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Current Affairs

Each year brings countless reports of sailors, canoeists, fishermen or divers swept off
course by unseen coastal or ocean currents: often with tragic consequences. Even
barefoot navigators making ocean voyages in primitive craft and relying on traditional
navigation techniques will occasionally lament their ignorance of a current which has
swept them silently from their intended course. Although ocean currents are fairly
constant and are usually printed on charts, there are many unpredictable variations,
particularly where they are driven by temporary winds. Today, any uncertainty is soon
removed by switching on the GPS and letting the satellites track the changing rate and
direction of your position. In earlier times, however, sailors had to rely on regular fixes
by celestial navigation or use their powers of observation and some ingenuity to tackle
this problem. Many of these skills are no longer practised or have been forgotten, but
here are a few which you may like to investigate should the fat controllers switch off
their satellites.

Common signs
Around the coast, in a river or an estuary, the signs of a current are usually self evident.
For example, a wake of bubbles will stream from buoys or other moored objects in the
direction of the current and, unless the wind is very strong, anchored yachts will point
up to it.

Occasionally, the current drags a line of debris along its edge and, in clear shallow
waters, marine plants will be deflected along its course. There may also be changes in
the colour of the water caused by the disturbance of mud, silt, sand or gravel from the
sea bed. On a rising tide, sea birds hovering and diving for fish, or an increase in the sea
breeze, may provide further evidence of surface movement. Becalmed and adrift on the
current, a high sided craft is slowed by air resistance, whereas floating debris has little
or no windage and a gradual separation of the two usually indicates the set (direction) of
the current.

The Two Seconds Log

As a rough guide to the drift (speed) of the current, an item drifting past an anchored
object at one knot will cover about one metre in 2 seconds. So, two metres in two
seconds would represent two knots and so on.

Wind and waves

On a windy day in an estuary or a river, when the tide is ebbing or flowing, the current
will be seen working with or against the wind through the behaviour of the waves. If the
wind is against the current, the wave faces become short and steep and the sea is
choppy. When the wind is with the current, the waves are much smoother and longer.

In light winds and a calm sea, a related effect may be observed. With the wind and
current working together, long smooth patches on the surface will often indicate where
the current is flowing faster and offering less resistance to the wind. In the photo below,
the yacht Osmosis is approaching a creek on the tide with a following wind. Not only
does the smooth area show where the current is stronger but that it follows a winding
channel where the water is probably deeper.
Osmosis entering a creek from the sea with the wind and tide

When the tide changes direction and opposes the wind, the faster moving current will
offer more resistance to the wind and the effect will be reversed: a rougher surface with
sharper crests will replace the smooth one.

At sea
But the real challenge in detecting the current lies out at sea where there are no
reference points such as moored objects, structures or headlands. Making way through
the water, you may only become aware of a current when entering a patch of rough and
confused water caused by its collision with another. Or, when close-hauled, you may
find your boat is pointing closer to, or further from, the wind than you would normally
anticipate, and suspect that a current is affecting the apparent wind.

At sea, however, many of the surface signs which work so well in an estuary or river are
still there, and the ancient navigators who voyaged across the Pacific in sailing canoes
made good use of them along with other indicators. They knew, for example, that when
they entered a strong current there was often a change in the colour of the sea, or in its
temperature and that of the surrounding air. When the wind increased, they studied the
whitecaps on the wave crests. If the caps tumbled over gently and seethed into a long
streak, the current was running with the wind. If the caps peaked abruptly, fell and were
drawn back to windward, the current was flowing against the wind.
Joshua Slocum often relied on this during his pioneering circumnavigation of the world
aboard the Spray. Another approach is to compare the whitecaps visible downwind with
those visible upwind. When the sea is viewed downwind, an opposing current can
appear to produce as many tumbling whitecaps as when the sea is viewed upwind,
whereas with the current and wind working together, the disturbance viewed downwind
diminishes considerably.

Ripple reading
In calmer seas or in a gentle swell with light winds, Polynesian navigators studied the
ripples formed by the wind on the surface of the sea. It is a technique which has often
been reported by their descendants but the descriptions, usually accompanied by piano
playing gestures, were not always fully understood. As a light breeze blows across
smooth water, it stretches the surface into small wavelets with rounded crests and v-
shaped troughs which are more pronounced to windward. These are known as capillary
waves and, resisted by surface tension or the water’s ‘skin’, they soon disappear. If the
wind’s speed increases, larger or gravity waves are formed but capillary waves may still
be observed running ahead of, or passing through, the crests. When carried forward with
the current, these small ripples will scuttle past a becalmed boat and disperse quite
rapidly. With the wind opposing the current, however, they contract and are more
persistent; their paths are easier to follow and their retreat is slower. In the following
photo, the wind is coming from the right and the current is from the left.

Ripples formed by wind against the current

If the wind is blowing across the current, the ripples travel at different angles and
collide with each other.

Ripples in a cross current

The secret of reading ripples lies in how well their shape and persistence can be judged
against a backdrop of other surface disturbances; it is not an easy task.

The use of a pebble is an old trick and one that is still practised occasionally by water
engineers checking the velocity of water flowing in concrete channels and culverts. You
can test it out ashore by casting a pebble into a stream or river. When the water is still,
ripples will spread evenly from the point of emanation. With the water flowing,
however, the ripples will accelerate downstream but their passage upstream will be
impeded depending on the speed of the current. In a powerful current, no ripples will
travel upstream from the point of entry.

Ripples from a pebble cast into a current

The same technique may be used to estimate the set and drift of a strong current in fairly
calm water. With no supply of pebbles or stones to hand, attach a large shackle pin to
the end of a light secured line and cast it upwards so it falls directly into the water.
Keeping an eye on its point of entry, try to assess the direction in which the ripples
escape freely and that in which their momentum is restrained. Whichever method is
used, your observations must be well clear of the boat’s wake or wash.

A ship’s kettle
Today’s oceanographers use acoustic doppler equipment to establish the profiles of
currents at different depths, but two hundred years ago becalmed ships’ captains had a
very lo-tech solution. They would borrow an iron kettle from the galley, attach it to a
long line and lower it from a tender. It sunk into the depths where the current is
generally weaker and the stronger surface current dragged the line from the kettle in its
direction. It was a simple technique but one that violated the first law of the sea: Never
upset the ship’s cook.

Counteracting the current.

If the set and drift of the current can be estimated, here is a simple technique for correcting your
course to counteract its influence. First, calculate the current as a percentage of the boat’s speed.
For example, sailing at 5 knots in a one knot current, the current is 20% of the boat’s speed. Then,
for each 10% allow a course adjustment of 6° in a cross current or 4° if the current is on the bow
or the quarter. In the example above, the adjustment will be 12° in a cross current and 8° in a
bow/quarter current. This formula will work quite well up to a current/speed rate of 70%. Above
that, you may have more things to worry about.


Tony Crowley is a former Merchant Navy navigator who sails on the East Coast. He is author of the
Sailing Quiz Book and The Lo-Tech Navigator (Sheridan House).