Nate and I had a meeting in Bar Harbor, but by mid-morning it was done and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We grabbed a coffee and a pastry at the Morning Glory bakery and soon enough found ourselves down at the town pier, looking out over Frenchman Bay, wondering where we might go. With the wind from the northwest, we didn’t expect much swell, and we figured that following the southeast shore of Mount Desert Island south of town might keep us in the lee of the wind for awhile, so we headed that way.
The first stretch of shoreline curves below a hotel and a popular pedestrian path. Just to the south, a rock jetty stretches most of the way from Bald Porcupine Island to the shore, buffering this part of the harbor from the biggest swell. We were in no rush to get anywhere though, and found pleasant distractions in the small waves among the near-shore rocks.
It occurred to me that I had paddled this stretch in one of my first classes with Mark Schoon, probably about ten years ago when he’d gauged my poor edging skills and led me and Todd though an obstacle course of rocks to get us turning better- probably my introduction to contour paddling.
As Nate and I moved down the shore, playing in one rockweed-cushioned spot after another, watched over by pedestrians above with zoom lenses, we started to realize what a great progression it made, the waves getting slightly bigger until we got past the jetty and you start to feel the unfettered open ocean swell rolling in. But just as the stakes start to raise, there’s a perfect opportunity for a little calm water or a break in Compass Cove, where the National Park owns a beach and a rocky outcrop that shelters it.
Right off of this outcrop we found a sometimes-exposed reef close to shore where the incoming waves built up and poured-over the rocks- a perfect spot to position yourself to catch one of those waves as it spills over. We did this again and again… and again, longer than most people would probably find interesting, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that helps hone skills. And it was just fun in a mesmerizing, childlike way.
We pulled ourselves away and continued south along the shore and found that there are a number of such pour-overs along here. We also noticed the seas gradually building, and our level of care increased with them. In some slots and cave-like undercuts that we’d explored in calmer conditions, we opted to pass by outside of the breaking wave zone.
Just past a spectacular cliff-top mansion called High Seas, Nate ventured close to the overhung cliff and discovered a small roundish indent in the rock that, when the waves hit it just right, ejected a massive eruption of spray and wave. The waves came in and rebounded like a bumper pool shot, and if you positioned yourself just right, you could catch a thrilling ride, enveloped in a thick cloud of spray. In some of the photos we took of our best rides, all you see is water, the paddler completely consumed.
It began to occur to us that the seas were getting much bigger than predicted, and it wasn’t just the near-shore anomalies. If your level of vigilance hasn’t ratcheted-up a notch, it certainly should here. We later spoke of how, when the conditions really build and turn chaotic, we get into a state of hyper-awareness, always on, constantly making a systematic check of all the possible things that might go wrong… looking for that next big wave and anticipating what it will do, inventorying the possible exit plans… where’s the nearest landing? Where’s the route out to open water. Where do we want to position ourselves when the other is trying-out a feature?
In addition to being fun places to play in pour-overs, the offshore reefs can provide places to seek temporary shelter from the incoming waves, but beginning back at Compass Harbor, this stretch of shoreline is thin on shelter or bailouts. We started looking for a spot for lunch, paddling around Schooner Head and into a cove, where we provided entertainment for some homeowners in the telltale binocular-gazing position on their deck. We checked-out one spot after another, and each time a bigger than usual set came-in and pummeled the shore. We even thought about swim landings, but every spot we considered would get wiped clean by the tallest waves. So we paused for a granola bar and turned back, hitting some of those same features a second time on our way north.
One That Got Away
Just offshore from High Seas, a green can marks the edge of the deeper channel, as well as Newport Ledge just inland. We glanced out there just as a monstrous wave reared-up and rolled toward shore. As we paddled toward the spot, we gauged the biggest waves at 8-10 feet. It seemed like a good enough spot to catch something like that; as long as you’re past the ledge there’s plenty of space between there and shore, and the waves seemed to settle-down fairly quickly. If we’d watched longer, we would have realized that a primary swell was followed by a secondary swell, and occasionally they stacked-up on top of each other, creating… well, a really monstrous wave.
Often Nate goes first, but I seemed to be in position as a good-looking wave built behind me… then another good-looking wave built upon that. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it before, but suddenly I had what was... a very tall wall of water rising right behind me, starting to break. I’ll admit, it was a lot bigger than anything I wanted to try to surf, and it felt creepy. I straightened my boat and took a deep breath, aware that just about anything might happen in the next moments. The breaking crest hissed, a sound akin to lightning ripping across the sky, and I felt my stern rise. I took a couple strokes forward… and it passed beneath me. It was like looking off a cliff. I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t catch it, but also certainly relieved.
We hung around there for longer than we should have, trying to catch a wave without much luck, finally heading back along shore, stopping in Compass Cove for a long-awaited break, and tooling-about the near shore rocks between there and town, in waves that felt far more manageable than at the beginning of the day.