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 




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