The prevailing winds at Lake Tahoe are out of the southwest, although you do see some variation throughout the day. In the summer, morning winds tend to “clock around” from light and easterly to southeasterly to southerly and finally over to southwesterly not long after 1:00 in the afternoon.
Range Of Conditions
The winds at Lake Tahoe are also a little flukey, because of the tall mountains that ring the lake, the elevation (which, at 6,229 ft. above sea level, means the air is about 17% less dense than at sea level), and the narrow canyons along the west shore that tend to funnel the wind in a noticeable way in the afternoons. Cold fronts coming in from the Pacific also tend to bring powerful, gusty conditions, and it’s not unusual to see 50+ knot winds over the ridges when one of these storms hits the Sierra Nevada.
Terrain & Turbulence
The tall ring of mountains around Lake Tahoe can often create gusty conditions, even when the winds are relatively light. A sailing instructor explained this to me as Bernoulli’s Law at work, where the laminar flow of the wind is broken up by the mountains, creating turbulence, which causes the air to “tumble down” the mountain slopes to the lake’s surface. This tumbling effect results in pretty punchy gusts near the west shore on breezy days, though they are a little less powerful further out in the lake where the air has had a chance to mix together again.
The elevation of Lake Tahoe affects both sailing and motoring. In general, summer winds tend to run in the 10 – 15 knot range, gusting to 17 – 20 knots. For sailing, the reduced air density means you can put up more sail area on lighter days than you could at sea level, but be mindful of gusts. For motoring, I calculated that our Perkins diesel is about 20% less efficient at Lake Tahoe than similar diesels in the Bay Area; I get 4 knots of boat speed at Lake Tahoe while running the engine at 2,500 rpm, while a similar Catalina 270 in San Francisco gets 5 knots at the same throttle setting.
The afternoon canyon winds along on the west shore of Lake Tahoe are relatively predictable and enjoyable, especially when you’re up for a little adventure. The numerous canyons on the west shore focus and accelerate the wind, so you’ll be just “ghosting” along, when suddenly, you see “cats’ paws” that turn into small whitecaps, and you’re in for an exhilarating ride which can last for miles. Unlike the east shore, the water along the west shore remains fairly flat, as it is the windward side of the lake, so you’re in for a smooth, fast, and fun sail.
When I think of cold fronts blowing in from the Pacific toward Lake Tahoe, I have this nervous habit of humming The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. If you’re going out on Tahoe when a storm is forecast, be very wary. As a longtime short-board windsurfer, I love cold fronts because of the exciting conditions they create. As a sailor on a 27’ cruising sailboat with typically one or more guests aboard, it’s just not worth it. Equipment breaks, people get knocked around and hurt, and the risk of losing someone overboard in conditions that would challenge even an experienced sailor is just too great. That’s why “Check the weather” is at the top of Splendido’s Departure Checklist, and it’s why I’d rather clean the bilge than sail when Tahoe’s winds are howling through the rigging.
The first time Debbie and I sailed Lake Tahoe together on Splendido, we got our asses handed to us.
The date was October 4, 2010. What started out as an almost windless sail from Tahoe City south to Sugarpine Point morphed into a maelstrom within three minutes later that evening as we were almost done for the day.
It turned out to be a great lesson about the capricious weather on Lake Tahoe.
The forecast warned of possible thunderstorms late, but when we arrived at the marina, the lake was placid, the breeze was warm, and though the sky was dark at the south end of the lake, it looked like another fairly predictable late-afternoon sail along the fair coastline of the west side of the lake.
With Debbie’s brother, Tracy, at the helm, I went below and turned on some flamenco music that seemed fitting as we glided south under full main and headsail. I opened a couple of Coronas for Debbie and Tracy, and relaxed, feeling the warm breeze on my face and hoping for a gentle lift from the canyons as we headed south.
Half an hour later, we tacked and headed back, aware of the darkening sky in the south, but not overly concerned. I went below and changed the music to Bob Marley’s Legend, because the day just felt tropical, even though this was the 2nd of October. As we approached Tahoe City, feeling quite confident that all was well, a rogue gust hit us, and my favorite ball cap blew off my head and into the lake. As is my habit, I quickly decided to make it into a “crew overboard” drill, and yelled for Debbie to keep an eye on the hat as I quickly tacked to come back under it and asked Tracy to grab the hat with the boathook. Within seconds, I noticed dark patches of “cat’s paws” as the wind came shrieking out of the SSW, and we abandoned the hat-rescue and took in sail. With our powerful little tractor motor running, the rain came pelting down, quickly soaking us to the bone as we headed for our buoy. The 30-knot winds quickly whipped up the lake into rollers of 4 feet, and growing bigger by the minute.
Now, Debbie and I always wear our inflatable PFDs, but Tracy was vestless, so I asked Debbie to go below and bring Tracy a vest. He thanked her for it and headed for the bow with the boathook. I took a wide turn and pointed the nose of the boat into the wind as we made a run on our buoy. With the frenzied waves, the bow was porpoising, and Tracy (6’6″, 275 lbs and a former college football player) was having a heck of a time of it. Blinded by the horizontal, cold rain, I took a run at the buoy, but I was a bit too timid with the throttle, and Tracy couldn’t quite reach the line. Falling off, I let the nose blow around (it’s a little tight between boats in the buoy field when the wind and waves are up) and headed for open water. Again and again we made runs on the buoy, and finally Tracy grabbed it and tried to “muscle” the boat and the line together, but there was no holding a 7,000 lb. boat in those conditions. Energy spent, the boathook slipped from his grasp, and that was that.
A young man in a skiff came out from the gas dock, and he shouted for us to try again as we circled our buoy. We took another run at it, and as we approached, the waves nearly flipped the skiff, so, chastened, he waved us off and told us to take the boat in to the gas dock and park it inside the seawall.
Threading the needle between the green and red buoys with a following sea was a bit tricky, but once through the gap, the water was placid, and we slowly assessed the situation: Crew, OK, but soaked. Boat, OK, though a bit bedraggled-looking. Pride, wounded but recoverable.
We quickly tied her up, tidied up, and literally beat feet for the lounge at Jake’s, where we ordered Mai Tais and munchies and slowly felt sensation returning to our wet and chilled extremities.
We have a new appreciation for what John Rousmaniere calls “forehandedness” in the Annapolis Book of Seamanship.
“Forehandedness,” Rousmaniere wrote, “is to be cautious and even pessimistic. A forehanded sailor looks ahead, anticipates the worst, and prepares for it.”
I’m grateful for the lesson, and I know I’ll be a bit more cautious on Lake Tahoe the next time the forecast calls for a change in wind and weather.
Fair winds and smooth sailing! DB