Our pool sessions in Bar Harbor continue, but yesterday was Mark Schoon’s last session with us for awhile. He’s headed to Norway for three months to continue the Norway expedition that he began last year with Jeff Allen. On our way home, after the Thai food, which I start hungering for half-way through our practice, we stopped at a gas station. I got talking with a guy who told me he paddles out to the Cranberry Islands with a surfboard strapped on his back deck to get to a distant reef break. He also mentioned that a kayaker had been lost at sea just a week ago, at Isle of Shoals, a seven-mile crossing he’d attempted solo.
So of course I looked it up when I got home, and found the story, which raises as many questions as it answers. As is often the case when someone is lost at sea, we can only look at the clues and guess what happened. We look at reports of kayaking mishaps hoping to find several things, perhaps foremost, we want to know what separates this person from ourselves; what was he doing wrong that I’m doing right? In this case, as far as I can tell, the answer is nothing.
Reports indicate that he had made the trip many times, that he was experienced and wore adequate gear. I won’t repeat the whole story here, but it sounds as if the conditions dramatically worsened on his return crossing: 2 to 6-foot seas, gusts to 40. The Coast Guard began searching only two and a half hours after his last communication, when it was discovered that he hadn’t returned to his car. His kayak was found at seven the next morning, floating upside down, the paddle still tethered to it with the paddle float attached to one end. The Coast Guard later suspended the search without finding the kayaker.
After such incidents, you can’t help but carry it with you in the back of your mind, especially when you head out alone in the winter. It’s a good thing. One should always be asking those questions, evaluating circumstances, not taking anything for granted.
Yesterday we had northwest winds, and since the kayaks were still on the car from Saturday’s pool session, I thought it would be a good opportunity to launch from Reach Beach (Gray’s Cove) and paddle back to Stonington. It was the first time I’d launched there, and it began with a long carry over the mudflats. The area would be better at higher tides. I paddled into Greenlaw Cove, and went around Campbell Island, only to turn back when the water gave way to mud. Despite the 10 to 15 mph wind on the other side of Deer Isle, it was fairly calm in the cove. I headed out around Stinson Neck, and as I’d predicted, the stretch from the Lazygut Islands to Sheep Island, which has some fetch to the northwest, looked a bit bumpier. I tethered my paddle, and headed out.
I only had a mile to go before I’d be in the lee of Sheep, but the wind picked up right away, and I turned into it. The waves came tightly spaced, not too big, but as I proceeded, whitecaps formed, and the wind roared in my ears. Now and then a gust hit, forcing me to crouch as I paddled. I told myself it was just a gust; it wouldn’t last, but they were lasting longer. I looked back to the shore I’d left, but I was committed, and because of my angle, I would end up upwind of Sheep. And of course, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking of that poor guy down at Isle of Shoals, who probably didn’t think he was in over his head until it was too late. This wasn’t the kind of solo winter paddling I really wanted to do, but here I was.
But you tell yourself that the roar in the air around you is more of a psychological obstacle. Just pay attention to what’s ahead, focus, and you slowly get through it. And what if I did get knocked over? The day before, in the pool, I’d rolled and braced many many times. I’d cowboy rescued, re-entered and rolled, come up with a sculling brace. Sure, it’s all easier in the pool, but if you don’t lose your cool, it’s basically the same, only the water is 34 degrees and there’s wind and waves.
When I made it to the western shore, I looked back at the water I’d crossed: it hardly even looked rough. Okay, whitecaps here and there, but still, nothing that would hold me back. I checked the GoMoos buoy history later on, which recorded 25 mph gusts at that time. By the time I got home, I felt like I’d been on the paddling equivalent of a treadmill.