Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Advice: 5 Tips for Kayak Fishing (once in a while)

Kayak fishing has grown into a popular subcategory of kayaking activities. Many folks who ordinarily would not be kayakers have come into the sport specifically to fish. The advantages of not having to purchase or maintain a powered boat, or to rely on paid excursions - plus the capacity to access areas where powered boats can't go is appealing to many fishermen/women. In most cases that results in the purchase of a fishing-specific sit-on-top kayak. These are wide, stable, built with multiple rod holder locations, and typically have some flat deck space to carry coolers, bait boxes, tackle boxes, etc. All of these features make sense if your primary intention for kayaking is to catch fish. Some of these fishing kayaks even come with an insert that fits a pedal driven propulsion system into the middle of the kayak - keeping hands free to manage a rod, while not needing to paddle for forward movement (great for trolling a few lines behind you as you go). The down side of these fishing-specific kayaks are that they are heavy, slow over long distances, expensive (depending on how they're fitted out and whether used or new), and probably not "rollable" - if you tip over, you will have to climb back on board, and getting that heavy kayak reoriented will not be easy. This could be a safety issue in very cold water (see my post Safety is a Mindset).

But, what if you're only interested in fishing from your kayak "once in while"?. I have done so on several occasions, accompanied by my kayak fishing partner in crime, Mike. Mike has the full fishing-specific rig (minus a propulsion system - he just paddles), which comes in handy for holding an extra rod I can use, plus a cooler on his back deck. I am on my Sea Dart sit-on-top kayak most times, but have also been inside a closed hull touring style sea kayak (see my post Which Kayak Should I Buy?). How do I manage that? As I mentioned, I have the good fortune of fishing with a true kayak fisherman, so I can take advantage of some of the features of his boat. However, I use some tactics that could be helpful for the kayaker who does not have the benefit of such an arrangement:

1. How are you going to transport your fishing rod? This may seem simple, but it's not. It's not a good idea, in general, to get your reel wet with salt water. It's going to happen at some point, but minimizing that occurrence, and keeping your reel from getting dunked, if possible, is a good idea. You can stow your rod underneath deck lines, you can have it partially disassembled inside your cockpit, or you can stow it disassembled in your dry storage/flotation compartments. All of these are reasonable choices, but all of them make accessing your fishing rod difficult when you're on the water. You would be best to stop somewhere to get your rod set up, then proceed back onto the water (maybe with the exception of the deck line storage). Otherwise, you're looking at installing a fishing rod holder assembly.

2. How are you going to hold/manage your fishing rod while paddling? This is where real decisions have to be made. Fishing rod holders come in various designs that include deck mounted options, or options that penetrate the deck and reside inside the cavity of the boat. Each has it's advantages and disadvantages, not the least of which is adding penetrations through your deck - either with the screws or the holder itself. These can be leak points, and need to be sealed thoroughly when the rod holders are installed. Some deck mount assemblies have a couple of parts to them, so most of the assembly can be easily removed when it's not needed. Some deck mounting systems are modular, so you can attach something like a cup holder instead of a rod holder when you want to. How often you will be fishing, and what type of rod holder is right for you deserves consideration. The simplest method, which I have used, is to unbuckle the top buckle of your PFD (life jacket), and slide the rod handle inside the front. This can work if your PFD fits snugly - but take caution to keep the reel away from your face with the handle away from you, so it doesn't whack you if you get a bite. And remember, if you do go for a rod holder make sure to mount it where you can comfortably reach it from your seated position. Sit in or on your boat and play with the motions of releasing your paddle and grabbing the rod handle to (hopefully 😏) reel in a fish. This will help you properly locate the rod holder, so you don't mistakenly create any unnecessary deck penetrations.     

