Photo by André
The last morning of my kayak trip I woke up at 4:30. It didn’t know it was the last morning. I hate early rising, but I was in good spirits as I ate my breakfast and packed my gear, reversing the mud hustle of the night before.
There was only one place to get phone reception. I climbed the back stairs of the abandoned cottage and sat on its upper deck. There I had one bar of signal strength.
Message from Ken:
Please don’t try for Port Mansfield. Sunday will be hypothermic paddling. Hi 54 degrees, 80 percent chance of rain, and up to 25 mile an hour winds.
Port Mansfield was the next—and only—point on my route where I could touch civilization. Get more supplies, maybe even find shelter from the storm.
Today was Saturday.
What Ken was saying was, at my current speed—with a headwind still fighting me every stroke of the way—I would not make Port Mansfield today, and that would leave me stranded in a horrible northern storm tomorrow.
I scratched my head. Well, so what? I mean I had no other options, right? Part of me tingled with excitement: a 25 mph north wind would drive me forward–southward–at tremendous speed, and in the narrow protection of the Intracoastal I could surf into port in anything short of a hurricane.
But it wasn’t the wind, really, that I was supposed to be scared of; it was the severe storms behind the wind. Out on the water I’d be the tallest thing for lightning to find, plus there’s that cold Ken mentioned.
In subsequent texts, Ken offered me a convoluted plan involving turning around, going back the way I came, and meeting him on some stretch of beach where he could pick me up by car.
In other words, giving up.
The kayak after the mud hustle. See how far from the water is? It’s still tied up to that post.
I don’t have any cosmic objections to retreat; sometimes you lose some. But I didn’t think it was necessary. If I could make Port Mansfield by tonight, I’d be safe before the storm hit; if I couldn’t, there were plenty of cottages to shelter behind. I’d just stay in my tent reading Sunday, and continue on when the weather was clear.
Ken was less confident about my camp-in-a-gale strategy. He believed I either needed to be sure I would make port tonight, or else bug out while I still could. He’s the more experienced paddler here, and I decided to listen to him.
So, could I make port? Even with my early start—which was not as early as I’d like, due to the mud hustle—I’d have to average 4 mph against a headwind to make it. Yesterday I’d averaged less than 3 mph. I texted Ken one last time:
Understood. Going to start for Port Mansfield and track mileage. If cannot maintain 4 mph will turn back to meet you. Can stop at this location and text you if so.
With that I stowed my electronics, strapped coffee to the front of my kayak, and shoved off into the wind.
The wind-sheltered underworld where I spent the night. Not as spooky as it looks.
One hour later I stopped paddling. I aimed the nose of my boat into some mud and came to a halt. First priority: fill up an empty yogurt container (the two-pint kind) with urine, and empty overboard.
Second priority: drink the last of my coffee. But why is the coffee gone?
And, as a distant third priority, I checked my mileage. Three miles in an hour. Respectable, job well done, but you will not make port by nightfall, André.
This was where I had to make a decision. I could go on, fall 10 miles short of a safe harbor, and camp wherever I could find a windbreak through a driving northeaster. Or I could turn around and drift at a laughably easy pace with the wind, back to some previous point and call it quits.
Adding to the mental math was an itinerary problem. I had a friendly face waiting for me in Mexico, but if I took too long to complete this journey, he’d have to leave for weeks of business travel—leaving me nowhere definite to land.
To decide, I turned to my new policy of what is least stressful?. Viewed that way the choice was clear. My ego wanted to push on, but I turned my boat back the way I’d come. I chose to bail.
The weather around the time I made the decision.
Going back was a joke. The powerful wind was working for me now and I made it in 40 minutes. Meanwhile, the Intracoastal had come to life; it was a weekend now, and fishermen were arriving by the boatful. Motorboats sped past me or drifted while the men aboard drank and fished. At least half the “abandoned” cottages now had boats. It made me realize that had I gone on, I might have had to beg to be allowed to camp on someone’s porch.
