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David KovacsSpringtime Squall on Hampton Roads

by David Kovacs

Hampton Roads is one of the world's largest natural harbors incorporating the mouths of the Elizabeth, Nansemond, and James River with several smaller rivers. It empties into the Chesapeake Bay near its mouth leading to the Atlantic Ocean. Come along with David on a day tha would prove challenging, even for this skilled, seasoned kayaker.

The winter before last, I paddled through snow squalls, a whiteout, and ice-breaking trials in my kayak, but they were nothing compared to my spring adventure. 

I can't tell you how alive I felt afterward. I had wanted to experience high winds in my boat (in a relatively controlled environment). So I planned ahead. I called a friend to let him know when I would be paddling. I prepared mentally, hydrated, and had my hat, sunscreen, life jacket, kayak spray skirt, and my 18'6" Easy Rider Sea Kayak.

Leaving the floating dock on the Hampton River in Hampton, VA is uneventful, unless the river otters are about. Last winter they thought I was a large distant cousin in my dry suit and would come join me at the docks as I climbed out of my boat. But this was a spring day in May, overcast, and blowing. The wind was from the southwest down the mouth of the river.

It’s about a quarter-mile paddle to get out into the Hampton Roads, which is both the name of the body of water and a nearby city. The wind and waves would be on my nose. I was paddling into the wind and waves, heading southwest out over the Hampton Bar toward where container ships anchor in the Hampton Roads.

The Hampton Bar is a large, hard sand bar that blocks the mouth of the Hampton River. Navigation markers clearly mark the channels that encompass the formidable nautical barrier. On the Hampton side it’s relatively shallow, similar to the rest of the Chesapeake Bay, averaging a depth of ten feet. To the eastern side is the edge of the main shipping channel. There some of the world’s largest container ships, submarines, and naval vessels routinely traverse. Depths are fifty to ninety feet in the channel. So the Hampton Bar acts as a shelf where southwesterly winds build water into short steep waves. This channel of deep water was my destination.

Heading downriver into the Hampton Roads had me roughly into the wind, where I like it. It makes for a great workout. I was out offshore enough to where the homes and trees on Chesapeake Avenue appeared minuscule on the horizon behind me. There was one large container ship anchored on the other side of the shipping channel, swinging on one anchor.

Off to my right I could see rain in the distance around the Monitor Merrimac Tunnel (I-664) coming down the James River. The wind piped up first, and then a sporadic rain fell.

Then a BLAST! I turned the boat to the left, running with the wind east back to the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (I-64). I would still be in very deep water where the waves would not be so severe. The wind was blowing the waves flat. The wave tops were gone. I must have been near a severe downdraft. I was riding with the waves at my back, steering with my feet peddles, and keeping the tail of the boat directly into the waves.

Then it began to hail. I didn't mind this until they became dime sized—pelting me, my boat, and everything within sight. Of course the horizon was long gone by then. I began to paddle with the waves—surfing—which is a lot of fun. Soon I was surfing so fast I could not keep up paddling. The waves were building, so I knew I was heading near the Hampton (sand) Bar, where the depth gets less and the waves build. A few times I had to lean back to keep the nose of my 18’ kayak from burying into the wave trough ahead.

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With the wind blasting and me not paddling, it was a race to: 1. Keep the paddle in my hands. 2. Keep the boat straight. 3. Not get turned broadside to the waves. Somewhere in there I felt the wind clocking, shifting in direction in a radical motion. The waves were not catching up to the wind. It was a great time to get rolled over, and of course there was no horizon and just about ten feet of visibility beyond the bow of my boat. Waves were crashing into me broadside. The wind was clocking quickly in a circular fashion. I was thinking, Oh crap, I'm in a water spout, or at least something that wants to become one.

It was then that I decided to pray. Not really to save my own skin, or even honestly to get me out of this. I prayed that I might continue to be of service to God's children (which is everybody). This was what I asked for: simple, direct, and to the point. Then the wind began to subside. Soon I began to see sunlight. I knew the squall was morphing. My immediate fear was that I was in the eye of a storm or tornado, and that I'd have to go through another round of wind, waves, and the like to get home. I got my bearings and realized that I was heading now toward the Ocean View, Norfolk side. I spun around and started heading toward the Hampton side.

The way home was relatively uneventful, except for the clasps of thunder, bolts of lightning,  rain,  waves, and the running tide, . Paddling past the Hampton Yacht club I saw where one of the wing masts of a 48-foot catamaran sailboat was in the water.

Man I felt alive that day! And there would be tango again that night—life is good.

Preparations: Reflections and Insights:

Items I was glad to have on board that day:

  • A collarless t-shirt.  
  • My NRS Trekker pfd.
  • My Werner paddle, 
  • My 1994 18’6” Easy Rider fiberglass Sea kayak and spray skirt. 
  • A sense of adventure
  • My experiences of paddling in rolling and bucking waves, wind and in active shipping channels. 
  • My 30 years of experience sailing competitively in all types of weather. 
  • My local knowledge of the area. 
  • My wit and sense of humor.

