On giving up

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

It stopped raining late this morning, and by early evening the sky was almost entirely clear. With clear skies and a light wind, the conditions on Saco Bay were the best they’ve been all week. I decided to try to paddle to Eagle Island, about a mile off shore.

By six o’clock, I was pushing the canoe into the light surf. I waded out up to my thighs, jumped in the canoe, and started paddling. There were a few large cloud masses off to the southeast which might become thunderheads, but they were well to the south and moving away from me. I felt a light offshore wind on my back, just enough to ruffle the surface of the water. I figured the offshore wind would probably ease off towards sunset, so conditions looked good all around. I started paddling for the island.

When I was about halfway there, I saw a Common Loon off the port bow. I fumbled with binoculars — an old pair with broken eye cups, which would be no great loss if they got soaked — and as I fumbled, I realized that the bow of the canoe was slewing to port just as a particularly big swell came at me. I let the binoculars drop on their cord, grabbed the paddle, and brought the bow into the wave. It was suddenly clear that I couldn’t stop paddling, for if the canoe drifted broadside to the waves, the waves had gotten big enough that it would be easy to go over.

I kept paddling, and the swells kept getting larger. They were getting big enough that I began to worry how I would turn the canoe around. At first, I hoped that if I got on the landward side of Eagle Island, I’d be sheltered from the waves and it would be easy to turn around. But the farther out into the bay I got, the bigger the swells got. When I rode up and over one particularly big swell — about two feet high, and steeper than before — I gave up on Eagle Island, and looked for an opportunity to turn the canoe. Several good sized waves, then a short interval with small waves — I turned the canoe as fast as possible, and began paddling for shore.

But I wasn’t ready to go back yet. Once I got back to where the swells diminished in size, I decided to paddle over to the mile-long jetty that protects the channel of the Saco River. Sometimes Harbor Seals swim along the jetty — seeing a seal would be a nice consolation prize. The offshore breeze began to stiffen. I got near the jetty, reached for the binoculars to look at some Least Terns flying overhead — the wind blew me right towards the jetty. I grabbed the paddle and dug into the water to pull myself away the sharp rocks of the jetty.

That was enough. I paddled for home. It was tough going. With only one person in the canoe, the bow rode high, and it was hard work to keep it pointed just off the wind. I had to push myself harder than I liked. I rode a wave up onto the sand, jumped out, and grabbed the canoe to pull it out of the water. Muscles from my thighs up through my shoulders were quivering from the hard paddling — I just couldn’t lift the canoe right then, so I dragged it up the beach out of reach of the waves. A few more scratches on the bottom of the canoe wouldn’t hurt.

Eventually I carried the canoe up off the beach. Marty, the fellow who’s leading a sea-kayaking workshop here this week, saw me. “How’d it go?” he said.

“Well, I got two thirds of the way to Eagle Island,” I said. “But when the swells got higher than the gunwales of the canoe, it was time to turn back.”

He just laughed, and continued to tie his sea kayak on the roof of his car. His kayak would have ridden those swells with ease, of course. If I had had another experienced person in the canoe with me, I might have tried for the island, and paddling along the jetty wouldn’t have been a problem. But it was just me, in a too-small open canoe, with waves that got too big, and wind that got too stiff — so I gave up.