~ I ~

What can I say? It simply had to be done. Chris Thomas and I had talked about it for years. I even recall a colleague from years gone by, David Gow, mentioning it as some sort of remote objective when I first got introduced to sea kayaking (more years ago, now, than I care to count). But for whatever reason, this simply had to be the year that we paddled our sea kayaks from cape to cape; Cape Ann Massachusetts (Gloucester) to Province Town, Cape Cod.

Whenever I chat about it with non-seakayakers they sort of do a double take, look at me like I'm crazy, and then tell me that I'm crazy. I never claimed otherwise.

But to any sea kayaker ~~ any real sea kayaker ~~ the idea of crossing Massachusetts Bay (a 47 mile odyssey over open ocean and completely out of sight of land) is as natural as a hiker wanting to summit their favorite mountain, or an athlete wanting to run a marathon.

Don't get me wrong ~~ this was no walk in the park. First of all, to our knowledge, crossing Massachusetts Bay by sea kayak had never been done before. At least, I know of no written record of the feat. If anyone reading this can lay claim to having paddled cape to cape before us please let me know. But that's beside the point anyway. Certainly many paddlers have logged much more time on a journey and achieved far greater feats. I even know of at least one intrepid paddler that has kayaked the entire US eastern sea-board. But, to my knowledge, there is no record of a continuous crossing from Cape Cod to Cape Ann, one point of land to the other, a crossing which ended up taking us about 13 and a half hours to complete.

The planning alone was difficult ~~ never mind the execution. You can't just pick a day and say, "Let's paddle across Massachusetts Bay today". So many factors have to fall into place to make that happen. I think the smartest thing we did was choose a two-week window in early fall and say we have to be ready to go at any minute within that time-frame ~~ weather permitting. And that right there is the key phrase; weather permitting. You don't want to get caught out on the open ocean, 20-30 miles from the nearest point of land, in a sea kayak, and have a storm come up. Or even just sustained 20-mile-an-hour winds for that matter! When you're sitting there at water level and making headway completely under your own steam, every stroke is critical, and wind and current can change a pleasant excursion into a tragic nightmare in short order. Luckily for us, that didn't happen. On Saturday, October 6th, 2007 The sea Gods smiled upon us. We had fair winds (little to none), fair temperatures (summer-like), and fair seas (very calm). And we were off; Chris Thomas, Will Means, Doug Millen and myself ~~ paddling from cape to cape.

In addition to knowing the weather, we had to be able to navigate. Navigation is critical for a journey like this. When you are completely out of site of land it is very easy to veer off course. And when your target is a small point of land 40 miles away you don't want that to happen. Miss Cape Cod and your next stop is the Bahamas! But thanks to this miricle of modern navigational science, navigation was a breeze. We plotted our way points in advance and all we had to do was follow the little arrow and maintain a straight course. Thank you GPS!

Insert Image Insert Image Insert Image

These images show the course we took. Left: GPS way points. Center: naughtical map. Right: actual course as determined by GPS.

Originally, we were going to have a chase boat ~~ a power boater was going to follow us just in case of emergency. That put some of the folks I was chatting with about this before-hand at ease. But it didn't end up happening. Our chase boat couldn't follow in the end, so we just set out ourselves in two two-person sea kayaks ~~ the Tango One and Tango Two.


The Tango 1 and Tango 2.

And so it was that at approximately three o'clock in the morning on a calm Saturday in the early fall we loaded up our boats and set off from Stage Fort Park at the head of Gloucester Harbor. Set off for Province Town cape cod.

~ II ~

The early part of the paddle was eerie. Setting off in the wee hours of the morning meant, essentially, that we were in the dark. Don't get me wrong ~~ it was beautiful to look up and see the stars overhead. But as the lights of the shoreline receded into the nighttime mist behind us and the rhythm of the small waves lapping at the sides of the boat settled in, the magnitude of what we were undertaking really started to hit home.

But we soon got accustomed to the darkness, I turned off my GPS, and set a course by the stars. What a treat. Getting to experience first-hand what the ancient mariners must have done, as they set about exploring their world in the days before electronics were standard issue on almost any sea going vessel.