3. What will you do with your paddle? You only have 2 hands, which will both be required to reel in a fish - one to hold the rod, the other to turn the reel handle. So, no hands will be available to hold your paddle. If you have a dependable paddle leash, you can just toss your paddle into the water, and pull it back in after you have the fish caught (and released most times - be a good steward). If you're dexterous, you might be able to slide your paddle blade under deck rigging before attending to your bent rod and spinning reel, but you have to be quick - a big striped bass can pull you on a "sleigh ride", and maybe even pull you off balance. I like having my paddle quickly accessible to deal with any unforeseen issues, like getting pulled into a boat lane for instance. So, you might want to consider a paddle holder system. Like rod holders, there are many designs and configurations - just make sure anything screwed in gets sealed, and that your paddle is held securely, but still easily retrievable. 

4. Where will you keep additional gear? Sure, you can stow tackle, bait, pliers, a knife to cut line, and any other gear that makes baiting a hook, or getting the fish off your hook, possible in a storage compartment. But, will you have easy access to these items when you need them? You will need them secured to your boat, but accessible - which probably calls for some kind of deck bag storage. Most deck bags can be rigged to your deck lines temporarily - so they won't be in the way when you don't need them. As with the rod holder location, play with your deck bag location to see what works best. You might want it closer to you than you'd otherwise think, to make for quicker access to items as you need them.

5. Understand that you have added complexity. Paddling a kayak in ocean or river conditions can be challenging enough. Adding the complexity of managing a fishing rod, casting your line, abandoning your paddle temporarily, unhooking the fish for release - all without catching the hook on your earlobe...well that's another level altogether. Maintaining balance and your location awareness should you hook a big one is a new kind of challenge. But when you get that fish in, and realize you were much closer to the action by being right on the water, you'll know why you came. Just take the time to think it through beforehand, and set your gear up in a way that makes sense. Then, you won't have to think about it when you're in the middle of that "sleigh ride", and you and the fish can meet somewhere in the middle.

I'm not a big fisherman, but I do like to take the occasional fishing excursion with my kayak. It adds another dimension of enjoyment to the overall kayaking experience. I will never be able to manage more than one line in the water at a time with my boat, but that's OK with me. Truth be told, most of the time kayak fishing is a reason for Mike and I to get together out on the water. Trolling lines through a wide marsh river for stripers is a great excuse to watch the birds, listen to the wind, and watch for that rod tip to bend. If it does, then the real fun starts - even with "schoolies" like this one... 

Catching a small striped bass on the Hampton River in New Hampshire
Catching a "schoolie" sized striper on the Hampton River

- TB on the Water       



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Travel: Essex Bay - A Northeast Massachusetts Gem (but where's the parking?)

If you're lucky like me, you live near natural resources that offer sublime experiences without the hassle of a long drive to get there. Essex Bay, situated just north of Cape Ann and Massachusetts' north shore is just such a place. It lays at the mouth of the Essex River, and is protected from open ocean by Crane Beach (a gem of its own). Bordered by the towns of Essex, Ipswich to the north, and Gloucester to the south, Essex Bay is a paradise for boaters, fishermen, and of course, kayakers. (Google map of Essex Bay )

View of Choate Island, Essex Bay Massachusetts
Choate Island with Essex Bay beyond

Some of the features of kayaking on Essex Bay are myriad marsh river waterways, sandbars that appear at lower tides and offer your own temporary private beach under a vast blue sky (just watch your boat, so it doesn't float away from you on a quickly rising tide), and Choate Island (also known as Hog Island) - a filming location for the movie version of The Crucible . Boat traffic can be busy in and out of the main Essex River channel, but there's plenty of space for shallow draft boats like kayaks to explore at their leisure. Striped bass run when the season's right, so you can cast your line from your kayak, or from the shallows to test your luck (with a salt water license in hand, of course 😏). Afterwards, you can feast on the local fried clams or a bucket of "steamers" at any one of several clam shacks in the area.

