Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Trip Report: Cedar Island to Portsmouth and Ocracoke

On Friday, April 29 Lee Toler led a group of four paddlers, including myself, John Keeter, and Chris Rezac on a trip to Ocracoke Island. Lee had outlined a plan that would take us around the island in three days, and after some email exchanges to discuss options we agreed on an ambitious but achievable itinerary. We would leave from the Cedar Island ferry terminal near mid-day on the 29th (after a 4 hour drive from Raleigh) and make the crossing to Portsmouth Island, camping on the beaches lining Ocracoke Inlet. The second day would take us out the inlet and northeast along Ocracoke on the ocean side, reentering the sound through Hatteras inlet and staying on the south end of Hatteras Island. On the third day we would paddle southwest on the sound side, camping just south of Ocracoke Harbor. We would finish on Monday by loading our boats on the ferry for the return ride to Cedar Island and the drive back to Raleigh. Lee had timed tides to give us favorable currents into and out of the inlets and the winds, though forecast to run against us in both directions, would be relatively tame at 10-15 miles per hour. So despite the roughly 60 miles total distance we all felt comfortable in our ability to handle the conditions. In the end, we would have nearly completed the 35 mile circumnavigation of Ocracoke Island, but for the several miles between Springer’s Point and Ocracoke Inlet.

Cedar Island ferry terminal
We launched as planned around noon on Friday under grey skies. We had encountered some rain on the drive to Cedar Island, but it had stopped by the time we got our paddles wet. Our plan was to paddle a straight course to the north end of Portsmouth Island. This would take us far enough out into the Sound that land would be barely visible, if at all. So we were to be guided by compass for the first leg of our trip. A moderate breeze off our front quarter and some light 1-2 foot swells from the same direction kept trying to draw us off course, but with occasional corrections we were able to maintain our heading. The breeze and spray kept me cool and comfortable in my drysuit (water temperatures were still in the low 60s, cold enough to be cautious), and the clouds gradually opened up to reveal patches of blue sky. All in all a very pleasant day on the water.

Until I got seasick. If you’re ever considering getting seasick, I have some advice: Don’t do it. Few things can ruin an enjoyable day of paddling more than the firm conviction that you’d rather die than spend another minute in your boat. In my limited experience with coastal paddling I’ve encountered seasickness about one out of every 5 times I paddle. So my advice isn’t entirely facetious; I have now decided that a 20% chance of being miserable isn’t worth the risk, and I’ll be taking Dramamine before every coastal paddle. I’ve never yet gotten seasick on a day when I’ve taken it, so it seems to be effective for me and has no apparent negative side effects. Unfortunately, while I had packed Dramamine in my first aid kit and even had a pill accessible in my pdf “ouch pouch,” I had decided not to take one prior to launch. Which leads to my second bit of advice: If you do get seasick, let your fellow paddlers know right away. It’s somewhat embarrassing to get seasick on a paddle like this—it is sea kayaking, after all, and hard to accept the fact that your body just can’t handle the “sea” part—and the inclination is to keep quiet and hope beyond reason that it’ll just go away. It won’t. In fact, it will almost certainly get worse. It’s far better to let your group know about the problem before you’re utterly incapacitated. Once I knew things were going downhill I drew up alongside Lee to let him know, at which point we all discussed options and planned to adjust our course to head toward the Core Banks and shallow water. This would take us a bit out of our way, but we’d still be heading in the right general direction.

Pitstop in shallow water in the Sound
As any nautical chart will show, there is a lot of very shallow water in the northern Core Sound. We were still quite a ways from solid marsh when we reached water shallow enough for me to hop out and stand next to my boat. The relief was immediate. We spent the next 30 minutes or so taking water and snacks and experimenting with various approaches to peeing from a boat while wearing a drysuit (experimental results available on request). Eventually I felt well enough to continue, and we headed off. I would have to stop one more time before we reached our destination, on the edge of a marsh prior to reaching Portsmouth Island. Fortunately I was able to continue paddling the entire time. The group decision to find shallow water and take additional stops allowed me to avoid the more debilitating effects of seasickness. In the end, I suspect that the extra distance and rest stops ended up delaying us much less than if I had needed a nurse boat and a tow.  In retrospect, given our plan for a long crossing without opportunity to land I definitely should have taken a Dramamine before launch to remove any risk; if shallow water hadn't been an option, things could have gotten much worse for me and the group.

Setting up camp on Portsmouth Island
We reached our landing on Portsmouth Island after 18 miles of paddling and well before dark. Once on sandy beach I made a full recovery, and we were all able to find a site and set up camp at a leisurely pace while the sun set. We pitched tents in the dunes just off the beach, and aside from some mild uncertainty about the likelihood of the tide overtopping the dunes (it would not), we spent a very pleasant evening refueling and resting. The campsite was mercifully free of mosquitoes. Portsmouth Island has a rather infamous reputation, and I had troubled myself by reading online horror stories of mosquito-plagued outings prior to the trip. But the breeze and the early season conspired to keep us bug-free, and to provide us with perfect camping conditions.

