I awoke to a dull grey twilight. It was chilly. Far colder, in fact, than it had been the entire week. But for the time being, I lay comfortably in my sleeping bag and slowly began getting dressed. The flapping of my rain fly outside told me that the wind had not died an iota overnight, and I threw on my long johns and raincoat before unzipping the tent and stepping outside.
The first thing I noticed upon stepping out into the cold morning air was that the tide was, once again, out. I knew the tide would be falling all morning, so I hurried to break camp before my inevitable drag became any longer.
Chuck and Anne, the couple who were sharing the beach with me, were already loaded up and getting ready to go. I walked over to bid them farewell and see how difficult their drag out to open water was going to be. They were going to be faced with the God awful task of paddling straight into a 20+mph wind all day, and I honestly worried whether or not they’d make it to their next campsite.
After watching them struggle through the mud for a while, I turned and went back to finish breaking camp. It looked like they’d found open water relatively quickly and were busily paddling into the horrible wind. Not wishing to waste any more time, I dragged the kayak down to the mud and looked out.
I groaned at the thought of the character building exercise that lay in front of me. But knowing I had no other choice than sit around waiting for the tide to come in, I opted to take my first steps into the cold mud.
And immediately lost my shoes.
Now when I say ‘lost’ I don’t mean that they just slipped off in the mud. No no. My crocs were sucked up into the muddy depths of hell and almost never returned. Thankfully I was able to extricate them after fumbling around in the mud up to my elbows, and stowed them on the yak. I wouldn’t be able to walk while wearing them, so I proceeded to go barefoot.
For some bizarre reason, I thought I’d only be dragging the yak for about 50 yards. But the further I dragged, the further, it seemed, that open water was getting. At one point I actually stopped, took out my binoculars, and scanned the distance to find the closest water. To my horror, I found it to be hundreds of yards away, and there was a seagull standing in it.
Walking through the mud barefoot was a more difficult task than expected. Not because of the mud itself, but for what was underneath the mud. Sharp shells and oysters were buried landmines to my bare feet, and I hobbled and cringed every time I stepped on one and felt it slowly tear apart my feet. But eventually (and I’m not sure how long it took) the kayak started floating, and I turned south to start my day.
By this point the wind was absolutely howling and it took little to no paddling to actually cover ground. I was tired from dragging the yak, and took advantage of the wind to munch down on some more trail mix. I’d become almost overly pleased with how well I’d rationed my trail mix. At the rate I was going, I’d have enough for the next two days and have just enough left over when I got to Flamingo for a nice snack. But knowing I had a long paddle to Shark River Chickee, I put away my trail mix and started making really good time down the coast. Far in the distance, I could see Shark Point. It was my current destination as I’d need to round that corner before entering Shark River itself.
It wasn’t long into my paddle that I noticed a change in the seas. What had been nearly flat seas were now building. Half foot to a foot. One foot to two feet. And as I continued to paddle, the waves continued to build.
Now I’ve been in rough waters before, and I’m used to paddling in them. But at this point things were getting sketchy, even for me. The tide had changed and was now coming in at full tilt, and with the combination of tide and high winds, the seas got extremely rough. A quarter mile ahead, I could see Shark Point. Tall dead trees lined the shore, their grey skeletons standing watch over a point doomed to erosion from crashing seas. And it was about this time that I was officially nervous. Not wishing to be far offshore should an incident happen, I paddled to within 100 yards of the shore. The term “shore”, however, is rather misleading. Where Highland Beach was a legitimate beach, this particular piece of land was anything but. A tall, eroded earthen wall shot up at almost a ninety degree angle and crashing waves were sending sprays of water well over 15 feet in the air. Amongst all of this lay dead trees and roots, scattered against the wall and being pummeled by the relentless waves.
The seas were well over three feet now, and thanks to varying tide and wind direction, they caused a nauseating washing machine effect. My stern would rise and a swell would shove my bow in a different direction. I’d correct it, only to be rocked this way and that with the seas. Water had begun crashing across my lap with almost every swell and I paddled for all I was worth to round the point and get out of the foul seas. By now I was close enough to hear the crashing waves against the trees, and I made sure to get no closer than I already was. I was within 200 yards of the point and safety, when it happened.