Items I wish I had taken along:

  • A hat with a longer bill to keep the rain and hail off of my face. 
  • A croaky to keep my prescription sun glasses attached to me. 
  • A hat with an attached chin strap. 
  • My anorak to keep the rain wind, hail from pelting me.  
  • Fingerless gloves.  A tether for my Werner paddle. 
  • My compass for the compass mount on my forward hatch.
  • A helmet cam...but then I would’ve had a helmet to attach it too.
  • A water bottle, but in hind sight, I was so busy I did not have time to even think about being thirsty.
Paddling in the Hampton Roads can be a bit of a challenge. To paddle from Hampton to the Norfolk side there are many obstacles to encounter - some small, some huge. In most all situations I rely not so much on being seen as I do on SEEING other vessels.

The shipping channel at the shortest distance is over a mile wide and in this channel traverse aircraft carriers, submarines, sailboats, regattas, cruises ships, fishing trawlers, coalers and a wide assortment of container ships. I have had the pleasure on occasion to tour some of these vessels. Most of the common container ships have a minute blind-spot immediately in front of them of about a mile long…details, details.

My rule of thumb when crossing the channel is to look both ways (sounds familiar, huh) and if I see ANY commercial ship on the horizon - I DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CROSS. I have to assume that I will not be seen and I have to watch out for my own safety.

Most harbor pilots bringing the ships in are traveling at about 12-15 knots. Flat out on semi bumpy water I have been clocked by a head boat at 5.5 knots over a half mile in a head wind. A friend of mine is a harbor pilot. He explained that the folks in the wheel house are monitoring many vessels, miles away as the ship is coming into and leaving port. There are many other concerns: commercial vessels, barges, sailboats, and cruise ships, as well as head boats all going every which way.

Even if a kayak was spotted in the way of these ships there is not much that could be done.  They could blast out 5 short blasts on the horn calling for emanate danger; go to full reverse, and maybe veer a bit.  But in the end the paddler would be at fault for being in his way. 

I choose to cross the channel but to do it at my own peril and only when there is no longer a vessel on the horizon.

A container ship will travel its own length in about 40 seconds. It will travel several boat lengths of itself in about 4 minutes. Some of the super ships cannot maintain steerage in less than 6 knots. It is best that I watch out for them and not them for me.

I also took with me my assortment of paddle strokes. When going into the wind I stab my paddle into an opposing wave and pull myself ahead with this approaching wave energy. In high winds I paddle with an extremely low stroke. I don’t want that pesky wind grabbing the blade with the altitude and whipping it out of my hands. On the long power strokes I push with the upper hand position.

Ah, the pleasures of a kayak with a rudder! I can put all my energy and power into my technique and stroke and steer the boat with my weight and feet. Having a rudder has allowed me to extend my paddling times and experience in wind and white capping waves.

After the trip, I was asked if I would willingly paddle out again into these conditions. The answer was: Willingly? No; but if I was ever again caught out in them I would have a better understanding of what to expect. 

I do on occasion paddle with other kayakers. When I do I stay with the group. If I decide not to stay with the group, I tell the leader of my plans ahead of time. I do guide folks out to distant areas and will help them experience other than perfect conditions if and when they desire; but, always at their own pace.

David KovacsAbout the author:

I have nearly always lived near a beach and when landlocked naturally gravitated towards the nearest lake to satisfy a desire to be on the water. I can run a power boat, but inheritably prefer sailing or human powered craft. I was first introduced to Sea Kayaking in the early eighties during my catamaran days. I don’t remember much about this experience except that my arms were plum tired after paddling through the wind, waves and surf.

I competitively raced beach cats beginning in 1981 and participated in the Worrell 1000 in 1988 for Team Kitty Hawk as ground crew. After moving to the DC area I began sailing mono-hulls; cruising, delivering and or racing. Mono-hulls don’t have the speed of cats; but it’s all relative considering the accommodations, tonnage, etc.

In 2006, at a sailing party in Cobbs Creek, VA, I was introduced to a new type of craft. It was a 17’ Easy Rider Kayak with an attached 6’ ama (similar to a Polynesian Proa) with a “bat-wing” sail. This thing pulled at my heart strings…catamaran like speed, spray and endorphins. I declared right there I had to have one.

I looked on line and found that this craft is manufactured in Seattle, WA and that these fiberglass boats are nearly $4,000 new. I doubted the chance of finding a used one in Virginia; but, I still wanted one. A month or so later, by chance, a cruising friend of mine visiting from Florida mentioned he had a kayak in Gloucester, VA he wanted to unload. We went to look at it. Behind a shed upside down on racks was my current 1994, 18’6” yellow and red Easy Rider Kayak, complete with aluminum rudder, Werner paddle, and original travel and paddle skirts.

I watched a few YouTube videos to get an idea of paddle strokes…and then went out and tried. At first I paddled the creeks near my house and eventually experienced the bumpy stuff of the York River, Goodwin Islands, Mobjack Bay, Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. I haven’t added the ama or batwing sail yet. What I did add was a WindPaddle. It’s a circular sail, that I use to extend my range. Depending on conditions: wind direction, wave action, wind speed; I can easily broad to beam reach with it.

Some windy days I’ll paddle for a mile or two into the wind just to turn around and sail surf back. Or better yet paddle out to the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, skirt the shipping channel around Fort Monroe to an area I affectionately call the “washing machine” and then up the bay to Buckroe Beach.

There are still plenty of places to explore either alone or with a group. I now live in Hampton, VA just down from the Hampton Yacht Club. Fifty is the new 30…so I’m 33! The reference to tango at the end of the article is that my current enduring passion is for dancing Argentine Tango of which I look forward to traveling the world dancing and paddling.

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