For those who don't own a kayak, or are just beginning to explore the sport, Essex River Basin Adventures offers tours and training. In fact, one of the first times I paddled a kayak was on one of their tours. That was about 15 years ago, so it looks like the early impression was a good one. The first kayak I purchased was one of their post-season used models - and they even delivered it. I would highly recommend them to anyone who's interested in the occasional kayak adventure, or investigating the sport to see if they like it - and you can do that surrounded by truly beautiful scenery. However (and they'll probably tell you this), there are times of year when you will need to be prepared for the murderous "green head" flies. If you've never had a chunk of flesh bitten off you by one of these evil, and seemingly impervious to blows, vampires, you will be shocked by how much worse it is than a mosquito bite or other fly bite. If you have been bitten by one, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Wear proper clothing and use DEET.     

The one thing that Essex Bay lacks, in my opinion, is easy access to the water. I know, the locals would say that's what the public boat launch is for. The problem with the boat launch (located right off Rt. 133 in Essex), is that the river is narrow at the start, and stays that way for a little while until it opens onto the broader bay. Boat traffic can be heavy during the summer on that river - to and from the boat launch. Even assuming that all motor boats follow the no-wake rules, you will spend significant time dealing with wake waves in a narrow channel. This raises the danger level for paddlers - who could find themselves exposed to boating accidents like this one. Plus, it will add 20 minutes (40 minutes including the return) to your paddling time out to the bay. I have tried to work around this by finding other launch locations - not all "officially sanctioned" locations I should add. I am hesitant to push my luck, though, as the last thing I want is to return to an empty spot where my towed-away truck used to be (see my post Which Kayak Should I Buy? for additional considerations).

Conomo Point is a popular launch area for kayaks - if they are being dropped off. Parking near the water is non-existent. There used to be 3-5 parallel spots available on the return side of Conomo Point Road, across from Beach Circle that those "in the know" could use. For the past couple years, however, "resident sticker only" no-parking signs have restricted parking to the arrival side, about 1/3 of a mile from any access to the water. This requires wheels (like these) to get your kayak to the nearest beach launch, and don't get there too late, or the parked cars will be backed up for quite a ways. It makes getting your kayak into the bay that much harder - and to my mind, seems most unwelcoming. I, for one, don't understand why the town of Essex wouldn't encourage easy access for kayakers to Essex Bay, who might, you know, end up spending some money while they're in town. I'm even reminded (by contrast) of a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (on Sagamore Creek) that lets kayakers pull right up on their beach and grab a bite during the trip (I'll have more on that in a future post). 

Despite the challenge of getting access to the water, Essex Bay is worth the effort (see my post Paddle Trip: Choate Island and Crane Beach). Once I'm on the water there, I'm in another world that is less than an hour from my house. The sun, the salt air, the tall white dunes on the bay side of Crane Beach, the view of the colonial farmstead on Choate Island - this is a quintessential New England experience, and shouldn't be missed. If you only do it once - do it anyway. You'll thank me.

For a bonus tip - avoid the long lines at the touristy clam shacks and sidle up to the bar at the Choate Bridge Pub  in Ipswich. You can hang out with the locals, and order up fried clams that are as good as anything you'll get at the more well known joints. Wash them down with a pitcher of Ipswich Ale - brewed a couple blocks away (fresh is best 😋), and you will have fully experienced the delights of this stretch of the Massachusetts coast, and one of the oldest populated places in the country. You'll be salty, sun bleached, and well fed & watered - all in all, happy as a clam 😊.

- TB on the Water   




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Advice: Where Should I Paddle? - advice on planning your adventure

It might seem like an obvious point, but identifying where you're going to paddle your kayak is essential, and can be the single most important aspect affecting the experience you'll have. Aside from the particulars of how you're going to get your kayak to, and in, the water (see my post Which Kayak Should I Buy? ), planning a trip suitable to your equipment, your skill level, who (if anyone) you'll be with, the water and weather conditions, the time needed to complete the journey, etc. is the first step in having a great experience. Don't get me wrong - there have been times when I've put my kayak in at a lesser known launch point, and experienced the adventure of dealing with conditions on the fly. Some of these trips have been a revelation. Others needed to be abandoned in short order. I feel confident (maybe overly confident 😏) in my experience in recognizing safety hazards (see my post Safety is a Mindset ) and other difficulties. I wouldn't recommend "winging it", though, to anyone new to the sport - or, in general, if you can avoid it. Planning your trip can seem like work, but it is also where you can explore your sense of adventure, and anticipate opportunities that might be available.