I landed at the same spot where I’d slept last night and climbed up the back stairs to text Ken. He gave me the coordinates of the pickup point—somewhere south of Baffin Bay. I scratched my head.
Can you confirm coordinates. I paddled past that point yesterday and it looked like desolate ranch land with nothing but windmills.
Ken texted back:
Coordinates correct. Small dirt ranch road runs along there however.
Okay. Well, that wasn’t far… hardly backtracking at all. This would be easy!
I can reach coordinate around 1:30. If I get there first I will land, look for the dirt road and paddle as close as I can. If you get there first I’ll look for you.
Let’s say 2 pm so you’re not waiting.
Of course, I didn’t need nearly that long to get there. But if this was my last day, I might as well enjoy the scenery and a leisurely paddle.
And enjoy it I did. I pulled up along fishing boats and asked if they needed a tow. I chatted with kids and cheered for fishermen trying to pull up a giant catch. I saw a scrawny coyote trotting along a mud flat and chased after him, getting as close as I could by boat. Sometimes I just drifted in the current, enjoying the ride.
Finally the time came. I was back in wide open water and kept a sharp eye on my GPS. I angled toward the spot in question and surfed good tailwind waves across the bay toward it. I remembered this shore: low and barren, generally sandy but with heaps of rocks scattered anywhere. Could be a rough landing.
As the waves rocketed me toward shore, I ripped open my spray deck (the thing that holds you in the boat and keeps you watertight), aimed at a seeming bare sand spot, and leapt out of the boat to run her in. Sure enough, there were sharp rocks all around but the spot I’d picked was clear. With me carefully guiding the boat, we reached shore safely.
I’d hit the GPS coordinate almost perfect. It was 1:30, and a few hundred feet away was a two-track dirt road. The only other thing worth noting was scrub grass and fire ants.
Well, I beat Ken, I figured. I began to unload the kayak and carry every piece of gear to the road, ready for pickup. To make life easier, I marked a trail around fire ant mounds with pieces of driftwood.
But Ken usually runs early, and I started to worry. He didn’t reply to my texts. Finally I just tried calling him.
“Hey, where are you?” he asked.
“I’m at the road!”
It was pretty staticky.
“You’re at the road? They won’t let me in.”
“The ranch road is closed. They won’t let me in.”
So here I was, more than half the day gone, farther from port than ever, and a storm coming in. With no one to pick me up. Ken would later tell me that armed guards actually blocked his way at the ranch entrance.
“What are our options?” I asked.
“Well you could camp and wait it out–”
I looked around. This spot was more desolate than any so far. There wasn’t a scrap of shelter for miles.
“–or there’s a boat landing at the end of Baffin Bay. It’s over 20 miles from you.”
The end of Baffin Bay. I’d crossed the bay entrance yesterday, but the bay itself cuts deep inland. I looked at the coordinates on the GPS. Yeah, that was a long way to go.
“What time is it now, 1?” I asked.
Sunset was at 7.
“I’ll meet you there at sunset.”
“I don’t know if you can make it that far by sunset.”
“If I can’t I’ll let you know. But I’ll be there.”
“Okay André. Good luck.”
Map of both proposed pullout points.
Before I could launch I had to re-load every piece of equipment. I ran them back to the beach, armload after armload, and shoved them into the hatches. At 2:00 I pulled back out through the rocks and made for open water.
To make my rendezvous I’d need to average 5 mph. I knew I wouldn’t hit that average on the first leg, as the wind had swung around to the east. It was crosswise to me now. But I hoped to make up the pace once I reached the opening of the Bay itself, turning west and catching that powerful tailwind once more.
It took 90 minutes to reach the Bay opening. I tore through my water bottles at an alarming rate, straining all muscles to keep the boat going at maximum speed. If I made my destination, I had a shower, a meal, and a warm bed waiting for me; but if I failed I’d be camping without shelter on a desolate wasteland, and still two days from port when the storm passed.
