Lee Shore Dangers and How To Escape

Lee Shore Dangers and How To Escape | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Sailing in the Lee is a term which all sailors should know if they don’t already. The act of letting your boat go down wind and crashing into something hard is never fun and all too often completely avoidable. In this article we take a look at the cause and cure for sailing in the lee.

Leeward is a term with which most laymen are unfamiliar. It’s opposite, windward, is much better understood because towards the wind or “windward” makes a lot more sense.  For every yin there is a yang and if the wind is blowing towards one side of anything, it must be blowing away from the other side.

For sailing purposes we talk about wind where it is coming from. For example, a northerly wind is blowing from the north and to the south. Thus, a windward shore is towards the wind and leeward shore is towards the lee or away from the wind.

For the average human these days, we are lucky to understand that there is in fact wind, let alone where it is coming from. In the days of old however, when sailing ships ruled the seas and one’s fortune was dependent upon a favorable wind, having an understanding of windward and leeward was imperative.

Nowadays, the only people who really care about windward or leeward are racing nerds head deep in the US Sailing Rules manual and the occasional maritime lawyer prosecuting a right of way case in admiralty law between two sailors. Most of the time, we don’t really know or care.

Then again, maybe we should.

Leeward has a few applications in sailing and understanding each is kind of important. Two terms in particular, “Sailing in the lee”, and “sailing by the lee”  can  both be quite dangerous. Knowing the difference and recognizing it might just save your bacon.


Table of contents

Sailing in the Lee

Whenever you are sailing by land of any sort, we care passionately where the leeward side of the body of water might be. For starters, if you are sailing and you are on the leeward side of a channel or river or shore, the wind is blowing you towards the land.

By definition in sailing, the wind is always pushing you in one direction or another. Pushing you forward, through lift, but also sideways. The forward motion is good, but the sideways motion is not so good. That sideways motion is not actually sailing, so we call it crabbing.

There is little you can do to stop crabbing, since sailboats are inherently inefficient. They all crab, at least a little bit. The problem with crabbing when you are sailing in the lee, is that you are sliding towards land or a dock or some other hard object  and have limited your escape route. That is never good.

Sailing BY the Lee ( a subject for another article)

Lee is a lot like other terms in sailing, like tacking, point and port, that have multiple meanings using the same word. “Lee” is a term that shows up in a lot of places. Sailing “In the Lee” and sailing “BY the lee” have very different meanings that can have equally disastrous results.

Sailing “BY the Lee” means you are sailing past the point of jibing and the wind is starting to blow on the back side of your sail. Neither one is all that fun, but this article is about sailing IN the lee. Check back for downwind sailing when we will discuss the term “sailing by the lee”.

Different names, same results 

Now that we know the difference between the two, (my editor and I had a similar discussion when discussing this topic), we can get back to why and how you can stay out of the lee when sailing. To be sure, both sailing by the lee and sailing in the lee can make a good day sailing go bad. Both can, will and have caused massive trouble for the inattentive.

I’m no scientist, but in my experience, the symptoms of sailing in the lee can be debilitating. Symptoms may include dry mouth, constipation, diarrhea,  hives, drooling, wet underware, hemoroids, anal leakage, insomina, shortness of breath, and even death.  Please note, studies concerning these side effects vary and are entirely non scientific. But do either yourself and you’ll see it’s no joke.

The penalty for sailing in the lee

The lee in sailing can be dangerous because sailboats can be pushed by wind into the shore and risk grounding. Sailboats will all be pushed downwind eventually if you’re not paying attention.

My first job teaching sailing was at Longshore Sailing School in Westport, CT. As new instructors, we were taught to lead our classes of students out to the far reaches of the Saugatuck River mouth by setting a windward mark and telling our students to sail to it.

It was not that we expected any of our students to be able to  sail up to that mark, at least not on the first day, because new sailors rarely can figure out how to sail towards the wind. However, by setting the course and encouraging our students to sail to it, they would avoid getting sucked downwind and towards the greasy smelly mud flats that resided inshore down wind.

Unfortunately, new instructors, like new students,  rarely can tell where the wind is coming from either and everyone once in a while a young instructor would stick a mark a little too far down wind.

The resulting mess would involve towing a dozen sailboats and two dozen students back upwind or risk  having the entire class wind up knee deep in the foulest blackest mud you ever had waft by your nose. That is the penalty for sailing in the lee and I must admit, I had shoes that never were the same ever again.