Instead of listing suggestions on how to plan your trip, I'll describe one that Tim (see An Unexpected Adventure) and I took a few years ago that still stands out in my memory as one of my most enjoyable...

For a short time, many years ago, I lived in Portland, Maine, across from a park (The Eastern Promenade, or "East Prom" satellite view Google Maps) that sits at the shore of Casco Bay. The location of the park, its large parking lot, and both boat ramp and beach access to the water lingered in the back of my mind as a possible launch location, long after I moved away from Portland. Many islands were visible on Google Maps as possible rest/exploration points (including Fort Gorges on a nearby island). There appeared to be coves and other shelters from any challenging conditions we might encounter, and the availability of a route that could "hug" the coastline of larger islands - making a short swim to shore possible in case of an emergency. Also, the larger islands are populated, so communication for emergency help should have been available if needed. Add a stop in the "Old Port" of Portland's downtown for a cold local beer at the end of the trip, and who could resist?   

That being said, Casco Bay is a large body of water, with boat traffic, working fishermen, tankers coming in to Portland, currents unknown to me, and the inevitable surprises that each trip brings. So, I lobbied Tim to come along, which wasn't really a hard sell considering the features I mentioned in the previous paragraph. We launched from the beach at the East Prom on a hot summer day, and paddled across a busy boat lane to take a close-up look at Fort Gorges. I like to plan an early stop, if possible, to assess any gear issues, and to generally make sure I'm feeling good about the location. We both felt confident, there weren't any gear issues, and the weather, though hot, was perfect for a day on the water. And, as it turns out, we could beach the boats for a little while and explore the abandoned fort, have a snack, and spend some time jumping off a short wall into the water below. So far, so good.

The entrance to Fort Gorges, near Portland, Maine in Casco Bay
Fort Gorges entrance, Casco Bay
A view of the interior of Fort Gorges, near Portland, Maine in Casco Bay
View of Fort Gorges interior

When we got back in the kayaks, we proceeded past walls of the fort that rise high and straight out of the water, and to the east, where we hugged the southern and eastern shores of Little Diamond Island. Passing the large pier at the southern end of Little Diamond, I logged it in my memory as a location feature ( a breadcrumb, if you will) to look for on our return trip. Being among islands can be disorienting, and can sometimes block the view to your destination. Maps can help, but I tend to use them more for the planning stage, and then use the actual physical characteristics of the area (plus a compass on the front deck of my kayak) to navigate. This strategy also helps keep track of your time - as the return trip should need roughly the same time to execute (providing for currents, wind conditions, and fatigue, of course).

We continued to paddle northeast through Diamond Island pass, past Great Diamond Island, then turned east past Pumpkin Knob and straight out to Overset Island. This is where planning couldn't tell us everything we needed to know. Overset Island, although not far off the coast of the larger and populated Long Island, was much more open to the bay than the previous islands we encountered. The wave actions at its' southern tip was much more like open ocean swell than protected harbor. It was important that we not get too close to it - to avoid any danger of getting tossed onto the rocks, or marooned on a rock top by a retreating wave. Maps can show you only so much, and having experience and a paddle buddy allowed us to continue. Had I been alone, I might have called that the end of my outward journey, and turned back around.

