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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Singing Over the Wine-Dark Sea

Gearing Up for Open-Water Crossings

By Tamia Nelson

December 9, 2003

And grey-eyed Athene sent them a favourable gale, a fresh West Wind,
singing over the wine-dark sea.

Homer, The Odyssey (Butcher and Lang translation)

You're an experienced canoeist or kayaker. You know your boat inside and out. You've gone on plenty of day trips in home waters, paddling in sun and storm, taking the weather as it comes. But now you're feeling the itch to travel beyond the horizon. You want to go Somewhere — along a stretch of coastline, maybe, or down a wide river, or across a big lake. Or even over the wine-dark sea. It makes no difference. Wherever your Somewhere is, it's likely that getting there will involve an open-water crossing.

First things first. What, exactly, is an open-water crossing? Good question. The answer, however, is necessarily subjective — I know one when I see it, and you probably do, too. Paddling 50 yards from the shore of Golden Pond to a small island doesn't quite fill the bill, but in my book the three-quarters of a mile from the western shore of Lake Champlain to Valcour Island qualifies. So would paddling five miles across the mouth of a deep bay. And the jump from Key West to the Dry Tortugas National Park would certainly make the grade.

What do all these have in common? Exposure. It's a climbing term, but it's the best word to summarize the difference between an open-water crossing and a short hop. A climber's exposed when a fall would leave her unable to get up and walk away; a paddler, when she's too far from shore to swim back. Admittedly, it's a flexible rule, but whether you're an Olympic hopeful or still struggling to get beyond the dog-paddle, distance matters. Distance matters a lot. The farther you are from a safe landfall, the greater your exposure. Temperature enters into the equation, too, as does sea state: how big are the waves, and how strong are the wind and current?

Fitness plays a role, as well. If you're like most paddlers, you'll have little trouble making it to shore if you capsize halfway between the dock and an island in Golden Pond, even if you can't get back in your boat. (I'm assuming you're wearing a PFD and are dressed for the weather. If not, you can drown in a farm pond.) But what if you lose your boat after capsizing somewhere between Key West and the Dry Tortugas? Will you make it back home then? Probably not. That's what's meant by exposure.

OK. We know what an open-water crossing is, and we know that all such crossings involve some risk. This being the case, what can you do to stack the odds in your favor?

To begin with, you need…

Good judgment

Know your limits. You can't bluff nature. And you can't beat her, either. Hubris is a one-way ticket to tragedy. Halfway across a two-mile-wide inlet with a fresh breeze kicking up five-foot waves is not the time to admit to yourself that you don't have what it takes to go the distance.

Yes, strength and stamina are very good things, but they're no substitute for skill or sound judgment. Judgment comes with experience. Skill requires practice. You may have hundreds of hours of paddling time under your hull, but how many times have you practiced self-rescue techniques? Most kayakers learn to roll sooner or later, but few of them have ever tried to roll a loaded boat, and fewer still have practiced wet re-entries. That's too bad. No roll is bomb-proof. Cold saps even the strongest paddler's strength. Paddles break. And you can only hold your breath for so long.

Not many canoeists can roll their undecked craft, of course. All the more reason for them to practice re-entering and bailing a loaded boat. Yet how many do? Only a handful. If you're planning an open-water crossing, though, you should.

A weather eye ought to be part of every paddler's tool kit, too. It's important to listen to the official forecast, obviously, but that's not enough by itself. You're the only real expert on the weather where you are, so you'd better learn to read the signs — and to heed your inner voice. Being caught out on the water by a sudden squall is no way to end the day.

Thinking about going solo? Then think twice. Paddling alone is a bit like solo climbing. If you're both very good and very lucky, you'll be fine. But someday your luck will change. And then? Going out for a solo paddle on Golden Pond or a familiar (and not-too-steep) stream is one thing. Attempting an open-water crossing alone is something else. Leave it to the professional thrill-seekers.

Good judgment. In the end, it boils down to common sense, but common sense isn't really all that common, is it? We have to cultivate it. Making mistakes is part of learning, but it's always best to make your mistakes when it isn't a matter of life or death. That's the only way to live long enough to become an expert.