A large swell picked up the kayak and when I was brought down, the kayak landed directly on a submerged log that I hadn’t seen. I felt a powerful jolt as the plastic collided with the wood, and a long scraping sound met my ears as it slid across it. Unbalanced on the log, and combined with the high waves, the kayak flipped.
It was a strange sensation to suddenly be thrust underwater. Where I had once been inundated with the noise of high winds and crashing waves, I was suddenly met with an eerie silence. A completely different world exists below the waves. Save for my own bubbling, everything was quiet. I opened my eyes briefly to see almost nothing as the dark brown water let little light penetrate it. The water felt cold as it soaked every inch of my body and I noticed something slightly disturbing: I couldn’t touch the bottom.
I immediately shot up to the surface and was met with the howling wind. To my right, my kayak lay upside down and all around me my gear was floating and sinking away. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the tip of my fly rod as it disappeared into the murk. My other two rods were already gone. My paddle was floating away and I immediately grabbed it. I swam over to the kayak, flipped it right side up, and strapped my paddle to it with a bungee cord. I quickly started grabbing everything within reach that was floating. My crocs, Rubbermaid, cookset, trail mix, -anything-. I turned over my shoulder and saw my tackle box floating with my raincoat. They were about 15 feet away and it was here that I made what could have been a terrible mistake: I let go of the kayak. I swam all the way over to my gear, grabbed it with both hands, and started trying to swim back. But since my hands were full, I was only able to swim with my legs. In the high winds, I began to watch as my kayak started gaining distance on me. It was getting away, and I had to make a snap decision: Keep swimming with my gear and risk losing the kayak while I’m still two days paddle from help, or ditch the $250+ worth of gear and be with the kayak. I chose the latter and said goodbye to my tackle box with literally every lure and piece of tackle I own.
I swam back over to the kayak and grabbed hold of it. Down below, I could feel sharp sticks as I was being dragged across more dead submerged trees. I clung to the kayak, waiting for a break in the waves so that I could get back in, when suddenly another breaker hit me.
I remember shouting “NO!” as I was picked up with my kayak and flipped head over heels in the churned up waves. The force of the wave ripped the kayak from my grip and once back on the surface, I had to swim over to grab it again. And once again I had to start collecting gear. This time I watched as my crocs floated away and my map sank slowly into the murk. By now my drag bag with the sleeping bag and sleeping pad was getting tossed around like a rag doll up against the earthen wall. Recovering it amongst the broken trees and high waves would have guaranteed an injury. Myself and the kayak were also quickly heading that direction. And it was here that I once again had to make a quick decision. Do I risk stranding myself for this gear? The gear I –need-? Or do I paddle away with what I have to avoid getting hurt?
The decision took no time at all. With a hard kick and a groan, I lifted myself out of the water and into my kayak seat. I immediately unlatched my paddle, and started paddling away like a madman. I looked down at myself and noticed something that made my stomach turn: My camera was gone from my shirt pocket. The camera that I’d captured the entire trip on was gone, doomed to quietly rust away in the murky waters at Shark Point. To make matters worse, I turned around to take one last look at my gear as it floated away and spotted it. My trail mix. It was knocked out of the kayak in the second flip, and I was now floating away in the high seas. You know that scene in Castaway where he loses Wilson?
It was something like that.
As I paddled away, however, I spotted something small and black floating in front of me. In passing, I noticed it was my camera. Somehow, enough air was trapped in the case and it hadn’t quite sunk yet. I quickly grabbed it, shoved it in my teeth, and took off.
Honestly, the next fifteen minutes of paddling were a blur. I was a soaking wet mass of adrenaline and fear. I can safely say that for the first time in my outdoor career, I was legitimately afraid. The entire thing didn’t even seem real, and I couldn’t mentally process what had happened. But as my adrenaline waned, I calmed down and realized that my problems were far from over. All around me were still breaking waves. Even though I’d rounded the corner of Shark Point, the waves and rough conditions continued. I tried to steer the kayak with my pedals, but something was wrong. They weren’t responding right. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the problem: My rudder was gone. And it was then that I noticed another, much more serious problem. I was shaking uncontrollably, and it wasn’t from shock. I was freezing.
Shark River Chickee was still another 9 miles ahead and I needed to get out of my wet clothes immediately. I looked to my north to see a shell mound against the mangroves. It was the only suitable looking place within eyesight and I made the decision to paddle over and get out of the kayak.
