Windfarms as Navigation Hazard

dvandenburgh - May 4, 2010

A recent meeting in Muskegon, Michigan discussed a proposal for a windfarm offshore from Muskegon.  The attendees were polled to determine whether they were for or against and the majority voted for the proposal.  Several options for locating the windmills at various distances offshore (6 miles, 13 miles, and 20 miles were mentioned) were voted on, with more support for the windfarm located further offshore.

Here's my issue: Imagine yourself on your boat passing offshore of Muskegon on a wild night with high winds and seas and poor visibility.  Suddenly you see a huge metal post rising from the waves.  You have inadvertently sailed into the windfarm!  You can hear the whoosing sound of the giant blades slicing the air high above you.  You have no idea how to navigate your way safely out of the forest of windmills.  There could be hundreds of them!  What a nightmare!

I haven't heard this issue mentioned in the reports of the discussions.  Aesthetics, economics, employment, energy - have all been discussed.  What about the boaters?  What about the navigational hazard such a thing presents for the boater?

Should GLCC speak about this?  Should we be sending representatives to these meetings to present this issue? 

gcampean's picture

Does anybody knows how many wind mills a proposed wind farm will have? More specific about the proposed farm in lake Michigan. It will be 50, 100, 200 or more?

JensenNR's picture

Today, there is a story in the Danish media about how public resistance to land-based windmills have grown significantly stronger during the past eight months, and many counties have decided to postpone or cancel new construction. Apparently, the Danish politicians have realized that no one wants them in their back yard, and have chosen to follow public opinion. What that means for additional water-based wind farms over there is unclear. Remember Denmark is one of the main manufacturers of these windmills, so I can't imagine an abandonment of windmill technology altogether.

 Port Captain Niels R. Jensen, S/V Freelance

Mahayana's picture

Where would the oil and coal industries be without the subsidies they have been recieving for over a century? This is a false argument. Move on. I expect to boat in and around the wind farms as I chose to keep the latest charts and electronics on board. The line about 1/2 mile restriction is unverified. Why must it be bandied about as if it were fact?

White Star


Ocean-Explorer's picture

The April/May 2011 issue of BoatU.S. Magazine has a government affairs special report on windfarms entitled "Winds of Change Coming?" It may be read at The author quotes a source who states that the Coast Guard has said that there will be a half-mile radius security zone around each windmill. This figure needs to be confirmed but, if true, will mean that a lot of surface area in the vicinity of offshore windfarms will be off-limits to boaters. The well-informed boater may wish to review this article. Our society has a lot of difficult decisions to make in coming years, and means of energy production and siting of the production facilities is certainly going to be among them.

Ocean-Explorer's picture

Thanks for posting this Niels. Another interesting article is linked from the one you refer to - - One really has to ask where this industry would be without the heavy governmental subsidies. Sooner or later this industry will have to stand on its own two feet, and one can only ask if we can really afford it when it gets to that point. Well, maybe we can or maybe we should, but do we have to build them in navigable waters before we decide that we can't or shouldn't? Rich Fink

dvandenburgh's picture

I'm guessing that boaters are a minority of the general population, especially the kind of boaters who cruise like GLCC members do. (Water skiing and fishing probably wouldn't be much affected by windfarms.) The majority of the population would probably favor putting windfarms offshore because it won't affect them. The minority of the population who would be adversely affected include people like us who don't want to look at the darned things, or have to navigate around them, or risk running into one of them on a dark and stormy night. If we don't speak up, the majority will consider putting windfarms offshore in the lakes an ideal solution to their desire to promote alternative energy (financially feasible or not). After all, it will adversely affect only a small minority - us!

JensenNR's picture

In my opinion, it is doubtful the “free market” will make any willing and enthusiastic investment in alternate energy on its own, because this type of energy is neither as efficient nor financially attractive as that from traditional sources. The various governments have policies to “encourage” alternate energy, because of ideological reasons and/or pressures from special interest groups. Energy independence is also an attractive goal from a national security point of view, which has proved important to many nations.

As boaters, we obviously want a clean environment. We will not have that without some sacrifice. The question is how much we as individuals are willing to sacrifice (i.e. hazards to navigation, cost of energy, employment opportunities, etc.), and if that sacrifice makes any meaningful difference in our environmental quality.

