Friday, November 2, 2012

Fifty Miles By Sea

I posted the entire article of our June 2011 50 mile ocean expedition.  From my experience, this was one of those few trips in the life of a paddler that fundamentally changes their perspective of their place on the water.  On the first day, our group encountered the roughest ocean conditions we had ever faced, far beyond our comfort zones.   As we found our place in the landscape of these hostile waters, I learned to work with the dynamics of the sea to paddle with greater confidence rather than fight and react to the relentless pounding of the waves.  In a later article I will cover what I learned.  I hope you will enjoy our story. 

On the final weekend in June 2011, 5 paddlers came together to fulfill a longtime dream for one.  Lee had long envisioned an ocean paddle expedition on the Atlantic from the banks of his house in Swansboro, North Carolina to the most eastward extent of the shoreline at Cape Lookout,  Into a notorious region known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for its legacy of storms, battles, pirates, and many shoals causing unusually nasty waves having wrecked more than 2000 ships and boats of all types over the last 400 years.  Much of the region along the Shackleford Banks has changed little in 400 years.  Lee was anxious to complete the ocean paddle to take care of "unfinished business" from a similar failed expedition last year, where strong storms kept us off the ocean and hunkered down on an uninhabited island. Lee invited four additional paddlers : Dawn, Barrett, Chris, and myself.  All quite experienced.

Late afternoon on June 24th, we began to stage our expedition from Lee's waterfront back yard two miles inland. At that time strong winds were blowing and the pounding surf at the beach could be heard all the way from the sea.  All were anxious that night knowing in just a matter of hours, we would be facing the beast head-on.  I suggested driving over to Emerald Isle to scout the inlet.  Dawn said "if you do, you won't go".  The surf was forecast to be very high with five to seven foot seas the next day making surf landings difficult and risky.  That evening, we carefully and creatively loaded our kayaks for the possibility of not returning to shore for the first day's 32+ mile duration. Also, everything needed during the day must be within arm's reach and must be quickly accessible so you are not off your guard when hit broadside by a breaking wave. The task ahead was daunting.  Leave through the Bogue Inlet at low tide in the face of rough seas crashing against its shoals, paddle over thirty sea miles, before entering and crossing one of the busiest inlets on the east coast before reaching our campsite on the Shackleford banks. If the Beaufort inlet was too dangerous, we were prepared to cross in front and paddle nine more miles to the safety of a natural harbor at Cape Lookout.  An early departure at sunrise was planned. Over the night, very little sleep was had as we listened to the crashing waves from our beds. In my case anxiety got the best of me.  All of us knew to reach tomorrow's destination would summon every bit of our skills and take a bit of good fortune.

The following morning at 5:55 am, five kayaks set off for the inlet under the promise of a golden sunrise.  The wind had diminished and I felt better sitting in my kayak, satisfied with my preparations and was anxious to get started.  We made our way toward the inlet in good spirits, crossing the ICW, and skirting Dudley Island.  The sound of the crashing breakers grew louder as we drew closer to the inlet.  As we passed between Emerald Isle and Bear Island, the breakers showed their teeth as the tide drew us closer.  We remained tight in formation so we could communicate, and searched for a clear passage to sea.  There was none. Inlets naturally form shoals from the sand carried in and out with the tidal cycles forming a sometimes hellish gauntlet of breakers.  We could not see what the seas were like behind the shoal break, or new how far out the breakers went. So our plan was to hug Emerald Isle and slip away from the shoal break by moving away from the inlet down the coast, just beyond the reach of the surf.  We maintained formation as we sneaked between the high island surf and the breakers from the shoals.  But all too soon, our luck ran out and we were forced to make a run to sea.  The kayaks broke formation and headed out to sea facing the teeth of the breakers head on.  We were hammered as we slowly inched our way out,  losing sight each other, as each padder was on their own until passing the last of the breakers.  Once clear, we looked around to see who made it, reassembled, and pressed on, relieved that everyone had made it, leaving the gauntlet behind us, earning our place on the ocean, and feeling the task ahead was doable with the much anticipated hostile inlet passage behind us. 

