Freighter Wakes

In September I am heading the U.P. for a week of solo paddling. One of the places I intend to visit is Lime island, located just west of St. Joseph Island. This is also the shipping channel between Superior and Huron. Is anyone familiar with those shipping channels and where they lie in the river? The crossing is three miles, can I venture out from shore any distance with heavy ship traffic in sight? What are the wakes like from these monsters? I’ll be in a 15.5 ft.yak. My concern is that once I am committed to a crossing, a freighter will appear, going either up or down stream. What would be your strategy?

watch out
My strategy-go for it and watch so you don’t get run over. Paddle like hell if nessesary, stop and let the ship pass if you have serious doubt you can cross in front of it with enough safety margin. Don’t worry too much about the wake(at least i don’t) just be aware of the fact it will come and where it should come from. wakes are safer in deep water than if you’re close to shore because then,if it IS potent enough it may steepen and break depending on how the bottom comes up. but really,not much to worry about.

The wakes associated with large displacement vessels, like frieghters, tankers, cruise ships and large military vessels, are surprisinly small and should not cause any problem for you. The speed they move at is quite surprising, however. Sit and watch a few pass to get an idea of timing, wait for a break and then paddle quickly across the channel as close to a right angle as you can.

I have never paddled the area in question, but have paddled with large vessels in Puget Sound, Cheasapeake Bay, the mouth of Tampa Bay and Port Everglades. The important thing to remember with large vessels is they will not be able to stop in time to avoid you, and many not be able to maneuver if they are in a narrow channel.

Good Advice
Watch, give them way as they could not stop anyway, travel across the channel at 90 degrees and you should be fine. Most larger displacement hulls will leave a bow wake as well as what is called a displacement wake.

Happy Paddling,


ones to watch for
BIG vessel wakes are usually very easy, but watch for smaller stuff that moves at decent speed. I think boats in 40-100 ft length range tend to make the most potent wakes. Bigger fishing boats,coast guard/military ships,big yachts. the only wakes that tend to be worth while to chase/surf/crash over.

Not familiar enough with the area.
I haven’t been around St. Joseph Island in 20 years, but this may help:

I’m not sure where you’re intending to cross from, but the safest place through the shipping channel appears to be to Lime Island’s westernmost point. You’d have line-of-sight to the horizon in both directions and the shortest distance across. Don’t sweat the wakes. Its deep enough through there not to be a problem. They shouldn’t break on you; it should be all up and down swell. Enjoy the ride.


don’t get fined…
…I watched a video made for the coast guard by a disgruntled river pilot showing how often small fishing & pleasure craft ignore him in shipping lanes. Was filmed aboard one of the largest tankers on the planet, owned by Exxon (about 3 football fields long).

If they toot at you, it means you must get the #@%* out of their way immediately, because when they signal you, it means they will be occupying the space you now occupy in two minutes or less. If you do not begin to move immediately, & they have to begin evasive maneuvering, they may report you to the CG or other authority & you could be fined.

The pilot said that a vessel that large coming directly at you gives the illusion that it is barely moving even at full cruising speed.

Nor do they make much noise so you have to be always on the lookout. Never cross shipping lanes if its even a little foggy.

The pilot’s favorite saying was "I HAVE to be here, you DON’T!


– Last Updated: Aug-07-06 6:01 PM EST –

"let the ship pass if you have serious doubt you can cross in front of it with enough safety margin"

You must be able to pass in front of it -and- the captain of the large vessel must be sure you can pass in front of it.

"may not be able to maneuver if they are in a narrow channel"

Assume that anything big will not be able to maneuver at all.

"they have to begin evasive maneuvering, they may report you to the CG or other authority & you could be fined"
They may call the Coast Guard if they even -think- they might have to maneuver. More likely, they'll just run you over because there's nothing they can do!

Oddly, the wakes won't be a problem (unless you pass closely behind).

The chart link is a good resource.

One thing to try is to cross near an ATON (bouy). This will give you a good idea of where one side of the channel is. Typically, the ATONs marking the channel are not directly across from each other. That means that crossing from ATON to ATON will not be the shortest distance across the channel.

Kayakers cross channels frequently (and safely) so I'm not trying to discourage you from doing so. The point is that the responsibility of crossing safely and giving the impression that you know what you are doing is yours (not the captain of the big ship).

Aerial View of Lime Island

Should be fun…
That should be a great place to paddle, but since two of the busiest shipping lanes in the Great Lakes are there, it’s good to be careful. You can find out the locations of all the big freighters and where they plan to be at:

Click on “vessel passage” in the left hand frame.

And talk to the DNR. Small craft use the island all the time, and the DNR tries to get them to be careful of the shipping lane issues, since one of the docks on Lime Island does get affected by freighter wakes. The DNR # to call for info is (906) 635-5281 On their website, the DNR does recommend that boats without motors NOT attempt the crossing

Hunt’s UP guide has a good webpage on Lime Island:

It sounds like a great place to paddle.

You all are great. Where can I get a “hard copy” of those NOAA charts? I mean a good quality, waterproof copy? I imagine at sports shops in the area? I’m planning to explore several spots in the week I have including Drummond Island, the Snows, perhaps Pictured Rocks and/or Grand Island. All depending on weather cooperating of course. My backup plan in the event of poor sea conditions is to find a friendly bar, preferably with a sawdust or plywood floor, and plant myself until things improve.

Vessel wakes
In the Carquinez Straits (at the far northern end of San Francisco Bay) it’s a little less than 1 mile wide and I usually have more wake issues with tugs rather than the big tankers and car carriers that frequently pass through here. When the wake hits the shallows from the ship channel they can really build up fast and start breaking which can be fun - provided you’re watching out for them…

Yep on the tug wakes!
we paddle out of the Redwood City Harbor from time to time and there is a scrap barge that is moved by a large tug. Very big wakes.

Also the ferrys that cross Racoon Straits on their way too and from Angel Island make some nice wakes too.

Hard copy purchasing:
This is from the same site. For you in NE Ohio:

If you want them laminated, you’ll probably have to take them to a high end print shop that has a wide format laminator. I’d suggest 3mil film to make it more foldable.

Hull suction
another thing to consider with the big ships is the same phenomenon you experience with a large truck on the highway. The pressure waves at bow and stern (the wakes) will deflect you away from the vessel, but if you get allongside midshiops there will be a distinct force sucking you towards the hull. You have to be pretty close to worry about this - another reason to give the big boys some room, though.


– Last Updated: Aug-08-06 11:34 AM EST –

If you are near enough to the ship for any "hull sucking" to be happening you are way, way, way too close! And, if the captain knows you are there, you will likely be talking to the Coast Guard. Actually, you'll get to talk to the Coast Guard much sooner than getting any "hull sucking" action.