Travelmag Banner

Have kayak will travel

My old climbing buddy Rob calls me to tell me he’s got  a beach house for a week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and he’s taking the week off work in DC and can I come out from San Diego?  Fly into DC and drive 6+ hours down with his co-worker Dan and spend the week sequestered in a beach house near Kittyhawk.  I thought it’d be a good time to some of my gajillion frequent flyer miles on Delta and we would surely be able to find some adventure somewhere in this equation.  A thorough search of the internet revealed absolutely no rock climbing in the area, an advisory from the paraglider blog said to basically forget trying to launch my paraglider at Kittyhawk, even if the Wright brothers did it. That was Ok with me because I have been a surf kayaker for 25 years and have been fishing in my kayak since the year I broke my leg in my paraglider at Torrey Pines in La Jolla Ca.  The idea of surfing my boat every day and catching some gulf stream Atlantic fish by kayak sounded just fine.

I began making inquiries about flying my Kayak out there from San Diego as I had done many times before to places like Hawaii and even Cabo San Lucas Mexico.  After all there’s no substitute for bringing your own equipment.  Aeromexico hadn’t even charged me to throw my 12’ plus rotomolded piece of Tupperware on board- especially since it weighs less than 25 pounds.  It feels kind of weird putting it on the scale they use for every other piece of luggage but what the heck.  The tough part is walking through the airport with a kayak on my shoulder trying not to spear some old lady in the head.  It’s really remarkable how good you can get at portaging a light boat on your shoulder through all kinds of tight spots and with my long legs I’m usually passing people who are walking slower than me, boat and paddle on one shoulder, rolling eagle creek travel duffle in the other. It can definitely get people’s attention at the airport.

Now let me digress a moment here to give the reader a primer on what’s it’s all about to be not only a kayak surfer in Southern California, but one who fishes off his Kayak as well.  I’ve been surfing Kayaks in the waves for about 25 years after moving to San Diego with the nearest whitewater about 7 hours away, the waves are all we’ve got- which is actually just fine with me.  Surfing a boat is no different than surfing a board except we’re sitting down inside and warm in my case with a spray skirt to keep the water out and a surfing machine the same length as a long board- catching the wave from the time it’s a swell and riding it all the way to the sand.  We can get back out a lot faster than a surfer, which totally screws with their ‘line-up’ customs and culture.  We pretty much scare the hell out of them when we come down the wave moving fast with that big pointy boat.  I used to have little pictures of surfers on the side of my boat with x’s over them, but that’s another story…  The cool thing about having a Kayak in Southern California is that you can surf it, tour on the open sea or any estuary or river mouth with 6 inches of water and you can paddle out to sea wherever the fish are. 

Now if you’re San Diegan Ed Gillette and you want to paddle your kayak from California to Hawaii I suppose you can troll for 200 pound tuna on the way, but in San Diego within 10 miles or so of the beach I have caught yellowtail, white sea bass, calico bass, barracuda, all kinds of rockfish and even Mako Shark—all good to eat.  Fishing off a Kayak is logistical and very sporting and you’re seeing a lot more when you’re closer to the water . ‘Getting the fish in the boat’ takes on a whole new meaning in a kayak and is pretty exciting when that fish is kicking hard and has teeth or pointy poisonous spines.  Kayak fishing has taken off in San Diego with some pretty serious fish being caught on self-supporting watercraft without engines or gas.  Kayakers have adapted battery powered live bait tanks and many use small sonar fish finders to increase their hit ratio.  The poor man’s fishing boat doesn’t require coast guard registration or annual luxury tax payments either- and one could argue that all that paddling is even good for you. 

The personal style I’ve developed is to use a 1980’s style 12+ foot high volume river boat that I can carry easily, launch anywhere, surf and tour however I want. I believe this is the ultimate Southern California non-motorized watercraft.  I see my boat as far superior to all of these big heavy ride on top Sea Kayaks that people buy to fish off of because the main problem is- they can’t get out through the surf and they are generally scared as hell to come back in through the surf- for good reason- it’s hard to do without tipping over.  The problems these boats pose are several- you can only launch at some kind of channel or really mellow protected beach break (instead of anywhere on the coast) and you have to park where it’s physically possible to drag one of these behemoths to the beach. Many soon tire of the trouble it takes just to get a kayak this heavy on top of their car and just leave them in the garage or get out of the sport altogether.  It cracks me up to see people with the little carts and dolleys they have to use to get down to the water, and then all of the gadgets and gizmos they put in, on and around their fishing platform.  Granted, some of this stuff is pretty cool, but most of it wouldn’t stay on the boat if you got hit by a single decent sized wave.  Most of these paddlers wouldn’t know what to do with a wave if it hit them anyway because they don’t have much in the way of paddling skills.  The idea of bracing, surfing backwards or heaven forbid- rolling your Kayak are foreign concepts to most kayak fishermen but hey- you don’t need to know how to roll to catch fish in a Kayak on the Ocean (most of the time).  I think with a day of real whitewater instruction and some fun surfing, most of these guys would trade in their boats.