 Port Captain Niels R. Jensen, S/V Freelance

dvandenburgh's picture

Mel, for what it's worth, I agree with your comments and assessment. I understand the practical and idealogical problems that stand in the way of GLCC addressing the windfarm issue. Personally, I think it is an unacceptable increase in navigational hazard. (I know of people who manage to pile their boats into breakwaters on dark nights: I hate to think what a windfarm offshore of a popular port might do!) As in most things, I hope the free market - not the feds - makes the decisions about alternate energy.

Happy cruising!

Mel's picture

I think the GLCC is very unlikely to take a stand on this. First the Board is a group of widely dispersed volunteers who barely meet enough to do the club’s work. We don’t have the staff or resources to deal with this. Second it’s already obvious some members support windmills and others don’t based on environmental and navigational interests of the club so there is no logical stand especially since thirdly the coastguard would surely see to it that shipping would be protected by RACONs or buoys.

Taking off the vice-commodores cap I have a few comments that barely touch on cruising. A successful economy needs cheap energy. With expensive energy many businesses would be hard pressed to make money to pay dividends or grow which would surely crimp efforts by some to retire early and live off the productivity created by cheap energy. Countries without cheap energy are nowhere to be.

A sailor friend of mine (and club member too) heads the alternative energy efforts of a very large southern utility. This is what he told me. They find wind power is 3x the cost of their coal/gas/nuclear power because wind is unreliable and only blows 20% of the time. For every megawatt of wind power they bring online they need the same backup conventional power on standby that has to be online with just 10 minutes notice when the wind fails. It blows more at night when demand is lowest thus idling conventional power further – altogether a very poor investment.

A thousand-footer with a load of coal is going to produce a pretty reliable sum of electricity, something you can take to the bank as collateral to make a business case and get a loan to make it happen. A reliable bag of wind is hard to come by. As a sailor I know the fickle wind – sailors cruising to a destination sail less than half the time or they lie. Luckily most have a reliable engine to get them there. Often enough there are periods when there is no wind from Duluth to Montreal but the freighters keep on trucking coal to the power stations.

I’ve spent a life in industry beside machinery that’s doing work. I think people don’t realize the urban and industrial demand for power and how daily and seasonal peak demand is what drives capacity. The wind is a poor match for the task. There will be gains made in lighting efficiency (helping lower the already low night time demand) but a lot of electric motors do work that along with other processes altogether need a ton of power. I can’t imagine most people could afford or would tolerate an electric bill 3x their current one. Lofty cost increases due to energy consumption at every level of government would come in taxes plus the added cost would be embedded in goods and services landing on top. Many would likely be forced out of boating. So when can we start?

As for aesthetics, a dent in conventional power generation would require tens of thousands of windmills and I would wonder if there is enough lake space for them all.

Wind power generation is a boondoggle for the companies who have convinced the government to subsidize it ultimately forcing others to pay. If it made economic sense somebody would be doing it. Industries sprouting up to meet the demand in a subsidized environment are a mirage of dreamers. Ultimately the wrong decisions could result in a power grid that is not competitive in the world which would be an unfortunate lasting mistake.

Btw- When the wind stops in Denmark where wind power generation is substantial they buy power from 90% nuclear France who luckily has the capacity standing by to sell it to them.

If you got this far sorry to be so long-winded. (Hillarious pun)

Vice Commodore Mel Wallbank s/v Bliss

JensenNR's picture

I passed by a substantial windfarm off of I-88 west to Chicago today. A large number of the turbines were not turning. What’s up with that?

Incidentally, I would think the ability to service the turbines would be limited in the winter, if they are placed offshore in the Great Lakes. The climate is so much more severe in the Mid-West than in Denmark, where the ocean rarely freezes. (It did, of course, freeze this past winter, but that had not happened for well over a decade. It was a big surprise, as well as an inconvenience).

 Port Captain Niels R. Jensen, S/V Freelance

Ocean-Explorer's picture

Actually, Jim, I think you make a very good point, although it may not have been your intention. Lead, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbon were all, prospectively, thought to be good things for humanity. So was asbestos, thalidomide, penta, and a whole host of other things. It was only after time passed, and sometimes considerable time, that it became apparent that there were unintended and undesirable consequences of their use.

So, I ask a very simple question. Should we dive headlong into installing this relatively new technology (from the standpoint of doing it with industrial-sized magnitude) in environmentally sensitive areas, or should we go slow and see how it pans out in the onshore installations first?

