Lee shore

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A lee shore is one that is to the lee side of a vessel — meaning the wind is blowing towards it.[1] Lee (green) and windward (red) shores of a lake, given wind from due east (white arrows).

In seamanship, lee shore, sometimes also called leeward (/ˈljuːərd/ or, more commonly, /ˈlwərd/) and ward shore, is a stretch of shoreline that is to the lee side of a vessel —meaning the wind is blowing towards it. Its opposite, the shore on the windward side of the vessel is called the weather or windward shore ( /ˈwɪnərd/ or, more commonly, /ˈwɪndwərd/).

"Windward", "leeward", and "lee"[edit]

Graphic showing the ambiguity between lee shore of island and ship
The windward shore of an island can be considered the lee shore when seen from a vessel on the water offshore the island

Usage of the terms to describe shores in relation to an arbitrary point of view, including on land, can lead to ambiguity. The windward shore of an island is a lee shore from the perspective of a vessel travelling offshore. Although the terms are often confused, "the lee shore" is different from "a leeward shore" based on the reference point from which the shore is viewed. Notice the different articles "the" and "a" — "the" windward or leeward shore versus "a" lee shore. The shore that is a lee shore changes based on the reference point, which is the vessel from which the island or lake shore is viewed, and of which the island or lake shore is in the lee. The leeward shore does not change based on the position of the vessel. This means that the "leeward side" of the vessel and the "lee shore" of the land face opposite directions.[2]

Leeward and windward shores[edit]

To someone on a vessel, the shore to lee of the vessel is the lee shore, and since that is the shore the wind reaches first, to someone on the shore it is the windward shore. "Lee" historically means "shelter". Standing on the leeward side of the vessel, a sailor observes being blown towards an exposed shoreline by the wind. Here again the reference point from which a shore is viewed determines whether it is the lee shore or a leeward shore. On a lake, the reference point is a body of water, so the windward shore is upwind of the center of the lake. On an island, the reference point is a landmass, so the windward shore is the shore upwind (most to windward) of the center of the island. On a vessel, however, the windward rail is the one the wind is hitting first, or the one most upwind. The same is true regarding an island: the side of the island most to windward is the windward shore.

Dangers of a weather shore[edit]

A weather shore is potentially treacherous for kitesurfers and windsurfers, who can be blown out to sea if the wind is blowing from the land. For them, a lee shore is safer. For ocean-going vessels during a storm, a lee shore is treacherous because the wind slowly forces the vessel toward the shore, where it will beach or break up. For this reason Bernard Moitessier, the great ocean sailor, called the coastline "the great whore"; it attracts sailors during a storm but is in fact highly dangerous. In shallow coastal water, maneuvering is impaired, waves may become steeper, and objects may be obscured. Navigating during a storm, either by chart or by dead reckoning, becomes extremely difficult. A storm surge may make the entrance to a protected body of water prohibitively treacherous or impossible to locate. Heavy weather tactics more often dictate heading out to sea, where deeper water and more room for maneuver allow a sailboat to heave to or adopt other defensive measures. In landsmen's parlance, this is called "riding out the storm."

Dangers of a lee shore and a windward shore[edit]

Lee shores are dangerous to watercraft because, if left to drift, they will be pushed into shore by the wind, possibly running aground. Sailboats are particularly susceptible to this, as even under sail they are limited to the angle they can travel into the wind; square rigged craft, for instance, can point only slightly to windward. It is possible for a sailing vessel to become trapped along a lee shore, with recourse being to use an engine, or use anchors to kedge out. A lee shore line (e.g. beach, sand bar, rocks, reef) poses a significantly higher risk in a storm due to the undiminished effects of the wind and waves. Numerous shipwrecks are caused when vessels are driven into a lee shore. Because of this, it is always preferable to travel along a windward shore, especially in inclement weather.[3][4] A windward shore will have significantly lower waves and slower winds, because they will have been slowed by passage over the land, but a windward shore does have its dangers, being subject to storm surge.

In literature[edit]

C.S. Forester highlighted the dangers of a lee shore in his famed series of novels about Horatio Hornblower. For example, Hornblower’s first experience commanding a brig is described as follows: "...all his reading and all his instruction had warned him of the terrors of a lee shore."[5]

Likewise, the fearsome dangers of a lee shore were frequently emphasized in the Aubrey/Maturin novels written by Patrick O'Brian, which have been acclaimed for nautical accuracy. Such expositions are often made to the nautically naive medical surgeon Stephen Maturin as a means of comic relief. There is no comedy, however, in one fictional encounter in Chapter Five of The Thirteen Gun Salute (ISBN 0-393-02974-3) with a lee shore in which HMS Diane comes within a few feet of being driven onto a sheer and merciless lee shore which would surely have cause the Diane to go down.

In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the lee shore is figured into one of American literature's transcendent passages, addressed to the character Bulkington:

"Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights 'gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea's landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

"Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do you seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

"But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God — so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing — straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!" (Chapter 23, "The Lee Shore")

A recent non-fictional encounter with a lee shore took place off the coast of Norway when a cruise ship's engines failed in high seas. On March 23, 2019 the cruise ship ‘’Viking Sky’’ was driven quite close to the lee shore, reportedly within about 300 feet of the shoreline. Many lives could have been lost, but disaster was averted.

In music[edit]

David Crosby wrote a song "The Lee Shore". This was recorded with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash at Stills' house, in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles on December 28, 1969, but originally released in a live version on the album Four Way Street, on April 17, 1971.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Wallace Ross (1984). Sail Power. Alfred A. Knopf.
  2. ^ Capt. James C. Van Pelt III
  3. ^ Dixon Kemp, Brooke Heckstall-Smith (1900). A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing. Horace Cox.
  4. ^ William N. Brady (1864). The Kedge-anchor; Or, Young Sailors' Assistant.
  5. ^ C.S. Forester, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, 1950, p.55.