MD - Havre de Grace to Joppatown - 2007/05/06 - 34.5 miles

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North winds make this trip easier and exciting. From Havre de Grace out around the unapproachable shores of Aberdeen Proving Ground and then northwest up the Gunpowder to Mariner Point Park, this long Chesapeake Bay sleigh ride provides an opportunity to handle strong winds and 3 foot wind waves.

All last year I was on the lookout for a strong north to northeast wind for a trip from Havre de Grace to Mariner Point Park in Joppatowne. But it never came off. Either the winds were associated with strong thunderstorms and lightning, or they came on a day when I was unable to get away. But this year, the opportunity came early. With a strong cold front moving through and no precipitation behind it, it looked like the chance I had been waiting for. The air temperature would drop to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, lower than the recently warmed water temperature of 64 degrees.

The north wind was good, even though northeast would have been better. The first seven miles out of Havre de Grace has a southeast heading, then the turn at Spesutie Island leaves you on a southwest course for the next sixteen miles. Finally an eleven plus miles paddle gets you up the Gunpowder River to Mariner Point Park. At least half of the trip is dead downwind with a northeast wind, with the rest no worse than crosswind. With the wind forecast for north, it would be a little behind me in the first part of the trip and a little against me on the last part of the trip. But there was hope the wind would veer early and make the last part of the trip easier. With Aberdeen Proving Ground all along the west shore there is no bail out point there. I had figured that Betterton, Maryland on the eastern shore and right downwind would be the place I would come into if things were too much.

I got to Havre de Grace at 7:30 A.M. and headed for the little beach at Tidewater Grille restaurant. The beach is usually a little sliver of sand up against the bank. Today the water level had dropped several extra feet as the wind drove the water out of the upper portions of the Chesapeake Bay. The little beach was 20 feet wide, muddy and covered with large unforgiving rocks. The water out from the beach was very shallow. I decided to head over to the ramp at Jean S. Roberts park where there is a rubber kayak launch mat.

I drove over there and found that the water level there was so low that the end of the ramp did not reach the water. But a little improvisation with some drift wood extended the ramp enough to provide a safe launch for my newly waxed fiberglass kayak. I loaded up, suited up and shoved off into the wind blown river.

I paddled about a quarter mile when it became apparent that the hood I had put on was going to be much too warm even with the strong wind and spray that was coming off of my paddle. It was removed and placed in the deck bag. I paddled on to the Concorde Lighthouse and turned to the southwest over the broad expanse of the Susquehanna flats.

With the wind blowing about 20 to 25 knots, I was thinking that it would be too strong for my little homemade sail. But if I was going to try it, I should probably do so here under the lee of the bank before the waves increased in height. I pulled the sail out from under the foredeck bungies and tried to deploy it. The wind bent the flexible plastic pole in almost a ninety degree angle. I could not raise the sail to its normal position. But even partially deployed the kayak quickly gained speed and I was off across the flats.

The sail continued to bend and bob in the gusty wind. As the waves began to build it became harder to maintain the desired course. Without a rudder, it is difficult to keep the kayak on course. The only way is to dip one end of the paddle into the water behind your cockpit to turn the kayak to that side. It got to be too much so I decided to take the sail down. That is an easy operation even in high wind. I pulled the poles apart, wrapped the nylon sail material around the poles and shoved the sail under the deck bungies.

As I did so, I pushed my bottle of water out from under the bungies and over the side. I watched the bottle drop to about a foot down as the kayak rushed on by. I slammed on the brakes with a strong backpaddle and kept the white cap of the 1 liter cranberry juice bottle in sight as I struggled to turn the kayak in the 25 knot wind gust that had just arrived to celebrate this event. I lost direct site of the bottle and I concentrated on the spot where I thought it would be. I battled back up wind to the spot where I thought the bottle went down. There I saw it about two feet down and going lower. I tried prying it upward with my paddle but soon it was clear that it was hopeless. Note to self: don't just think about drinking some water from your deck bottle before launching - actually do it. Not only is it good for your body, but it will put some air into the bottle so that it will float.

So now I was facing a long day, not hot, but much too long to be without water. I had filled two Dromedary water bags for ballast in the kayak. One was behind my seat and quite out of reach. The other was between my legs under my sea sock. I was sure that I could get to that one for drinking purposes as long as the waves did not get too wild. I would have to open the skirt and the sea sock in order to get it out for drinking. I looked at the waves and they were not bad here, but the fetch was still short and the water was shallow. Still I did not think it would take long to retrieve the water bag and that conditions would not be that bad. I headed out into the flats instead of turning around and battling upwind back to the launch site for my second bottle of water that I had left in the car. As I paddled I thought about the little string of events that had led to the loss of my deck water bottle. Like many tragic stories at sea, a series of seemingly innocuous decisions had led me to the point of paddling out on a long trip without any easily accessible water. I hoped that the string would end here without any further escalation. After all, if I didn't make it back, who would write the story??