As an aside, some might argue that this discussion does not belong on the GLCC web site. I would disagree strongly. For many years the GLCC has promoted the Great Lakes Foundation. Among other things the stated purpose of the Foundation is "protecting and preserving wilderness areas by providing information that will enhance the appreciation of the Great Lakes; encouraging the study and preservation of the marine environment; and supplying encouragement, information and, where appropriate, financial assistance to persons and organizations who support the purposes of the Foundation." If we as an organization truly believe in those goals, then this discussion SHOULD take place.

jwooll's picture

In the 20th century our civilization made a number of simple decisions, lead was good for internal combustion engines, DDT killed insects, chlorofluorocarbon were good refrigerants. We came to realize that these were grossly short sighted. Many other decisions with not so blatant consequences will show there true effects over time in this century. I no longer support simplest decision making such as we can just evaluate boating safety as we consider an issues such as alternative energy sources.

Many of the real objections to wind energy are rooted in two issues – aesthetics and money. It’s fine to believe that protecting your view of the lakes is important. Is that view worth the continued environmental destruction caused by coal fired electrical generation? Should wind be held to a very different standard than coal on end of life issues? Yes, I have seen that abandon wind farm at the southern tip of the big island of Hawaii. It doesn’t come close is size or impact to a number of abandoned coal generation faculties, strip mines, and much of West Virginia coal region.

If you are the coal industry and your clean coal campaign has failed how do you slow down wind?
The answer has been to conceive every possible side effect and feed these concerns to people who have a simplistic approach to problem solving or want to preserve aesthetics, or who simply want all of us to use less energy.

Ocean-Explorer's picture

I originally brought up the navigation hazard question in another area of this web site in response to an article about the proposed farm off Pentwater. I won't repeat all that here.
This is a favorite subject of mine, and I have done a lot of reading about it. There are other facts of interest.
Surprisingly, the major opposition to the Cape Cod project is coming from conservation and environmental groups. Bird migration is in the mix, as has been stated here, but there is also considerable concern about the disruption of the sea bed and its marine life as dredging takes place to facilitate installation and maintenance of the structures. There is also concern about transformers that will be in the farm, the concern being the contents of the transformers and the potential for a spill.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some think of the Great Lakes as beautiful. I am one of those. Some think of the Great Lakes full of windmills as even more beautiful. I have a little trouble understanding that. If you are in the latter group and Google "Great Lakes" and "Windmills" you will be in ecstasy. It turns out that there are proposals to build them all over the lakes.
Another concern I have is about what is going to happen to these things when they reach the end of their useful lives and need to be removed. Nothing lasts forever. Will the money and interest be there to remove them? Will the owners still be solvent? There is a project in Hawaii that was simply abandoned, I am told, and the towers are still there.
I would urge anyone interested in this subject to thoroughly research the information that is available to anyone who is willing to take the time to pursue it. Certainly, if you are going to have an opinion on this subject you owe it to yourself to educate yourself on this topic.
This subject is far too complex to simply categorize it as something we have to do to be "green" or to become energy-independent. As a result of government subsidies, there is a lot of money to be made in wind power right now. I am personally opposed to allowing the Great Lakes to be degraded on behalf of a few corporations that wish to exploit what is unproven technology. Not to say it won't generate electricity, but do all the downsides really make it practical?
By the way, I have read repeatedly that the Danes, who have built more wind farms than anyone else it would seem, have not reduced their carbon use one bit in the process.

dvandenburgh's picture

I wasn't looking to start a political, ecological, aesthetic or economic discussion, just a discussion on whether GLCC is interested in the navigational issues presented by the proposed windfarms and whether any of us think that we as a club should seek to speak to those issues. If GLCC or BoatUS were to remind developers and legislators that recreational sailors will also be impacted by proposed windfarms, and what could and should be done to minimize navigational risks of operating around them, that would seem to me to be a good and desirable thing. I'm sure that lots of voices will be raised in debate about the other issues; I just hope that some voices will be talking about the recreational boaters' issues. That seems like a natural role for GLCC. Does anyone know whether the officers of the club have any plans?

Adena-Marilyn's picture

Hi Jim,

I will convey your comments about the experience of Monarch butterfly migration and song birds in Texas to the local experts, and the ice studies to the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council. The Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council reported there had been no ice studies - anywhere.

Contrary to your statement I have been a local concerned activist for many years regarding the pollution and CO2 from coal plants, and diesel and gasoline engine exhausts, including mercury and ultra fine particulates. Unfortunately the state of Michigan has been a laggard with respect to promoting clean power, such as wind and solar, or even incentives for energy conservation.