Tim and I discussed our plans at that point, and decided to paddle east to one more island -  Vaill Island. It looked from Overset that Vaill had a little cove with maybe a beach - and I thought I saw a boat anchored there. We paddled over much choppier swell than we had seen inside of Overset Island, and pushed hard to reach the cove. When we got there, we were rewarded with sheltered, calm water and a beach where we could land and take a rest. There was a boat anchored, but aside from the few passengers and their radio, we had the place to ourselves. A nice swim, some bottled water, and a half hour rest prepared us for the return trip. We picked our way back, a step at a time, passing each of the locations we had visited on the way out. There were a couple of times that I didn't recognize where I was headed, but relying on physical markers, my memory of the map from my planning stage, and my compass, we made our way safely back to the East Prom - and ultimately to Old Port bar stools and frosty mugs of suds. 😋

So, what does this tale have to do with planning where to paddle? First, I had seen the launch location and had reviewed its' suitability for a kayak launch. Then, I followed my hunch and consulted Google Maps to plan a route that we mostly stuck to. I noted features of the trip, like Fort Gorges, that could provide further exploration possibilities, and I left the plan flexible enough to accommodate on-the-spot decisions like continuing to Vaill Island from Overset Island. I also planned the most important aspect of this trip - not going alone (at least on the first one in this area). I didn't really talk about gear preparation for this trip (other than noting my compass), but you can read Safety is a Mindset  - and I'll probably publish some gear specific posts in the future. Let me know in the comments if you'd like to see anything specific.  

Remember, planning your trip is the first step in your adventure. Keep your eyes open, in your travels, for launch locations. Look at maps, read blogs and boards, and create a wishlist of paddling trips. Then, assess your skills, gear, experience and possible accomplices and pick a trip that fits. I got into kayaking to explore, and my planning process is just another aspect of that exploration. When I'm doing my research, I can almost see the adventure in my mind. The only thing better is actually paddling it - especially if you planned well. And, don't forget to plan a reward after a hard day paddling. Sitting on a bar stool, drinking a cold beer and eating a burger in the Old Port was the perfect end to one of my best paddle trips.

- TB on the Water      



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Gear: What's That Thing Called? (it's a waveski)

TB on the Water Waveski Surfing
The author surfing his trusty Walden "Milo" waveski 

Several years ago my paddling buddy, Tim, picked up a used "rodeo" boat (a river kayak about 7-8 feet long with a flat planing hull on the bottom) with the idea of surfing it on ocean waves. Tim and I had run into some wave action on sandbars a few times while paddling our touring kayaks, and had made attempts to "surf" some small waves, but quickly realized the length and rounded hull shape did not work well on wave faces. It's not that you can't surf a touring kayak. I've seen it done - but you need expert paddle bracing technique and total control of your boat to be competent on any sizable waves. Not to mention, if you screw up and go nose first into the sandy bottom with a touring boat, you could drive your legs forward, into the hull, and severely injure yourself - or, you know, drown.
Shortly after Tim got his rodeo boat, I found a smaller "squirt" boat - another flat bottomed river kayak, but shorter, with more defined rails (the sharper edges you find on surfboards and SUPs). Mine even came with three fin boxes underneath, and a tri-fin (thruster) set-up designed for surfing waves. We thought we were all set to expand our paddling adventures onto breaking wave faces. Boy, did we have a lot to learn.

Our first attempt to surf waves was with the kooky notion that we could head out in surf pumped up by an offshore hurricane (not very bright on our part). We thought we could just stay on the inside and play in the shore break - not realizing this is the precise section that would hammer us into the sand. I realized pretty quickly that my paddling skills were not up to the task, but Tim faired a little better in punching out past the immediate beach break. As you might imagine, we did not have much success - but fortunately, no one got injured.
I think it was the second time we went out that I managed to paddle past the initial shore break, and tried to surf a wave. I found myself upside down, under water, attempting to learn how to roll my squirt boat to the upright position - in breaking waves. The moment of temporary panic when you realize your access to air will not come without effort and problem solving is not a heartening feeling. I could feel my stomach drop - even as I was upside down with my squirt boat floating like a cork above me. And, I knew I was on my own. Even if Tim saw me (he wouldn't have heard me shout because I could not get my head above water), there probably wouldn't have been enough time for him to get to me. Fortunately, I was able to peel myself out of the tight cockpit, and come up for air. I knew right then and there, though, that I would never attempt to surf a closed hull boat again - at least on purpose.  