The best way to get off the leeward shore

I wish I could say the penalty for sailing in the lee was always a mud bath but that was largely a Long Island Sound problem. 350 years of pollution coupled with a few million years of sedimentation yielded an oily black sludge in most of Connecticut’s harbors and estuaries.

In other places, sailing in the lee can lead to ripping your keel from your hull. Still in other places you can get off scot free by running into a sandbar and doing no damage at all.  It’s all a game of chance, where the wind will deposit you when you venture too far down wind. The big thing is what do you do once your boat is pinned up against the leeward shore and you have to get out?

There’s always sea tow and a giant bill if you want to go that route, but for those who are a little more self reliant, there are strategies you can employ to get your boat back up wind and off the leeward shore and it starts with recognizing your error.

Most times when a boat is pinned up against something, it is because the skipper failed to recognize their position in relation to the larger world. They didn’t see that they were being pushed down towards the leeward shore and they didn’t realize that they were running out of options to get out of there.

One of the best clips I have seen of sailors failing to recognize their folly and getting too close to hard things downwind, was a youtube clip https://youtu.be/-TOoth_7sxg I saw.  Four guys were sailing in a sailboat that was pushed up against an ocean pier in Los Angeles. They missed their chance to tack out and get to open water and their boat is cast into the pier by crashing waves while all hands are launched from the deck into the water. It's pretty scary stuff and there is no coming back from that.

They would have done better to start their motor before they reached that point of no return but I can’t really see if they even had a motor on that boat in the video. In that situation they really should have seen their trouble about 20 boat lengths before they got to their point of no return. Not recognizing the danger was their biggest mistake and so that will be my first suggestion in getting out of the lee, is to recognize what is going to happen before it happens.

Once you're committed, there isn’t much to do but ride it out til it stops. And in the video, you see how these guys got their wet underwear.

The Long Haul Upwind

When you have banged into whatever hard object it is that has stopped your downwind slide, (and assuming you and and your boat are still together), you need to turn your attention to getting back upwind.

The wind has a nasty habit of smashing and holding wayward boats up against the thing that stops them. In Hurricane Florence, it was a stand of pine trees that stopped my endeavour 42 from perpetually cartwheeling downwind to California. In the video it is a pier in Los Angeles that stopped our stricken sailors errant voyage. There is always something that stops you, and if your boat is still seaworthy after it stops, let out your sail immediately.

By luffing your sails, you essentially stop the force that is pushing you sideways and diminish the force that is forcing you downwind. It probably won't be pretty, but taking your foot off the gas in a car accident is usually the right thing to do and it is the same thing with a sailboat. Let out your sails and take off the gas.

Next, cast your anchor upwind as far as you can and take a strain on the rhode. Even if it is only a few feet off your bow, it will, with luck, provide  you with a countermeasure to cease your downwind motion. I'm not saying this will be easy, hence why it is always better to not get in this situation, but if you are there casting your anchor upwind as best you can might help you kedge you way far enough off the object so you can pull in your jib and begin climbing you way back upwind.

With your boat at least a few boat lengths upwind from the object and sufficient depth to allow you boat to move freely, turn your boat 90 degrees to the wind and pull in your sails to a beam reach. Don't cleat them off at this point because if you need to blow them again to avoid re-grounding your vessel you will need to luff them again.  

Try to get as much forward motion as you can muster by catching as little wind as you can to allow your boat to sail and try to sail to deeper water to regroup. Granted this is a difficult task and an incredibly hollow solution to what can be an incredibly scary situation. So I say again, if at all possible avoid this situation and don't get caught sailing in the lee. If you do get caught sailing in the lee, then this might be a plan to try if you are not jettisoned 30 feet in the air under a California pier.

Sailing in the Lee is a term I have never used much before. It's not because I never did it, it's just because I never knew the name for it. Now that I am familiar with the term and all too familiar with the action, I hope to avoid it from now on and I hope you do too.

Certainly as a sailing instructor, I have spent more than my share of time prying my boat off a dock, a beach or a jetty when one of my students drifted aimlessly downwind into the lee. That is one of the reasons I have taken to writing about sailing in lieu of getting in a boat with a new sailor and teaching them about sailing. It's much less stressful, doesn’t require sunscreen and never ruins a pair of shoes with primordial marsh ooze. Be safe out there and keep your head in the cloud and not in the boat. Do good, have fun, sail far.

Lee Shore Dangers and How To Escape
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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