sotavento, barlovento

I would probably never learn what the word “leeward” means if not for a weekend visit to Playa de Sotavento in Fuerteventura. I came across the words sotavento and barlovento before: they were mentioned in my son’s geology textbook, in the chapter dealing with dunes. The diagram was showing a barchan dune (barján in Spanish) with two sides, designated sotavento and barlovento. I just forgot which is which. Now that I read up a bit, I decided to put it all down in writing before I forget again.

According to Wikipedia,

Windward is the direction upwind from the point of reference. Leeward is the direction downwind from the point of reference.

I read it a few times and this still sounds confusing to me. In Wiktionary, leeward is defined as “away from the direction from which the wind is blowing. Downwind” while downwind is “in the same direction as the wind is blowing”. In other words, leeward and downwind are considered to be synonyms, although “away from the direction” does not sound right. Similarly, upwind and windward are synonyms in Wiktionary.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells a different story.

upwind /’ʌpwɪnd/ adj. & adv. against the direction of the wind.


downwind /ˈdaʊnwɪnd/ adj. & adv. in the direction in which the wind is blowing.


leeward /’liːwəd, Naut. ‘luːəd/ adj. & adv. on or towards the side sheltered from the wind (opp. WINDWARD).
windward /ˈwɪndwəd/ adj. & adv. on the side from which the wind is blowing (opp. LEEWARD).


Therefore, downwind and upwind refer to the relationships between two directions, viz. of the wind and of something/somebody else; while leeward and windward refer to the relationships between the direction of the wind and side of something, for example a boat. Very different concepts, I should say, and none of them makes much sense in relation to the (directionless) “point of reference”, as in the above Wikipedia definition.

In a beam reach, the boat is sailing perpendicular to the wind. For example, if it is sailing north with the east wind, the starboard (right) side will be windward, while the port (left) side will be leeward. But when the sailboat runs downwind, the wind is coming from directly behind the boat. Therefore, stern is, formally, the windward side and bow is the leeward side.

Now consider the curious case of Leeward Islands and Windward Islands. I read in Wikipedia that

The Windward Islands are the southern, generally larger islands of the Lesser Antilles, within the West Indies. They lie south of the Leeward Islands. The Windward Islands are called such because they were more windward to sailing ships arriving in the New World than the Leeward Islands, given that the prevailing trade winds in the West Indies blow east to west.

Hmmm, let’s see. If the wind blows from east to west, the windward side should be to the east (not south) and the leeward side to the west (not north). Everybody apart from English seemed to understand that, therefore in languages other than English they call the eastern islands “Windward” and the western islands “Leeward”. (And what on earth is “more windward”?)

I don’t know how the words downwind and upwind came along. “Up” and “down” in English often have very little to do with physical directions upward and downward. But let me employ an analogy with a river. The river flows from a higher place to a lower place. Downstream means “along the flow” — and, in the same time, physically downward — while upstream means “against the flow”, as well as physically upward. I am sure that the sailors who first came up with “downwind/upwind” terminology had to be familiar with river navigation. (At least, I think they were sailors.) Even though the wind does not always blow from a higher place to a lower place, the analogy works.

As for leeward, it is derived from the Middle English word lee, “shelter”. I never heard it used on its own.

English windward leeward
Dutch loefzijde lijzijde
French au vent sous le vent
Italian sopravento sottovento
Portuguese barlavento sotavento
Russian наветренный подветренный
Spanish barlovento sotavento

One Response to sotavento, barlovento

  1. Em says:

    Thank you for helping to explain these terms! The illustrations really help! Wikipedia did not.

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