Sea Kayaking Lake Michigan in the Gales of November
My proposed trip of paddling from Port Sheldon to Saugatuck was evaluated and quickly adjusted on Saturday. The forecast was calling for winds up to 30 knots. Waves were expected to be between 6-10 feet, building to 12 feet. I had a rather large invite list that whittled down quickly to about five to six people, and that narrowed down to three in the final days.
John Fleming and I spotted a car in Saugatuck on the way up to Port Sheldon. Once we had everyone assembled I made a judgement call to not do the full 15 miles in the weather we had, but rather to start in Holland and finish in Saugatuck. A measly 7 miles. We parked near Holland State Park on Lake Macatawa and began to suit up. John Fleming and I were the only two with full drysuits. However both Joe Deja and Doug Neal had wetsuits. I encouraged people to wear helmets due to the waves, boats, and break walls.
We discussed the plan for exiting the channel which would be dicey at best. The plan was to shoot straight out of the channel and once in deeper water swing south. My record for expressing the dangers of exiting a constricted rough water area is not good. I tried to share this same concept when I was up in Wawa, and the newer paddlers still managed to run afoul of the hazards in the Michipicoten River mouth.
So when exiting here, I made sure to express that staying close to the break wall was a bad idea, and to stay loose through the rougher parts of the middle of the channel where reflection waves were bouncing around. Once through the soup you would be in deep water where nothing would be breaking and you could begin paddling south. Unfortunately Doug Neal ran afoul of the break wall and had a close call I didn’t even witness. Apparently he got caught by an incoming wave and almost ran into the rocks just inside the break wall. He managed to make it out, but was visibly shaken for the rest of the trip. When he emerged he erroneously spotted some surfers on the south part of the breakwall waiting for a wave and thought it was us. He started heading for the surfers. He never saw it, but a huge face that had me wishing for my surf boat came up behind him and lifted his tail about 8 feet, washed underneath his kayak and then peeled nicely as it ran over the southern sand bar. I remember thinking in my head, “wow is he going for that 8 foot wave?” Turns out he wasn’t. John and Joe made it out with no such frights.
I looked upwind and took stock of the situation, because if we were going to bag it, this was the time to do it. It looked gnarly upwind. Ok gnarly is an understatement. It looked steep, intimidating and mean upwind. A completely gunmetal gray sky with dark shoulder ridged clouds pushed down from the north like a mounted cavalry charge. Downwind looked manageable, and ironically the sun broke through in the south illuminating the surface like a runway in the dark for a plane. We decided to make a break for it.
Immediately my Foster Silhouette was racing downwind. I was probably making 8-9 knots without even trying. I was easily catching 400-500 yard rides with few paddle strokes. My blades would spin for four or five strokes and then my tail would lift from a giant swell and take off, spilling water off the bow and then I would edge on or off to keep pointed due south, and then low bracing on the other side. I was having a gas. The only trick was to keep pointing your kayak a bit west to ensure you didn’t wind up on the inside of the break zone. At this pace we would easily make Saugatuck in about 50 minutes.
Unfortunately one of our crew never quite recovered from his brush with the break wall. I think it really got in his head, and then when he was on the outside, he made the big mistake of second guessing everything. The water was cold, the buoy reported mid-high forties. The wind was howling at 25-30 knots, and the waves when you bothered to look over your shoulder were pretty impressive. And he knew at the end of the wild downwind ride there was another river mouth with two break walls to face.
I stuck back with Doug, while Jon Fleming and Joe Deja raced ahead with the wind.
Doug I noticed would stop paddling whenever a swell rushed underneath him, which on the Great Lakes is about every 3-5 seconds. So he was not paddling a whole lot. Having seen Doug paddle and teach before I knew it was purely a mental issue and not an ability issue. Having said this, I would invite Doug to comment on any aspect of this story that rings untrue or sounds exaggerated.
I was trying to keep asking him how he was doing. I asked if he was warm, or if he was sea sick. I kept paddling ahead a bit, hoping he would dig in and catch up. When that didn’t happen, I waited for him to catch me. We rested a minute, and then let him go ahead. As we paddled I tried to give some advice that probably rang out (at the time) as either useless or annoying about keeping an active blade in the water. We were making good time. But those oncoming clouds and the prediction of a building sea state were dead on, the wind was picking up, and the waves were getting bigger.
