My Thoughts on Round the Rock; Wind, Course

Per Renick’s excellent post, if you are thinking of doing RTR you need to be thinking about the potential of paddling in wind, maybe even paddling in a whole lot of wind for a SUP. – Bruce

Wind Factor – Beaufort Scale

A good way of describing wind speeds is to use the Beaufort Scale which is included for reference at the very end of this document (see image below).


With four RTR’s under our belt now we have the following stats showing my estimates of the Beaufort Scales along all portions of each course:

  • Year 1: Brisk northerly just at the whitecap stage, Beaufort 2-4. Race run Clockwise.
  • Year 2: Breezy southerly, Beaufort 1 to just into 4. Race run Clockwise.
  • Year 3: Very HOT and mostly windless. So hot that some pro’s do a deliberate quick cooling dunk during the race. Beaufort 0-2. Race run Clockwise.
  • Year 4: Brisk southerly just at the whitecap stage, Beaufort 2-4 with possibly a bit of Force 5 on the final 4 miles. Race run Counterclockwise.

Course Direction

So does the direction of wind and the direction of the course matter – after all, a race is a race so what difference should it make? Actually, it makes a great deal of difference and if the race committee cannot be persuaded to run the course in the most favorable direction for the prevailing wind then you need to prepare for what is going to get thrown (or more precisely BLOWN) at you. my credentials for writing this would be, I have been an active longboard, shortboard, and wavesailing windsurfer for over 20 years and raced sailboats competitively at the regional level for 30 years. I have windsurfed the waters around Mercer Island extensively and have a pretty good idea what will happen with different windspeeds and directions. And I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the race committee AGAINST their choice of course direction on years 1 and 4. Those of you who raced those years will doubtless have memories of grunt-fest etched into your brains. Year 1 had many of our best paddlers literally on their knees for during some of the gnarly West Channel paddle. I know I wanted to be on my knees for the “final four” of last years race.
So enough preamble, let’s get to the heart of the subject.

First and Foremost: The wind is almost always stronger and the chop bigger on the west side of the island. Why – dig out your course map and look at the topography, better yet pull up Google Earth which is a great resource for this. What you will see is that the open water gaps on the W side are simply much larger compared to the east side which (if you will pardon me for a brief anatomical lapse) resemble the constrictions of the GI tract and tend to significantly reduce both the strength of the wind as well as limit chop. So how do we play this? You probably thought I would never get to this point.

