Rock Island Rendezvous

Thordarson’s boathouse and ferry pier, Rock Island State Park, WI. By David Langhorst [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
It’s 11:15 PM on a Friday night when we pull up to the ferry landing at Northport in Door County.  Mark and I begin to unload sea kayaks and gear for a weekend tour from my Honda Civic.  The weather is cool–what you would expect from the first weekend of October–and the wind is moving the tips of trees above our heads. 

For the past four hours in the car, we have been debating which side of Washington Island we want to take on our way to Rock Island State Park.  I have made the paddle several times before, but always in daylight.  Mark is an accomplished whitewater kayaker, but this will be only his second overnight trip in a sea kayak.  If we take the eastern side of the island, the predicted 10-15 knot southerly winds will give us a good push and a following sea, but we will have to do a little bit of dead reckoning to avoid a large area of shoals near Hog Island.  If we take the western side, we will still have a following sea and navigation will be simplified, but we will add an hour’s worth of mileage to our trip.

It takes until 12AM before we are fully packed and the car has been tucked away for the weekend.  Two sea kayaks on the beach under a very bright full moon.  We have decided to take the shorter route to the east, which will involve paddling a course by compass part of the way.  The air is calm with occasional gusts, but we know that once we are out of the shelter of the trees, things will pick up a bit.  Our first leg is to Pilot Island, past the blinking green Waverly Shoal buoy.  Conditions get bigger almost immediately, and we make the crossing in a 2-3 foot beam sea.

Tucked in behind the concrete pier on Pilot Island, we check the time and review our pre-trip calculations.  We have made a little better that four miles-per-hour thus far.  Paddling directly East for half an hour should get us past the shallow water near the southern tip of Detroit Island.  My compass is lighted, but Mark’s is not, so we choose a star as a reference point.

From the crests of the waves, I can see breaking white water on the Detroit Island shoals.  Not the place to be at night with a loaded boat, so we steer a little closer to Orion’s belt, and shift our course south.  After thirty minutes we make our turn to a heading of 35 degrees (magnetic) and start down hill.

Running in a following sea is one of the greatest thrills in sea kayaking, and doing it on a moonlit night, with a 15-knot tailwind is absolutely fantastic.  There is enough light that we can stay in visual contact with each other without using glow sticks or flashlights.  Three and four foot waves cream up from the south, shimmering and glassy–bright, white moonlight reflecting off their crests.  The sounds are of wind, and crumpling wave tops.

My attention is fixed on the timing of waves, paddle and boat.  Each wave is a source of energy and speed.  I vary the tempo of my paddling as the waves pass.  Slower as the bow of my boat points skyward on the back of the wave, quicker as it dips downward.  Bursts of acceleration to catch waves, boat edge, rudder strokes, the occasional brace, and a quick glance down at the compass to make sure we are roughly on course.

The paddling is solitary.  Each of us has his own boat to control, his own waves to catch.  I look out from the top of waves to spot the shadow of Mark’s boat on the water.  He can follow me a little easier because of the light from the “glowing red orb” of my compass.  We re-group occasionally to check in, or to make a course correction, but between these breaks, we are absorbed in the waves, the growing cold, and a desire for sleep.

It is 3AM when we pull our boats up onto the beach on Rock Island, near a campsite that our friend Dana has reserved.  Storm cags are pulled out of boats, equipment unloaded, the tent pitched.  Sleep will come easy.  We have traveled roughly twelve nautical miles in three hours—not bad considering that we were starting to nod-off a bit toward the end.

Sea kayaking to me is about adventures big and small.  Paddling at night, alone in a small boat gives me some perspective about my place in the world, and fuels my need for adventure.  Experiences like this one are what keep me connected to sea kayaking, and to paddling in general.  The feel of the boat on the wave, of the paddle in the water, and of the focus that my mind–these are the things that bring me back to the water again and again.

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