Cheap Lesson: It wasn't the wind that got me, it was the waves

When is it too windy to paddle? I pondered the question while standing on a seawall overlooking the Chesapeake at Hoopersville, Md. The wind was coming straight off the water from the SE, and in that direction, I could not see the western side of the Bay, so there was plenty of fetch. Yet the waves looked a manageable 1-2 feet. I’d brought a canoe and a kayak and decided this was decidedly not canoeing weather. But I discovered I didn’t have a kayak spray skirt, so I decided to try it in the canoe.

The launch at Hoopersville is on the eastern side of Middle Hoopers Island, meaning I’d be putting in on the lee side of the island. My destination was a beach on the windward side of Lower Hoopers Island about four miles away, with only the last mile on the windward side. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to negotiate the wind. If I couldn’t make it, my fallback plans included returning to Hoopersville or spending the night in my canoe, pulled (or washed) up onto a marsh.

I made it 3.3 miles. After paddling through the Thorofare against wind and tide, I had a difficult time in Thorofare Cove. The water there is only a foot or two deep, so it was one of those situations where the wind is blowing you back and you can’t get enough paddle in the water to propel yourself forward. I actually stood up and poled out of the Cove. Standup propulsion is usually a loosing deal in strong wind, but I found it effective on this day. It helped a lot that I had loaded all my gear in one end of the boat. Standing in center, the unevenly loaded boat weathercocked and kept itself pointed into the wind, which was exactly where I needed to go.

On the west end of Thorofare Cove, there is a sandbar over which the water was perhaps a foot deep. The two foot waves rolling in from the Bay hit the sandbar, rearing up and breaking as they came into the Cove. The bottom here was “rotten,” meaning it seemed like hard sand but when I’d push hard to get through a wave, the pole would suddenly hit a void and sink. I sat down and grabbed a paddle. Now my heavily laden bow began to work against me. Rather than floating up and over the wave, the bow stayed low and the top of the wave was rolling into the boat. There was a limit to how much water I could take on and bailing was not an option because my hands were very busy with the paddle. Stopping to bail seemed like an invitation for disaster. It was all I could do to keep going. I tried turning and leaning the boat to “block” the waves, like we do in whitewater, but in whitewater, we usually only need to get through a few waves at a time. Here, the waves just kept on coming. I ceased making forward progress, and I was still taking water over the gunwales. I needed to get through those breaking waves and the increasing amount of water sloshing around in the boat wasn’t making it any easier.

I seemed to be paddling against a tidal current. At the time, all I knew was I needed to make it around a point on my left, I was paddling for all I was worth, and my progress was excruciatingly slow. Bear in mind that I’m in shallow water, the water temperature was about 80 and I was within a few hundred feet of a low, marshy island, so, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die, but I was in a surf zone and my paddling situation wasn’t good. Arms aching, I finally came abreast of the point I was trying to round and turned east. I was almost, but not, around the point, and as soon as I turned east the wind pushed me back into the breakers. I pointed myself back into the wind, again paddling with all I had and a substantial boatload of water. Desperate, I finallly turned towards shore and tried to surf into the beach. The canoe had become difficult to handle and though it never capsized I ended up in the water, which was less than waist deep. The boat got broached on a wave and tipped enough to throw me out. I got hold of the boat and got it and myself to the beach.

On the beach, I emptied the boat and considered my options. I thought I was only a half mile away from the beach where I would meet my friends and camp. The water is very shallow along the island, so I decided to walk the boat around. Towing the boat as I walked in waist-deep water didn’t work so well. The boat was pitching wildly on the waves and by the time I made it 500’ to the far end of the beach, the boat had a few inches of water in it, so I took it ashore and emptied it again. I peeked around east and wondered how many times I’d have to empty the boat to cover the remaining half mile, and whether I had the energy to do it. Dragging a heavy, flooded, 16’ canoe out of the water and emptying it is exhausting, I’m a geezer and there is a limit to my energy. It had taken me 3 hours to cover the 3.3 miles I’d paddled, and it was also growing late. But, I still had an hour more of daylight. I surveyed the little beach I was on and decided to just accept what nature had handed me.

Studying the tidal debris on the beach, I concluded there was not enough beach to camp on, but I found a little raised and semi level spot just behind the east end of the beach. I threw a blue plastic tarp on top of the saltmeadow cordgrass and low shrubs and set up my tent on top of it. For a makeshift campsite, it was comfortable, and I hope the vegetation will recover.

There was intermittently 0 - 2 bars cell coverage in my tent. I sent text messages to two of my friends a half mile away to let them know what had become of me. They never got them. I actually had a phone conversation with my wife, which surprised me, given the spottiness of the cell coverage and the noise level (tent flapping near surf pounding). I thought high tide was around midnight and kept an eye on the water which came within ten linear feet and 8-10 vertical inches of my tent. I slept more soundly once the tide began to recede.

