An unexpected "side trip" after a storm at sea teaches many lessons. This is a lesson everyone should be prepared to put to use whether you paddle near busy Harbors or not, but for an indepth study of how to paddle in boat traffic see: Paddling in Traffic and Judging Collision Course by Tom Holtey
It was late in the day, the weather was windy, the ocean choppy, and I found myself surrounded by a virtual traffic jam of sailing boats, power boats, and cruse vessels finding their way into the channel, returning to Ala'wai Yacht Harbor. The harbor was not my first choice of landings, of course. Since about 9 am that morning four of us had been bringing up the rear of our kayak club's "whale watching paddle" when the surf grew so huge, we couldn't land at the designated take-out.
The landing of choice would have us accomplishing an eight-mile stretch that I had done before in a tandem inflatable with an experienced partner. This time, I was on my own, launching my 14 foot Scupper Classic on it's first open ocean voyage, from Maunalua Bay Beach Park around Diamond Head Point, landing at Sans Souci Beach. A car pooling mix-up with my friend Ann and the further delays I caused the rest of the group while I fussed over my gear, were just enough to invite a late morning storm along for the ride. The two sweep kayakers, Jeff and a visiting friend, familiar with choppy seas, were gracious enough to wait for Ann and I while the rest of the club went on. (Photo: Happier times in my beloved scupper...)
The lead kayaks, numbering about seven, were captained by the club president, Maghna, who was smart enough to call the trip short when she saw the weather turn. Landing at Kahala on a calm beach about four miles into the trip, the early launchers were rewarded with a show from playful humpback whales on their way in.
We didn't know they had landed, however. Visibility had turned to near whiteout conditions, so the four of us braved on ahead. Unruly whitecaps lapped at my Scupper from all sides, running out the bailing holes as quickly as they splashed in. Not equipped with a rudder, I exhausted myself with corrective strokes in an effort to stay on course and out of the surf zone.
For a short time we couldn't even see each other's boats. Then came the Point. I'd never rounded a point by myself. Our small fleet pulled together to discuss a navigation strategy under the current conditions. We headed way out, then quickly turned way in. When our storm weary sit-on-tops came around Diamond Head Point it was like the sea itself breathed a sigh of relief. The wind shifted and the ocean was with us.
I felt so accomplished having "made it" whales or no whales. Jeff, trolling along the way, caught a large fish and all in all, it was a great paddling adventure. Now all we had to do was look for the windsock marking the informal channel through the surf to our landing at Sans Souci Beach.
I had been in and out of that little channel several times during my kayak surf lessons, but had never seen the kind of wave action that greeted us this time. They were doubling and tripling on each other as they rolled into shore, stretching full across the channel. After a couple of failed attempts, realizing the channel was swamped, Jeff put on his snorkel gear and tried to act as a human rudder or sea anchor, planning to hold onto one kayak at a time, keeping us steady while we powered through.
Resting a bit, letting the sea toss our boats about while drinking some water, we took a few minutes to look at the beauty of the sun breaking through the storm in patches on the sea. After all, that is why we wanted to learn to sea kayak in the first place. Then Jeff swam into Sans Souci, his kayak in tow, so he could get Ann's car and drive over to Ala'wai Harbor to pick the three of us up.
Now, we'd braved a storm at sea and, after several heroic attempts, failed at landing through monster surf, but those are not the parts of the trip I would change if I had to do it again. It was the fight for the right of way in a busy harbor channel that nearly ended my love of kayaking.
A harbor is a place where deep water channels are marked like super highways, showing the boats the designated water routes into port. Kayaks can be paddled in as little as four inches of water, but you need to know how to read those channel markers just the same.
To our discouragement, however, following those markers into port was not the same. We did make it in, safe and sound, but it was a confusing, frightening experience. I wouldn't have missed the day's adventure and its many lessons, but I have taken care to learn by reading and listening to others a little bit about harbor traffic etiquette.
This is the Diamond Head Buoy on a clearer day. Buoys such as this tell boaters how far from the point to travel in order to stay clear of rocks, reef and surf zones.
Below are simple guidelines for harbor traffic, but for an indepth study of how to paddle in boat traffic see: Paddling in Traffic and Judging Collision Course by Tom Holtey .
Harbor Channels are marked with red buoys on one side and green on the other. The red buoys are always on the right side when returning to the harbor. Remember the three R's: RED-RIGHT-RETURNING. The buoys mark the deep thoroughfare that the power and sailboats use as a road.
Kayakers are not required to keep in these lanes. It is often better for you to paddle outside the markers; much like a bicycle would peddle on the shoulder of the road. This will keep you out of the traffic.
Feel free to paddle on either side of the channel in any direction. If you must cross the channel, use the same logic that you would use to cross the street. Look both ways before crossing and carefully judge the distance and speed of any vessel. Do not loiter in the channel. Cross directly, not diagonally, and always cross as a close group as you will be better seen by boaters.
Smaller vessels are supposed to have the right of way, but in reality, size and speed rule. Kayaks just aren't that visible from a larger boat's eye level and a kayak is usually more able to maneuver out of the way than they are.
See Tom's article on Kayak Lights & Kayak Lighting Techniques For Dawn, Dusk & Night Paddling for additional safety information about proper lighting of your kayak that can help other vessels recognize you on the water and especially in harbors. We did not have lights on the above voyage...after all...it was only supposed to be "...a three hour tour." Now we always have them stowed onboard. See also "Signal Devices" on our site for important safety options for kayakers.
So, remember, above all, it is better to be safe than to insist on the right of way, endangering yourself and others; also, always have alternative landings in mind; and, as I learned that day a few years ago, it's also a good idea to be on time. Happy paddling!
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