Outdoors

My partner: a computer-generated voice

The rugged coasts of Big Baker island, just off the southern end of sprawling Swan’s Island.
Photo by Levi Bridges
The rugged coasts of Big Baker island, just off the southern end of sprawling Swan’s Island.
Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 4:15 p.m.

Most of history’s most memorable travelers have had partners, someone they could count on and confide in when things got rough. Lewis had Clark. Ishmael had Queequeg. And me, I have the National Weather Service marine forecast report.

On my solo journey along the Maine Island Trail this summer, every night ends the same way: huddled in my tent listening to the weather report on my VHF radio, a handheld device that allows mariners to hear the marine forecast 24 hours a day. This small waterproof radio serves as my only steady link to the outside world, allowing me to make travel plans around inclement weather and wind.

Before bed each night, I flip the knob on and the scratchy, computer-generated voice, made to sound like a real weatherman, serenades me to sleep with his repetitive musings on tidal movements, wave heights and wind speed.

My VHF radio is also one of my strongest safety lines. In a real emergency, I can send a distress call to other boats in the region and the U.S. Coast Guard.

But the radio is just one weapon in my arsenal of safety equipment. I also carry a paddle float — an inflatable sort of buoy that a kayaker can secure to the paddle to aid in crawling back into an overturned boat — a foghorn to alert oncoming ships of my meek presence during periods of low visibility, as well as flares, a whistle and a waterproof strobe light. Complete with a spare paddle, waterproof charts and a large compass strapped onto my forward deck rigging, my kayak feels like more than just a small boat; it becomes a real vessel capable of traveling the seven seas.

Yet even with all of this safety equipment, long sea kayaking journeys require mental preparedness, patience and stamina in order to be successful.

Last week, I continued my journey along the coast by circumnavigating Swan’s Island, a massive, rugged isle of rocky cliffs south of Brooklin. Although some sections of the coast are riddled with Maine Island Trail campsites, oftentimes I must paddle all day to reach a place to sleep. My destination on the first day of my journey around Swan’s was Big Baker, a stalwart mound of rock south of Swan’s Island overlooking the unbroken horizon of the North Atlantic.

Swan’s Island is big. Having left from distant Brooklin, by late afternoon I had made it only halfway to Big Baker. I had dawdled early in the day. An afternoon wind that my VHF radio had warned me about had picked up, and I hadn’t paddled quickly enough to avoid it. Fatigue set in as I continued through increasingly rough seas. The rocky coast of Swan’s offered few landing options to stop and rest. So I slogged onward.

The most exciting aspect of solo sea kayak touring is the exhilarating feeling of being alone with nature. And the most terrifying aspect of solo sea kayak touring is the feeling of being alone with nature. I have a characteristically strong stomach, but after several hours of paddling in the tall seas, I actually became seasick, a debilitating malady that only complicated the experience.

Eventually, I came across a small cove of exposed clam flats and landed there to momentarily get back on solid ground. The fermenting miasma of the gray clam flats only nauseated me more still. But I waited, holding back the urge to vomit until the uneasy sense caused by exposure to constant motion passed.

I made it to Big Baker just before nightfall. A long, rocky coast extended around the island where large swells had left tattered lobster traps and other flotsam spit up from the sea. Even after I set up camp, the seasickness hadn’t passed. I could barely eat. And while I lay in my sleeping bag, the repetitive sound of crashing waves hardly mitigated my nausea. I needed a distraction. I needed the comfort of another person to help me overcome the trials of the moment.

With a tired hand, I reached for the VHF radio and flicked the knob. The familiar narration of the National Weather Service filled the foggy air.

Suddenly, I felt better. Things didn’t seem so bad after all. I was no longer alone.

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