|My long time friend Wayne has been infected. He has been bitten by the kayak bug and I'm afraid it's chronic. Now whenever I suggest a trip to anywhere to do anything, Wayne is ready to go. So when I mentioned an opportunity to go to the Virginia Barrier Islands and kayak along the shore, he was eager to go.
The Atlantic coast of eastern shore Virginia is possibly much more threatening than the nearly always calm shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Tidal ranges are greater, currents are higher and it is exposed to the open ocean. As a new kayaker whose skills were still developing, Wayne would be introduced to many new things on this trip. But with a benign weather forecast of 10 knot winds and less, less than 10% chance of thunderstorms and warm temperatures, the only real danger was the still cool 58 degree waters of the open Atlantic.
Wachapreague is about 30 miles south of the Maryland Virginia border on the Atlantic side of the Virginia Eastern shore peninsula. From northern Maryland it is about a five hour drive. From northern Virginia it is a much shorter and easier drive across the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel. From Baltimore/Washington, you will cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, drive past Cambridge and Salisbury on the way there. We drove around the top of the Bay and down through Delaware.
Closer to where the main road first meets the shore is a large seafood restaurant with a free ramp on one side. The restaurant is a very pleasant looking and would make a nice destination in and of itself. The ramp is smaller than the town ramp and less well repaired, however it is more than functional. There is a floating dock on one side that makes getting in and out of the boats easier. Unlike the town ramp which has its own parking lot, parking is out on the street. There was plenty of room even on this holiday weekend. The town lot does not allow overnight parking. There is no such restriction on the street.
We unloaded our kayaks and started sorting the gear for packing into the kayaks. Soon the little dock look like a war zone with dry bags and camping gear everywhere. But soon it was all put into the small compartments of our kayaks and we were ready to begin.
The channel from Wachapreague makes a number of 180 degree turns on its way out to the sea. We followed the large three post lighted markers through the marsh grass. The wind was blowing a little over 10 knots. I was thankful for it as it helped keep us cool. With the cool water temperatures ( 65 degrees) the late spring sun wasn't overpowering, but we took frequent water breaks as we progressed through the little maze of channels.
We launched into the channel being careful to look for boat traffic as we exited from the behind the bulkhead at the ramp. There was no boat traffic as we paddled out the narrow channel marked by official red and green day markers and unofficial white plastic pipes marking the edge of the channel. On the wrong side of the pipes the water was very shallow, less than a paddle blade of water. I image that the pipes were put in place to help the novice captains piloting their rented speed boats as they returned to the marina. It would be tempting to head directly across the little bay where one would soon encounter the shallow water. I had an amusing image of the consequences of such an uninformed decision.
We paddled steadily until we reached Wachapreague Inlet. A small island of sand dunes and pines with homes on one end sits between Cedar Island and Parramore Island. It is one of the barrier islands protecting the mud flats and marsh between them and the mainland. We followed the channel to the backside of the island at the edge of the inlet. There we pulled the kayaks up on the sand beach for a break and a walk across the thin strip of land to look out on the open ocean beyond.
With the light south wind there was not much surf out today and it looked as if it would be relatively easy to get out the inlet against a benign tidal current. There was still some swell coming in from the north breaking on a sand bar on the north side of the inlet. The swell must have been left over from previous day's wind activity. The small spillers were curling around the end of the bar and rolling gently onto the sand. It looked like a good spot for an introduction to surf.
In the mean time Wayne was keeping station in the waves rolling into the beach and edging closer to the active zone. It looked like maybe he was going to try a run. I was keeping an eye on him from closer in to the beach. Then the next time I saw him, his hat was gone. I paddled out to see what was up. He had lost it overboard and it had sunk out of sight. He had hit the brim and knocked it off his head and it had gone down. He had thought about rigging a chin strap for the stylish hat but had not done so. My rule is that if doesn't float and isn't tied in, you will lose it eventually. We paddled to the tip of the sand bar for a rest and water break and to mourn for the lost hat.
After a short rest and recharge, we got back in the kayaks and moved easily against the current around the sharp southern end of the barrier island. Once outside the inlet we headed for the north side of the sand bar where the little waves were spilling into the shallow water around the sand bar. I was encouraging Wayne to try paddling out through the breaking surf line, but he seemed content to paddle in the non-breaking waves in the deeper water. I was enjoying paddling out through the soup of the 2 foot waves, maximizing the lift of the kayak into the air on the backside of the waves. once out past the breaking zone a turned around and attempted to catch the waves for a ride back in. I was mostly unsuccessful as there was really not enough wave to power up the heavily laded kayak. The few waves I did catch were fun as the not stronger 15 knot southerly winds were causing the spray off the bow of the surfing boat to blow back into my face. It was like being it with a salt water hose. I went in and out a couple of times.