It wasn't so dark for long though. Almost immediately after setting out the lights of a huge offshore rig (Keyspan energy laying a natural gas pipeline or some such) started to loom in the distance. It seemed to take us forever to reach that rig, but approaching it was awe-inspiring. Here were we were, in these tiny kayaks, paddling past this vessel of gargantuan proportions (I couldn't even count how many stories high this thing stood off the water). The lights of the rig blazed out of the night like the lights of a city block ~~ lighting up the sky and blotting out the stars. As we passed the rig, a party ship shot by behind us with a more colorful display of lights. And moving at a pretty good clip! Images of Huckleberry Finn and Jim the slave getting run over by a Mississippi steamboat came to mind.

But that was about as much big boat traffic that we saw. Even much later in the journey when we crossed the major shipping lanes into Boston we didn't see another vessel larger than a fishing boat, despite earlier concerns.

Not long after we passed that rig and it too receded into the distance dawn began to break. More than one person since has asked me to describe what it was like to experience that sunrise.


Dawn breaks on the ocean

Well it was beautiful for sure. But what was so much more amazing to me was being in a such a rhythm with the sea, and paddling on through that sunrise, and on into the day, and seeing the sun ~~ not just as a snapshot ~~ but rather watching it climb into the sky and on overhead over the course of the day. It wasn't just the moment of the sunrise ~~ the in-between time that happens between night and day. It was the totality and continuity of the paddling experience without the everyday distractions of corporate life and work that most impressed me.

And on we went. The seconds blended into minutes, the minutes into hours. The Sun continued it's climb into the heavens and the waves continued incessantly lapping at our sides.



A slide show reflecting the experience would be funny; "Here we are on the ocean paddling. Here we are paddling some more. And here's another shot of ocean. And here's some more water". Really, most of the journey was like this.

By now, we were completely out of sight of land as we were for most of the crossing. Around mid morning we stopped for our first significant break.


Break time.

Doug got a little worried when Chris decided to go for a swim (it wasn't exactly 100% intentional) ~~ and a bit more worried when the radio decided to dive in too (we only had two radios among us all, our only contact in the event of an emergency). And when we opened our aft hatch and found the bulkhead full of water, we started to get a bit more worried still. But, luckily, we had enough stuff in dry bags in the rear bulkhead to displace some of the water, so with some heavy duty pumping Doug was able to empty it out.

And so, with one of our radios sitting at a depth of 100 feet, a slow leak in the aft bulkhead, and morale ever so slightly compromised ~~ we pressed on. No more breaks for a while!

Not long after, with the sun climbing a bit higher into the sky we saw a fishing boat heading our way. He pulled up alongside us ~~ obviously intrigued at the prospect of seeing a small group of sea kayakers paddling along 20 nautical miles out to sea! I had to chuckle inwardly at his bemused expression when we told him we were in the middle of paddling our kayaks cape to cape. That would be pretty much our only contact with another mariner until we reached the waters of Cape Cod.

~ III ~

Around about half way through our expedition we started to feel the strain. I felt it in my left wrist, where the repetitive motion and strain of the paddling started working my tendons. So I had to continually adjust my stroke to avoid injury. Later I'd feel it in my lower back as well. The constant rotation and stress of sitting in the cockpit for 14 hours will inevitably take its toll.

But just as we were starting to feel the strain, physically, it happened. We were in the midst of crossing the shipping lanes (with not a ship in sight) when we started chatting about the possibility seeing whales. We knew we'd be passing over Stellwagen bank for much of the crossing and we also knew that area is frequented by whales (Massachusetts has some boats that'll take tourists out to actually see them in the wild). So we'd been expecting, hoping, maybe that we might catch a view of them on the trip. Will started joking around, making low rumbling noises to "call" out to the whales.

Well, there must've been something in the translation ~~ I'm gonna call him whale whisperer from now on ~~ because not long after he sounded off we saw them. Chris was, I think, the first to spot them breaching on the horizon. It was a small group ~~ maybe a family of three humpbacks feeding. We all got very exited very quick over this. It was the most amazing experience to be sitting that close to the water and seeing these magnificent animals approach. We were very happy as we watched them break the surface. There's one breaching. Look at flukes as that one sounds. Look, you can see the gaping mouth on that one as it drinks in its briny soup.

