The H2O Project:
Nisqually Delta to Point Defiance
23 February 2019
This leg would take us under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, through the Narrows, and around Point Defiance. Depending on tide flows that stretch of water can get rough.
The Narrows is a mile wide and takes in all of the current flow from the Pacific Ocean as it makes its way to Olympia. With larger tide changes, the current flowing through the Narrows can reach 7+ knots. Strong winds can generate decent sized waves. The surrounding shoreline plus the bridge foundations create strong back eddies.
The geography of the shoreline adds another factor. Even on a flood tide (moving south) the current on the Tacoma side of the Narrows will flow north. In the worst conditions, the areas around the bridge and off the tip of Point Defiance are challenging and not a safe place for novice paddlers.
Checking weather and tides, the plan was to meet at Owen Beach at 0800, shuttle to Nisqually, and be on the water by 0900. This would give us the most favorable conditions by the time we reached the Narrows.
After last week’s experience and lessons, I made a two changes for this leg.
- Food – The week between the legs turned colder with rain and snow flurries. I half expected to launch in freezing rain or snow. I purchased 2 thermoses – one for a hot meal (I would bring soup) and the second for a hot drink (tea). For a snack, I opted for beef jerky instead of granola bars.
- Kayak – I opted to take the Shadow. While her hard chine and flat hull made her less stable overall, her almost 18 foot long waterline made her faster. I knew much of the issue last week wasn’t the boat but rather my skills. My thought was a more efficient boat would help compensate for the skills shortage. In hindsight, it created a bigger problem.)
On the Water
Launching out of Nisqually (late at 0935), I was less relaxed than I should have been. I got a bit into my own head. It wasn’t the distance this time. I knew I could handle it. I also knew we’d have a current assist so it should be easier.
Several thoughts were on my mind. I hadn’t had much time in the Shadow’s cockpit. I joked at launch I would need a minute to get reacquainted with her. Although the same 22 inch beam as the Whisky, the Shadow is a bigger boat. Aside from the length, she’s cavernous. Load capacity sits at 425 lbs. There is more space under the hatches. The roomier cockpit means a less tight fit. More comfortable but leaving a feeling of less control for me given my size.
While I can and have handled her, the hard chine, and flat hull did make her less stable. I also knew her skeg wasn’t working. I didn’t expect it to be a problem, but if the wind direction shifted from following, it could be an issue.
After a few strokes, I was feeling comfortable again, but still aware of my limits.
As we headed north, the wind was light and from the southwest with small wavelets. Rather than following seas, they were quartering. The combination was just enough to make tracking an issue. I could feel the wind acting on the stern, pushing the bow to the left and into the wind. The waves were enough to push the kayak to the right. Keeping course, even in the mild conditions, became a problem for me.
No skeg and a weak stern pry and draw stroke turned something which should have been easy and turned it into work. Now frustration joined the nerves I had at launch.
Leaving the Delta
Our course was set to head up the eastern side of Anderson Island with DuPont to our right. We’d continue to Ketron Island staying on the eastern side paddling to Chambers Bay and then Titlow Beach before heading through the Narrows.
The wind was light and from the southwest with small wavelets. Rather than following seas, they were quartering. The combination was just enough to make tracking an issue. I could feel the wind acting on the stern, pushing the bow to the left and into the wind. The waves were enough to push the kayak to the right. Keeping course, even in the mild conditions, became a problem for me.
No skeg and a weak stern draw stroke turned something that should have been easy, into work. Now frustration joined the nerves I had at launch. Not a great combination.
I settled down a bit as we made our way to Ketron Island. As I paddled, some confidence was restored.
Heading up the Cormorant Passage and with decent progress made, we stopped for a quick break across from the north end of Ketron, finding a nice little spot under the train trestle.
Back on the water, the wind and waves. Now at 1 to 1 1/2 feet and from the southwest, keeping our course meant maintaining a heading which had the waves landing broadside. I had no issue for most of that stretch. Most of it.
I was concentrating on keep on track and my nerves under control. I lost sight of the fact that I was moving ever closer to shore. At one point I was in too close. I attempted to correct but the combination of the hard chines and the constant, closely spaced waves, even at less than 2 feet, proved stronger. I made a less than graceful exit from the Shadow just south of Chambers Bay.
I was in barely waist deep water when I stood up. My concern was getting back on the water quickly. I knew we had to time the current in the Narrows. I didn’t want it to be my fault we didn’t. More pressure on myself as I rolled the kayak over and emptied the water.
The ‘surf’ was minimal but I had no experience launching in it. I knew how, but with my mind already under pressure, that knowledge was worthless. Now my ego took a hit.
Jose paddled in and helped me with a bit of instruction. Once we caught up with the group, there was some reassurance from everyone. In hindsight, that put me at ease. With short distance to lunch at Titlow Beach, I started to relax and the last couple of miles I handled well.
Lunch proved to be a much needed mental break than a refueling one. I was grateful for the soup I packed. It was sort of comfort food at this point.
The break also lasted a bit longer than expected with another in our group going exploring a bit. It meant more time to relax and also any loss of favorable currents would not be solely on me.
As we launched I was feeling relaxed and confident again. The longer break had another positive impact. The wind which plagued me had died off. That which remained would be completely at our back as we made it through the Narrows.
Romuald south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge after leaving Titlow Beach
Image by Francis Gan
The final miles
We still had a bit of the ebb in our favor. I was also completely relaxed on the water for the first time all day. This last stretch, as dangerous as it can be, was ‘home’ for me. Living on Salmon Beach I have spent plenty of time kayaking in the Narrows and around the head of Point Defiance.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, allowed for some conversation. By the time pulled out at Owen Beach, I felt good, and a bit more confident in my skills (although not sure that was warranted).
Landing at Owen Beach
Image by Francis Gan
- Skill matters and I have plenty to learn, but mindset plays a big role when on the water. I believe what went wrong was more about my thoughts than my skills. I have been in worse conditions.
- I do need a storm cag. Designed to be worn over your gear (and with a built in spray skirt for paddling in it) it’s an essential piece of gear for staying dry and warm went off the water.
- I need a better drysuit. Mine worked well and as designed. It’s flaw is no booties. Waterproof socks helped but my feet were cold.
The next leg will be the first overnight trip (sometime in April). We’ll launch from Owen Beach, head up the Colvos Passage, spend the night on Blake Island, then head out in the morning to the Kingston Marina.
I’ll have plenty of time to let the realities of this leg settle in and fade a bit. I’ll also have some additional time to kayak, including a pool session, to build up a bit more of my confidence.