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!