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
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
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
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,
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
Important as it is, however, good judgment isn't enough by itself. You also
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
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.
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
- 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
Here are a few other things you'll want to bring along on any open-water
- Topographic maps and charts
- Compass (if you don't have a deck-mounted one)
- Waterproof watch
- GPS (optional)
- Whistle or foghorn
- Waterproof light
- 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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights