Kayakers’ myth about “white caps” and the 25 knots wind speed

In a sense this is very similar to our cold remedies: both are widely-accepted folk beliefs that have never been substantiated by science. Are they true? Who knows. Are they useful? Well… many would answer that it doesn’t hurt to try.

Kayakers don’t carry around anemometers. (they are devices that measure wind speed. You know, the thing that has four half-spheres attached perpendicularly to one axis.) Go figure why. Before we set out into the ocean we rely on weather forecasts on the radio. After we are already paddling then we’ll have to rely on estimates and our folk belief.

The fact version of this belief would go like: don’t paddle if the wind is faster than 25 knots. The more useful version is: don’t paddle if you can see “white caps” on the water. Even the definition of “white caps” is unclear; it’s more or less just, well, white caps, or spots of white on over a water surface. Note that these white caps are distinguished from the white caps created from waves; they are created when wind blows strongly enough over a water surface that it lifts up and then drops down water along with it.

But the truth is, as we discovered on our kayaking trip, white caps can often be created by wind as slow as 20 or 15 knots, and the difficulty (and safety) for paddling really depends more on the body of water than the wind. For example, 25 knots wind speed is still fairly easy to paddle against when we were kayaking along the coastline. But crossing a strait is an entirely different story – even 15 knots in a strait can prove to be very dangerous.


She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of this folk belief because every year she would lead the class on kayaking trips, and teach them the basic seafaring knowledge in navigation and safety.


Much like our cold remedies this case reminds us of the importance of folk beliefs in many different areas of our lives. Often it isn’t that science cannot answer the question, but that the scientific answer is not as convenient. Kayaking often requires decisions be made immediately and improvisationally – and under such circumstances folk beliefs provide quick, direct references.