Sea Kayaking Lake Michigan in the Gales of November

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.


  1. Pingback:New Guest Blogger, John Fleming | Go Kayak Now!

  2. Great trip, report and comments.

    I can tell you that you all would have been a lot less lucky if you weren’t so skilled! At least you paired up, had good bracing and/or rolling skills and were able to get off the water and on the beach when you really needed to. Best of all, nobody got hurt, and everybody had an experience in which they can learn many things.

    Sounds like a great day to me!

  3. Sorry guys I wrote up a long winded response yesterday but for some reason it didnt’ go through, today’s version will be shorter

    I have to agree also with the answer to John’s question…we were lucky. I think we all agree to to the fact that we should have stayed together and communicated more on staying together, exiting and maybe some rescue tactics if needed. All in all though Great Job to all of us for completing that voyage unscathed.

    I have to admit I was nervous from the start even as we were paddling out the channel looking at the monstrous swells in the mouth of the river and Keith asking “how do you feel Joe” I wanted to say petrified but instead I squeaked out a “fine, just a little nervous” After taking a deep breath and making it out into the fangs of the monstrous beast of lake michigan I didn’t feel much better. I kept rehearsing rolling and bracing in my head over and over and trying to calm myself as I started South. Immediately I knew I needed momemtum to stay upright, surfing every swell that I could and powering through the valleys moving 100 meters each time. Ok I told my self I can be at that point in less than an hour. One problem; as I looked around I was all alone only seeing John in my rear and keith heading back to the pier heads. Shit, is someone in trouble what’s going on. That’s when I turned my boat and headed North to find out. Keith what’s going on what are we doing. Keith then told me he was heading back to find Doug and to keep heading south with John. Damn Keith I’d feel much better if you were paddling next to me I thought, but turned and shot for Saugatuck..

    I played so many head games out there it was driving me nuts. Where are these guys, what are they doing should I go back? I turned several times and headed back so I could ask John what was going on. John said he didn’t know. Hmm ok I guess we’re in two groups at least in case someone needed help I thought. John asked if I wanted to raft up and I thought it was a good Idea. We got within 10 feet from each other and a 10 footer came along and tore us apart sending John over. It’s amazing how calming it was to me to watch John roll back up like he was giving a demo in a pool session. Ok I said to myself this isn’t so bad, if I go over i’ll just do that. I was trying to slow it down some but it was throwing me around too much. I kept thinking if I open it up out here I can be back in no time flat….but alone. Alone is how I ended up toward the end and it’s not a good feeling. I lost sight of John and I was getting very anxious especially after the lull when the wind and waves picked up and the hail started coming down. I had no intent of paddling through the pier heads instead I set sights for the south side of pier and surfing into the beach. I started heading right toward the pier heads to clear the south pier but the water was a washing machine of 10 footer and a hell of a current. against my comfort zone I knew I needed to head out at least a 100 meters to get out of the trash, circle around then surf in. That’s exactly what I did and I caught one hell of a ride on what seemed like a 12 footer ok hold on surf this baby Joe.. there’s the end of the pier ok getting better I’m going to ride this sucker all the way but it washed under me with 50 meters to go. I looked back with only a second to think and caught the next ride. “Nice I’m going to set this thing on the beach and never get my head wet” well that’s what I thought when I went over. 10 meters from teh beach but could feel my head bouncing off the bottom so I knew I was close. One problem i never put the mittens on that keith lent me and was wearing the poly running gloves, my hands were frozen and I couldn’t right myself and couldnt get my fingers to wrap aorund my release. Oh shit if I drown in 3 feet of water after that ride i’m going to be pissed. I took my left hand and helped my right get around the release and out I came into the surf. I stood up pulled my boat up on the beach and gave out the biggest cheer I could “wooo hoooo that was awesome”
    At that point I saw john riding a wave in like a pro and watched him go over but at least I knew he was safe.
    I was concerned about Keith and Doug but it wasn’t long and they were in sight too. Whewwww we did it time for a beer.

    To be honest I wasn’t enjoying myself most of the trip but I kept thinking how good of training this was. In hindsight maybe we should have called it but glad now we didn’t. Second I should have had on my hood and mittens for warmth. It could have been very serious if I came out of my boat without that gear. Third yeah we should have all stuck together perhaps but it’s one of those split second decisions that you make and we were teamed up for most of the trip.

    I have to say that I felt comfortable with you guys and what pulled me through was that I had confidence that you were trained enough to handle an emergency.

    Overall hope we can paddle again where we can talk and I can practice some skills in less adverse conditions.

  4. John:

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with your observations. Communication about the exit strategy was probably the weak point of our administration.

    The new regime will probably work towards getting a marine radio. If we had two, just think we might have been able to communicate with one another. Not a bad idea huh?

    Also I really do agree, staying in would not have been very interesting.

    PS-Wordpress is working on threaded comments for the next release 2.7. This way my comment to your comment would appear right next to one another.


