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“If you can sail in Lake Ontario, you can sail anywhere.”

I can’t tell you how many times we have heard this. Perhaps it is just a my-place-is-better-than-your-place kind of thing, or perhaps it is true. I do know that we appear to live in the land of wind shifts. There is definitely no setting the sails and relaxing for hours around here.

Everyone knows that sailing has its own jargon or vocabulary. One of the things we were introduced to during our sailing course is the language that sailors use to describe changes in wind direction, specifically veering, backing, headers and lifts.

The first two that I listed, veering and backing, were relatively simple for me to get. A veering wind is one that has shifted clockwise (ex. north-east to east) while a backing wind would be the opposite, a counter-clockwise shift in direction (east to north-east).

The second two, headers and lifts, were a bit harder for me to grasp as they initially seemed to describe the same thing. That isn’t really the case though. As all sailors know, you can’t sail directly at the wind. The closest point of sail that we can move forward on is called close hauled. When you are trying to get to a destination that is directly upwind of where you are, you must sail a zig-zag pattern towards it. This is called beating. So, assuming that we are beating towards a destination, sailing as close to the wind as we can (close hauled) and the wind shifts towards our bow (the front of the boat), we would need to steer further away from our destination to keep moving (or tack). This is called a header. If, however, the wind shifted away from our bow, we would then be able to point even closer to our destination. This good thing is called a lift. Note that either of these shifts could be veering or backing, depending on which tack we are sailing on.

Dealing with wind shifts like I am describing was a huge part of yesterday’s sailing, or for that matter, any day out on the water around here.

Note: Standard disclaimer applies here. We’re pretty new at this, including how to talk like a sailor. 🙂 If any of the above is incorrect feel free to make fun of me and point out the errors.


  1. Actually, it’s “If you can sail in Lake Erie, you can sail anywhere”! 🙂 Sailing anywhere is a matter of learning to deal with the vageries of that particular location. At least, up here in the lakes, we don’t have to dodge coral! Just rocks and mud and shipwrecks and—! However, where there is coral, the water is rather clearer, so they are easier to spot! 😮

    I don’t think Ontario has the square waves associated with Erie. I’m sure it has its own peculiarities, though! At least, you are improving your sailing skills in preparation for the rest of your life. Don’t you wish the rest of life came with practice sessions? Enjoy!

    • I was of course waiting for someone to post that their area of sailing was more difficult. 🙂

      You are right though Helen, the “practice” is invaluable!

  2. I have been quietly following your blog, with much interest, for several months now. Ross and I have just put the ‘SOLD’ sign on our house in Ottawa and are preparing to move onto our boat – an Island Spirit 400 catamaran – currently sitting in the Bahamas. If all goes well, we will soon be crossing to Florida, travelling up the ICW and into the Chesapeake by mid-August. If you happen to see “One White Tree’ in your travels down the US East Coast, please hail us!

    • Hi Diane

      How exciting! We plan on being in the Chesapeake area for some time so hopefully our paths do cross. We’ll make a note of your boat’s name. Please feel free to send us an email or a message here when you get to that area.


    • Diana and Ross,
      Be sure to look us up if you are in the Annapolis Area. For sure we can’t pass up meeting a boat named “One White Tree”.
      Kirk and Donna “Ainulindale”

      • Kirk.

        Will do! Ross flies out tomorrow to the boat. I’ll follow as soon as I have the last few things wrapped up here. I’ll make a note of your boat name and keep our eyes out for you once we make it up the ICW.


        • Kirk,

          I think I just ‘outed’ myself in my previous comment as the lesser educated LOTR fan! I just looked up the name of your boat! We expect to be in the Annaoplis area around boat show time. We’ll be watching and listening on the radio for you!


  3. Haha! I have heard exactly the same thing about the San Francisco bay. I have even heard the saying used on individual marinas (if you can sail out of that, you can …).

    Thanks for the explanation about headers and lifts. I’m a beginning racer/crew and I always wondered what that meant.

    • I’m sure there are many places that boast that!

      We are right now sitting at anchor in Big Sandy Bay on Wolfe Island, Ontario. It was a tiny bit tricky short tacking in between some shoals to get here. Hopefully tomorrow brings some easier sailing. 🙂

  4. Hi guys — been following your blog for a while now; first time commenter though….

    I thought I’d add that headers and lifts have wider implications when passage planning: as most gusts (in the N hemisphere) cause the wind to veer not back, staying on a stbd tack for the longer leg to windward will allow you to benefit from the lifts rather than being hindered by the headers; and you get to sail a more direct route to your destination. Especially beneficial if you are steering with a wind-vane which holds a course relative to the wind direction rather than a compass course.

    Fairwinds, and keep up the good work

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