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Ships + Kayak + Canal = Trouble

Did you know that ships passing through the canal displace a large amount of water? And that, as gravity demands, this water must be replaced? I learned this today during a harrowing experience while kayaking in and around the canal.

I was planning to meet a fellow kayaker on the water by Bayfront Park to take in some free reggae. It was very windy from the west, straight down the canal towards the lake – gusting to 40+ MPH. I’m a solid paddler and fairly strong, so I was confident I could handle the waves, current and wind. I put in on the Park Point-side and played around at the end of the piers for awhile, riding waves and currents, crossing the canal a couple of times, and hanging out in the small calm spots right against the wall at the end of the piers.

I decided to make an attempt to get into the harbor, and made it halfway before my arms gave out and the wind won. The trip back to the end of the piers was very fast and fun. I hung around a little longer and decided make another attempt, but I had to wait for a big ship to come through. So I waited against the wall at the end of the east pier for the expected surge and wake from the ship. All was well.

Suddenly, as the ship was halfway through the canal, water started to run “downhill” from the Park Point side, around the end of the east pier, into the canal toward the harbor – basically upstream and against a 40MPH wind - as if the floor of the canal had suddenly dropped a hundred feet. My calm spot against the wall had become a fast-flowing river into (rather than out of) the canal and straight toward the ship - I was heading upstream and against the wind into the hull of the ship. I back-paddled with everything I had but was still getting sucked in, and most of the ship had yet to pass by me. Turning around and using a stronger forward stroke was not an option. It’s amazing how the mind comes awake in moments of danger – I instantaneously calculated my forward progress against the speed of the ship and I concluded that I was fucked. I visualized myself sucked under the hull and tomorrow’s DNT headline: “Duluth man drowns in shipping canal”. I actually started to pray to my particular helpers - a sure sign of perceived grave danger. I'm a sporto-adventure freak, and generally don't get too afraid of "situations", but I was really scared.

Meanwhile, throngs of tourists on the pier, ship crew members, and (most likely) the guys in the bridge shack were watching the spectacle. I was in near-panic mode, 75 or less feet from the ship, still getting sucked in, with a quarter of the ship still to pass. And suddenly a current pushed me away from the ship and around the end of the pier. I high-tailed back to the beach, sat on the sand, and took a breath.

Lessons learned: Ships displace water. Displaced water must be replaced. Ships are bigger than kayaks. When in a kayak, stay far away from ships.


You see something similar, but much more brief, by biking when a semi trailer comes racing by you. The truck and trailer displace air instead of water, of course. You feel like you are getting pulled underneath before the guy gets all the way past you (no pulling backwards though). I haven't heard of anyone dying from it.

Surely, your situation had to do with the fact you were near/in the canal. I don't think the vacuum would be as serious on the open sea, or even the bay. But, I don't kayak, so, who knows.

Yeah. I experienced the same thing motorbiking on a long trip thru the west. While passing semi-trucks, I always felt a pull to beneath the trailer. Scary, too.

Good advice, too, for other small boats.

Not so little ships can get sucked along with this water displacement. I was on deck watch in Tacoma on a ship about 200 ft long when a much larger ship came though the confined canal/docking area. Our ship started to take off down the canal even though we were moored. The mooring lines stopped the ship once all the slack was used up but not before it scared the shit out of me and one deck hand. He started to try and tighten some lines but it was over as quickly as it started. One of those little moments in life.

transiting the straits of Malacca aboard a 96,000 (displacement) ton aircraft carrier isn't a cakewalk...you've got a very narrow channel of navigable water til it becomes too shallow. toss in a few hundred OTHER huge cargo and ro-ro ships doing the same thing AND a few thousand little tiny itty bitty boats.

most of em know better than to get too close but once in a while there'd be an idiot or two try to cruise in past the SH60 picket to get a closer look. sometimes they'd veer out before they dumped...sometimes they didn't.

I'm having fun editing your proposed headline. Instead of “Duluth man drowns in shipping canal,” I think I'd settle on "Kayaker killed in laker's wake."

Killer Laker K.O.'s Kayaker.

I don't know, though. Some people make it sound like the ship creates a wedge in the water that you can fall into. I think it might be more wake effect, until you get behind it. A large ship requires large power to push it along, and it will carry water alongside it even though they build the hull smooth, agreeably with turbulence, especially in enclosed spaces.

In other words, I don't think it's downhill into the displacement, but rather trapped in residual current from the ship's movement, which may or may not be aggravated by the canal.

Displacement of a vessel doesn't sink the water around it, but movement of the boat will leave a whirling fluid dynamic cavity. Gravity doesn't have much to do with it at all.

Unless I misunderstood your point.

On a side note. The wake effect and residual water would push us 20 feet further horizontally when jumping off WI point after a ship came by (I know, completely insane, the waves alone would bash us against the sharp ledge hidden just underneath the waterline; jackknife divers beware).

"Another Boater Food for Lampreys"

I see your point, huitz. But I do believe ships are displacing a large amount of water - the hull of the ship moving through "space/water" replaces the "space" where the water was, and this displaced water is going to have to be replaced somehow. I'm sure there was a current effect, too. All I know is that when the ship was less than halfway through the canal, the water started running into the canal from around the side of the pier, whereas a moment earlier all water (from beach-side and thru the canal) was briskly moving out into the lake...

It seems we are arguing a little bit over semantics, just by the fact we agree what happened, and how. I can see how there would be water rushing in and around the ship. I just don't call it "displacement", is all, because you wouldn't call it that from an engineering perspective. My bad.

Word up. Anyhoo, it sucked.

Perhaps I'll gain enough courage to accompany you through troubled waters. Kayaking is really a lot of fun, I just don't do it now because I almost died doing it (yes, I can roll with the best, umm, kind of).

I went to reassess my experience and judged that I was much closer than 75 feet...probably closer to 25. I will not be doing that again.

I sat in a kayak just outside the canal and to the south on the lake side a few years ago and watched a ship come in while I waited to cross over towards the Cribs. I think it was the Wagonborg. I didn't notice any huge displacement or big changes in current, but I did get scared and back paddled as the ship went through, and waited for the turbulent water to clear before crossing the channel. You realize just how tiny a speck you are compared to those things. I'll never get that close again. At least not while they're moving. Thanks for the tip.

What type of kayaks do you guys/gals use, out of curiosity? I ask, because I want to retry something not near something like Thompson Bridge. Do rentals work?

"Vanishing Kayaker Trick Wows Tourists"

Hultz, I paddle a Perception Carolina 15.5. (The link is for the 14, since apparently the 15.5 has been discontinued.) My wife paddles a Wilderness Pungo 140. Mine has a little more speed, and can incorporate a rudder system if I so choose. My wife's is more stable and comfortable, and has a much more open cockpit, which works well for her, since she has arthritis, and has trouble keeping her knees locked under the sides of the cockpit for long stretches of time. We both love out boats!

Go see Ted at Skihut. He's incredibly helpful.

They both look good. Thanks for the tip about Skihut, too!

A Dagger Magellan that I got from Midwest mountaineering in the cities as a factory second - it has a rough spot on the side where it didn't come out of the mold right or something, but it's above the waterline, so it doesn't affect the performance. Got it for almost 1/2 off.
I also have a really old Prijon whitewater boat that would just be laughed out of the river today. It's enormous. But I fit in it, and I use it to surf the waves on the big lake, and my kids like to mess around in it.

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