At the entrance to the Bay there’s a point of land, and I cut too close to this. Churning forward through the waves I saw the faintest tint of shadow flicker under the water.
I actually yelled that out loud, to no one but wind demons.
At the same time I executed a perfect full-stop, which is a series of backstrokes Left-Right-Leeeeffft.
The Epic floated dead in the water while I inspected our surroundings. Yes, we were in the midst of a boulder field; we were already deep inside it.
Timidly I poked the sea bottom with my paddle. Like a hand in the dark, I felt out the rocks around me. The wind and current kept the kayak moving sideways even as I poled it forward toward open water. With the vigorous wave action, one collision could crack open the hull, stranding me.
We moved almost like a crab… a little sideways, a little forward, stopping every few yards to feel out the surroundings. I wasted ten minutes there, but eventually emerged from the minefield unscathed.
And finally I could turn with the wind. From here it was one long, straight run with a tailwind toward Ken… and I needed to average 6 mph to get there in time.
Racing a Storm
I shoved down my only food of the day and tilted into each stroke. I paid close attention to proper form. During training, one of our friends saw how much I obsessed over speed and told Ken that kind of stuff didn’t matter to them.
“Well,” Ken had said. “In kayaking, your speed stats are a good indicator of how good your form is.”
Now every stroke had to be perfect: lean forward, push with one foot, tilt the paddle, thrust like a spear, turn with the body. I repeated this until my torso burned, and then I repeated it some more.
Every hour I would guzzle water and check my speed. It was… questionable. The average was still just a touch too low. I managed to dig in and paddle even harder.
And the wind picked up. The reason it had switched from Southeast to East was, of course, because it was bringing in tonight and tomorrow’s storms. And one of them was early.
I don’t know what time it was when I noticed the sky change. Risking a look over my shoulder, I saw massive dark clouds. The wind grew stronger and colder and the waves were bigger and more powerful. They had miles of fetch behind them, running the bay and batting my kayak like a toy.
Racing with waves is a funny thing in a kayak. It’s a speed boost, to be sure, but each wave throws around the stern of your vessel side-to-side. They don’t really approve of you coming with them; it’d be funnier to the waves if they could turn you sideways, then just roll you over like a window shade.
It was more unnerving because of the weight I carried. Fully loaded, the kayak resisted most of the fish-tailing… only to squirrel around at rocket speeds for the rare wave that managed to grab me. And as the waves got steeper and faster, the heavy boat just sort of sank into the trough between each set, swamping me with water.
This is why I trained, I thought, and paddled on.
Finally things got bad. Another furtive glance showed a wall of rain bearing down on me. A squall, and I was in the middle.
I thought about going to shore. The closest shore, to my left, was more of the same rocky ranch I’d landed at before. No rescue there. The farther shore, barely visible on my right, might have some access road or at least shelter—but could I even make it across in time?
Sometimes you just have to impose human will onto a situation, simply refuse to let Nature dictate the next move. I wasn’t going to shore.
I pointed the kayak at the next marker in the endless chain that led, in theory, to some safe harbor near Ken, and decided to surf the squall-waves and see what happened.
What happened is I was slammed by wave after wave, got blown off bearing… and gathered remarkable speed. When waves picked me up and surfed me, I’d propel forward so fast that I was no longer the pilot, I was simply along for a ride.
As it happened, the worst of the squall passed south of me and I didn’t get rained on for long. I continued my trek toward safety.
Drawing by André
With the squall past, beautiful Áine showed her face. She smiled.
“I always seem to find you like this, Rogue Priest.”
“It’s a bad habit.”
“I can’t give you any more time.”
I looked around. I was still nearly an hour from my destination. I was out of sunlight.
“I know,” I told her.
“What will you do?”
I laughed. “What I always do, my lady.” I stared out at the distant shore, barely a smudge on the edge of vision. “I’ll survive.”
