May 31, 2016
There are those days when the Atlantic is more lake than ocean… its waters slick and mirror-like, and only the fringes of foam along the tideline indicate its incessant roll.
Today is not one of those days.
I push the kayak out into deeper water, and even as I’m clambering aboard, the wind shoves me north while the tide pulls me south. She wallows for a moment as I dig with the paddle, until forward motion stabilizes the narrow hull and I’m making way across the choppy inlet waves. I’m not skipping along, but at least I’m moving.
My planning was skimpy for this trip, so I didn’t really consider that I’d be hitting the water at the changing tide when the wind is at its worst, and the currents are confused. Sure enough, the wind is steady and strong, and the rip is pronounced, especially over the shallow bars. The swell, only a couple of feet yesterday, has come up, running ahead of the tropical depression that’s formed down in the southern corner of South Carolina. Here at Carolina Beach, almost 200 miles from the disturbance, the churning tide and strong wind have turned the water into a roiling mess.
It’s my first time out for the season though, and reports of hungry Spanish mackerel and even a few stray kings motivate each stroke. My shoulders feel strong, and I take a line on the cut between the shoals where the chop isn’t too bad. Way off in the distance, about a mile away, my goal is the sea buoy. I hope the water will settle down a bit once I’m clear of the shallows, but the steady moaning of the buoy as it rolls on the swell tells me I’m probably due for disappointment.
By the time I’ve made the edge of the inlet channel, I’m not feeling quite so strong. Paddling a 13’ kayak in a washing machine will take the starch out of most folks, especially folks like me who spend most working days sitting over a computer. I’d hoped the deeper water would be a little less troubled, but it isn’t looking good. I keep thinking maybe I’ll go ahead and drop the diving plug off my trolling rod and let it follow me out, but every time I stop paddling, the boat starts to turn and I have to dig in to point it back into the wind. If by some wild chance I should hook a fish, I don’t know how I’d fight it.
Against my better judgement, I keep paddling. I leave the beach behind, but the buoy is still way out there. On a calm day I could turn and drag my lures along the shoals, but that’s not an option with the frothing rip and windblown chop. I need to hit open water, or I need to turn back.
Over my shoulder, I hear the rumble of big diesels. I turn to see several boats from the Carolina Beach charter fleet heading my way. These are the big boats, 45 or 50 footers, so while these conditions may be slightly uncomfortable for the clients, they’re hardly a barrier to a day of fishing. I’ve also noticed, however, that no small boats have attempted to run offshore this morning. I realize that my plan for fishing the sea buoy from my kayak is not going to bear fruit. It’s just too rough.
Even as I’m holding position in the chop, the last charter boat pulls alongside. One of the hands is yelling at me. I can’t get every word, but the gist of it is clear enough. “Turn back, you idiot. We don’t want to have to rescue your ass.”
At first, I’m a little offended by the implication. I’ve paddled worse water, and I know how to handle it. But he doesn’t know that. He only sees a tourist in a tiny boat, fighting the wind and the tide on an increasingly nasty day. And, of course, I recognize that even as he was yelling at me, I had already reached the same conclusion. I’m not going out there today.
It’s easier to turn back, though, when I realize that in the entire time I’ve been on the water I haven’t seen a single bird diving on bait. If the birds were working, I’m pretty sure I would have put in the extra effort to get out there (charter mates be damned). But there is nothing to encourage the effort, so I put the boat around and head back to calmer water.
I spend the next couple of hours dragging a plug up and down the inlet, but it’s pretty pointless. The fish are on the outside, and there are no stragglers this far inshore. Nevertheless, I just enjoy paddling along, feeling the boat on the water and the sun on my face. But I see the beach getting busier, and I decide to head for the hill before the tourist traffic peaks. I can stand a rough ocean, but getting hung up in a flood tide of bad drivers is more than I can handle.