My intent was to convey the precipitous rush to pass legislation, before the supporting data has been gathered, verified and incorporated into a sound plan.

Yes, I am concerned about recreational boating safety in the two offshore "Favorable" areas designated in Delta County.

I have done published detailed wind studies, using certified data, and believe there are better locations within Delta County, with considerably less potential environmental damage and better economic potential. There are developers doing onshore data gathering at several potential sites.

We look forward to sailing with you this summer - and further discussions! Marilyn & Glen "Adena"

jwooll's picture

Yours is an almost perfect presentation of the coal industry response to wind energy.
Several responses – the major Monarch butterfly routes pass through the wind farms in Texas yet studies have found no direct effects. Monarchs are in decline due to many factors including agricultural practices in the plains that limit their food and lumbering in their winter home in Mexico.
Song birds, if light were a problem there would be piles of dead birds next to windmills in Texas and next to those radio towers in the South of the UP. Song birds do not appear to be affected by flashing lights.
Birds seem to be able to avoid wind turbines – see the Danish radar studies.
As far as environmental destruction you seem unconcerned by the quantities of mercury that coal plants dump into the air every day. Also missed are the acres of land strip minded for coal. Saving commercial fishing zones for fish that should not be eaten seems a bit of a conflict.
The effects of ice have been well studied in Denmark – much further north than the great lakes.
Finally, the GLCC and boater safety, I don’t remember the club taking much of a position on these issues in the past. I think we spend more time on Rattlesnake safety than we do on boating.

Adena-Marilyn's picture

I did attend the Escanaba presentation by the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council, and did raise concerns for the hazards to recreational boating.

In the rush to send draft legislation to the Legislators, there are several serious concerns in addition to navigational hazards:

The 29 member Council is made up representatives, all of whom have a vested interest in developing offshore wind power, except for one "at large" member (a middle school superintendent) who was appointed after the initial appointments were made. The only recreational boating representation is from the charter fishing association.

The multi-layer GIS mapping system which was used to identify potentially “Favorable” areas for offshore wind development has significant errors, omissions, and did not yet include commercial fishing areas. Zones were identified for commercial shipping lanes, entrances to harbors and marinas etc. but no mention was made of hazards to recreational boaters. Bird migration routes were identified, but set at 5 miles wide which is much too narrow for certain major migration routes. Song birds, which typically migrate at night, are attracted to the lights on wind turbines, leading them to the hazard. Butterfly migration routes apparently had not been considered. The Monarch butterfly has a major migration route from Delta County through a "Favorable" wind farm area.

No research was available to evaluate the impact of ice on the wind turbine towers, and access to maintain the towers during ice and partial ice conditions.

A blanket 6 mile distance from shore to meet the visual aesthetic concerns, disregards the other issues of a shoreline already zoned as heavy industrial, the balance of costs, recreational boating hazards and environmental destruction by constructing a wind farm so far offshore.

Their website is at: The website includes criteria considered, habitat and depths maps, and a proposed process for applications and approvals.

Since the proposed legislation and "Favorable" wind farm areas have already been delivered to the Legislators, it is imperative that the GLCC membership directly contact their legislators and express their concerns.

It is unfortunate that BoatUS or the GLCC or other recreational boating groups did not have a seat at the table.

Marilyn Kinsey

JensenNR's picture

I’m recently back form Copenhagen, were there is small (25-35 turbine) offshore wind farm right off the main harbor entrance and close by the Sound’s main deep-water channel to the Baltic. It’s a very busy place, but I have yet to hear that particular farm described as a hazard to navigation.

I would venture a guess that it’s mainly there, because even people over there just don’t like to have the tall turbines in their backyard either. The structures ARE intrusive in the landscape, and lack the grace and charm of the old style windmills. So, they are usually placed as far away from people’s homes as possible. That’s a very tall order in a densely populated place like Denmark, so you’ll find some of them are built on the commercial harbor piers, which are considered more of an industrial facility. Building them out in the water is more expensive, due to the hostile environment, and servicing them is problematic as well.


 Port Captain Niels R. Jensen, S/V Freelance

dvandenburgh's picture

Well, Jim, we are having quite the pleasant two person discussion. I'm surprised no one else has weighed in. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your ideas and experience. I really appreciate it.