Her clouds closed back over her face and, so veiled, she made her way to bed.
Off on my right was one final point of land. Empty of life and devoid of shelter, it looked about as welcoming as Mars. But I could land there, right now, and still have time to set up camp before total darkness.
Or… I could keep going.
The final crossing, from this point to that distant smudge, was only a few miles. But it was a few I’d have to cover, ultimately, in the dark—without even knowing exactly where my destination was.
Are we here to adventure, or aren’t we?
While the ghost of the sun dropped below the horizon, I left the bewitching safety of that final point and began my crossing.
Me looking awful confident about the weather.
At first I strained in the vain hope of still making land before total dark, but as the sky fell greyer and greyer I knew the truth, and felt at peace.
The wind was still behind me, but softer now, and the waves slowly built down from buffaloes to lambs. On the distant shore lights began to appear: some white, some green, some tiny and twinkling. I chose a set of green lights, hoping it was a harbor, and paddled on. I felt a strange confidence in my lack of good sense, the confidence of the serial adventurer.
Crossing that last stretch I pictured Ken waiting on the shore for me, and hoped he could see my red boat front-lit by the dying daylight. Once, I thought I saw a blinking of a flashlight on shore, as if someone was signaling me, but when I yelled out—fruitlessly, I’m sure—it disappeared and didn’t return.
A strange magic comes over the water at nightfall. The wind went still, and every lap of the waves sounded plaintive and empty against my hull. It all gets so quiet, then; you see only dark reflected by dark, and some dots of light that could be one mile away or a hundred; you are completely alone in a force of nature vast and powerful, one which would gladly eat you and no one would ever know—but you can’t see it, so you aren’t afraid.
I made up a shanty and sang as I went. Perhaps this is human habit in such lonely surrounds. It also warned others I was there before they hit my unlit boat.
Oh the wind is calm,
And the night is clear
All hands on deck!
The shore is near—
And if we make this port,
There’ll be beer for all,
But if we hit that rock,
Then down we’ll fall.
Far from the best song ever composed at sea, but this dubious hymn led me through the black on my way toward the speckled lights of shore.
Getting close, I did not in fact hit that rock. The green-lit dock was a dud, and I made my way to another where dozens of men night-fished. They had no idea I was there till I called out, just yards away. They couldn’t agree on where to find a boat ramp or sandy beach. I disappeared back into the dark as quickly as I’d come.
I went pier to pier along vacation homes, none of them with a suitable kayak landing. (The piers themselves were too tall for me to use.) Finally, I found one lone night fisherman sitting on some rocks and just packing up for the night. I asked him to shine his flashlight on the shore for me. (Mostly he just shined it in my eyes, which by the way, does not help.) I saw a line of rocks with maybe a line of sand in front of them.
“You’re just going to have to choose a spot and land,” I told myself.
So I did.
In black shallow water I leapt out of the boat and walked her in, guiding her around rocks to the sandy beach, laughing with the wind as I made it.
By the time I called him Ken was halfway home. When he pulled up I called out, “How’s it going?”
“How’s it going?”
He flipped me off with both hands.
It was good to see him.
We put the gear in his car, loaded the kayak, and headed toward his house. I was up very late. I had to change, shower, unload all the gear, clean things, and sort everything for the trip to Mexico—plus investigate bus tickets, since I wasn’t exactly leaving from where I’d expected to leave.
“You know, you’ve got an incredible amount of endurance,” Ken told me.
“Yeah, it’s my only good quality.”
Me that night at Ken’s.
I honored the words of my shanty, pouring out beer for those spirits who’d been aboard, and having a sip myself. I never did end up making dinner—other than one of Ken’s world famous protein shakes, there just wasn’t time.
After midnight I feel asleep clean, dry, sore and warm. The rain fell outside. And somewhere, far away, the waves kept moving.
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Find out more here.