Sunday, February 3, 2013

This could happen to you...

     The weather on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first weekend in February was beautiful; temperatures in the 60's with  bright sunshine, a few clouds and a slight, cool breeze from the southeast.  The sublime weather was a lucky break for the dozen or so kayakers who paddled to the western end of Deer Island--about a quarter of a mile from the casinos on the Biloxi mainland-- to camp on the sandy spit Saturday night.
     Sunday, after lingering over morning coffee, group members folded their tents and paddled back to the mainland, but not before exchanging fond farewells and giving sincere promises to do it again soon.  But I wanted more.  Even if  had to go alone, the weather was just too nice to leave without exploring at least a little more of the five-mile long island.
     Into the murky shallows I launched my yellow, 10-foot kayak, stuffed so solid with camping gear sitting in it was a tight fit.  I paddled east hugging the island's lee shore.  We had camped on a broad, flat windswept plain near the island's western tip.  But just east, there were trees, though most of them were dead or dying pines, drowned by storm-driven sea water from many recent hurricanes, their lifeless and jagged grey trunks stabbing the blue sky.
     A narrow ribbon of white sand pinched between prickly scrub and the water serves as beach.  It widened a bit at the island's halfway point so I got out to stretch my legs.  I pulled the boat partway out of the water and began to explore, looking for a path through the thick undergrowth of shrubs and palms to the broad sandy beach on the island's south shore.
     I had no luck in finding a passage, but as I was returning, horror struck.  I saw my kayak, drifting towards the Mississippi Sound powered by a steady south wind.  A thick pile jacket, sleeping pad, maps and a large red fabric "Coca Cola" cooler piled high on the kayak's deck provided ample "sail" for the wind to push the kayak sideways at a good clip toward the deeper water.
     I had to get that boat and I had to get it now.  It was my only way back to the mainland and was packed with essentials: my paddle, food, water, spare dry clothes, camping gear--and most importantly--my cell phone without which I could not call for help.  There was no time to waste.  In a few seconds it would pass the point wading would catch it.  It would soon be floating in water over my head and moving out of my reach at a rate faster than I can swim.  I had to get that boat now.
     Panicked and about 60 feet from the boat I sprinted into the chilly water, soaking my pants, shoes and socks while trying to forget the stinging rays, partially concealed in the sandy shallows, I had seen on previous visits to the island.  The water was about mid-thigh when I lunged, grabbing the bow handle of the fleeing kayak. The boat stopped, the stern swung around smartly into the wind, and I waded back to the beach, my heart pounding, towing the boat behind me.  The incident, from beginning to end lasted about 40 seconds.
     I think I was lucky.  The wake of a passing motor boat speeding in the distant channel must have lifted the kayak free of the beach just a minute or so before I discovered it drifting away.  In another minute or two the errant kayak, sitting high in the water, pushed by the wind, would have scudded into waters too deep for me to recover it.  I shudder to think what the rest of my day would have been like, starting with me shivering in the breeze flagging down a passing fisherman for a ride back to the mainland.  That would have been a small problem compared to what I would have had to do next: find the kayak, assuming it was still floating.  My car keys and wallet were in the boat and without them I would have been stuck 100 miles from home with no money, no car and no phone to call for help.  And while my life was never in danger, recovering from my mistake would have been costly in both time and treasure.
     Wet and humbled, I retraced my route, again hugging the island's north shore, but paddling faster now, pushing to leave my stupid mistake behind in my wake as quickly as possible.  As I closed in on the island's western tip I turned north, paddling across the Intracoastal Waterway, the channel ruffled by a light wind and glistening in the setting sun.  A few minutes later the yak's bow nosed up on the sand beach near the Kuhn St. Boat Launch.  I sat still for a few seconds, my dripping paddle across my lap, relieved there had been no further incidents and happy that warm, dry clothes, a nice dinner and a relaxing drive home were just moments away.

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