MD - Havre de Grace channel night paddle - 2003/07/22 - 10 miles

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A moonlight paddle down the Havre de Grace channel provides for a wild return ride. Night paddling provides it own challenges.

It had been a hot and humid day - typical July for the Chesapeake Bay - 96 degrees with humidity to match. Chores had kept me on land this day, but there was to be a full moon this night and I decided to see it come up over the water. I checked the moon rise time using this site. It was a 10:30 PM rise. Perfect for a late paddle out of nearby Havre de Grace. I arrived at Jean S. Roberts Park ramp at 8:45 as twilight settled on the town. The wind had blown strong all day and it was not slowing down much as night fell. With a south wind of 12-15 knots, I pulled out into the swells coming around the point at Tidewater Marina and headed down along the boardwalk that runs along the shore. The light was on in the Concord Lighthouse as I left the glow of the city street lights and headed out into the night.

Paddling at night is a much different experience than paddling in the day. It is one that I heartily recommend for both enjoyment of the experience and for the practice that everyone should have in case they get caught out when darkness falls. The confidence that you gain in paddling under a controlled and expected condition will help immensely during any forced night adventure.

The requirements for hand powered craft to travel at night are quite simple. The boat must have a visible 360 degree white light. Boats such as kayaks and canoes are not required to have red and green lights "running lights". There are several lights available that will attach to your kayak deck with a suction cup and shine a bright light out in all directions. However, every one I have ever seen has two problems. First, because of the inherent design of small crafts, kayaks especially, these lights will always be blocked in some direction by your body. Second, the bright white lights totally ruin any night vision and one can not see anything past the circle of reflected light that they cast on the kayak deck and nearby water. Paddling around blinded by this bright light means that you are depending on other boats to see you as opposed to you seeing them. That just doesn't work for me. So what I do is paddle in the dark with a bright flashlight at the ready to signal any approaching boats. I also keep a strobe on hand. This emits a bright white light at one second intervals. It should be used in emergencies only as Coast Guard personnel will respond to any one second flashing white light. However, if I am about to be run over by another boat, an emergency is what it is, and the Coast Guard are welcome to come.

Another phenomenon that one encounters with night paddling, especially in really dark conditions, is that one can not see the waves coming. This makes for some slightly off balance paddling as waves rock and tilt the kayak in unanticipated ways. It also makes for a few stunning shots of cold water in the arm pit as an unseen wave rolls up the side of your cockpit skirt. In the dark the waves always seem bigger. They make more noise too. The white caps hiss ever so more loudly at night. And engines of passing boats seem to be closer than they are. But these sounds give good warning of the position, size speed and direction of boat traffic around you.

Your balance and hearing senses seem to be heightened when your vision is nearly useless. The waves seem to be moving the kayak around more than usual. This can lead to a feeling of motion sickness as the movement of the kayak responding to the unseen waves with no visible reference like the horizon can cause problems similar to reading in a car. If you are susceptible to car sickness when reading, or sea sickness in general, this might be a problem for you. I get sea sick and I notice that at night it takes less motion to make me feel queasy than in the day time.

The sense of smell is something that I always try to utilize when out on a paddle. The smell of the marsh, the smell of the water itself, whether it is the salt brine or the algae in the water, the scent of the trees or honeysuckle along the bank. At night these smells are enhanced also. And on this warm and muggy night they were almost overwhelming. As I paddled toward the large beds of submerged aquatic vegetation, the new fancy word now used for what we used to call simply "grass", a heady must of the floating plants came across the water. As I entered the thick mats of vegetation, the waves calmed as the swaying plants dampened and smoothed them out. Their strong odor was powerful. There was no room to place a paddle where it was not quickly entwined in the clinging strands. I quickly returned to the edge of the channel and continued south toward the islands where the channel turns and heads east.

There were big flood lights illuminating an area of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a secure military installation on the southern side of the channel. The land and the waters immediately surrounding the base are restricted. I had no intention of going that far tonight however.

From behind the island where Fishing Battery Lighthouse stands, came a new bright light sweeping back and forth over the channel. A green light and two high white lights told me that a tug and barge was coming up the channel. I could also see the light required to be on the front of the barge that was being pushed by the tug. The tug was on its way up the channel to the gravel pit on the south bank of the Susquehanna just north of Havre de Grace. I was already close to the side of the channel, but I changed course to put myself well out of the channel in shallow water near one of the islands. I knew I was safe here in 2 feet of water and that the large vessel could never reach me here. I waited for them to pass.

As the tug and barge drew closer I could hear the throb of the large diesel engine and the thrash of the propeller as it made its way up the channel. As it passed I could smell the diesel fumes from the stack, and the hot paint and grease smell that seems to be common to every galley on every ship in the world. The cook had the door open on the lower deck, no doubt trying to get some air into what surely must been a hot galley on this warm and muggy night.

I could hear the wake from the tug and barge curl onto the shore of the island. It started well away and grew louder as it got closer and it ran onto the shore. Behind it I could hear the next wave repeating this dance. The waves gradually muted, and I pulled once more into the channel. I headed south until I came to the lighted green buoy on the channel. It bobbed about in the fresh breeze and small waves. I approached from the down current side to take this picture, which proved difficult between the wind, waves, the current.and juggling the camera, the paddle and looking through the view finder. Waves always look smaller in photos.

I crossed over the channel and as I reached the other side, the moon appeared above a low bank of fog or clouds. It was 10:45 PM. The first few minutes of its rise had been totally obscured. Now it glowed a dull red through the haze. I was not going to get the beautiful moonlight paddle I had come for. I watched it for about 15 minutes to see if it would clear up but it only got darker. I pointed my bow back to the launch ramp.

The wind was now directly behind me and the waves picked up my stern, begging to be surfed. Surfing the steep wind waves of the shallow Chesapeake Bay are always fun, but at night it is an absolute blast. I covered the five miles back to the ramp very quickly on the two foot waves. My car sat as the only vehicle in the lot. The fishermen had long since left. I loaded the boat onto the car and got back home just after this day ended. The moon still sat behind its cloak of clouds as I entered the house, tired but happy.




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