The water was the color of coffee with only a little cream added. The wind was driving the waves hard and white caps were very numerous. The breaking action had stirred up the sediments that form the large bank of shallow water where the Susquehanna River becomes the head of the Chesapeake Bay. With today's exceptionally low tide, the normally easily navigable flats were really shallow. At one point the water got to less than a foot deep. Every wave was breaking and looked like spilling surf across the flats. I looked for the few channels of deeper water and followed them south and east toward Spesutie Island.

I finally reached deeper water of the shipping channel.. There the waves began to build and I got several excellent surfing rides. One threatened to bury the nose of my kayak and I had a rooster tail of water streaming off of the U bolt on the front of my kayak. I ran straight downwind getting surf rides as I rounded the outside marker of the exclusion zone of Army Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Once out past the edge of the zone, it was time to turn southwest to follow the main channel of the bay. I was winded from surfing the waves and thought this would be a good time to rest and get out the water. The wind a slacked a bit for the moment and the waves had calmed a little now that I was in the deeper water of the open bay. I opened the spray skirt and went under the sea sock and easily removed the Dromedary water bag beneath my knees.

Have you even had trouble drinking cleanly from a Nalgene bottle? Well try drinking from a Nalgene sized opening on the side of a Dromedary with four liters of water in it, while holding onto your paddle to steady a bobbing kayak. At least half a liter went down my jacket. But since I had a wetsuit on underneath it really didn't matter. There are some benefits to dressing in a rubber suit. But at least it could be done and I wouldn't be dehydrating out here today. Seems like the string of decisions would end safely here.

For the next sixteen miles I paddled with a quartering wind and tried to catch more waves. I had very little success however, for reasons that I had trouble figuring out. Maybe it was a combination of things. With the wind forcing the waves so hard, they were very irregular. There were a lot of cross waves so the kayak would get tossed about and it was very difficult to remain perpendicular to the wave crests. When a wave would pick up the stern, the strong wind would catch it a shove it one way or another. The back side of the waves where very steep, much steeped than the front. So as one wave passed, the kayak would slow markedly as it lay on the steep backside of the wave. But the front of the wave was only about 25% longer than the kayak itself and I could only get one or two strokes in before the crest would be passing under the hull and I would be sliding back down the other side. With the extra weight of the water ballast and my Greenland paddle, I could not accelerate up to speed to catch most of the waves. Pumping the kayak like a surfboard would sometimes allow me to get on plane and catch a wave, but the effort exceeded the reward. After two hours of trying to catch rides I gave up and started fooling with the sail instead.

Every time it seemed the wind had slacked off for a while I would get out the sail again. And every time just after I got it up, the wind would come back up and convince me to put it away again. I must have gone through that cycle ten times. Without a rudder, it was hard to maintain a downwind course, as the sail and kayak tended to go to a broad reach. So for a while I sailed across wind and then paddled downwind, sailed crosswind and paddled downwind.

On occasion when the kayak was pointing downwind, the speed of it under sail bordered on the frightening. The strong steady push of the wind was fast enough to start the kayak surfing on the waves I was not able to catch under paddle power. Then the kayak would surf down the wave at a speed that at times caused the sail to come back in my face - I assume the wind was blocked by the wave as I certainly was not going 20 knots. With ones paddle up in the air and holding onto the booms of the sail and unable to see the waves in front of the kayak because of the sail, I quickly abandoned sailing straight downwind.

It was in interesting afternoon of playing with the sail and surfing 3 to 4 foot wind waves on the Chesapeake Bay. It was why I had come out under these conditions as this is about as rough as it ever gets in the northern portion of Chesapeake Bay. In the wide open southern portions of the Bay, the waves heights get bigger but the wavelengths are much longer also. Of course it gets much rougher in the open ocean frequently. The Chesapeake Bay is a very gentle place for kayaking.

I reached Pooles Island, twenty three miles from Havre de Grace, after 6.5 hours of paddling for an average speed under four knots. With all the fooling around with the sail and correcting strokes from the sloppy wave conditions it wasn't a bad speed, but it was definitely less than I would have expected from so much favorable wind.

All that remained now was to slog up the Gunpowder River with a quartering headwind. The last eleven miles of partially upwind paddling reminded me of just how much easier downwind is than upwind. The waves were of no consequence under the lee of the north bank of the Gunpowder. I got to Mariner Point Park at 5:00 P.M. just ten hours after leaving Havre de Grace. Julio met me there and we loaded up my gear and he drove back to pick up my car. I drove home, took a shower and headed for the warmth of three covers on my bed. Dinner and to sleep. Now it is morning and I am sore and stiff enough that the only thing I want to do today is write this report. But one more objective is off the list - a long paddle in heavy wind and wind waves.




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