By the time I reached shore, I was shivering so hard that I could barely think straight. Though the 50’s aren’t particularly cold, those temperatures will certainly chill a person who’s soaking wet. I pulled the kayak from the water and immediately began looking for my dry clothes. As luck would have it, my dry bag with my clothes managed to stay latched to the kayak. I quickly stripped down naked on the beach, and put my clothes on. I then did jumping jacks and push ups to try and warm my body.
After about 10 minutes I had finally stopped shivering. Exhausted from the drag, the paddle, and struggling in the water, I sat down on a mass of broken shells and just stared out into the water. Now began the tally of what I lost:
-Literally all of my fishing tackle. 3 Rods, 3 reels, tackle box. Everything
-My good bushnell hunting binoculars
-Sleeping bag and pad
Even to this day I haven’t tallied exactly the cost of it all, but I’m guessing around 5-600$ I wanted to cry as I sat there on the broken shells in the mangroves, but the tears never came. I was too thankful. Too thankful to still be alive and kicking. I had water, food, the kayak, and my GPS that had miraculously not fallen out of an open pocket in my kayak seat. I was, for the time being, safe. I noticed too that I hadn’t completely lost my rudder. During the flip, it had come loose of its mounting bracket and was just being trailed in the water behind the boat. It was thankfully a quick fix and I made sure it wasn’t going to come loose during my next two days of paddling. I ate lunch there on the beach and decided that I’d had enough paddling for one day. The conditions were just too rough for me to continue. So I set up camp there on the shell mound and prepared myself for what was going to be a long night.
Once camp was set up, I decided I wanted to look for my gear. Being within a mile from where I flipped, I hoped that some of it had washed up farther down the beach where I might be able to grab it. I really wanted my shoes and sleeping bag as I was cold and my feet were being cut to ribbons on the shells. My trail mix would’ve been cool too.
So I began walking. I weaved my way through the mangroves for over an hour, carefully stepping to make sure nothing happened to my bare feet. I walked for close to an hour before I reached a creek. The aptly named Graveyard Creek empties just east of Shark Point and I walked to the edge of it before realizing it was impassible by foot. I’d need to swim if I wanted to cross it, and I wasn’t about to get soaking wet again. All the way across the creek, I could see Graveyard Creek campsite with its porta-jon. And to my surprise, I saw a canoe. Someone was at the campsite and had dragged their canoe up out of the water. I thought that maybe they could help. Perhaps they’d even seen some of my gear wash up. I started whistling and yelling, hoping that they’d hear me and help. But no one ever came. I stood there, knee deep in the murky water of Graveyard Creek for almost fifteen minutes before finally giving up. Disheartened, I turned around and weaved my way back through the mangroves to my makeshift camp. It was getting dark and I needed to eat dinner. The small spit of land I’d pitched my tent on had almost no firewood, and what it did have was completely soaked. As bad as it hurt, I opted to go without fire for the evening.
After dinner, I put on every dry article of clothing that I owned, and crawled into my tent. It was supposed to be in the low 40’s, and without sleeping bag or pad, the hard shell ground felt frigid underneath me. I lay there and began to shiver when I suddenly realized that I had actually REMEMBERED to carry something important with me: An emergency blanket.
For the first time in my life, I was forced to use an emergency blanket for its intended purpose. Staying underneath the blanket proved to be almost impossible. I should also note that the blankets aren’t designed for someone over 6ft tall. I simply could not cover up my feet and my shoulders at the same time.
Sleep eluded me for almost the entire night. I kept having to get up and do squats and push ups to stay warm. What little sleep I got was riddled with nightmares of high waves and sinking below the water. It was strange to think that less than 24 hours beforehand, I was on top of the world. I’d felt alive and unstoppable. Now, I was huddled underneath an emergency blanket, humbled beyond all belief by Mother Nature. I was a mixture of emotions. I felt extremely unlucky to have lost all my gear. I’d been beat up in the waves, my feet were cut up, and I was absolutely freezing. But at the same time, I felt lucky to be alive. I was thankful that I still had my vital gear with me and aside from some sore muscles and minor cuts, I was uninjured.
There was no sense in dwelling on what had happened. The day was passed. I still had a lot of work to do and another two days of paddling before I reached the safety of Flamingo. My fishing trip was over, but my adventure was still very much under way. So I closed my eyes, pulled the silver emergency blanket up around my shoulders, and rolled over on the crunchy shell ground before letting out a long shiver.