Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Wind, Waves and Moonlight

The sun had set, but its red fire was still strong as Jim and I paddled out beyond Sewall Point and got a view down the broads of Lake Winnipesaukee on an evening at the end of September 1998. We watched the color spread across the western sky and subside. The waves lost their pink tops and shaded down through slate to darker blues.

Sunset did not bring calm that night. We met increasing winds. The waves subtly mounted. We speared into them and leaped over as we fought the wind. Both wind and wave grew stronger with every headland we passed.

We intended to paddle down to the end of Wolfeboro Neck and back, just a short, leisurely evening jaunt. The water was quite warm, with summer barely over, but we knew the air would cool quickly with darkness. We wore polypro shirts and paddling jackets.

All that bouncing around over warm, rushing water started to get to me, so I indicated a need to step ashore for a moment.

Darkness had solidly fallen, but a half moon was spreading a very usable light. We sought a dark spot on the coast of Wolfeboro Neck, where we could land in stealth. No need to attract attention.

The wind and waves kept us focused on safe piloting, but Jim knew a sheltered beach tucked into a tiny cove. A house high above it showed one small, lighted window, but the landing place was too good to pass up. In commando-like silence we paddled delicately to the beach and disembarked. We pulled our boats above the reach of the waves.

With buoyant spirits and empty ballast tanks, we set off again on the moon-silvered water. We could see the gusts of wind as black patches rushing down at us. The waves mounted swiftly.

Wolfeboro Neck bends gently back, exposing the rocky shoreline gradually more and more to the prevailing winds that sweep most strongly up the Broads. We stopped dead when faced with the unbroken power of the waves marching the length of the lake. The tallest easily blocked our sight. We were able to hold our place, paddling just to hold ourselves head on to the big rollers, feeling the gusts. We could see the big sets teamed up with the strongest winds. It did not look like a place to play in the dark on a chilly night, even with the water warmer than the air.

When we turned, we felt the power of the waves at once. We both took off surfing with no conscious effort to catch a wave. The crests frothed with white.

Even at full speed on a big wave I could feel the power of the wind behind me. It did not disappear the way it does on a sailboat.

I got one glimpse of Jim’s long boat, silhouetted against silver moon sparkles, shooting down the face of a big, curling wave at twice his best paddling speed. The slender hull leaped forward, free of the drag of displacement and immersion, thrown forward like a spear against the shining black and silver background. Then a crest flung me forward and I had to chop and yank with my own paddle to keep my boat from broaching.

This was my first season with the Alto, and I was very pleased with its handling. I wasn’t about to take conditions lightly, since they were quite hazardous in the darkness, but I felt confident the boat could take it, if I piloted her correctly.

Jim seemed content to head back in the general direction of Wolfeboro Bay, catching great wave rides, but I tried to stay a little closer to the shore, to gain the gradually increasing shelter it afforded. That seemed prudent. The final blast of wind, from which we had retreated, had been strong enough to provoke genuine respect.

My plan almost showed a serious flaw when I found myself thrashing in a flurry of foam where the big combers reared up and crashed on some shallowing water at the first little point we approached on our retreat. The waves were big enough to break on what would not seem to be a shoal on a calm summer day.

I could dimly make out a breakwater. I thrashed for sea room, taking a couple of breakers across the waist. The water, fortunately not too chilly, sluiced through my cheesy spray skirt and left me sitting in a puddle. I made a mental note to buy a better skirt the next day.
Meanwhile, I had more serious concerns, as the waves seemed determined to put me on shore. I clawed my way out toward Jim.

We continued along the neck, unable to hear each other. I kept an eye on him. He kept an eye on me. We gave each other room to maneuver. We surfed.

Past Edmund’s Cove and Tip’s Cove, the lake had settled, so we could paddle closer and talk to each other. We saw a big point ahead.

“Is that it?” one of us asked. Together we realized it was not Sewall Point and Wolfeboro Bay, but Jockey Cove, which is large and cuts deeply enough that in the past it was a portage point for canoes to cross to Winter Harbor without facing the tumult we had met on the outside passage. Carry Beach, on Winter Harbor, is named for it.

We had let our guards down a bit when suddenly we found ourselves in a bizarre, confused sea with a shrieking wind funneling out of the cove. Because Wolfeboro Neck is fairly high, and the Carry Beach isthmus is barely above lake level, with more high land inland, it took the wind that lashed the length of Winter Harbor, shoved it through the venturi of Carry Beach and spit it out Jockey Cove with its very own steep, assertive wave pattern meeting the lake-long march of waves on which we rode, at a slightly quartering angle with a fierce wind to match.

It was nothing you could surf. To surf it would mean riding out into the big stuff that still rolled down the lake. Where the wave trains met and crossed, they tossed up crests at random, shredded into spindrift by the crosswind.

I set my boat across this mess and stroked for all I was worth, almost entirely on the windward side. I was ahead of Jim, so I couldn’t see him, but I couldn’t worry about that until I’d gotten out of the trap and could look around carefully.

Spray blew right across my boat. The wind was harder than anything we’d met since we poked our noses out around Umbrella Point and had decided to turn back.

As soon as I got beyond the mouth of Jockey Cove, the relatively gentle remnants of the prevailing wind returned the water to the coherent pattern we’d been riding. I spotted Jim. We worked toward each other.

We surfed around Sewall Point, really just surging on the foot-high chop. We could spare a glance then, at little lighted airplanes off to the east, and one small dot that looked like it was probably in orbit. We also saw one good shooting star.

Even though my seat was squishy and clammy from my adventure in the breakers, I was happy to drift there in the shelter of Sewall Point and look at the sky and the shore, and talk about subjects lofty and low. After a while, the chill got to us both and we headed for home.

For rough weather or night maneuvers, paddlers need to know their abilities are pretty close and that they can handle the worst that might happen on that occasion. Obviously you can’t prepare for something like a heart attack or a seizure, but a party of two had better be confident that under most circumstances one won’t have to rescue the other. That way, if things get a little hairy, like they did at Jockey Cove, each paddler can deal with conditions. If paddlers are roughly equal, both will feel like continuing or backing off at about the same time.

Night paddling is risky. With two it is riskier than with three or four. With one it’s not much riskier than with two, except that your death might not be witnessed. So I can’t suggest anybody go out and do it. But we did see some really cool stuff on this and many other night voyages. Make sure your gear is solid, your skills are up and your will is current. And if you don’t feel like taking a risk, don’t. It doesn’t need to be done.

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