In my high volume white water kayak with fishing rod tips through the nose loop and reels strapped to the side with a simple piece of webbing I screwed to the deck, I can blast through the surf all day and later pullout a small well organized waterproof bag with tackle, pliers, knife, stringer, gaff, cold tecate or whatever else I need. I can paddle faster, get in close to rougher conditions, roll if I get into trouble and be protected from the elements year round.  I could go on.

So I’m on the phone with Delta airlines trying to arrange flying my kayak along with me to the east coast and I find out the airlines have a new policy for oversized bags or cargo on their planes.  “I’m sorry sir but our new regulations because of 9/11, we require you to use a certified and approved freight forwarding company to make those arrangements.  We can no longer assume the responsibility of oversized items on our airplanes”.  Bastards.  “But I’ve flown this kayak before to numerous destinations and on several different carriers, I’m certainly willing to pay an extra charge…”. “No Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to call a freight forwarding company” Click.   

A few calls to the freight forwarders let me know that indeed they could get the kayak on the same plane with me and that it would arrive at the same airport at the same time.  The only problem was that it would cost more than I paid for the kayak to begin with. 

Flying is really going down hill I thought, as I resigned myself to finding some kind of rental kayak that I could fish off of and surf when I got out there.  My expectations for finding a quality boat to rent were not high, as I was intimately familiar with the low cost, wide and stable, slow, heavy, low performance boats most companies used for kayak rentals in heavily touristed areas.  Philosophically I’m not sure these should even be called Kayaks since they share very little in the way of performance characteristics with a serious Kayak. You can’t blame the rental businesses though, a non-kayaker could drown in the first 60 seconds of putting a real boat in the water with no instruction. My only hope was to find a more serious outfitter that might have a little higher performance inventory or maybe even bribe someone to borrow their personal fun boat. 

Rob met me at Dulles and we spent the night at his place in Georgetown where I was introduced to Dan who would be driving us in his new shiny Japanese 4wd truck.  Since I was feeling a little fresher and coming from a three hours earlier time zone that night I cajoled them into getting an alpine start to get out of the DC area early to miss the traffic on our way to North Carolina.  There’s nothing worse than Jonesing to get out there in it and sitting in traffic sucking exhaust looking at someone’s bumper. We blazed out of town early as planned and stopped at a friend’s farm in Maryland where Dan had his  kayak stored.  As the farmer opened his large metal barn used for storing tractors I could see why Dan didn’t store his boat in the city.  “I didn’t know you had a double” I said but Dan quickly corrected me – “No it’s a single”.  It took two of us to carry and lucky we didn’t have to go far to put it on the truck where I did my best clean and jerk to get it up onto his custom roof racks. It has every custom compartment, rod holders, bunji cords, self-bailing plugs and foot rudder mechanisms you could ever want. With the cost of the boat and all of it’s paraphernalia, Dan was probably pushing three grand.  You could buy a used river boat and take 5 trips to Cabo San Lucas for that.

 Like a climber suspicious of his partner’s shiny equipment rack, I reflected on the lack of scratches on Dan’s rig. I started giving him shit because everything that he had said Patagonia on it.  I mean everything including the stickers on his truck.   I got a little more insight into Dan’s personality as he took another 30 minutes to put a set of brand new custom tension straps around the middle and then securing some beautiful s-hook cords on pretty blue rope to the nose and the stern of the big red monster battleship, testing each connection thoroughly as he went.  I felt bad for Dan, that his boat was so heavy and so far away from him if he felt like going for a paddle.  I would rather have seen him with a small lightweight boat he could throw into the Potomac right there in the city and paddle on his lunch hour. My own racking and loading consisted of throwing my boat into the bed of my pickup, clipping in a carabiner on the nose and tying a piece of old climbing rope to the tail to keep it from rolling back and forth when I went around turns.  Loaded, racked and ready- about 18 seconds if I’m in a hurry, 45 seconds if I take my time.

I wondered how many miles per gallon this monster of a battleship would cost us as it hung dramatically past both the front and rear bumper of the truck I thought as we crossed several state lines and headed towards the beautiful outer banks. 

A stop in Kittyhawk, the adventure center of the area looked promising as a place we could get some local beta, rent some decent boats and find out what fish were hitting and where.  A quick stop at the Sand Dunes and a conversation with the Hang diving instructor confirmed the sad story on paragliding at the east coast’s most famous sand dune, not to mention that it was raining and blowing like stink from some post frontal hurricane conditions, but a few recommendations on boat shops and other tourist adventure stores got us moving in the right direction.  After getting kicked out of a promising looking boat shop for walking in with an open Corona by some uptight adventure chick, further searches for the ultimate rental kayak went downhill even further.  Even a decent ride on top with thigh straps would have been OK, but no one had even heard of thigh straps- despite the connection grommets on just about every boat. In fact, there were hundreds of rental boats everywhere, but every one was either designed as a tugboat for flat water or was something useable but was missing essential items like a spray skirt. 

