Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cape Ann

Cape Ann, Massachusetts is one of those places that no New England paddling guidebook could ignore. A peninsula jutting well into the Atlantic from the North Shore, paddlers are drawn to its bold shoreline, as well as its harbors and islands. But the fact that the Annisquam River and the Blynman Canal essentially turn the Cape into an island raises the challenge of a circumnavigation. That's how my mind works anyway. When I plan routes, a "there and back" route looks okay, but when the thought of a circumnavigation lodges itself in my imagination, I start obsessing over the possibilities.

In addition, Cape Ann is the site of the Blackburn Challenge, an annual paddle and oar-powered race around the Cape, commemorating Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester dory fisherman who, in 1883, became separated from his schooner in a squall and rowed for five days to save himself. His dorymate died, but Blackburn persisted, despite freezing his hands to the oars, losing most of his fingers. Blackburn went on to set transatlantic sailing records and became known as "The Fingerless Navigator." Appropriately, the race, spanning 17 to more than 20 nautical miles, depending on your route choices, is known for difficult conditions, resulting in numerous capsizes.

Emboldened by my previous day's circumnavigation of Plum Island, I headed for Gloucester and launched in the Annisquam River for a trip around Cape Ann. The tidal circumstances were close to those of the race, with a mid-morning max ebb moving north through the Annisquam. I launched a bit after max ebb, winding the first 3.5 nautical miles through the tidal river, arriving at the Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse in under an hour- still a good bit behind the pace of racers... but I was here to do some sightseeing.

Plum Island dunes on the previous day

The northwest side of the Cape gave me calm water and sunny skies. I could see the dunes of Plum Island stretching northward, and I felt a satisfying sense of connecting the dots. I knew Isles of Shoals were out there somewhere-- I'd gazed out at the flashing lighthouse from Salisbury State Reservation, where I'd camped the past couple of nights, and last fall I'd gazed southward from the islands at the wind generators rising above Cape Ann, but from kayak height I saw only featureless ocean. On shore, big, pricey homes stood shoulder to shoulder. At the north end, people clustered among the rocks at Halibut State Reservation, and though it looked nice there, as usual, I felt glad to be the one on the water.

Just after Halibut Point, I gradually became more exposed to the south/southwest wind. I rounded Andrews Point and could see Sandy Bay stretched out ahead, with the breakwater and Straitsmouth Island marking the other side, and beyond, the two lighthouses on Thacher Island, where I hoped to stop for lunch. I'd had no specific plans about going to the head of Sandy Bay to check-out Rockport, but since the bay was corrugated with small, closely-spaced waves, I chose the path of least resistance and headed for Rockport. Still, it was a slog, paddling against the wind, which should have been a clue about what I faced on the southeast side of Cape Ann.

While heading in to Rockport added some distance, I had a chance to see a little of the town, and it gave me a chance to paddle in the lee as I made my way to Straitsmouth Island- a needed break. I ate a Clif Bar and tried to mentally prepare myself for the next stretch, which I expected might be a bit rougher. I passed through Straitsmouth Gap and focused on Thacher Island, about a mile and a half distant. The island is unmistakeable, due to the pair of tall lighthouses. By Straitsmouth Gap, I'd been in my boat about three hours and had paddled about 10 nautical miles. All that way I'd imagined myself having lunch on this neat island with the two lighthouses, and though I could tell that the this side of the Cape would be far more exposed to the wind and swell, I hadn't envisioned any backup plans. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone back and had lunch on the beach in Rockport and retraced my route back around the northwest shore.

Instead, I kept the bow stubbornly pointed to those twin lighthouses as the wind increased and the swells grew taller. At first I attributed the rough conditions to increased current at Straitsmouth Gap, but it should have been quickly obvious that this was part of a bigger pattern, and would only get worse. So, though I was paddling alone in what were still essentially winter conditions, I let destination fever get the better of me, and I was no longer protected by my usual risk management standards. 

Still, it was easy enough to ride over the waves, grit my teeth into the wind, and eventually I made it to Thacher Island. Again, this was an opportunity to make the safer choice and head back the way I came. I considered the conditions as I ate lunch, looking out at the backs of waves, which didn't look so bad. To the southwest, the shores of Cape Ann were ringed in white seas, but somehow I was able to rationalize it and make the wrong choice. Call it destination fever, circumnavigation syndrome, or just plain stupidity- I allowed myself to ignore the facts in front of me and continued with my plan. I would regret it almost constantly for the next two and a half hours.

Here's a video of the trip. Of course, when I returned home and looked at the video clips, I was uncertain as to whether the waves had grown in my mind or if the wide angle lens just has a way of flattening things out... or perhaps the angle of the boat conforming to that of the wave. And I didn't manage to turn the camera on for the roughest spots (of course- excuses, excuses). Either way, it felt bigger and more hazardous than it appears, and I think some of that may be due to my epiphany, not long into this stretch, that I was in a place I didn't want to be. Though I felt good about the rolls and rescues I'd practiced weekly in the pool over the winter, I'd paddled far and I already felt exhausted. The water was 41 degrees. My hands were stiff from gripping the paddle too tightly, and I began to doubt my ability to roll or self-rescue. And I felt very aware that the consequences of a missed roll here could be dire. I squinted at my chart, trying to be aware of the nearest features, should I need to call the Coast Guard. 

There's a lot to be said for keeping your cool. The situation is the same, whether you let that little glimmer of panic get to you or not. And yet, part of my risk management is to always be considering what might go wrong, what you can do to minimize the risk, and what you would do if things go south. Those questions became increasingly hard to answer. The shore was mostly inhospitable and steep, rocky or beaches with big, dumpy waves, so landing was not much of an option. And at every spot where I considered it, I told myself to just go a bit further.

To sum up the southwest shore, it was two and a half hours of disorganized, chaotic waves that kept me constantly on my toes, and it wore me down. I had a brief respite in the lee of Salt Island, where I considered landing on Good Harbor Beach, but the logistics of getting back to my car made it preferable to just stick it out and paddle back. Finally, as I came around Eastern Point, the lighthouse was lit-up by diagonal "god rays" shooting down from the clouds, as if announcing my arrival in the promised land. I let the following seas coast me past the breakwater into amazingly calm water. I was a few minutes late for my check-in, so I immediately got out the phone and called Rebecca: "Don't call the Coast Guard," I said.

To the southwest, the skyscrapers of Boston appeared atop the horizon as a collection of dark rectangles, and though I was exhausted, it made me think of the paddling yet to do. If anything, the previous stretch of paddling had given me some very valuable insight into this route, and as I paddled I thought about how I wouldn't want to lure unprepared paddlers into such a potentially chaotic spot. And yet it's a place that paddlers will certainly go, so it underscores the importance of providing that information.

I still had a couple of miles back to the launch, and now, without the aid of adrenaline, I felt each stroke. But I made it back, pausing for a moment below The Gloucester Fisherman statue, dedicated to “They That Go Down To The Sea in Ships,” and paddled into the canal, against the current, back to the launch.

1 comment:

Jeff Folger said...

Great story but you are crazy.. You know that right? :-) I love to photograph Cape Ann so while looking at other things I stopped to read your journal entry. Glad you are safe and as always those things that don't kill us give us great stories to tell later.
Be safe and keep paddling!