Important as it is, however, good judgment isn't enough by itself. You also need a…

Good Boat

That's a good boat, mind you, not the best boat. Some folks postpone following their dreams until they've bought the Perfect Boat. They read all the new catalogs. Subscribe to all the latest magazines. And they buy only the best. But each month brings newer catalogs and magazines in the mail, and last month's Pick of the Pack is this month's Marked Down for Quick Sale. The result? Their trip of a lifetime gets put off till next year, when they're certain they'll have the Perfect Boat. Then, on their way to the Post Office, a propane truck suddenly runs a stop sign and they've made their last journey. Too bad, eh? Sometimes — to use a phrase that seems to be in the news a lot now — the best is the enemy of the good.

Of course, a boat has to be right to be good. Like paddlers, all boats have their limitations. On a calm day, you could easily paddle a pack canoe across the three-quarters of a mile of open water to Valcour Island. But weather doesn't come with money-back guarantees, and big lakes can make big waves in hurry. So you'd better leave the pack canoe at home when you head for Lake Champlain. Bring your Prospector or a seaworthy touring kayak, instead.

You say you don't have a Prospector or a touring kayak? Then by all means paddle what you have, even if it's a pack canoe. But take your boat's limitations into account. You'll have to make up for its shortcomings, and if your strength fails or your judgment falters, you're the one who'll pay the price.

In short, keep your eye open for a good boat, by all means, but don't wait to begin exploring till you own the Perfect Boat. Like Janis Joplin once said, tomorrow never comes. Use what you have today.

What makes a good open-water boat? The obvious things. Load-carrying capacity. Stability. Seaworthiness. Versatility. This rules out many specialized whitewater boats. You need a jack-of-all-trades to match the many moods of open water. Bigger is better, too — though you don't want a boat that's too big for you to handle.

A good hull isn't enough, however. Proper outfitting is also important. Canoes and kayaks will both need…

  • Supplementary flotation
  • Tow lines or painters
  • Bailers or bilge pumps
  • Spare paddles

All of these things can be found in the catalogs, but if money's tight, you can economize. I've used truck and tractor inner tubes for flotation. You can, too, though inner tubes aren't as common as they used to be. Bags of milk jugs or inflated wine bladders also work fine — if they're well-secured. (Flotation has to be held in place to work. Otherwise it just floats away.) If you can tie a knot and splice a rope, tow lines and painters are as close as the local hardware store or building supply outlet. And you can make a bailer from a milk jug. Your spare paddles don't have to be top-of-the line carbon-fiber laminates, either. Strength and utility are the watchwords here. Light weight and flash aren't important.

Is this all? Not quite. Reflecting the somewhat more specialized nature of her craft, a kayaker's open-water check list is somewhat longer than a canoeist's. In addition to the items already mentioned, it includes…

  • Deck rigging
  • Perimeter grab line
  • Deck-mounted compass (optional)
  • Rudder (optional)

Most touring kayaks come with deck rigging and grab lines already installed. If not, it isn't a hard job to fit them yourself, and it's certainly worth the trouble. Kayaks have limited below-deck storage. Deck rigging makes it possible to keep essential gear ready to hand, while grab lines give you something to hold onto while you prepare to re-enter a capsized boat. Without them, you'll discover just how slippery wet plastic can be.

Deck-mounted compasses and rudders are optional, but only in the sense that some kayakers get along without them. Most paddlers will want both. While orienteering compasses can be used in canoes, the livelier motion of a kayak makes a liquid-damped marine compass a far better choice. Rudders, too, are all but essential in many kayaks, not so much for steering as for holding course in quartering seas and cross winds. To be sure, a rudder is no substitute for good boat-handling skills, but it will help you conserve energy just when your strength is being tested to the utmost. That's important.

Of course, outfitting your boat is only part of the job. You also need…

Good Gear

Here are a few other things you'll want to bring along on any open-water crossing:

  • Topographic maps and charts
  • Compass (if you don't have a deck-mounted one)
  • Waterproof watch
  • GPS (optional)
  • Whistle or foghorn
  • Flares
  • Waterproof light
  • Knife
  • Water bottle(s)
  • Deck bag or rucksack

And for kayakers only,

  • Paddle float
  • Sea anchor or drogue (optional)

Staying found is always a good idea, and it's particularly important on an open-water crossing. Topographic maps are all you'll need in many places, but if your trip will take you onto tidal waters or across shipping lanes, you'll want nautical charts as well. Learn to use them, and then carry the sheets you'll need in a waterproof case. Tuck the case under the rigging on the deck of your kayak, or spread it over a pack in your canoe. Lash it to a cleat or thwart with a lanyard, too. There are few sights quite as disheartening as seeing your maps fly away in the wind. And don't forget that a map (or chart) is useless if you can't orient it. So if you don't have a deck-mounted compass, you'll need to bring a reliable pocket compass. Better yet, bring two — and make sure they're both waterproof. A watch completes your navigation kit.