We were nearing the Kalamazoo River mouth at Saugatuck, and the tops of the waves began to crumble from the increased velocity of the wind. I couldn’t see Joe or Jon. We were hopelessly separated, but I was praying they made the entrance to the channel unscathed. As we approached I asked Doug how he felt about the channel. He said straight out he would prefer not to do it. I told Doug about the beach to the south where I could swing around and pick him up. But then recanted when I realized I would have to go all the way in with him and then back around and in the channel. This would add another 45 minutes of dangerous hard paddling for me and he might be alone on that beach and cold for a long time while I looked for Joe and Jon. I told him we were going to have to do the channel. He gritted his teeth and paddled on. I could tell he wasn’t happy with me.
As we approached the channel the waves steepened and began to break as they ran over a sand bar at the edge of the river. It was quite big, at least 7-8 feet. To add insult to injury it began to hail. Doug slowed as his anxiety built. I told him we had to go for it and not slow down in the channel. Doug wasn’t really focusing very well and when big waves came up behind him his paddle wasn’t even in the water. I was shouting to him, (thought it probably seemed like I was shouting at him at the time), to backpedal. He managed to back off of one quite steep face. I let him go ahead and one big wave immediately rushed up, I backpedaled and shouted for Doug to do the same. He either couldn’t hear me or was so deep in facing his fear of those breakwalls he just didn’t react. An impressive six footer took him and rushed him towards the mouth of the channel and then broke.
He went over. In my head, I thought, ah sh#t this is it. I’m going to have to tow him and his boat into deeper water to put him back in his boat. This is gonna hurt. And by the grace of god, Doug rolled up like a pro. I was never so happy to see someone roll as when I saw him come up. At this point I had enough adrenaline to crush a bus and I was beginning to fear for myself as well as Doug. I paddled up and said we had to go for it while there was a lull. Doug said he wanted to rest a minute. I shouted back, “This is not a place to f#cking rest, we gotta go for it!” I am really sorry for being short with him, but I was getting pretty terrified of having to tow him as a swimmer in the channel.
At that moment, God in his mercy smiled on me and the waves calmed enough where I could see the beach. Joe and Jon were on it and out of their boats. They were waving to us. The plan came together quickly I was sending Doug in to the beach and I would head down the channel to get the car. I told Doug to go for it. I watched him make it past the break wall as I braced against the incoming waves to my port side. Once he was clear of the break wall. I went for it. I backpedaled through the rushing waves and hail to get my bow pointed into the channel. Once I felt I had enough space I put everything I had into swinging my tail around and heading down the river mouth. One huge wave came up and washed me side ways directly towards the south edge of the break wall. I managed to swing my tail back in line with the river mouth with a stern draw and head towards the more protected north wall, and then sweep back in on another wave straight down the channel. I had made it, but only by the skin of my teeth.
I paddled like hell thinking I was going to have to get to the car and drive around to Oval beach in a hurry. But then I remembered there was a cut back in the river right by the south break wall where I could get out and check up on everyone. I was worried I was going to have to get back in a boat and possibly tow Doug in as a swimmer. But luckily after I humped it over the dunes all three guys were on the beach. I ran over and immediately hugged Doug out of some bizarre sense of regret and relief. I was so happy he made it. When I looked out at the sea state, it had turned into a gyrating washing machine of frothed up white water. The swells were no longer well formed and even, it had devolved into a real Gale of November. I was really happy all of us were on shore.
We took some pictures and began to portage the boats into the river. We managed to carry the boats in fairly short order and paddled the rest of the way up the river.
Over dinner we all agreed there was very little to exaggerate about the day’s events.
While we all made a decision to go for it, we had not counted on the extreme conditions on the entrance to the pier prohibiting us from entering it. Nor had I predicted that we would become so spread out so quickly. John and Joe, who really did very well, were having difficulty hanging back with Doug and I. If I had been a better leader I would have insisted on it, so that we could have made a group decision about the channel or the beach. Or at the very least we could have discussed it before they took off. We had no communication method to coordinate this essential detail. I was really worried about having to go back out and look for Joe and Jon. So I wanted to make sure Doug was safe inside the river mouth, rather than potentially struggling through the steep dumping surf on the south side of the Saugatuck beach. From past experience I knew this beach was not a good place to bring a kayak in steep waves. If I had remembered the path along the pier, the trip back to the car would have seemed far less important.
As usual I was second guessing my decisions and my leadership. John Fleming asked me a terrific question on the way home. Were we skilled or, lucky? I answered that without hesitating…lucky.
Again if Joe, John, or Doug would like to embellish please feel free to add it in the comments.