Portsmouth Island campsite
The next morning (after dutifully taking my Dramamine) we headed out Ocracoke inlet on the outgoing tide, taking a pretty steep ferry angle across the inlet to avoid getting swept out to sea. Before heading out we spent some time surveying the sandbars and breakers to find the safest route out to open water. We proceeding cautiously, pausing occasionally to discuss options and try to locate a calm path around the point. Our patience paid off, and we ended up getting outside without incident, following a relatively surf-free passage that cut inside an offshore break.

Once on the ocean side we headed northeast along the Ocracoke coast, directly into the wind. Fortunately the wind was as forecast, around 15 miles per hour. Having dealt with worse wind before I felt that we were making decent time, probably moving along at 3 miles per hour or better. But the markers on land seemed to tell a different story. After several hours of paddling we appeared to be making little progress, and decided to make a surf landing to take stock of the situation and get some food and rest. The landing was not entirely uneventful; the second boat in got tumbled in the surf after landing, coming up on top of the first boat and causing some minor damage. An important lesson learned: Spacing and timing are critical for surf landings. With so much beach available to us we should have been spread out much more. Also: Loaded boats and surf are a risky combination. It’s hard to control a loaded boat once you’re out of it, and the surf never seems to care that you haven’t quite gotten your boat out of the water before the next wave breaks.

On the beach we consulted Lee’s GPS, and were dismayed to learn that we had made it only about one third of the way up the island. We were barely averaging 2 miles per hour. Over the remainder of that day we pieced together an explanation. We had been fighting not only wind, but strong littoral or “longshore” current caused by swell approaching the coast at an angle. The northeast wind had been blowing for several days, building up 3 to 4 foot swell coming from that direction, nearly right in our faces. The associated current was running against us parallel to shore, and had been slowing us much more than we anticipated based solely on the wind. This effect was later confirmed by some other boaters we ran into, who commented on the strong longshore current to the southwest. Some quick calculations revealed that even if we kept up our current speed we wouldn’t reach Hatteras Inlet until the tide had turned against us. We discussed the possibility of continuing onward and camping instead at the north end of Ocracoke before entering the inlet, but we soon rejected this option. It would have gotten us in late after a grueling paddle, we didn’t know what would be available in terms of campsites, and (most problematic) we had all planned only for enough water to last through one night and couldn’t be guaranteed resupply. So the group opted to head back; we would reenter Ocracoke Inlet and camp at Springer’s Point, where we had originally planned to camp on the third night.

The experience presented a sobering lesson in the importance and challenge of accurately judging speed in conditions. The strength of the littoral current and its effect on our progress was surprising to all of us. Had we not been near shore with ample opportunities to judge land speed using obvious markers (water towers and other structures), we could have seriously overestimated our distance traveled and been in real trouble mistiming tides at the next inlet.

After launching through the surf we headed back to the southwest, flying downwind (and down current) and topping out at speeds over 6 miles per hour. We re-entered the inlet the same way we exited—cautiously, looking again for the path we had taken on the way out. We hit a bit more surf in this direction, which John took as the perfect opportunity to execute his first combat roll. After rounding the point it was a smooth paddle, mostly shielded from the northeast wind, to a calm beach landing at Springer’s Point. After setting up camp we walked through the nature preserve into Ocracoke and rewarded ourselves for 18.5 miles of hard paddling and judicious planning with pizza, beer, and ice cream.

Springer's Point beach
Since our plan for circumnavigation was shot, we mulled over a number of options for the next day. Unfortunately tides would not be conducive to heading out the inlet again, even just for a day of surf play. And a long paddle back to the takeout at Cedar Island just seemed like a lot of effort without the promise of anything new—plus, the wind was forecast to shift 180 degrees overnight, and would be right in our faces for a trip back across the Sound. So we decided to get up late, have breakfast in Ocracoke, and take the early afternoon ferry back to Cedar Island. From there Lee, John, and I would drive over to Lee’s place to spend the night, followed by a Monday morning surf session at Bogue Inlet. Chris decided to head home Sunday night, saving his vacation day for another trip.

Just one quick note on the ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island: It is outrageously inexpensive. One dollar gets you on board as a walk-on, and bikes cost a mere $2 more. Kayaks, mysteriously, are free.

Tides again worked for us at Bogue Inlet on Monday morning; we let the tail end of the outgoing tide carry us out in the morning, and rode the beginnings of the flood back in the early afternoon. Surf was at about 2-4 feet, perfect for a few hours of practice catching waves, bracing, and perfecting our rolls. John and I, both relatively new to the surf zone, found the conditions just right to challenge ourselves and build confidence in rougher water. At the start of the flood tide the water just outside the inlet turned confused, with a small area of clapotis and waves breaking from multiple directions, ideal for practicing timely bracing and boat and blade awareness. It turned out to be a fortuitous addition to the trip, something we wouldn’t have gotten had conditions not forced us to deviate from our original plan. It was a great end to a great weekend--challenging paddling, fantastic early summer camping, and good group decision-making made for an enjoyable trip and a valuable learning experience.

Taking a break from the surf at Bogue Inlet (photo by John Keeter)