Craig and Hunter Thomas joined Rob Lindauer on their Northeast downwinder on the Intracoastal Waterway on Saturday, May 4. Lindauer photo.

Words and graphics by John Streit. 

Gone with the Wind. Aside from being the title of momentous pieces of literature and cinema, the phrase also applies to the Back Bay Watershed when the winds howl from the Northeast: The wind’s pull on the bay’s surface causes waters of the brackish estuary recede, exposing the mud/sand bottom in the more shallow areas.

The boat dock behind our property is one of those areas.

It’s always a bummer to be a bearer of bad news when folks arrive to the shop paddle-ready only to learn that paddling is next-to-impossible due to the lack of navigable water. In this article, we hope to shed a little bit of light on the “Bay Drain,” as well as it’s inverse in elevated water levels when the winds switch to a more southerly direction.


The S&A boat dock on Monday, May 6, 2013 after more than a week of Northeast winds. In this shot, the water level is less than one foot where it would normally be about three feet deep. Streit photo.

The Bay Drain is a simple phenomenon that we normally experience throughout the colder months of the year when our wind flow comes primarily from the northerly directions. This spring, however, we have experienced more northerly winds than usual; and it’s come from the Northeast, which is the wind direction that causes the most dramatic decline in water levels for the Back Bay Watershed.

When local winds blow from the northerly directions, it creates waves and currents on the surface of Back Bay. Since the water isn’t very deep, the waves and current affect nearly the entire water column, pushing water to the south away from the northern reaches of the watershed down into the marshes surrounding Knott’s Island and into the Currituck Sound. The result is a decrease in the water level throughout Back Bay. In extreme cases, like the one which we are currently experiencing, the water level can drop by more than two feet.

Wind Affect NE

The red arrows represent Northeast wind, the direction that causes the most dramatic decrease in Back Bay’s water levels. Any sustained wind from the northerly directions causes water loss throughout the watershed. Graphic: John Streit.

Another result of the drain is the suspension of our boat dock activities like kayak/canoe/SUP rentals and tours. However, the diligent waterman can still find places nearby to paddle on these extremely shallow days. S&A owner Rob Lindauer and his friends, the father-son duo of Craig and Hunter Thomas, decided to pack up their standup paddleboards and headed to West Neck Marina, where there is a very small fee for launching, but boat channels plenty deep enough to withstand days-on-days of Northeast drain on the Intracoastal Waterway.

The guys parked a return vehicle seven miles to the south near Pungo Ferry Bridge and rode the momentum of the Northeast wind on glass-flat water down the Intracoastal, experiencing the maritime forest that lines the banks and several osprey nests on the waterway’s channel markers.


The “Strava” app logs your distance and miles for activities like SUP. The boys’ seven-mile downwinder route is highlighted in red.


Rob chose the 12’6 NSP touring model for his downwind adventure on the Intracoastal Waterway. Photo: Lindauer.

While we cannot allow folks to take kayaks or canoes off of our property in their own vehicles due to insurance restrictions, we are more than happy to rent SUPs for folks who want to embark on a similar type of downwind paddle.

The Intracoastal downwinder is but one option for the diligent paddler on these Northeast wind days. While the Northeast wind drains the Back Bay and Intracoastal watersheds, it supplies the Lynnhaven River Watershed with ample water levels due to wind swell entering the inlet from the Chesapeake Bay. The Cape Henry Peninsula also blocks the wind, grooming the water flat. The main precaution for paddlers in this stretch is to keep an eye on the tides. Ideally, you would want to begin your paddle with an incoming tide approaching high, as you would ride the tidal energy against the wind to the East. After the tide turns, the wind and outgoing tide provides a conveyor-belt affect that allows the paddler to reach optimal speeds. We recommend launching from the sandy beach in First Landing State Park east through The Narrows into Crystal Lake and back. Be sure to keep an eye out for boat traffic and always have a floatation device on deck or on your person.

Fortunately for those of us who love paddling on Back Bay, we will soon be entering a weather pattern that features southerly wind flow taking predominance. Southerly winds, particularly from the Southwest, produce the opposite affect of the northerly breezes: they fill up the watershed with waters from the Currituck Sound. Sometimes during a prolonged Southwest blow, the water rises to levels that break the banks and can actually flood our entire parking lot.

Wind Affect SW

The green arrows represent Southwest wind, the direction that causes the most dramatic increase in Back Bay’s water levels. Graphic: Streit

The great thing about the Southwest flow is that it means that summer has arrived! It brings warmer temperature and also gives our Back Bay waterway optimal conditions with a headwind experienced on the front end of the paddle and a tailwind as you return to our boat dock.

We hope this feature sheds some light on the dynamic nature of our local waters. Thankfully, there is usually an option for prime paddling in Virginia Beach regardless of wind direction.

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