Sea Kayak Surfing the Channel of the Black River
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwikle/5023238200/” title=”On the Crest of a wave headed up the channel by Go Kayak Now, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4133/5023238200_7f1a83f622.jpg” width=”500″ height=”373″ alt=”On the Crest of a wave headed up the channel” /></a>
John Fleming and I headed out to surf mid-afternoon Friday. Forecast was SW Winds at 40 knots. Waves 7-9 feet building to 9-11 feet and veering NW. I’ve had good luck this season so far with NW winds, but today was not my day at the beach. We examined the conditions at the beach and pretty quickly found that it was a giant washing machine.
We decided to try our hands at surfing the channel of the Black River in sea kayaks. The swells even in a due west wind clean up as they come down the channel, forming regular wavelengths that appear to be more uniform and easy to catch.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwikle/5023237214/” title=”Breaking out of the Black River channel in sea kayak by Go Kayak Now, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4086/5023237214_b391f9df88.jpg” width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”Breaking out of the Black River channel in sea kayak” /></a>
We launched from the public park and paddled out. Almost a quarter mile down the river there were waves crashing on rocks and piers. Once we headed out to the actual steel walled channel, there were massive swells rolling through. But none were breaking. We paddled out towards the open lake as fast as the wind would allow us. I kept to the upwind side wanting to see if I could catch a swell big enough to see over the breakwall. Within about a minute I’d caught an elevator ride of more than 9 feet straight up to be able to see the beach on the north side of the pier. An older guy with a DSLR looked absolutely perplexed as I peaked on the swell and then headed down.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwikle/5022626417/” title=”Keith Wikle Surfing the channel of the Black River in sea kayak. by Go Kayak Now, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4108/5022626417_49d0490d31.jpg” width=”500″ height=”354″ alt=”Keith Wikle Surfing the channel of the Black River in sea kayak.” /></a>
Once out towards the mouth of the river, an endless sea of whitecaps and steady crumbling peaks rushed in to the channel. There was a clear line of aquablue waves rushing in over the muddy brown swells of the river. I paddled out to the edge of the channel into the blue, pivoted on a wave face with a sweep stroke and then paddled like hell downwave. I was immediately capsized. I rolled up, and then caught another ride, this face was so steep that I rushed downwave faster than the sea kayak could handle, my nose buried and then pretty soon I was pitchpoled up to my chest, I pivoted, and flopped down onto the surface. I rolled up facing the other direction, so I had to re-pivot back up the channel. I was soon surfing fast down the channel.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwikle/5023238896/” title=”Sea Kayaking at the mouth of the Black River, South Haven MI by Go Kayak Now, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4091/5023238896_943eced6ff.jpg” width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”Sea Kayaking at the mouth of the Black River, South Haven MI” /></a>
The real struggle with this exercise is that you need a kayak fast enough to catch these large fast moving swells, but maneuverable enough to carve away from the steel lined breakwall that you inevitably veer towards. My Silhouette, while and awesome downwave boat, is essentially a freight train on rails, and one end or the other has to be loose to maneuver. Both John and I had beautiful long rides down the channel where the steel wall got closer, and closer, and closer, and finally capsizing to use your body as a drogue was the only choice for salvation. I got within about 20 feet, (one boat length of the wall) on one thrilling ride. John, on one I saw was even closer. In a surf kayak this little challenge wouldn’t exist, you would just pivot your weight around smack off the wave, and carve back in the other direction. But the surf boat isn’t fast enough to catch an unbroken wave without a steep face. I had a thought that a full length IC boat might do quite well in these conditions.
Needless to say, heading out to the open lake and turning around to head back into the steel throat of the monster is a wildly different experience from surfing an open break where sand beach is waiting for you if you screw up. Here, there was only a 6 foot steel wall waiting for you to screw up.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithwikle/5023235670/” title=”Headed up the face of the swells in a sea kayak by Go Kayak Now, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4149/5023235670_1cec911d87.jpg” width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”Headed up the face of the swells in a sea kayak” /></a>
You might ask, why do it then?
I saw some people standing on the pier taking pictures of us, looking up the channel with mouths agape, one group cheered for John as he plunged downwave wild spray flying off of his paddle as he ruddered furiously to keep his boat from veering into the wall. I answered myself pretty quickly. I might occasionally ask what the f#ck am I doing out here, but I would never for an instant want to be the poor bastard standing on a breakwall with a camera asking why the hell am I not out there, perched on the crest of a wave, looking down, and asking myself am I gonna make it this time?
Complete photo gallery from Go Kayak Now’s Photo’s on Flickr.
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