Kayaking on the Hudson

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beyond the Breakwater: Bar Harbor (long post)

Authors Note: Sometimes I find the "blog" format too short and restrictive.  This is a longer post; I just felt like writing.-Don

My friend Rich explains that his crazy ideas are brought to him by a little man who runs around in his mind.  He also says that there is another man with a hammer, a big wooden hammer like in old cartoons.  This “hammer” man usually smashes the little man before the crazy idea can take root.  Occasionally, however, the guy with the hammer either misses or fails to show up.  Then, the crazy idea becomes a reality.

My own crazy little guy has been running around for a while with this idea of some epic coastal paddle in Maine.  I think the “hammer guy” has failed to show up because, right now, the idea is just a vague notion about paddling coastal Maine.  It could be a 5-day trip with a local guide or an insane attempt to paddle the length of the state.  Once the idea crystallizes, I suspect the hammer will fall.  For now, I am just working on improving my paddling in preparation for my “dream” trip.

It was this idea to improve that led me to paddle out past the breakwater in Bar Harbor.  I have paddled the harbor many times and seen all of the Porcupine Islands up close.  But this time, I wanted to get more experience in “real” sea conditions.  So I decided to paddle south, past the breakwater, to the Thrum Cap—a big rock / small island a half mile or so off the shore.  The Thrum Cap is only a few miles south of Bar Harbor, but it is beyond the harbor, beyond the breakwater, beyond the safety of the islands.  The water here is big.  The shoreline consists of rugged cliffs and there is a good deal of commercial boat traffic—lobster boats and sightseeing vessels.  All of this makes for a good practice paddle.

To make sure I get some challenging conditions, I head out against the incoming tide and into a 10 to 15 knot headwind.  Once I clear the breakwater, the waves get bigger.  The wind is blowing surface waves of a foot or less but there is also the long, rhythmic swell coming in from the open ocean.  Because the wind is from the southeast, the waves are coming at angle which cuts across the swells which come from the south.  This combination of swells and wind waves makes for confused seas.  The swells roll in a relatively ordered fashion while the surface waves whip about at random.  My 16 foot Romany is the perfect kayak for the conditions.  Hand-made in Great Britain, it is designed to cut through the waves and take any punishment the sea can dish out.  I spend the first 15 minutes just getting my strokes into a steady rhythm.  I realize that coming back, the wind will be at my back and the waves and current will pretty much push me back.  I am a little concerned that the waves are not heading north toward the harbor, but northwest toward shore.  If I surf them back, I will end up on the rocks long before I reach the harbor.  No time to think about that now, just keep paddling.

My original plan was to paddle out to the Thrum Cap and paddle around it.  Now I am second guessing the plan.  There is a lobster boat that has been pulling traps just off of the Cap and getting to it would require me to cross the commercial shipping lane.  Already I have had several boats come past me on their way to the harbor.  Kayaks are very slow and very hard to see.  Being out in the shipping lane could be very dangerous.  The passing boats already pose a real threat.  The best way for me to stay out of their way is to stay close to the cliffs where commercial boats won’t go.  Even here, I have to watch out for lobster boats as I see several buoys floating nearby.  The problem is that out here, the boats are going full out and throw off a huge wake.  The wake literally bounces off the cliffs and comes back out at me.  Now I have waves coming at me from two sides.  This can really smack a kayak around, so I stay at least 100 ft. off the cliffs.  This puts me on the edge of the shipping lane…. So I play a game of cat and mouse with the approaching boats, carefully watching their course and trying to stay out of their way and out of their wake.

The cliffs are magnificent.  They rise straight out of the water and up about 30 feet.  The boat wake crashes against the cliff bottom, sending plumes of white spray into the air.  I am keenly aware of how vulnerable I am.  I think about all of the safety and rescue training that I have done.  I wonder if I could execute an Eskimo roll if I capsized.  Probably not.  What about a self-rescue?  I think I could.  I am glad that I learned how to climb back into my kayak unassisted.  I wouldn’t want to spend any more time in this cold Maine water than necessary.

I have now passed the Thrum Cap and it is time to turn around.  I pick a random lobster buoy as my turn around spot.  My Romany is just about the easiest boat in the world to turn.  Nevertheless, the wind, current, and waves make my turnaround a bit unsettling.  Now that the wind is at my back, it feels strange.  I was getting used to pushing against the wind and waves, but now there is no wind and the waves sneak up from behind and push my kayak forward and off course.  It immediately becomes clear that the waves are pushing me into shore, into the cliffs and rocks.  I decide to surf along the waves until I am about 100 feet off shore, then paddle out across the waves and start again.  Surfing the waves is easy.  The swells are long and low so controlling the kayak is simple.  

Paddling out across the waves is a different story.  I cannot head directly into the waves as that would negate any forward progress I was making.  I cannot paddle directly across the waves because they would hit me from the side and likely knock me right over.  So I have to cross them at an angle.  My bow is pointed just to the southeast so I can cut through the waves but still paddle across them.  The waves are now hitting the kayak as quartering waves.  The bow of the kayak slices through, and then the wave hits the kayak just behind the cockpit and pushes the stern.  Each wave tries to twist the kayak back onto a course headed for shore.  It is a bit tricky, but I get the hang of it after a half mile or so.

I am now fast approaching the breakwater and the safety and calm of the inner harbor.  I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to paddle around the Thrum Cap, so I decide to paddle around Bald Porcupine Island as a consolation.  The breakwater runs off of the island so all I have to do is paddle around the island and the other side will be the calm of the inner harbor.  How hard could that be?  Besides, it is the only one of the Porcupine islands that I haven’t circumnavigated.

I turn the kayak toward the east and begin cutting across the face of the waves.  At first, the process is the same as what I have been doing to adjust course.  Soon, however, the swells steepen and the surface waves become increasingly confused.  The Romany is being tossed about like a cork.  First up, then left, right, down, up, left, left again, right, down…there is no pattern, no way to adjust.  This would be exciting if it wasn’t so scary.  I instinctively tense my whole body, but I know that I shouldn’t.  If I am too tense, the kayak could easily flip when smacked about in the waves.  I need to stay relaxed and trust the kayak; let it roll and pitch in the waves.  Thankfully, I have been paddling this kayak for over 12 years and I trust it implicitly.  I relax and let the Romany do the real work.  Occasionally, the waves lessen and I paddle straight for the island.  When they resume, I have to cut across the waves at an angle again.  Now the waves are too steep even for this.  I decide to change course to the southeast and paddle straight into the waves.  This will take me farther out, but eventually, I will make enough easterly progress to clear the island.  Then I can turn the kayak, put the waves and wind at my back and surf my way into the harbor.

I am just about half way to the farthest point of the island.  Like Moses, the island has parted the sea.  Instantly, the waves shift from a northwest course to a northeast course (the only way they could go to get around this half of the island).  I am relieved that I don’t have to cross any more waves but the waves here are very steep and I am getting tired.  I am worried about surfing them.  I rise up on top of a big swell and the kayak begins to charge down the wave.  I put my paddle into a low brace position which gives me extra balance and also slows the kayak down.  I surf around the back of the island and into the inner harbor.  
Returning from Bald Island (in background).  The beginning of the breakwater is visible just to the right of the island.

Twenty minutes later, I am back at the town pier safe and sound.  It was an exciting ride and I accomplished exactly what I had hoped.  I pushed my limits, added to my experience and came back in one piece.  That little guy is still running around in my mind.  The “hammer man” is nowhere to be seen.

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