Or does it? What about GPS? Global Positioning System receivers are a godsend whenever visibility is limited, and the cheapest ones now sell for little more than a good compass. More expensive hand-held units even display detailed maps. But don't leave your paper charts and compass at home. Even "waterproof" GPS units can fail, and batteries have the habit of dying at the least opportune times. Besides, there's real satisfaction to be had in using the same tools that navigators have used for 500 years.

And while the age of wooden ships and iron men is long past, much of the world's commerce still moves by sea and river. That's why open water is often very busy. Since canoes and kayaks are the littlest fish in the pond, paddlers can never depend on being seen. Still, it's important not to blend into the background. Light and sound signals help. They're also required by law on navigable waters, and flares improve your chances if things go badly wrong someday.

A good knife is a comfort, too. Watermen have depended on knives for as long as people have gone to sea, and canoeists and kayakers are no exception. If you work around rope in the water, you need a knife. Period. Not just any knife, though. You need a blade you can get at with only one hand. That means a sheath knife, or a folder with a thumb stud and blade lock. You'll find a broad selection in any outfitter's stock. Not satisfied? Then look in diving shops and surplus catalogs. If you select a sheath knife, be sure the sheath is up to the job. Consider a lanyard, too. Knives get dropped, and most blades sink like a stone. And don't forget that steel rusts. Even stainless steel blades benefit from a coat of petroleum jelly or other corrosion preventative.

There's no need to explain why you need water, is there? I didn't think so. Be sure you bring enough.

Whew! All this gear adds up. You'll need a place to put it. Canoeists are lucky. A rucksack strapped to a thwart usually does the trick. Kayakers have smaller boats and therefore bigger problems. The waterproof deck bag is one popular solution. Don't pile gear too high on your deck, though. The wind is always looking for another way to grab you. Why give her a helping hand?

Speaking of kayakers, their boats make it easy for them to venture in harm's way. That's why a paddle float is essential. When you blow your roll and bail out, and when your companions are too far away to help — or the sea state is too chaotic to permit them to come to your aid — a paddle-float-assisted re-entry is your last, best hope. Be sure you practice it before you need it.

Sea anchors (also known as drogues) push the envelope even further. They're specialized gear for kayakers whose routes involve great exposure, and who may therefore be compelled to ride out a gale at sea. Once deployed, a sea anchor checks your drift to leeward and holds your bow into the wind. The resulting wild ride isn't exactly comfortable, but it beats broaching and rolling repeatedly, and it just might keep you from being blown tens of miles in the wrong direction.

Gales. Lost boats. Long swims. Open water has hazards that whitewater boaters seldom encounter. And help is often very far away. That's when you'll need something more than a flare and a whistle. You'll need an electronic assist:

  • VHF radio
  • Cell phone (optional)
  • FRS radio (optional)

VHF (Very High Frequency) radio is still the standard for marine communication. It isn't perfect. When used by US vessels in international waters, it requires a Federal Communication Commission "station license." More importantly, a VHF's range is limited by the height of its antenna, a serious handicap in a kayak or canoe. But it's still the preferred way to contact other vessels and Coast Guard rescue personnel. Cell phones work well in some places — provided that the 911 operator picks up the phone and knows how to route marine distress calls. In other places, however, cell phones don't work at all. At best, they're adjuncts to your VHF transceiver. The inexpensive FRS (Family Radio Service) transceivers, though widely available and very cheap, should only be used to keep in touch with other members of your party. They're never a substitute for VHF.

Whatever electronic aides you carry — and some paddlers carry none — remember to bring along plenty of spare batteries, and be sure to protect each device in a waterproof bag.

Of course, having a GPS and VHF doesn't eliminate the need for ordinary caution. Some things should come along with you even on Golden Pond:

I knew you remembered. (I wish I always did! But that's what lists are for, isn't it?)


While few of us will ever run before the wind as it sings over the wine-dark sea, if you embark on enough odysseys of your own, there'll come a time when you want to make an open-water crossing. Whether it's a simple hop or an epic voyage, don't bet against the odds. Be prudent. And be prepared. Then gear up and go. New lands lie before you.

And when our ships were beached, we took down all their sails,
and ourselves too stept forth upon the strand of the sea,
and there we fell into a sound sleep and waited for the bright Dawn.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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