Course Options

  • North Wind, Counterclockwise
    This is the favored direction (please read this race committee.) We have not yet raced this course. Enjoy the downwind bumps to the S end of MI and enjoy your rest in the shadowed lee. Your toughest paddle is back up to the E Channel bridge but you should be fairly fresh for this. Stay close inshore to avoid the worst of the chop and wind. You will get more and more reprieve as you near the lee of the E Channel Bridge and then have to pick a line to the N end of the island. Inshore is longer than rhumb line but probably less wind and chop. There will be a bit of endplate effect along the N end of the island as the wind has to go up and over the island so at the water level the velocity tends to drop. Be watching for this and head to the area of smoothest water. Round the N end of the island with enough gas and whoohoo, you will get a great DW run to the finish.
  • North Wind, Clockwise
    Is gruntfest a real word? Yes, it must be, think Year 1. The only good thing about this course is that the worst is at the beginning. You will have a hard slog up to the bridge in heavy chop mid channel and it is best to favor the W side of MI as you get closer to the bridge because the 45 degree hook the island takes acts as both a chop and wind shield. Fight through the chaos at the bridge and then as you begin to round to the N end look for smoother water which is the mark of the previously aforementioned endplate effect. DW to the S end of the island with the glides getting better the further S you get and remember that because of the constrictions in the E Channel neither wind nor waves will be as good as on the W Channel. Cut the S end close and you will be very nicely wind shadowed and get a bit of a rest before the last hard push to the finish across potentially heavy chop. A word on how to play this one as it could gain you several places in the standings. As you round the S end of the island pay careful attention to your course made good. What is the fastest way to the finish – paddling in a straight line or paddling an arc (BTW here I mean paddling in a curve, not paddling some new black project raceboard.) Because you are now paddling another 45 degree angle to the wind to get to the finish it will push your board to the S. Take the straightest and shortest line by paddling to the N of the finish and let the wind carry you to the S. This is called ranging and is a very effective technique.
  • South Wind Clockwise:
    This is the favored direction and the way Year 2 was run, a very fun race. Enjoy your DW glides from the start to the shadowed N end of the island and your rest in the N lee of the island. As you head back upwind to the E Channel Bridge, stay inshore against the MI side as much as tactically possible to get reprieve from wind and chop. Prepare for the shock of hitting the big chop the instant you clear the E Channel Bridge, and get ready for a bit of a slog. The further S you go in the E Channel the easier it gets if for no other reason than the fetch gets shorter so the chop is smaller. My experience on a S wind is that it also diminishes as you go further S but it also depends on what is going on with the weather system itself so this is a day to day type thing. If you are good at riding crosswind bumps you will start picking off people the instant you round the S “V” of the island, then you get a better shot of DW glides as you round the final point on the island to cross the W Channel. This is my favorite of our 4 races so far.
  • South Wind Counterclockwise:
    Really race committee, REALLY? Who had lots of fun last year? Whose shoulders are still recovering…….? The prevailing logic for last years direction decision was that the first upwind mile to the S end of the island would shake out the weak paddlers and they would turn back. I gave up arguing the idea that the real shakeout would occur on the final 4 miles back to the finish. It did create a memorable experience. With hopes that this is a never to be repeated event I will still detail my thoughts on what might happen. Going upwind from the start to the S end of the island I only have one word (here used three times:) draft, draft, draft. Legally of course. Save your energy ‘cause you’re going to need it. As you are cutting 45 degrees across the wind to the island this is another good opportunity for ranging, but if you can get in a good draft train it probably trumps the shorter distance. The S end of island has some degree of endplate effect, then weak bumps and weak wind push you down the E Channel. < Editorial note: if you thought you were going to get good DW through this section prepare to be disappointed. The wind and chop are laying in wait for you and are going to smack you right in the face as you round the N end of the island.> From the E Channel Bridge to the N end of the island play the rhumb line and ranging game as there will not really be any bumps and the S wind is fairly obstructed from MI. As you actually round the N end stay very close inshore as the wind increases significantly the further from the island you are and pushes you away to the N thus increasing your distance. Then prepare for a real experience as you pop thru the W Channel Bridge and smack into the first set from almost 4 miles of unobstructed chop. Remember that God only gave you one set of shoulders and if you blow them up here it is hard to finish the race. Last year I lollypopped a bit thru the first half of this section and had enough juice to turn it back on again as the chop and wind diminish along the N end of the Seward point bulge. Play for a tiny bit of relief hard inshore against the park for the last 1.25 miles and stumble ashore. Once across the finish line it might be appropriate to kiss the ground. It will be appropriate to find the Ibuprofen.

In Conclusion

These observations are only valid and matter for modest breeze – maybe 8 to 18 mph true or ranging from Beaufort 3 to maybe just into Beaufort 5. Anything under 8 mph is not really going to be a significant factor from a chop standpoint and I think I would rather have maybe a light breeze than no breeze at all simply from a cooling standpoint. However frontal S winds or modest N winds are not uncommon in September. At some point we are going to have a year when the race is either called or a truly significant number of people can’t finish the course as upwind progress for most people pretty much gets stalled out at a wind strength of around 20mph. Race years 1, 2, and 4 were in very modest conditions from a wind standpoint and definitely never saw a sustained 20mph but were still quite challenging. Running the course in the most favorable direction for the prevailing wind increases the odds for a high number of finishers.
So hopefully this is of some value, especially for folks who might be looking at their first RTR. It is a great race and wonderful to have such a signature event in our own backyard.


Bruce Barry


  1. Profile photo of Ryan Kuja
    wrote on September 4th, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Ryan Kuja

    Bruce- What a post! Remarkably helpful and insightful. I appreciate how your background in sailing informs the lens through which you see wind, waves, conditions in general. As a competitive sailor myself, its very helpful. Thanks very much. This will be my first RTR, need all the tips I can get.

Add a comment

You must be logged in to comment.