The weather had already changed. The few pleasant, sunny days we had mid-week were gone now, replaced with overcast skies, cooler temps, and wind. It was the wind that had my attention. I’d been monitoring it closely as I was teaching a self-rescue and strokes class the day prior – a class I ultimately rescheduled due to sustained winds over 15 knots.

I pulled up the forecast for Oak Harbor before getting out of bed. Three of the four models I use to track wind speed and direction had sustained winds for our time on the water at 20 knots with gusts at 28. 

There was nothing inherently dangerous setting out into the wind. We’ll often launch into/with Force 5-7 winds for practice – strokes, boat control, and rescues – in rough conditions to be prepared. Weather patterns change. Out on an expedition, even a day paddle, staying on shore isn’t always an option. These skills are a must and like all others, need to be practiced to where they become second nature.

This trip, though, wasn’t supposed to be a practice day and our intended route had a 2.5 nm open water crossing from Polnell Point to Forbes Point. That crossing would be in beam seas battling gusts sustained over 20 knots and gusting to 25+. We’d already have paddle 7-8 nm by that point. There’d still be a 1 nm crossing and additional shore to cover before landing back in Oak Harbor. 

All ‘doable’, but just because we can handle something, doesn’t mean we want to!

I half expected a message that the trip would be called off.

No message came

Arriving at Oak Harbor, the morning’s conditions report seemed ‘generous’. On high ground, the wind out of the south was cold and biting. Just off shore were whitecaps.

Options considered

As this wasn’t part of a leg we needed to complete, and with one of our group of 4 having limited experience in winds of this force, we opted to modify the day’s paddle. We’d head south. The plan was now to paddle to Penn Cove, take a break to evaluate conditions, then plot our return course.

The calm before the storm. Tranquil as it seems, just a few feet from the water’s edge, after the corner of the breakwall, we’d be met with 15-20 knot headwinds.

Our group of 4 – Marie, Derek, Jesse (our trip organizer), and myself – hugged the beach on the leeward side of the bluff in the distance. Still a headwind to contend with, but less than in open water. The further we progressed, the less wind we faced. At one point we were on flat water, the bluff completely protecting us. Around the point, we were again paddling into strong headwinds. By the time we made our way to Klootchman Rock, the whitecaps in the distance had grown larger. Rather than push out into the wind and open water to Penn Cove, we located a bit of sheltered shoreline 2.5 nm from our launch site and got off the water for a break.

In the lee of Whidbey Island.

A respite from the wind.

A short break

Out of the wind and with a bit of sun, we were rather enjoying the beach we found. After a quick snack, we opted to cut the break short. There was a sense that the wind and conditions might worsen. We knew what they were at that moment and felt it better to go sooner than risk later. The plan from here was to head to Forbes Point – a roughly 1.5 nm crossing from our current location. We’d have the wind at our back.

Or so we thought.

A half mile out from the bluff, the winds had shifted. Rather than getting a good push from following seas, we had confused seas – a mix between quartering and beam – what we opted to avoid with our original course. Now, we’d finish the last mile of the crossing with 25 knot sustained winds crossing our bow and whitecaps.

Within a few minutes, I realized I’d put some distance between myself and the others in the group. For most of the paddle we’d been maintaining a close speed, staying together as a group or in pairs. I didn’t notice their pace drop off. I slowed my cadence allowing Marie and Derek to catch up. As they did, Marie mentioned Jesse was still a ways back. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed just how far.

Hanging out 

The goal is always to keep the group together. At a minimum, paddlers are close enough that should something go wrong, any distance could be covered quick enough to perform a rescue. Jesse was too far back. 

As Marie and Derek kept paddling, I opted, knowing they could help each other if necessary, to hang out and bob in the waves for a bit – long enough for Jesse to be reachable if he needed a hand. 