So, I started investigating SOT (sit-on-top) options - to see if there was anything designed for surfing. Sure enough, there was. There are two basic types of SOT surf specific kayaks: SOT surf kayaks (like the Cobra Strike, Perception Five-O, Malibu 3.4, etc.) and something called a "waveski". At first I couldn't tell the difference much, but the Youtube videos of waveskis in action sure looked like fun. They seemed to have a larger, almost bulbous rear end (designed for catching wave energy), and the rocker (the curved angle of the planing hull you see on surfboards) looked more pronounced (this helps with turns, and lessens the chance of "pearling", which I describe in my post An Unexpected Adventure ). Here's a video of the incredibly talented Hugues Termeau waveski surfing the famous left at Mundaka near Bilbao in the Basque country of northern Spain.

I turned to my trusty Craigslist search for used equipment, and miraculously found one near me that was an "old school" hollow plastic model that has been my go-to surf boat to this day (you can see it on my post Kayak Repairs That Last ). The first time I took it out, I realized the safety factor had just increased exponentially (this recognition caused me to switch my touring kayak to an SOT model a couple years later). It was still a challenge to learn how to surf it, to control it competently, and to establish myself among the lineup of board surfers - who still sometimes look at me sideways (at least until they see that I can actually surf the thing).  

As surfing all over the world has become more popular, even in New England where I catch what waves I can, the water is full of newbies trying to learn. They tend to be a little friendlier than grizzled surf veterans, so they'll often ask me, "what's that thing called?" when they see me on my "goat boat" (a pejorative term coined by board surfers) . Now that I have been surfing some of the breaks for a number of years, even the competent surfers will strike up a conversation - mostly to ask a similar question or to say "that looks like fun". Either way, when I reply that yes, it can be fun, and that it is called a waveski - I might just as well have arrived from outer space with something they've never seen before (even though mine is like, 15 years old). Waveskis have been surfed in Australia, South Africa, Portugal, Ireland, France, northern Spain (you get the picture) for many years. World championships are held - sometimes even here in the U.S. Island Waveski in Cocoa Beach, Florida manufactures waveskis, and so does Infinity Surfboards in Dana Point, California. The state of the art waveskis these days are shaped and built much like surfboards, with similar materials. They are light, fast, and agile - and take some learning to use properly, as I discovered on a used RTM Slide I picked up on Craigslist. My plastic Walden Milo is heavy and slow to get going, but surfs pretty damn well once it's on the wave.

The perception most often seems to be that a waveski (or SOT surf kayak) is easier than board or SUP surfing. It is, in that the "pop up" to the standing position is not required, but it is not, in that balance is still required (only, at the hips instead of the legs), you cannot fall over the back of a wave to disengage with it (once you're on the face - you're in front for good most often), and you cannot "duck dive" on the way out. Paddle technique, learning how to stay with your boat in the case of a wipe-out, learning how to cut the rail into a wave face by shifting your weight - these can all be challenging.

I have found the experience of waveski surfing to be rewarding. I've had my share of wipeouts, lost my boat a couple of times to see it wash up on shore, gotten tumbled (Charlie Brown missing the football style) a bunch of times, overestimated my capabilities in big surf, gotten caught in rip currents, had gear break - you name it. I've also caught glassy waves, big, powerful waves, waves that seemed to go on forever, waves in spots that nobody else seems to know about, and waves that just made me laugh or shout out loud from the sheer joy of them. I've also sat peacefully, looking to the east as the morning sun rose higher from the horizon, and watched late September ducks fly south in formation. I've said hello to curious seals, and watched striped bass flash beneath me in clear water. I've looked skyward and said to my friend Chris (who tragically passed away at a far too young age, and who's winter 5/4 wetsuit I still wear), "this one's for you, buddy".

So, what's that thing called? It's called a waveski.

