Kayaking North Carolina's Sounds

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Map of North Carolina's Sounds
Map of North Carolina's Sounds

I stood on Sand Dollar Island, just out of Beaufort, exhilarated by the constant music of crashing waves and wind.

Everywhere I looked I saw blue and white-blue sky, deeper blue waves, white sand, white foam and white clouds racing across the sky. It wasn't exactly the perfect day for beginning sea kayakers, but it really didn't matter. We had done remarkably well on our trip out.

Standing there by the water got me thinking. Most people have never truly seen North Carolina's barrier islands. They drive through Nags Head, wind their way to Ocracoke, or drive south on NC 58 to Swansboro and see some of the coastal beauty. The problem is, they don't discover enough of it. To discover the barrier islands, the stuff legends are made of, you've got to experience the wind and salt and shallow water (the North Carolina coast didn't get its nickname —Graveyard of the Atlantic —on a whim). And that's why I stood at the edge of Sand Dollar Island.

Discover the World Naturally

Earlier that day, the group of us had met our instructors —Pat, Chris, and Tim of Coastal Kayak Outfitters —on the docks of Beaufort. Our journey would start in Taylor Creek, the stretch of water that bounds the Beaufort waterfront, paddle past the moored sailboats, go around Carrot Island and Bird Shoals, through the not-so-deep Deep Cut, and over to Sand Dollar Island, a distance of just over three miles. Along the way we would “discover the world naturally,” or so the promise went.

With my kayak assigned and adjusted, I was the first person pushed out into the water. The challenges started the moment I hit the water. The strength of the water currents and wind immediately took control, and I was pushed into a three-masted schooner —a big hummer-to my left.

It wasn't like I didn't see it anchored there. I saw it well enough, but I had no idea how to maneuver the kayak so as to miss it. So I whacked it, bounced off like a pinball, and paddled around it. If this is how sea kayaking is going to be, I thought to myself, I won't be doing this again. As the rest of the group hit the water, I saw that they, too, were trying to figure out how to steer these things.

Until I got into my sea kayak, I didn't know that some kayaks come equipped with a rudder and foot pedals. The pedals control the rudder: to turn right, you press the right pedal, to turn left, you press the left pedal. Since I never mastered the art of the stick shift, I panicked when I realized that I'd have pedals to push. I suppose that if Pat had told me there was a clutch I would have thrown in the life jacket and bailed.

Slicing Through, Stroke by Stroke

Once everyone was in the water, we paddled across Taylor Creek and rendezvoused at the shore of Carrot Island to catch our breath and re-form the group. Once collected, we turned our kayaks parallel to the island and paddled away. Jimmy, one of the guys in our group who was a little nervous about the water, discovered that the whole experience was better than he expected. In fact, he was leading the group.

Stroke by stroke, the paddling became easier. Rather than just an upper-arm activity, sea kayaking requires that you put real power in the stroke by using your torso in a rotate-and-stroke-right, rotate-and-stroke-left movement. Once we found our preferred rhythms for the stroke and rotation, it was easy to glide along the surface of the water and take in the scenery.

It wasn't long before we turned our attention to the numerous shorebirds wading along Carrot Island. I noticed just how low to sea the barrier islands really lie. When you're just above sea level, you notice the tiniest rise of land and begin to understand just how overwhelming the ocean can be.

With the wind coming from behind us and the current carrying us, we were having fun, feeling strong, and enjoying every moment of it, even with the salt spray hitting us in the mouth.

Rounding Carrot Island, we threaded our way through the shallow waters of Bird Shoals. Once past the oyster beds, we started crossing some swells to reach Sand Dollar Island. The swells reminded me of the opening shots of the television show “Hawaii Five-0.&148; “

Just keep your kayak pointed forward into the swells. Don't turn across them,” coached Pat. Bouncing every so slightly through these mini-waves, we paddled onward.“Sure you don't want to paddle out into the ocean?” Chris asked me, grinning. “No, I want to save that for my second trip!”

Monster Wind and a True Adventure

I knew I wasn't ready for whitecaps, but they sure were enticing. As I beached the kayak, I saw how crusty-white my sunglasses, shorts and legs were. The dried saltwater had speckled my skin.Before we departed Sand Dollar Island, Pat prepared us for the trip back.

“We're going to be paddling into the wind and against the current. Don't be afraid to use that rudder, and try not to get sideways with the wind. If you fall out, we will shout words of encouragement to you.”“Yeah,” teased Chris, “like 'Get back in the boat!'”

“No, that's not right,” Tim said. “If someone falls out, we all fall out. Remember, all for one and one for all. You know, like the Musketeers.”

“Oh yeah, that's right,” laughed Pat. “We don't want anybody feeling left out. Oh yeah, folks, remember to lead with your hips. Don't lead with your shoulders. If you do that, you increase the chances of tipping over.”

“Do I get extra points if I hit the schooner on the way back in?” I asked.Jovial and eager to paddle, we climbed into our kayaks and started back.That's when the real adventure started.

Paddling against both the wind and the current was hard work, and threading our way over the shallow oyster beds of Deep Cut was tricky. We estimated that the wind was blowing somewhere between 20 and 30 knots, so no matter how hard we worked at staying in the deeper water, the wind pushed us over the oyster beds. Dislodging a kayak from that wouldn't be fun.At times the wind seemed to stop, but only momentarily. Soon enough it would pick up again.

We finally rounded the tip of Carrot Island. No longer paddling across the wind, we were paddling headlong into it. “We're in it now for real,” called Pat from his kayak.

Heads down, we paddled diligently. I was afraid not to paddle. Rest? Take a breather? You've got to be kidding. I was sure that if I rested only for a moment I would lose precious distance I had already covered. Later I learned that everyone shared the same thought. Using the sailboats anchored in and about Taylor Creek as milestones, I slowly but surely made my way back to the dock.

Once we were on the dock, the lying started, and it wasn't long before we had collectively conjured up one of the rarest of all East Coast weather events, a North Carolina tsunami. To his credit, Pat assured us that we had all handled the monster wind like champs.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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