From the sand bar, we went east following the channel through the inlet. The inlet itself is quite deep, 40 feet or more as the strong currents keep the sand blown out of the constricted passage between the two islands. The depth of the inlet is an indication of the strong currents to be found here. AS the channel spreads out in a fan-like shape as it meets the open ocean, the currents slow and the sand falls. Once past the ends of the islands, the water becomes much more shallow. Waves from the open ocean will be found breaking far from shore as they run up on the shallows on both sides of the inlet. At times even the deepest water of the marked channel will be breaking. But today there were only breakers on the north and south sides of the channel, not in the channel itself.
The channel heads due east and we wanted to go south along the outside of Parramore Island. The channel goes out two miles into the Atlantic before the guarding sand shallows give way to the deeper open ocean. I didn't want to paddle out that far so we started to cut across the shallower portion of the southern side of the channel. The swells rolling in from the southeast with the freshened wind began to get excited. The waves were a little confused as the they were refracted by the uneven bottom. There were wave trains coming from different directions and crossing each other at times leading to an unusually high one that would break and roll by with a small spill zone. The waves grew to three and then four feet with pitched tops as we paddled out to deeper water. The breakers were happening here and there with no real predictability. We just kept paddling out through the action, pulling up and over some decent sized waves. I think Wayne was having fun. I was having trouble keeping an eye on him as he, like so many other beginners and even a few experienced paddlers, insisted on following directly behind me. That made it very hard to see him. I would have to turn all the way around to look dead behind me to see if he was doing well or needed any assistance. That is not a particularly stable thing to do in tumultuous waves. My other option was to turn the boat to look at him, but then I was broadside to the waves and if a breaker came along at an inopportune time I was going to eat it. Once outside the break zone i waited for him to catch up and asked him to not paddle directly behind me when in the surf zone. It is not safe for anyone to paddle directly behind someone in the surf zone as the lead boat could be caught up by a breaking wave and swept down on you. One of the most dangerous things in the surf zone is another boat. They are hard and heavy and a good horizontal separation between boats is always advisable.
Once clear of the break zone we turned south and followed the beach staying at least one hundred meters off the surf zone. It was amazing how loud the surf was with such small waves. Perhaps it was just easy to hear them in the fairly light wind. Surf never looks very impressive from the back side. It gets more intimidating from in front of the waves or on top of them! Judging the real size and shape of a breaking wave from the back side takes a lot of practice and skill. You have to look at the waves carefully to decide whether the waves are spilling, plunging or dumping. Spilling waves get taller gradually as they roll into shore. You can often see a large area of foam behind them. They are usually associated with very gentle beaches that run with a shallow slope all the way to the shore, so often there is a wide flat beach that can be seen behind them. Plunging waves get tall quickly as they run into the beach, break in a smaller zone and leave a narrower foam zone. They are louder. They are associated with a steeper beach. Most waves along the Atlantic Virginia coast are of this type. The most dangerous type of waves are the dumping waves. These waves get tall really fast, break really quickly, waves of different sizes break in almost the same distance from the shore. they make a booming sound when they collapse. These types of waves should be avoided.
Surf along the shore is never consistent. At any given tide level there will be areas of higher and lower surf. After all, surfers who generally are looking for bigger waves prefer certain areas of a beach. If you are looking for lower surf for a safe landing, stay away from the types of areas surfers seek out. Certainly if there are surfers present, stay away from them for both your and their safety. In any case, look up and down the beach and try to pick a place with the lowest surf.
When surf drives water onto the beach, it needs to return back down the beach. When the surf is strong and especially when the surf is not coming directly onto the beach, there will be rip currents. These are areas where the water piled up on the beach returns to the ocean in a concentrated current out through the breakers. These are dangerous for swimmers as they can quickly transport a swimmer out into the open ocean away from the beach.
They are a kayakers friend however, for both coming in and out of a beach. In a rip current the waves are frequently smaller and have less tendency to break in the deeper water of the rip itself, but rather break along the edges of the rip zone. For coming off of the beach the current will help you get out through the surf zone. When coming in they will slow you down, which might not be a bad thing if you are trying not to be surfed in on a wave. In any case, look for rip currents to see if they offer an opportunity for easy access to the beach.
After going several miles down the shore of Parramore Island, we headed in to a spot where it looked like we would be able to camp above the high tide line. The ocean was advancing on the island here and the pine trees were being inundated by the advancing salt water. Such is the changing nature of a barrier island as it ebbs and flows back and forth as storms shape. It is only when man places a structure of value that such natural processes are threatening. Then we spend enormous amounts of money to counteract a natural process, and learn time and time again what little power we actually have when affecting nature.
With this done, there was nothing left but to go for it. I started in and caught a little breaker that surfed me in with only a late broach as I neared the shore. I straightened out and paddled through the shore break, lifted out of the boat and looked back for Wayne. He was already on the way in, riding in ahead of a wave. I tossed my paddle up the shore, pulled the boat farther onto the beach and grabbed the camera off the front deck and barely got a shot before he was out of his boat. A very successful first landing.