- TB on the Water



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Story: An Unexpected (and hair raising) Adventure

I used to travel daily for work around the northeastern counties of Massachusetts, namely Essex and Suffolk counties. This is basically the seaboard and adjacent towns that run northeast of Boston to the New Hampshire border. One of these communities located directly on the water is the picturesque, and still working, port of Gloucester (see my post Location: The Mouth of the Danvers River & Nearby Islands). Gloucester harbor resides near the tip of Cape Ann - not as far east as Rockport, but close. The harbor and nearby waters open to the south of Cape Ann, while the Annisquam River connects both the southern and northern coasts of Cape Ann (the much smaller and rockier contrast to the well known Cape Cod, which juts into the ocean from southeast of Boston).   . 

I am always on the lookout for a paddle adventure when I am near the ocean, and one workday two summers back, I happened upon the public boat launch near Gloucester High School, which affords parking and a launch point into the Annisquam. The idea occurred to me to launch from this point, paddle south under the Blynman Canal drawbridge (which I have heard is the second busiest drawbridge on the entire eastern seaboard), and head west along the coast past Magnolia (a section of Gloucester). There are several islands located near the rocky Magnolia coast (the front yards of mansions and large shingle style homes) that are accessible for a lunch and beer break (thankfully, many craft beers are now available in cans 😈). 

A few days later, I proposed my idea to my frequent paddling buddy, Tim. Tim and I got into paddling touring length kayaks many years ago, and Tim has been a good natured participant in many of my planned excursions. Some trips have lived up to my expectations, and some have been a hard slog, with many a lesson learned. This particular excursion started as the former, but ended as the latter - by far.

The day was a sunny, hot, mid-summer beauty that brings New Englanders to the shore in droves. We got an early enough start to avoid significant boat traffic under the drawbridge (more on that later), and made our way into the outer harbor past Stage Fort Park. The wind was blowing lightly from the southeast, and the chop it caused was small enough that paddling progress was not affected significantly. Everything appeared to be set up for a mildly challenging and enjoyable afternoon on the water.

Once we turned the corner past a rocky outcrop at the western edge of the greater harbor, I noticed the chop and swell took on a more "open ocean" feel. Waves were crashing onto the rock formations and cliffs to our starboard (right) side, so we stayed far enough away to avoid getting caught in anything dangerous. The conditions at this point were just about perfect. There is a feeling of freedom paddling a kayak in open water conditions that fosters a spirit of adventure a bit more emphatic than the feel of paddling a flat backwater. 

The increased swell and chop, as well as an increased wind speed, slowed our progress. So, we adjusted our plans, and shortened our destination to Kettle Island, just south of Magnolia Harbor  GOOGLE MAP of MAGNOLIA COAST  . We beached the boats on the sandbar between Kettle Island and the smaller rock to the north, and settled in for a rest, some lunch, and a tasty beer. We had the place to ourselves, with the exception of two other kayakers and an abundance of squawking seagulls. After we had a sandwich, we made the mistake of attempting to explore the island, and stumbled into the midst of a seagull rookery. Alarmed and swooping gulls harassed us until we made our way back to the beach, where we could find some peace.

After maybe an hour, we decided to head back east along the coast - realizing we would be headed more directly into the wind, which would impede our progress and increase the time needed to get back. I noticed some small waves breaking onto the sandbar, and suggested we play in the waves for a few minutes as we launched. We pretty quickly realized the swell had grown in the hour we were beached, and the waves crashing onto Magnolia proper were 3-5 feet. Playing in the swell was quickly adjusted to dealing with the conditions to avoid capsize or getting pulled onto the rocks. I realized the conditions on the way back would be far more difficult than on the way out: the swell was coming from the southeast, but crossing currents were causing waves from the northeast as well. In order to keep our bows pointed toward the swell (the safest alignment to avoid capsize), we would be travelling farther out to sea - which was not what we wanted. We were forced to adopt a pattern of paddling southeast into the swell for a bit, then readjusting to a northeast direction - which had us "surfing" the swell at a 45 degree angle. This was not ideal, but was the only way we could somewhat safely progress in an easterly direction back toward Gloucester and the safety of the harbor. 