Writing this made me look at data from weather station KMDFISHI2, located near my launching point. The winds when I departed around 4pm were around 10mph. 2 hours later, the gusts were 15 to 17mph, with possible random, stronger gusts. I thought I could paddle a canoe through such winds. But the combination of wind and dumping waves wore me out. I was paddling a 16’ Appalachain, not known as a swift solo boat, but still…

Around 2 a.m., the tent flapping died down, and by dawn the wind was down to 5-10 mph, still from the SE. At dawn, I packed camp and paddled a half mile east to find Dave, Marla, Ralph and Jay gathered around breakfast. Ralph cooked an egg for me and it was one of the best eggs ever. Over breakfast, the gang let me know they had already decided to cut short the trip due to the forecast for building winds and severe thunderstorms. They got no argument from me. We paddled back in 10-12 mph winds in time to be at Old Salty’s for a noon-time lunch. At no time during my trip was I ever in danger of more than discomfort, but after surviving my “desperate” paddling experience, friends seemed more dear and everything tasted better!

B) Makes a good story and learning point.

That was quite an adventure, and well told. It takes some time and effort to write something like that, and I thank you for that.

I plan to read it again later and try to put together the info in your narrative to match your route to the aerial view of the spot. I really didn’t make sense of it on my first go-through, but I’m sure the info is in there.

It was interesting what you said about poling in the sand and being bogged-down by voids. I doubt if there were actually any voids below that firm top layer, but a looser layer or looser pockets, likely laid down during a different wave pattern and possibly containing different sediments seems possible, and definitely interesting to encounter. On the Wisconsin River near here, I often find very loose sand in areas of recent deposition, as well as overlapping layers of different kinds of sediment and having different degrees of stability underfoot, reflecting the various current and river conditions at the time of deposition. There can by quite an interesting record of recent river-condition history in these sediments.

Your story reminded me just a little bit of the epic day in the wind that three of us dealt with about 12 years ago on the Wisconsin River, though for two of us, wind was more of a problem than the waves. Durangoski had a sea kayak with a skirt and I had my guide-boat, but PJC had his Blackhawk Starship canoe, and he had his work cut out for him keeping the water out. I wish I still had the picture I took of his boat disappearing behind a wave, with the picture also showing the “ripped-to-shreds” surface texture of the water that you only see on very windy days. Too bad no one was with you who could have taken photos and given us a visual image of what it was like on this trip for you as you fought the waves and shallows in your canoe!

Chip, your post reminds me of one of the Assateague trips, difference was that it was in February, just after a storm had come through. Our goal was Pine Tree, but I was the only one to make it there due to high winds blowing from the west. I met McCrea on the water, he had arrived the day before, he was heading back to his car for more beer. By the time I got to Pine Tree, I was drenched from sweat from the exertion with paddling with a beam wind. I ended up zigzagging, paddling at an angle into the wind for half an hour the surfing for 10 minutes and then repeat…over and over again. Shallowness of the bay, with the high winds made for short choppy waves that were relentless. Rest of our group only got as far as the first campsite area. McCrea showed up again with more beer 4 hours later.

Andy, Having paddled at Assateague, that was sort of the mental model I had for wind and open water. I’ve paddled there on 20mph days, and also on days when we couldn’t make forward progress, just gave up and got out and walked the boats. The Chesapeake is just a lot bigger, and it made bigger waves.

I would have loved to kayak in those waves.

My experience made me think of our friends who canoe the big lakes up north. They get those big waves, the water is deep and cold. I could laugh about my situation, but the stakes are higher for them.


Its amazing how “epic” an adventure a person can have in 3.3 miles. Over the years I, like most here I suppose, have had my share of similar weather related battles. They’re usually humbling. I suspect, thought, such events eventually become the most memorable trips in a lifetime. I don’t know about others, but I tend to forget all those sunny summer paddles or the ones with a gentle shower or steady moderate winds. They just all fade into one big happy memory of paddling. Its the battles we remember.

That is a very good thing you mentioned about keeping the upwind end of a boat trimmed a bit heavy in windy conditions to help keep a canoe aligned with the wind. It takes a while to discover that through experience without someone suggesting it, as you did.

Tides and waves coming in from open expanses of water are far different from what I usually do these days. (Though I do recall an open water crossing in cold weather in the BWCA a few years ago that was sobering, though in the end, perfectly dry. It could have gone badly, though.) What you did strikes me as more daring, as there is tide and bigger water involved.

The trip GBG mentions was one where the wind was hitting me mostly from about ten and eleven o’clock and the waves were variable in height and direction due to differences in river current. Some were much deeper than my bow and the wind was, we learned by later reports, gusting to 40mph. (!) You got sandblasted on the downwind end of sandbars and visible “sheets” of tan sand, like sheets of rain, moved over the islands. On that occasion I even recall thinking poling would be a more solid means of propulsion since the water was often shallow and I was not infrequently losing about two thirds of the forward progress gained with each stroke to the headwind. But that river is all sand bottom and most of it is fairly soft. On the few occasions I’ve tried poling it the pole not infrequently sank and required a pull to extract it, stopping progress. So I gave it up years ago. On that occasion I was never far from shore or in a truly dangerous position but, gad, what a load of labor. For a while it seemed like no matter how perfectly I took each wave, I;d get about a quart over the bow on every third or forth wave. It adds up. There are more waves than canoe capacity. And, as in your situation, I know that stopping on the water to bail would have been a losing proposition. We made nine miles and it nearly killed me. I doubt I was awake for fifteen minutes after getting the tent pitched. But it is a day I’ll never forget. Glad I did it.

Thanks for the post!