crossing where we had camped, we decided to go downwind until we were directly across from where we wanted to be, then we crossed. The hope was that the winds would recede later in the day, so we stayed closer to shore, making headway while waiting them out.

Riding the white caps downwind was easy, if you got going the right speed you could surf some of the waves as they caught up to you, and you didn't have to worry about water splashing into the canoe.

Paddling across the wind wasn't as much fun, but it's doable if the waves aren't too big, you keep your craft parallel to the waves and rock at the hips when you ride up and over them. You don't want to lean into the wave when it hits the side of your craft, you want to rock your canoe slightly away from it and level out going over the top. If you don't rock your canoe with the waves, then the white caps are more likely to break over the gunwales. If the waves are too big, then you run the risk of a large enough wave capsizing your canoe. In the event of overly large waves, you should ride them down wind as much as you can.

Paddling up into the wind is the fastest way to drench the person in the bow and slowly swamp your canoe. The waves come at you much more rapidly, and as you break each wave it splashes water up and into the canoe. Your paddler in the bow gets jarred in the seat with each wave you break too, and depending on the wave size and how fast you get paddling, you can even bounce them out of their seat sometimes. This is true no matter how slightly you're heading into the wind. Water breaking over the gunwales is the first indicator that you need to steer downwind a bit.

Which way you choose to go depends on how big the lake is, how far you are from shore and how big the waves are. Waves start capping long before they get really big, but the longer they are capping, and the bigger the lake, the bigger the waves are going to get, so it's best to get off sooner than later and wait the winds out. If upwind is the fastest way to shore, and you can afford to take on a litter water, then go into the wind and get of the lake quicker, but downwind is always easier.

Ultimately this is a judgement call that needs to be made considering all the circumstances in the event of white-capping, including the experience of the paddlers. An experienced pair of paddlers can go out in virtually any weather conditions, whereas I've seen novices capsize in perfectly calm and still waters.

  • 3
    An advantage of upwind would be that you'd expect that shore to have the least wind and waves. If you can get there you're in the best spot to keep paddling. (Depending on all sorts of factors like where you're actually trying to go.)
    – Monster
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 6:47
  • @Monster You are correct, so long as you are close to shore, and there is a sufficient length of shoreline. In the Rockies and BC mountains the lakes tend to be long, and the wind always blows along the length of the lake. But you are right, given the option, always choose the lee of the shoreline.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:43
  • 4
    Paddling in a "following sea" is not the easiest way to go and if the waves are big enough to swamp a canoe going into them, they will almost certainly broach a canoe from behind and likely flip it.
    – DQdlM
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 15:59
  • @KennyPeanuts If the waves on a lake get large enough to broach you from behind then you've probably waited too long to get off the water.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 17:28
  • 1
    Traveling downwind is very dangerous. Waves build up FAST on a downwind reach, and you can get into serious trouble. Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 1:18

Seems to me there is a trade-off between ease of paddling and ease of landing. If the nearest land is downwind and you head that way, you may have severe difficulties in landing among the breaking waves on the lee shore, especially if it is rocky. So I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned the use of a drogue, which used to be standard advice for landing small boats in a surf. Ideally a drogue is purpose-made and can be tripped (emptied) by a second line attached to its base, but in an emergency it could be as simple as an empty bag or even a pack dropped over the stern on the end of a line. What it does is to retard the boat relative to the waves, lessening the risk of broaching or of being turned end-over-end, and giving you a slower, softer landing. What a drogue doesn't do is to guarantee your safety - as Sherwood Botsford comments, waves really build up on a windy reach - but it can reduce the risk. I'm afraid I can't advise on what size of drogue is too small or too big for a small canoe, or how long a line to use. I keep meaning to experiment at the beach in summer (also to try different attachment points), but somehow never have!

  • Hi @snusmumriken, welcome to Outdoors.SE! I like your answer, especially the mention of a drogue. I've never heard of such a device before and now I'm off to the Wikipedia rabbit hole to discover what this device is and how I can use it. Cheers! Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 12:20

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