The ocean beyond the inlet was sharp pointed waves, breaking whitecaps at times, with 17 mph winds from the southeast which gave us following seas over our right shoulders the remainder of the day.  Smoother seas were forecast the next day.  The seas were very rocky. We saw no other boats for nearly the entire first day's distance.  Shaken by our passage through the inlet, we sought safety in deeper water, angling our kayaks parallel to the deep rollers on the trip out which kept the boats level as we moved away from the shore to a distance between 1.5 and 2 miles from shore.  The ocean turned from green to a deep clear blue, leaving the sediment of the surf and breakers behind.  We then turned straight east running down the coast, our speed increased with the following waves to between 4.0-5 mph.  Shaking off the turbulent start, and feeling relieved to be under way, all of us began to settle into our new environment at sea.  For the first time, we took in the views and enjoyed the splendor of the rising sun over a vast emptiness.  The sea reflecting its twisting rays on the heaving waves.  The land was far away and featureless, disappearing in the trough of the large rollers. The waves even at 1.5 miles out were blown very sharp and tall by the wind. On one occasion, I planted my paddle down, and it did not hit the water.  Occasionally, wave-tops would break over the side of our kayaks. So we spread our formation to prevent the waves from tossing one on top of another, but kept close enough to ensure everyone was safe.  Rarely, could you see everyone at one time as we constantly moved over the waves through the troughs.  We were reassured by our arsenal of safety equipment including VHF radios, satellite tracking beacons, horns, flares, and family monitoring our progress on the internet.

Anyone traveling on the ocean in a small craft will soon notice its rhythms.  Waves exist in groups of different sizes known to mariners as "wave sets".  At times, a set of waves 10 to 12 feet would hit broadside forcing us to frequently brace our kayaks.  As the day progressed bracing became more of a subconscious action.  Calmer sets afforded an opportunity to take care of various tasks, grab a fist full of trail mix, a couple of crackers, or sip some water from the hydration unit.  Each task was quickly handled since one hand off the paddle would leave the kayak vulnerable.  When reaching for food, I would store several bites in my mouth and consume the food over the next couple of minutes. I was relying on my 3 liter hydration unit to last most of the day.  When depleted, I had several bottles stored under my sea-sock in my cockpit to fall back on.  I had a bottle for bathroom breaks at sea.  My pantry was in my deck bag, as was some safety equipment during surf passages.  My Feathercraft K1 was designed for the sea, but I still worked a small safety brace in with each stroke for safety.  We were well over a mile out and the last thing you wanted to do was go over and possibly put another paddler at risk attempting a deep water rescue.  Everyone at all times kept a wary eye on the unsettled wave train for rogue waves cracking over our heads and other bothersome waves.  Over the course of first day, several waves broke over our kayaks.  Each time, we were

 quick with the low brace.
As the day progressed, the tall wave sets became less frequent and we were putting several miles behind us.  However, at 15 miles into the estimated 32 miles, the pounding of the breakers in the inlet and the large rollers far from shore had taken its toll, and Lee requested a surf landing.  Also,  Barrett's rear storage compartment taking on water.  At the time of the decision, were still 1.5 miles off shore and could not see the surf, but we all knew it would be bad, and dreaded the looming confrontation.  Two miles later as we came close to shore, the waves grew behind us.  The surf was breaking far out from the beach,  we ran the gauntlet one by one.  Lee and Chris made great surf landings.  The rest of us met with misfortune on the way in and were tossed from our kayaks.  When near shore I looked over my shoulder, and saw Barrett's kayak nearly vertically standing on its nose on a monster wave and feared for his safety.  However, he made it to shore none the worse for wear.

Despite the rough landing, we all made it to shore and enjoyed the beach for nearly an hour.  Beach goers admired our equipment and posed for photographs in front of our kayaks.  Barrett emptied his kayak and secured his hatch, and Lee was feeling much better after replenishing his electrolytes and felt able to complete the journey to Shackleford Banks.  I replenished my on-hand provisions, topping off my hydration unit with one of the two 3 liter tanks in my storage hold. We ate lunch since it was 11:00 and the only time we would touch land until the day's paddle was over after 17 more miles.  I was rather surprised how much water I had consumed at sea.  Once our break was over, we readied our kayaks for sea and launched through the rough surf which relentlessly pounded us for nearly 100 yards out.

