Saturday, March 30, 2013

Blowin in the Wind: Mellow Yellow and I kayak to Deer Island (MS)

Kristi Ducote, of the Mississippi Kayak Meet-Up group surveys Deer Island from the beach at Grand Bayou March 24, 2013.  Kristi is the outdoor recreation specialist for Pascagoula, MS. 


  Flags flapped and there was a light chop on Biloxi Bay one Sunday in late March when the dozen or so kayakers from the Mississippi Kayak Meet Up group pushed off in a bright sun from the Kuhn St. boat launch headed to Grand Bayou on Deer Island, about three miles downwind.
     By the 10:30 launch, many of the paddlers were in short sleeves, typical attire for a spring day along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The stiff breeze that morning was no surprise.  Small craft warnings--wind and sea conditions that pose a risk to watercraft shorter than 65 feet--had been in the weather forecast for days.
     Winds are a concern for kayakers on every trip because winds make waves.  How hard the wind blows and how far the wind-driven wave has traveled-- this distance is called "fetch"-- determines a wave's size.
     Our trip was on "protected water," the shallow bay between the Biloxi mainland and Deer Island, a five-mile long sliver of sand, pine trees and marsh angled across the bay about a mile south of the mainland.  Even strong winds don't generate big waves here because there is too little fetch in any direction for a wave to build.
     The same wind that was buffeting us and whipping up a chop of a foot to a foot and a half for us in the bay was creating seas in Mississippi Sound of over four feet high and even higher wave heights in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
    (NOTE: Winds of 17-18 mph with gusts up to 32 mph were reported at the nearby Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport that afternoon.)
     That does not mean the wind was not a problem.  True, conditions never became perilous.  It was not cold nor were there dangerous currents.  The experience level of group members varied but this was not the first kayak trip for anyone in the group.  But the northwest wind blowing on us was strong and steady, funneled through a "slot" right between the mainland and the island, providing a physically challenging couple of hours for everyone.  It was hard to paddle into it.
     The trip out to Grand Bayou was easy.  Heading east along the north shore a tailwind made paddling barely necessary.  At the bayou's beach, the group had lunch in the warm sun then separated into groups, the elite among us, in swoopy and sleek and shiny ocean-going craft and probably armed with rescue flares and locator beacons, headed east for more adventure.  Others explored the bayou where it is reported that alligators live.
     My beamy, ten-foot rec yak (Mellow Yellow) is the slowest in this fleet of stiletto hulls so my plan was to leave before the others, getting a head start to avoid holding up the group on the trip home.   The course home was paddle west, hugging the north shore of the island until directly across from the Kuhn St. boat launch, then dash across the Intracoastal Waterway to the beach next to the launch.  This meant most of the time headway would have to be gained paddling directly into the teeth of the mounting wind.   But a good thing about this course was following it put the hull at right angles to the waves--the most stable of the four compass points for small, tippy paddle craft.  And maybe the most exciting.
     By the time I began my return trip the early afternoon wind was blowing steadily with enough force to create little ripples on top of the waves, like the ripples you get when blowing hard on the surface of a hot bowl of soup to cool it.
     The waves were high enough to occasionally break over the bow splashing spray as the brave little "pool toy" rose and fell with a whoomp! at the passing of each short, steep wave. I was using a kayak skirt to keep water out of the cockpit for the first time but had not pulled it high enough up my chest to keep it taut.  This beginner's mistake meant water splashed onto the skirt and pooled over my waist.  But it was too rough to fix it while underway.  So about every 10 minutes I stopped paddling, put my paddle down and quickly brushed the water back into the bay.
     (Others without skirts reported getting water splashed to their boats but not that much.)
     The force of the wind slowed my paddling stroke to a comical mime-like slow motion.  Forward progress was frustratingly laggard, about the speed of a mummy's shuffle, judging by how slowly the jagged dead pine trees on the shore passed.  But when I stopped paddling it was worse: I was immediately blown backward.
     Finally, after about an hour, I reached the red, white and blue hull of the  "Rachel-Ann" a large sloop tossed far up on the sandy western end of Deer Island by a recent storm.  Just past her I made the turn north for the mainland.  Because of the westerly wind direction, the steep chop was a vexation until the final few feet from shore.  But by then I knew I was safe and began thinking about how appropriate it would be, having bested the elements on such a windy day, to have a celebratory dinner and free senior drink at a place called...wait for it...Wendy's.

NOTE:  A small craft advisory is issued by NOAA when winds have reached or are expected to reach within 12 hours a speed marginally less than gale force.  Wind speeds that trigger small craft advisories have been standardized to between 25-35 mph (22-33 knots) or about six or seven on the Beaufort Scale.
     The Beaufort Scale relates wind speed to observed conditions on sea or land.  Conditions for a rating of six includes waves of 9-13 feet, (at sea) with some airborne spray.  Wind speed is between 25-30 mph.  Wires whistle in the wind.  On land, empty plastic bins tip over and umbrella use becomes difficult.  At a rating of seven, wind speeds of between 31-38 mph, waves are 13-19 feet at sea.  Sea spray is constant and heavy.  On land effort is needed to walk against the wind and whole trees are in motion.  Pressure of the wind: 4.1-5.8 pounds/square foot. (How big are the blades on your paddle?)
     An informal, lesser advisory, small craft exercise caution, is issued by NOAA for wind speeds between 17-23 mph, depending on local conditions.--from Wikipedia, small craft advisory, Beaufort Scale.

NOTE:  Is kayaking THE HOT THING for 2013?  Kristi Ducote, the outdoor recreation specialist for the parks and recreation department in Pascagoula, MS, said some kayak outings organized in Pascagoula attract over 50 paddlers.  Fifty kayakers?  In Pascagoula?


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