  5. Ross Mueller:

    On this particular day I was using my big wave gun a Werner Ikelos. I’ve found that moving downwind with a big spoon can be a lot of fun. I have done paddling like this with a Greenland paddle and have no difficulty with stability or speed. I would encourage you to try both and make a decision. On this particular day I probably could have used either of my surf paddles, 194 cm big spoons. (Lendal Kinetic XTI or Werner Double Diamond).

    I have paddled the Silhouette and the Explorer though I own a Silhouette. I find that the Explorer is both stable and easy to roll. It is a really well designed kayak that does a lot of things really well. It is both fast enough, and nimble due to having some rocker- a lot more rocker than the Silhouette anyway.

    The Silhouette is my favorite boat. It is faster than the Explorer I think, and in some ways almost as nimble. It is very easy to roll, in some ways easier than the NDK Explorer. But it is also a very slippery hull that has limited initial stability.

    This also means it can be edged quite easily. When headed down wave it can be edged on and off smaller broaching forces easily to hold it on course. An Explorer which is wider and has a more v-bottom hull could never do this. The Silhouette makes a lot of things I do much easier.

    But that said, an NDK/Sea Kayaking UK Explorer is one of the most popular rough water boats for a reason.

  6. Hi Keith,
    Good report. I will forward it to members of our kayak club, Lakeshore Sea Kayakers, which is just across the lake from you in Two Rivers, WI. We have a similar harbor/breakwater at the Twin River mouth which is indeed a good place for rough water practice.
    2 questions:
    Are you using a Greenland paddle for this?
    Do you have experience w/ both the Foster Silhouette and the NDK Explorer? If so – your impressions. I have both and feel the Explorer is my favored rough water kayak + it is easier for me to roll. Silhouette is faster.

  7. I’m sticking with the “lucky” analysis, although everybody had to work hard to keep it that way! We did the technically wrong thing by splitting up. But I think that I and perhaps Joe (I don’t want to speak for him) instinctively needed to do the thing that gave us the best chance for finishing the trip without someone needing help. This entailed paddling inside our comfort zone, which in this case meant more speed in the waves, splitting the group up.

    I’ll give my observations as the middle paddler in the dispersed group. These were the most epic conditions that I have been in, so I might have suffered from a little tunnel vision.

    Once we regrouped out in the open water beyond the Holland breakwall, my perception was that the tolerance for any further mishaps was really small, smaller maybe than anyone wanted to openly acknowledge. Because of 6-1/2 miles of uninterrupted surf-pounded beach and sandbars between the entrance and exit, things could potentially spiral down hill really fast if more than one thing went wrong. Keith seemed to be the only one of us with the ability to position himself with any person/pace in our group. As conditions grew on the open water, I quickly found it stressful to move much slower than a comfortable, stable pace for surfing. I was getting rolled trying to back-paddle up each wave, looking back for Doug and Keith, and Joe was already off the front. So I sped up enough to surf, brace when needed, and feel comfortable. I thought that I would be able to stay in reasonably close contact with Keith and Doug, but this quickly turned out not to be the case. It became clear that I had chosen between proximity or stability, and self-preservation had won. I felt guilty that I made this choice with very little communication with Keith. But, communication between us was now non-existent, and from my perspective it seemed that conditions warranted that I try to keep up with, or ideally catch up to, Joe.

    We were quite a ways offshore to avoid waves dumping on the sandbars, with perhaps a few hundred yards separating Joe, then myself, then Keith and Doug. I was paddling full-on trying to catch Joe, who was visible every now and then in the swell which was building and breaking more frequently much more frequently. With perhaps two miles left to the Saugutuck channel, I could clearly make out the massive house above it, but the swell obscured the breakwalls, which needed to be our target. I wanted to point out the landmark to Joe, and decide on exit strategy. I bore down to close the gap between us, paying less attention behind me, and received my thrashing of the day as large wave broke over my boat. I was held under long enough to get a bit chilled, which was slightly disconcerting; I felt like I could probably re-enter and roll even in these conditions, but I didn’t really want to try it. I finally got Joe’s attention, he waited, and we got close enough to yell about exit strategy (but couldn’t get close enough to raft up). I’m REALLY glad we did this because we quickly separated again, the wind kicked up to 30 knots, it started to hail, the waves got even bigger and steeper, and I couldn’t see Joe again until I was around the channel and high-bracing my way up onto the beach. After I got out, Joe ran onto the break wall to signal Keith and Doug, and I stayed on the beach. I was ecstatic to see Doug round the breakwall, and hear that Keith was in the channel.

    I don’t want to be dramatic, but it kind of feels like we dodged a bullet. I’m really happy that everybody kept their sh*t together out on the lake that day.

    What could we have done differently?
    A. Stay together: Ideal, yes; but this just didn’t seem possible out there.
    B. Larger group: This seems like it could go either way. Maybe more people would mean that groups of people could comfortably stay together. But perhaps it could also have added more variables and chances that something would go wrong.
    C. Discuss entrance and exit strategy: We did this, but maybe not enough?
    D. Not gone out: True, but this is not very exciting.