Thar she blows! If you play this QuickTime movie (give it a few minutes to load), you should see the flukes of a whale as it dives and the distinctive signiture of its humpback companions.

Then they started to get closer. And closer. Maybe just a bit too close! At one point they couldn't have been more than 100 yards away from us! When we could actually hear them making those same rumbling noises Will had been making ~~ we started to get a bit nervous! I mean, here's an animal the size of a city bus ~~ bigger even ~~ approaching you as you sit in your narrow little kayak rocking on the waves. You have to respect that. At one point I said to Doug who was eagerly trying to get some good shots of the whales; "you might wanna put the camera away and get ready to brace!".

But 100 yards or so was about as close as they got. Eventually they went their way and we continued on ours. The experience of paddling with whales gave us our second wind and on we went. We saw a lot more wildlife along the way ~~ breaking the surface of water. We saw schools of tuna ~~ huge fish leaping clean out of the water. At one point we saw a pod of dolphins porposing along at great speed with some purpose evident that we would just not fathom. And birds. A couple of them quite strange ~~ looking like a cross between a pelican and an albatross.

And, we saw the shark. It was pretty funny really. I just looked over at Chris and Will at one point and saw a couple of dorsal fins breaking the surface. Dolphins maybe? No, wait, they're not porposing. Then, suddenly I realized ~~ it wasn't two animals, but rather it was one! The first fin was the dorsal fin and the second was the tale fin of a shark! That animal must've exceeded 10 feet in length if it was an inch! We suspect it might've been a blue shark, but can't rule out the possibility it was a mako. But all he did was cross our path and move along his way ~~ in his endless search for his next meal.

~ IV ~

Not long afterward we reached the fishing grounds off of cape cod. When we had to paddle through a fleet of fishing boats (anchored just out of sight of land) we knew we were reaching the end of our journey. The last 8 miles were the most grueling. The sun was high in the sky beating down on us ~~ raising sweat on my brow and causing the sunscreen to sting my eyes. The mild tendonitis started to flare up again. And the pace, which had been a steady 3.5 ~ 3.7 knots for most of the trip began to slow.

But then, through the late afternoon haze, we saw the faintest shadow of a coastline and we knew we'd made it. The cape seemed just to pop out at us, and soon we began to make out details like the small tower in Province Town a monument visible just over Race Point beach. We were there. 13 odd hours and 41 nautical miles (47 statute) and we were there.


Land Ho'!

Rounding the point and paddling to the takeout was probably the most grueling part of the trip. But we'd made it! And that simple fact gave us the energy to put forth that final burst of speed as we paddled up to the shore and touched land for the first time in 14 hours. There were many people on the beach, enjoying a lazy afternoon on the Cape on that warm fall day. The sun was sinking now ~~ approaching the horizon on Cape Cod bay.


Landing at Race Point

A couple of guys staggered up to us ~~ it's not every day you see two 21 foot 2 man kayaks pull up onto the beach I guess.

"Where'd you guys pull in from" they asked? "Oh, we just took off from Cape Ann. Gloucester you know." They were incredulous at first. "Naw ~~ you're kidding right?" But then they saw the conviction in our eyes. They sensed the aura you exude when you've just paddled 41 miles across the open sea. And they new we'd done it.

~ Epilogue ~

My buddy Bill Schoolcraft picked us up down there at Race Point beach not long after we arrived. The sun was setting by then ~~ simply beautiful. We were a bit surprised at how great we felt. Sure it was a long paddle, and it tested our endurance at the end. But we felt surprisingly good as we packed up our gear and loaded up the van to head for home.


Sunset over Cape Cod Bay.

We were all excited as we headed out from Province Town that evening. Full of our adventure. The blackness of the morning launch was far behind us now. The uncertainty we'd felt was gone ~~ replaced by the accomplishment of having paddled cape to cape.

~ Links ~

  1. Chris's entry in NSPN Paddler's forum
  2. Will's entry in the forum
  3. Will's Writeup (PDF)
  4. New Enland Kayaking (Doug's Account)