We were getting depressed and finally resigned ourselves to renting single purpose watercraft.  Since we already had Dan’s fishing platform, we settled on a short, round bottomed ‘sport yak’ contraption that had good surfing characteristics, would be like fishing off a surfboard and was useable in this regard, and with a roof tie strap they loaned us, I was able to configure a decent resemblance to some thigh straps so we wouldn’t fall off immediately if hit by a real wave.  The paddle had a fine large blade but unfortunately we would have to develop carpal tunnel syndrome and fight the wind with a paddle that had no angled blade- both sides were exactly the same instead of one blade at a 90 degree angle to cut through the wind.  Better than nothing I thought as Dan spent another 30 minutes re-arranging the stuff in the back of the truck to accommodate our second watercraft. 

We boogied through town to a stretch of open beach where we let the air out of out tires (with Dan’s tire gauge to measure precisely 15 lbs each in each tire) and headed down the 8 miles of four- wheel drive we had to negotiate to get to the beach house.  Rather than seeing reefs and an irregular coastline similar to Southern California, I was confronted with a single straight unrelenting stretch of sand with a stacked up and closed out set of breakers that were kicking with a real punch- no doubt from the hurricane that had visited the area a few days before.  Oh well, this is a mellow ocean compared with the Pacific I thought- one of my first underestimations of the trip. 

After fording some flood waters and a 4wd river crossing we made it to the spacious beach house, set behind the dunes with a great view of the ocean and even a hot tub.

After dumping our gear and a round or two of celebratory muscle relaxants we decided to get wet.  The little boat made a reasonable shoulder carry load over the dunes and down to the sand.  The big red monster took two people and gave a healthy arm warm up and probably an arm extension as well.  

The water was warm and saltier than the Pacific and I was all set to show off with the little surf yak as I launched aggressively into the foam.  I was surprised by a shallow sand bar, cross currents and a stack of closed out breakers that simply wouldn’t let me pass.  It was all I could do, paddling as hard as I could to make headway against the current and it was a coin flip whether or not I had enough momentum to break through when a breaking wave hit me.  I had to lean forward dramatically as the little sport yak wanted to shoot straight up into the air every time I went over a wave.  After fighting to get outside for about 20 minutes and getting nowhere I decided to surf some inside action and was happy to see that one paddle stroke gave me an effective 180 and the little boat surfed fine as long as there was some foam behind me giving me a good push. Leaning down the wave trying to accelerate was really difficult and I had to paddle like hell to get anything fancy to happen.  This boat wanted to surf straight down the wave at a fixed speed and that was it.  At least it was something. 

By now Dan had gotten suited up in a bright yellow new PFD and cool looking Patagonia visor and was launching the battleship.  I didn’t bet on him lasting long in this post frontal storm surf, cause all he had to do was get a little sideways and the waves would do the rest.  With no thigh braces or way to really stay on the ride on top boat, he would have to be a hell of a paddler to balance while trying to brace and lean over into the wave.  The thing about having a large boat is that the surf has more to grab and the paddler need proportionately more strength to drive the boat where he wants it to go.  Turning the battleship around to point back towards the beach would also be a superhuman feat, not to mention the excitement of surfing something that long and trying to keep it pointed straight down the wave.  With the chips stacked against him, Dan soon found out, the surf and his boat would go where they wanted to go. 

After some good wide world of sports wipe-outs, tumbles and poundings we came in and switched boats while Rob laughed at us and drank beer on the beach.  Another round of surfing with me in the red monster and Dan managing to stay up for a lot longer saw the strong northward current take us a half mile down the beach before we knew what was happening.  After dragging the boats back up the beach and over the dunes we stumbled back to the hot tub for some agonizing re-appraisal.  Several cocktails later left us with the resolution that the angry ocean might calm down tomorrow and we might have a better chance and maybe even be able to go kayak fishing if we could manage to get outside the waves.

The next morning dawned clear and calm and the angry closed out froth of yesterday looked like a set of long slow rollers at Oahu this morning, although it was decent size surf and definitely overhead (6ft+).  We set up camp on the beach, driving down Dan’s truck with beach chairs, giant cooler, surf rod set up, and all our kayaking gear.  I took off in the little blue surf yak unit and managed to punch through the closer sets while being mindful of the timing between the really big waves that were conspiring to drop volumes of water on my head and drive me and my little boat into the sand.  The shape of the underwater structure cooperated to keep the waves from really breaking for a long time and I was able to sneak over the top of a few big ones to get outside.  “OK” I thought, “this might work after all”.  Rob and Dan were encouraged from shore and cheered me on as I surfed in a few big waves.  The little surf yak didn’t like to take off on the glassy faces however.  To my continued frustration the little boat would simply not start to actually surf no matter how steep the wave unless it was pushed along by the breaking foam.  The ride was better than nothing and I gave a few paddle spins and twirls on the way to the beach. 

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines