The past couple of years I’ve managed to escape to Florida regularly. Mostly this is to get away from the cold in New York, and to practice my other expensive hobby: scuba diving. I came down this weekend with a friend and, for the first time, paddled a proper sea kayak in Florida.
I’ve been staying at a small place in Key Largo. About a block away is a kayak shop that rents deck boats (sea kayaks). I rented a boat, once with a friend and once on my own, to paddle east a bit across Blackwater Sound, then south through the first channel into the mangroves and into Tarpon Basin.
Both days there were steady winds, in the 15-20 mph range. This created a lot of wind waves on the sound itself, which while fun to play in were more than a little work. Once in the mangrove channel however, we were sheltered from the wind, and had to contend only with passing motorboats and the fishermen they carried.
What we weren’t protected from were critters. My friend SS saw something, probably a manatee, that startled the bezeezus out of her. We later took a turn into some more narrow mangrove channels and saw some ginormous pelicans. Our biggest start came from a cormorant emerging from below the water, silhouetted against the bright open background like the Loch Ness Monster. We then took a look at the wind effect on Tarpon Basin and decided to turn around, catching some current back and saving our energy to fight the wind.
The next day, after she had left and one of my diving trips had been cancelled, I went out again, on my own. This time, rather than stay near the shore, I paddled out into the sound, taking wind and 1 foot waves abeam and practicing landmark navigation. At sea, without well defined landmarks, the shore blends together into a single depth of field – what looks like a long unbroken line may turn out to be a point or headland jutting out a mile or two in front of a more distant shore. Using my chart, compass, and starting point as references, I decided a course to take me to a point that lined up with the channel, and that worked out well. I took following seas into the channel.
This time, I took a different route than I had with SS, following the markers for bigger boats as far as I could. I considered going in to the next basin – Little Buttonwood – but the wind had picked up and I wasn’t sure how much it would slow me on the return. I took a stab at navigating back through the mangroves, but after about my third major turn, I was no longer sure I wasn’t in a dead end, and I backed out and returned the way I came.
Back out on the sound, the wind was stronger than when had I left it, coming mostly from the NNW. I thought that might push me against the southern shore of the sound, so I opted to essentially ferry against the wind. I picked a radio tower in the distance a bit north of what I thought was my destination, and paddled towards it, keeping the wind at about a 30 degree angle to port. In this manner I found the wind slowly blew me towards the eastern shore as I paddled north. As I got closer I realized my destination was not quite as far up as I’d thought, and I paddled due east the last half mile or so.
After that, I practiced skills: braces, edging, rolling, hanging draws. I put on quite a show for the locals at waterfront bars to either side of the shop. The water here is much saltier than the Hudson. After that, I hopped out, talked shop with the local staff, and went on home to clean up for dinner.
I would love to come down here and paddle a proper journey at sea. Perhaps one day I will.