A note here – I wasn’t concerned about his needing to be rescued. Jesse is by far a more experienced paddler than the rest of us. As an ACA L4 instructor he was certified in similar conditions. If anything, I’d want him close enough to rescue me! I was more concerned about his back. Prior to launch he mentioned it – good practice as we depend on each other on the water and anything that could affect one of us, affects all of us. Now it was in the front of my mind that bouncing in the waves might be aggravating that injury. 

With Jesse now in earshot, I asked about his back. It was fine. He was just paddling at a much more relaxed pace than the rest of us. 

With Marie and Derek out in front, and Jesse taking his time, I spent part of the crossing focused on my stroke, bracing, and control – while not the first time with on the water without a Euro blade, it was the first time in winds and waves to this extent with only the Greenland paddle. (More on this to come.) I used the opportunity to practice.

Into the wind

Lunch finished, we launched to cover the last 2 miles heading back to where we set out in the morning. Those 2, however would feel like 10. They’d be directly into the wind to start – a wind that hadn’t let up in intensity – then back across the bow. It was that portion which forced another landing. 

Leaving from our lunch spot at Forbes Point, we planned to hug the shore and follow it around past the Oak Harbor Marina back to our vehicles. It would keep us from a crossing directly into what were (later verified) winds sustained at over 20 knots and gusting to 30. As we turned to follow the shoreline out of the direct path of the wind, we fought to maintain our course. Jesse and I were upfront, with Marie and Derek a few lengths back. At several points, it was a challenge to keep from being pushed on the beach. I’d manage to get the Whisky 16 turned into the wind and a dozen boat lengths off the beach only to find myself precariously close to it, fighting to turn out within a few strokes. 

Derek and Marie weren’t faring any better. 

They opted – needed might be the better word – to take a break. As Jesse turned to make sure they were OK, I followed suit….only I couldn’t bring my bow around against the wind. Rather than fight it, I decided to use it and turn the opposite direction. Effective, but as I came around I realized I’d been pushed up tight to shore. Now in need of a break myself, rather than back paddle, I made the decision to jump out and take a break. Jesse continued a few hundred yards further before stopping.

Surf launch

A short rest and back on the water – through the small waves. By no means was this a true surf launch, but into small whitecaps and 30 knot winds, it did require the same skill set. For a moment I considered a speed launch – grab the stern in one hand, paddle in the other and run. Once off the beach, dive onto the back deck and scramble into the cockpit. The point of the launch is to get you far enough out that you’re not immediately pushed back onto the beach. It’s effective. But…..

….I didn’t have the energy.

With small waves and enough time between them, it would be a typical launch – only done faster. Once in the cockpit, rather than put the skirt on immediately, you need to paddle out past where the waves will push you back onto the beach or spin you. Of course that means extra care not to end up with water in the cockpit!

The final push back to Oak Harbor

Spray skirt on, it was into the wind. And of course it had shifted direction! Marie and Derek headed out from the beach on a more southerly course. Rather than deal with trying to maintain a heading with the cross wind, they’d head into it, then use it to carry them back to the landing point. 

I decided to split the difference and used the same technique for crossing currents, picking a ferry angle eliminating the need to fight the wind….instead using it. Less work and distance to cover. 

Jesse, further into the harbor than we were, took a more direct route to the landing. He’d have to head into the wind, but with less overall distance to paddle.

The four of us reached the sheltered beach within a few boat lengths of each other.

Not the paddle planned, but… 

  1. As much as I enjoy exploring, rough conditions provide a test for my skills, a chance to push them, and to improve them. It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s an adventure all its own.
  2. There was still new coastline covered – part of my continuing quest to cover as many of the passages (and coastline) in Puget Sound as possible.
  3. Any chance to get on the water makes for a good day.
Nautical Chart showing the original route from Polnell Point to Forbes Point and the route we chose

The red line shows our intend course for this trip, 2.5 nm from Polnell Point to Forbes Point.
The black line our actual travel from the bluff  to Forbes Point before heading back to Oak Harbor.

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