Your points are well taken, though I'm not sure what facts my assumptions don't jibe with: the fact that most people want windfarms where they cannot see them (I think this is true, but I don't have a survey I can cite. I understand that the late Ted Kennedy opposed siting one where he could see it from his home for that reason and I'm guessing that the reason people want them 20 miles offshore is because they don't want to look at them.); the fact that you need a number of windmills in a farm to make it financially feasible (I agree); the fact that it is hard to find a block of land for a windfarm (I agree); the fact that windfarms need wind (I agree)? Maybe the point where we disagree is that wind energy is a cost effective source of power? I'm not sure about that one, but I am no expert. I personally don't think they are aesthetically pleasing (based on my experience with the windfarms around Livermore, CA), but I concede as a matter of personal opinion.

I'm willing to let all that go. The one thing I hope for is that the navigational hazards created by offshore windfarms will be considered carefully along with the other issues you mention.

I wonder if there is any recreational boaters' group that is attending the public hearings speaking up for boaters' concerns other than the yacht clubs located in the neighborhoods of the proposed sites? Maybe BoatUS will do it.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.


jwooll's picture

Your set of assumptions on wind farm location does not jibe with facts. I live in Texas which is the number one state for wind farms and they are all located on ground. First the operative word is ‘farm’, you need a good number of windmills in a specific area to justify the construction, infrastructure and support costs. Finding a block of land in the mid- west is a bit of a challenge, not so hard here in Texas with big ranches. Second is available wind. There is more dependable wind at a lower altitude on the open waters than ashore. Texas does not have a problem with tall trees.
As for ascetics, in both California and Texas the wind farms are pleasant sights and seem to dress up an otherwise dull landscape. As for locations near or offshore, it is clear that most pleasure craft boating takes place within sight of shorelines. I very rarely see another boat when I am five or more miles from a shore line in the lakes and I have nearly 20,000 miles of lake travel to back up that statement.
I also don’t think it is responsible to look at only the locations issues related to wind farms. I believe that the club should consider the total environmental impact of wind, coal or nuclear.

dvandenburgh's picture

Agreed - new boaters need education. I doubt that GLCC will get into that arena though. I still think that those who use the water - either commercially or recreationally - need to weigh in on the subject of the windfarms. People want to locate windfarms offshore because they don't want to see them and they don't want to use up valuable land for them. That's convenient for land dwellers, but a definite increase in the hazards for boaters. People want them far offshore instead of close inshore because it is better for their scenic views of the lake, but far offshore windfarms are even more of a hazard to boaters than inshore windfarms. Why would we not want to point this out? I can certainly do it as an individual, but it seems that a corporate voice - like GLCC - could speak more effectively. BTW, I'm not here debating the cost/benefit ratio of wind energy, just the hazard of locating windfarms offshore in the lakes.

jwooll's picture

If you wish to aid new boaters, a more effective approach might be some boater education and licensing. As it stands today all you need is a checkbook.
I think of wind farms as a trade off in hazards. Which is greater, a moving freighter loaded with coal or a fixed wind farm?

dvandenburgh's picture

Anything a boat can collide with is a hazard to navigation. Some of those hazards we can do nothing about: shorelines, islands, shoals. Some of them are man-made: breakwaters, piers, buoys. I would definitely label a farm of windmills 6-20 miles offshore a hazard to navigation and I suspect the charts will show it as such. While I agree with you that good navigation and seamanship can avoid this (and other) hazards, I question the wisdom of creating such a hazard without considering how it will impact boaters.

At least one insurer in the UK (Steamship Mutual) has already issued an advisory loss prevention bulletin to its insured recognizing wind farms there as "navigational hazards" and advising how to navigate safely around them. These, of course, are professional captains, usually of large ships that will be even less likely to be affected by the wind farms since the wind farms are generally located in shallower water than the big ships can use. (But 20 miles off Muskegon, MI isn't shallow for pleasure boaters!)

A casual internet search shows that some Great Lakes yacht clubs are showing up at public hearings and speaking out. I think GLCC should too. Even if it is only to protect incompetent (read, "new") boaters.

jwooll's picture

There have been several discussions of wind farms and navigation on the site.
I find your hypothetical situation not very convincing. To reach the point where you are in the wind farm on a bad night you would have to ignore weather warnings, not been watching radar, not have current charts, and been moving without attention to your current position relative to the chart. In my opinion a boat operated in such a manner is itself more of a hazard to navigation than any wind farm.
No, I don’t think that the GLCC needs to speak to protect incompetent boaters.