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Pity the sailor who can't find a breeze on a planet with so many winds

2016 March 1

A mental disease called prairie madness afflicted settlers living on the American Great Plains. It was caused by the wind. The incessant wind blowing over the endless expanse of flat land literally drove people nuts.

I believe I was once on the brink of going crazy because of the wind. That was during the worst sailboat race I ever experienced. Unlike prairie madness, my nascent mental disorder was caused by wind that never blew. 

For days, the air barely breathed. We drifted, waiting for pathetic zephyrs that would yield a few miles on a four-hour watch before dying, then drifted some more. Like starving shipwrecked sailors fantasizing about lavish meals they had once enjoyed, we who were trapped on glassy water surrounded by floating bugs that seldom moved talked longingly of the fresh nor’easters, squalls, gales and storms we had experienced in other races. 

Convincing evidence that I was close to going over the edge is the fact that we finished the race. A wholly sane skipper would have dropped out after the first two days and treated his crew to the refreshing apparent wind created by moving under diesel power.

Sailors who had the misfortune to suffer through that race were victims of unusually bad luck, for an absence of wind is rare in most places in the world. Thanks to the dynamic of high and low atmospheric pressure and warm and cold air masses on a whirling orb, this is a windy planet.

That’s why sailing has endured long after it was needed for transportation. The wind is there for us, an inexhaustible form of pure energy enabling sailors to move about on the nearly three-fourths of the earth that is covered with water to experience the majesty of nature without disturbing it in any way.

The wind is there, all right, but figuring out exactly where is a conundrum. Success in long distance racing, or any kind of passagemaking under sail for that matter, depends on solving it. And so we consult routing software, weather apps and experts. Oh, do we consult experts. We pay them to tell us where the wind will be at a certain place on our race or voyage at a certain time and from what direction and at what velocity. It’s an audacious conceit to think they can actually do that, but sometimes they get close enough to at least point us in the right direction.

On the Great Lakes, where I do much of my sailing, solving the conundrum involves predicting sea breezes, the winds that result when warm air rises on the sun-heated shore and cold air over the water rushes in to fill the void. We fuss over when the sea breeze will start and when it will end and how far out on the lake it will extend.  

On Great Lakes water, sea breezes are sturdy enough to blow at more than 12 knots and be present 15 miles offshore. But on land close to the water, they are an even more influential force of nature, with the power to create distinct microclimates. They are the reason SAILING’s home port has only three seasons. Thanks to sea breezes born over water temperatures in the 40s, there is no spring. Winter evolves at a glacial pace into summer.

They call it “lake effect” around here, and it is so taken for granted that when one of us denizens of the lakeshore walks into the YMCA located three miles inland, where the temperature could be 80 on a day in May, wearing layers of fleece, the folks there don’t think we’re eccentric. They just say, “You must be from Port Washington.”

Wind caused by temperature variations along most of America’s coasts can be vigorous helpers to sailors, but compared to what may be the world’s most powerful regularly occurring sea breeze, the Fremantle Doctor, they are gentle, almost effeminate. 

The muscular doctor owes its name to its ability to cure, with its boisterous midday arrival, the malaise induced by Western Australia’s scorching heat. It earned fame beyond Australia by curing the America’s Cup.

Before Fremantle in 1987, the Cup, held in American East Coast waters, was a stodgy affair featuring the snooze-inducing combination of light air and heavy boats. 

The Fremantle Doctor administered a transfusion of healthy wind, waves and drama to the Cup. Suddenly the 12-Meter lead mines were thrilling boats to watch, submarining through vertical seas and throwing geysers of spray, forcing their drenched, salt-encrusted crews to show their mettle as heavy-weather sailors.

In my days in Fremantle, the start of the sea breeze never failed to spark a charge of excitement. It didn’t sneak in on cat’s paws but, as though a door had opened, announced it was there with a rush of fresh air that quickly grew to well over 20 knots and turned the coastal waters of the Indian Ocean into a roiling sea of indigo waves capped in brilliant white.

Fremantle Doctor is one of the more memorable of the 75-plus names given specific winds worldwide, some famous, some obscure. Ranking high among the latter is the mistral, the fierce, days-long blaster in the French Mediterranean. I’ve sailed in a mistral, and was thankful to be doing it on 360-foot square rigger. Even that vessel struggled a bit dealing with this beast of a wind.

I once diverted a cruise in Greek waters away from the Cyclades on the strong advice of locals who warned that a meltemi, the Aegean Sea’s often nasty answer to the mistral, was brewing there.


Mistrals and meltemis are formidable, but of all the named winds the one that may be the most unpleasant is the khamsin that blows harshly across the sandy reaches of Egypt. Derived from the Arabic word for fifty, the name reflects the wind’s reputation for blowing for 50 days. 

That sounds like an excess of wind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it causes desert madness. Which may or may not be worse than the madness that afflicts sailors when there is no wind at all.