We rafted up outside the surf line and discussed how to proceed through the surf. We talked about back-paddling to keep from being picked up by the waves. We talked about the importance of keeping the boat between you and the shore so as not to be injured by the boat. We talked about hanging on the paddle and the boat, but to let go of the boat first if necessary. With wind and wave both coming into shore, the boat would wind up on the beach eventually anyway. Keeping the paddle would help get you into the shore if need be. I would go first and then Wayne would come in. I planned to get to the beach and swim out to help him if he went over. With this review, Wayne was going in on his first surf landing.
There was not much land to be had above the high tide mark. The ghostly white salt impregnated trucks of the dead pines littered the beach. We chose the highest spot we could find for several hundred meters in either direction on the beach. It looked like it had been a while since the water had reached that level, but it was not out of the question that we might see that level in a strong spring tide. But I had checked the tides and there was nothing especially high due for the next couple of days. Wind and surf conditions could change that of course, but it looked like we would be safe from getting wet. There were deer and racoon tracks up and down the beach, showing several animal visitors to this site since the last rain.
Back at the kayaks we moved them down to the surf line and Wayne had his first experience with a surf launch. The small waves coming into the shore were not a bid problem, but even so I had to get out and reset my kayak perpendicular to the waves. With the long bow and big volume forward on my kayak it is always hard to keep it pointed into the shore wash. But once floated I quickly paddled out past the surf line and waited for Wayne who was struggling to clear the beach also. I could have launched him first with an assist but these were perfect conditions for him to learn how to do it for himself. Soon he joined me outside the surf line. We made a short break and then began paddling south along the shore just outside the breakers.
Down the beach we spied what we at first thought was a camp, one with a green tent. But it turned out to be a large navigation aid, a green sea buoy, that had broken its mooring and drifted on the beach. The power required to have broken the heavy metal casting on the bottom of the buoy must have been tremendous. It was now half buried, nearly all its superstructure below the sand.
We paddled down to Quinby Inlet, There were several groups of fishermen in the surf trying their luck with long surf poles. I didn't see anyone catch anything. We rounded the north side of the inlet and paddled well back into the inlet where the sand curls around in a giant fish hook of sand. We came ashore and spent some time on the beach resting. We pulled our snacks for lunch and watched about 10 people who were clamming on a mud flat several hundred meters away. In just a hour the water had reclaimed the flat and all the people were gone.
About a mile short of our previous stop we came ashore through the surf line. I went first to check it out. Before I was in on the beach I looked back and saw that Wayne was already starting in. I had not made it clear that I wanted him to wait until I had made it to the beach. He was only two waves behind me and that was too close. But just then the wave he had chosen proved to be a little too much and over he went. I hurried into the beach and got out of my boat, prepared to wade in after him for assistance. But Wayne had remembered what I had told him to do if he went over. He had his paddle, he was holding onto his boat and he was on the ocean side of it. Everything was in control. I waited in the shallow water for him to work his boat into shore, then I grabbed the bow loop and pulled it onto the sand. A good experience for all.
After lunch we headed across the inlet against a strong incoming tide. At times a thirty degree ferry angle was required to keep us on the range for the crossing. We paddled over to the south side of Wachapreague and landed on the large sand beach in front of the old Coast Guard station. it appeared to be in private hands now, at least according to the signs of habitation and no trespassing. After a walk down the beach, we got back in the kayaks and paddled around the point and out into the inlet. We cut across the inlet to the other side and then paddled back up the coast.
There was a tree trunk bleaching in the sand that made a nice place to sit. We collected a number of pieces of trash from down the beach - buckets and construction plastic pails for seats and a table. Unfortunately there were many to choose from in just a small section of nearby beach. the most common piece of trash however were Mylar balloons. They were everywhere. I believe that these items are getting to be the scourge of floating trash in the environment. They are also very dangerous for sea turtles as they mistake them for jellyfish, a favorite food. If you have balloons for your party, make sure they do not escape and do not release them intentionally. Remember that they have to land somewhere and that often is in the water.
The tide was down again and there was a little bit of a carry back down to the water. This time I helped Wayne off the shore and filmed him as he went out over the waves. Once again his timing wasn't so good and he was lifting his paddle up and horizontally to the waves. In this little stuff that is OK but would be a disaster in larger waves.
We paddled up through the area of the high waves on the south side of Wachapreague Inlet. We decided to cut through the breaking surf zone again as going out and around would add another mile at least to the trip. The waves were confused and lumpy again with breakers here and there. But this time we were headed away from them not into them. Instead of seeing what is coming ahead of you, you are glancing over your shoulder to see what is catching up. We made it through the area without getting involved in any breaks and paddled against the current to the south side on the inlet where we stopped for a rest.
From there we had an uneventful paddle back up the twisting channel to Wachapreague where our car awaited us. There was some traffic at the ramp, but we shared the free facility with the fishing boats with good cheer. They even have a hose there to wash off the boat and the gear, but please be respectful and use it judiciously. It is a courtesy of the restaurant. Although we were much too funky to go in a eat at the restaurant, we did buy some sodas at the little store so we at least paid for the water we used.