Once more we were underway, and cruised only a 500 yards to a quarter mile from shore.  The closer proximity to shore put us more at risk for breaking waves.   Over the remainder of the day's paddle had a few narrow escapes.  We headed east passing Atlantic beach.  As we approached the Ft. Macon (a civil war fort at the end of Emerald Isle) and the Beaufort Inlet, the waves had once again increased to around 8 to 12 feet.  At this point, we were more comfortable in these seas. We were quickly approaching Beaufort Inlet (one of the busiest inlets on the east coast).  Last year when we crossed the Beaufort inlet, we felt like mice crossing a freeway.  However, this time, the rough seas left the inlet nearly devoid of traffic. But large breakers were guarding the flanks of the channel, leaving us with a choice of heading back out to sea a mile to clear the breakers and ride the 40 ft deep channel in, or sneak around the rock jetty along Ft. Macon into the inlet.  We decided to sneak in the back door.  By this time, the tide was going in and we rode it past the breakers, crossed the channel and made our way across the inlet to the uninhabited Shackleford Banks where we planned to camp.

We pulled our kayaks up to a protected beach and set up camp, relieved that we survived the paddle without serious incident, and no rescues.  We were settling in as the daytime boaters were packing to go home.  We had traveled 34 miles and had only 10 more to Cape Lookout ahead of us.  My hands were very badly blistered and swollen, resembling ground chuck.

We took a much overdue swim and prepared to cook a wonderful Fajita dinner.  Barrett and Chris had bought some thick stakes which Lee had sliced and froze the night before.  The steak and vegetables were put into a flexible cooler and packed for the trip. We carried along 2 frying pans.  I brought along my Jet Boil with an attachment to accommodate the large pans.  Lee was the master cook for the night and made simply the best outdoor dinner I ever remember having.  We walked around to the ocean side and checked out the Shackleford side of the inlet for our departure the next day, and turned in early from what was very remarkable day.  As the last of the daytime boaters left, peace and the gentile sound of the water descende on our camp site. A gentle breeze cooled the approaching evening. We were tired. The distanced paddled in the ocean was the farthest that Lee and I had ever done in one day, and was the furthest offshore any of us had paddled.

As the sun rose on sunday, we were pleasantly rewarded for the previous day's perseverance with placid glass like seas, promising smooth passage.  After breakfast, we broke camp and set off at 8:00 am for the 11 mile trip to the Cape Lookout light.  After hitting some strange currents in the inlet, the tide swept us ouclear of the inlet and into the ocean, where we set course east once again on a straight line to Cape Lookout along a featureless, barren Shackleford banks.

The 10 miles to the "Bight" (what the locals call the bay) was easy, but hot as there was no wind, and a very hot sun.  After 5 miles,  we spotted the lighthouse on the horizon amid a rather hazy sky left from long burning forest fires a hundred miles to the southwest.  My hands were still swollen and hurting from the previous day, but in consideration of the splendid day on hand, I had little to complain about. 

Finally, we entered the bight, and made our way to the lighthouse.  The whole area was crawling with day-trippers. We crossed the Barden channel and pulled up on a nice little protected beach near the lighthouse.  By that time we spotted two kayakers with greenland paddles.  Our shuttle drivers, Bill Bremer his wife Laura, who had stayed in the comfort of Lee's house, enjoying the fine restaurants of Swansboro, arrived in their kayaks from the takeout to escort us the last leg to Harker's Island.  They had launched at 10:20 after staging Lee's Van and kayak trailer for the Hour and 15 minute drive back to the start of the expedition, and arrived within 10 minutes of us at the lighthouse.

After spending some time on the Beach and eating lunch, we set off on the last leg with the long traveled ocean to our backs, we made though the Barden Inlet and past the inland marsh of Shackleford Banks where we found ourselves among the fabled shackleford horses who paid us no mind, but rewarded us with their stately presence.  After being shipwrecked 400 years ago by the spanish and surviving countless hurricanes, they seemed no worse for ware and content without anyone's help.  We followed the channel to Harker's Island where our vehicle and kayak trailer was waiting.

At journey's end we sat for a minute reflecting all we had done and the places traveled over the two days. The tide had favored us through the 4 inlet passages. Over the last 2 days, I had grown remarkably in my paddling experience and confidence.  We encountered the sea and her many wiles on her terms of which she afforded us safe passage, allowing us to experience living on the edge out at sea as countless mariners before, and wind down with a splendid placid journey on one of the Atlantic's most beautiful coastlines and marsh. Seems hardly possible two days could be enough for all we have done.  However, the lasting effects, of what we have learned and experienced these two days will carry forth for a lifetime.

Copyright 2012 Lyman  A Copps

1 comment:

  1. Chip, this looks great and I love this story - I read it again, of course! I think the pics with it make it a well rounded read. Thanks for posting and for working on the blog, both are awesome!