At one point, I looked to my left and saw Tim get a little too straight in front of a swell wave. Some of them were now big enough to break a bit at the top. Tim slid down the face of the wave into the trough, and his bow plunged into the water. He was in danger of "pearling" (driving the front of the boat under water, which slows the bow speed relative to the stern speed, and can cause the kayak to capsize). Tim maintained his balance, used his paddle to brace, and pulled his bow clear, but it was a narrow escape. I eyed the waves crashing onto the rocks warily, and realized if Tim had a wet exit (he was in a hulled boat), getting back into his kayak would be extremely challenging in this swell, and swimming to shore would be treacherous. I had visions of a water laden kayak crashing onto the rocks - heavy and out of control. Although I was on my Heritage Sea Dart sit-on-top, even I was concerned about getting knocked off it. Climbing back on would be easier than re-entering a hulled boat, but in these conditions, it still wouldn't be a piece of cake.

We paddled like this for a long time - occasionally having to rapidly adjust to a random wave hitting from the northeast instead of the southeasterly swell direction. This kept things interesting to say the least. I kept an eye out for any small cove or calmer spot to give us a reprieve from the conditions, but there were none. It's amazing how good a paddle workout you get when the effort is seasoned with a pinch of panic.  

Finally, I noticed a very small calm area in what was barely a cove. I think it may be called "Old House Cove", but I'm not sure. Anyway, the conditions continued as we entered the harbor, and a few minutes rest in the relatively calmer waters in this cove were a blessing. As we proceeded into the harbor, our direction adjusted more to the north. This put us almost perpendicular to the swell, riding straight down wave faces - which could increase the chance of pearling. Fortunately, the swell abated somewhat as we paddled farther into the harbor and back across Stage Fort Park to the beach. We avoided rock outcrops in the water and navigated safely to the beach, where we hauled out for some much needed rest and relief. I didn't time it (I was a bit too busy keeping my shit together 😁), but my guess is we were paddling for an hour in those conditions. It felt great to put my two feet on the sand again.

Once I had gathered my wits and shaken loose my stiff arms and back, I took a look at the entrance to the canal under the drawbridge - where we had emerged from the Annisquam River. Returning boats were lined up to pass on the east side under the bridge, and many outbound boats were still entering the harbor via the west side. I walked over to the stone wall at the edge of the canal and peered over it to see an outbound current that was significantly stronger than what we had experience on the way out. When we left the Annisquam and paddled under the bridge, the tide had just turned and was inbound. Against the outbound river current, it was largely neutralized, and only posed a minor effort to overcome. Now, the tide was outbound, and, magnified by the outbound river flow, had increased to a speed that required powered boats to re-enter against the flow at near to full throttle. Add to that the relatively narrow width of the canal, which pinches the current and speeds it further, and there was absolutely no way we would be able to paddle back through VIDEO of an ATTEMPTED PADDLE. I realized immediately this route had not been well considered. I had to come up with another plan to get the kayaks back to my truck, which was parked upriver at the public launch near the High School. Well, if I couldn't get the kayaks to the truck, then I would have to bring the truck to the kayaks.

View of the Annisquam River & the ocean beyond

I determined a path I could walk, and crossed two lanes of traffic, now backed up for the regularly raised drawbridge. I found a path down to the east bank of the river, and walked the 1/4 mile to the parking lot at the public launch. Tim stayed with the kayaks to keep an eye on them, and hopefully to direct me to a rare parking spot along the causeway next to the beach. Due to the traffic, I had to drive a large, looping route to get back to the beach from the west. Fortunately, a spot miraculously appeared, and we didn't have to carry the boats too far to get them loaded. 

All in all, what had promised to be a casual day on the water turned out to be a difficult, and sometimes frightening excursion. We were both glad nothing serious happened, but spent a little time talking about what could have happened. Some valuable lessons were learned - not the least of which is that, although I have been paddling for many years, I can always improve my trip planning and my safety gear. Oh, and nothing drives a workout better than a little fear 😅.     

- TB on the Water