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After camping at Parvin State Park the night before, I met up with the rest of my paddling group from Jersey Shore Sea Kayak Association on Saturday morning.
20 of us gathered at the Bayside Wildlife Management Area observation tower in Cumberland County on the Upper Delaware Bay. The excitement built, seeing the Ship John Shoal Light in the distance and knowing in just a short while we would all soon be out there paddling.
I did my routine safety check shortly thereafter, all 20 of us were in our boats and in the water. The group immediately split into groups which included one who seemed like he had a date with the lighthouse, 'those who like to run fast', and those who just felt they would get there eventually. The largest of the groups was the last and included myself. Everyone just headed due south to the light which was clearly visible and about 5 miles away. There was only a light breeze initially and conditions made it easy to socialize for a while. While enjoying a very relaxing pace, I got to talk to some of my old paddling partners and also had an opportunity to meet some members of the club I hadn't met before. The sun was shining bright and I was surprised how warm the bay water was already in the mid to high 60's.
As we got farther out into the bay, the winds increased. Conditions grew choppier and the trip became less of a social event as our group became more scattered as we neared the lighthouse. The closer we got to the light, the larger the waves became. I enjoyed cutting directly through the chop and waves and I enjoyed the bucking rodeo ride that the waves of the Delaware Bay provided on the way out to the Ship John Shoal Light. The waters directly north of the light were very confused and choppy and I had to concentrate on bracing and leaning to stay upright. After sustaining the intensity of this long enough, I headed for the less intense conditions of the lee on the other side of the Ship John Light. There was a whale watching boat on that side of the light filled with tourists who waved at us. On this side, part of the group slowly gathered one by one. After a group of us got into communicating range, we agreed to paddle directly back to shore to take a break on one of the sandy beaches, which was visible from where we were. The ride back to the beach for me was a lesson in surfing. Most of the waves were fun to surf however some larger 3 ft swells launched my Perception Eclipse like a rocket out of control which was unnerving in a few areas. Again, there were stretches in which I concentrated intensely on my bracing, leaning and rudder strokes to keep my balance and prevent my craft from broaching.
It felt so good to finally land at the beach for a break. Although we joked about Wild Bill already being home and maybe running another afternoon marathon in Cape May Beach, we also were concerned about the other paddlers who were separated from us. Only 7 of us were on the beach. In the distance we saw 6 more members scattered in the bay, but headed towards the beach. We wondered if everyone else was ok and not knowing where people were was the worse part. Given the conditions and the scatteredness of large group, these were very reasonable concerns.
After launching from our break, we realized the paddle home would not take too long with the wind and the tide in our favor. After passing another beach farther north, we saw the rest of the group launch out from there and our paths finally crossed, bringing us all back within visible distance to each other for the home stretch back to the take out. It was nice to know everyone was ok and a harsh reality check to be very aware of the possible dangers that existed out there. On this trip, I realized how important communication is and how the lack of communication can be very dangerous under these conditions and for a group of this size and of varying abilities.
Overall, our paddle out to the Ship John Shoal Light was a wild, fun adventure, or maybe a bit hair raising, depending on how comfortable people were on the large following seas and chop of the Delaware Bay. Until I get more practice, experience and confidence in these conditions, these are the conditions that will continue to be unnerving for me. A record of my GPS track on a 1/4 mile stretch with a pretty swift current and large following seas recorded my speed at 5.7 to 6.8 miles per hour. For most of the trip I averaged about 4 miles per hour. Although I find it interesting to check the GPS tracks and speeds on stretches of my trips, I was not out to break any speed records or race anyone. For me, keeping track of my speed in various stretches just helps keep me more aware of the power of the current and the tide...and the respect that this great body of water demands from those who paddle it.
This paddle involves open water paddling close to 3 miles offshore in the unpredictable waters of the Delaware Bay. In addition to having the requisite safety and rescue skills, those wishing to paddle this trip should also be aware of current and future weather predictions (especially winds) for the area and have proper signaling and communication devices (eg flares, vhf radio).
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