Crossing the Chesapeake Bay

I’ve been a paddle board enthusiast for about 5 years now. Racing in competitions doesn’t get my juices flowing, but since I do like to go faster rather than slower with the same amount of effort, I have worked my way up the paddle board size chart and currently use a Riviera 18 ft race board. It’s great on flat water and good straight into a headwind or into a current. I don’t do well with it into moderate side winds, but I feel I’m a very solid mid-level ability paddler. Like many of us who start something new, it doesn’t take long to see where the boundaries are and then assess whether or not they are actual or perceived. One challenge I wanted to set up for myself was a crossing of the Chesapeake Bay.

I live in Alexandria, Va, about 4 miles from the Potomac River. Most of my paddling is done from the Woodrow Wilson bridge to about Mt Vernon. This is generally a section of the Potomac that I have all to myself in regards to paddle boarding (any paddlers really. There are a few, just not when I’m out much. more in dc though). If there are other boarders there, we just have different schedules. I’ve found even boat traffic is considerably less that I’d thought it would be when I first started going out.

A typical session for me would be 2 hours if I’m sneaking in a paddle while my kids are in school (and I sneak). My big sessions are Sunday mornings or after dark (my favorite time to paddle) and I can easily make a 3 1/2 hour to 4-hour run. I’m probably about 4 1/2 mph with no wind and average current. While I think that is competent, I know I’m not in any danger of getting sponsored. It didn’t take me long to start looking at what else was close, but more challenging, and the Bay is the pretty obvious next level situation. I’m a 45 min drive to Chesapeake Beach on the west coast, and an hour from Annapolis.

Crossing the Chesapeake Bay.

The last two years I’ve had this goal. Due to the need to have someone drop me off and someone pick me up, with one of those trips potentially a 1/2 day trip (as one ride would be from the other side of the bay) it’s been a goal but I hadn’t made it happen. To line up that support with a window of weather & tide that would make the trip realistic, at a time when I didn’t have some real life obligation, and to do it at a time when I was positive I was paddle fit for the trip had been an elusive set of circumstances. So for two years I kept waiting until later. On Sept 25 I got in a full 3 hour and 40 min session on the Potomac and I just realized I was ready. Life just happened to work out where things would come together one week later, on Oct 2.

I’d spent many hours over the last couple years looking at possible routes. I took into consideration what an incoming or outgoing tide (moving north or south) would do to a due east or west crossing. As I mentioned before, cross current is my second least favorite condition (cross wind my least). I also had in mind a crossing more south than north to get more open water experience. In general, there are wider parts to cross the farther south you go. I wasn’t looking for the narrowest possible option.

Yes, I wore a life jacket (which I almost never do) and a leash (I do use leash every time out).

Due to everything, I decided to start on the east side of the Route 50 Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Hemmingway’s and a marina are right there for an easy launch point.

Matt (who I owe big time for being at my house at 5 am) and I were in the above parking lot about 6 15 am. We had just come out of 4 days of rain and wind as a low had set up offshore and parked. Sat was the last day of rain, the wind was falling off and Sun, Oct 2 was about as perfect a weather day as I could have asked for. Overcast, pretty much 64 to 72 degrees and wind at 3 and 4 mph. Water temp was 70. I know enough to know conditions can change, especially on the Bay, but this looked very good from multiple forecasting services all agreeing. With the overcast skies, slight mist and the fact sunrise wasn’t until 7 am, it was still pretty pitch. The Bay bridge was lit up and was intimidating as I made my way down to the water. My original plan was to paddle due south along the eastern bank of the bay, get to the southern tip of Kent Island, then make a due West course with the aim of hitting Shady Side, Md, or just a bit south. Chesapeake Beach at the furthest and Deale or Fairhaven being perfectly acceptable finishing spots too. I still wasn’t positive how much the outgoing tide would pull me south as I hadn’t paddled the open Bay before. One reality hit me as I was gearing up in the dark. I looked south-west across the bay and through the mist I could barely make out some lights and wondered if it was Shady Side, or Chesapeake Beach. I went back to the task tying camel backs to my deck and I looked up again. The lights weren’t a hamlet on the far shore. They were attached to a colossus of a cruise ship. And that was a quick reality check. I studied the charts enough to know about where the channel was, and how wide it was but I had never looked at a ship like this before going into a position where getting run over by one was an actual possibility. I pulled myself together and reminded myself I was prepared and I had an educated strategy for just that type of thing. I paddled out.

The original plan changed about 3 miles in. Another huge ship, this time a cargo box ship, was lined up to run south. I notice him just before he got to the Bridge, about 4 miles behind me. I was also coming up along the channel buoy ( I was still outside the channel at this point) and decided to wait for this cargo ship to pass, then cut right behind him (relatively, I wasn’t going to try to touch it or anything) and get the channel done now. This would do two things. First of all, it was a window to get through the channel with minimal danger. It had gotten light and I could clearly see there were no ships lined up behind this one and none approaching. Seeing how this was the second ship that was large beyond description that I’d seen in 30 or 40 min now I reasoned I might as well cross with no more in sight. The channel gets farther from the shore as you get further south and timing a crossing with traffic was the scariest part of the trip’s logistics to begin with. Plus I was right next to a buoy now, so I knew exactly when I would enter and exit.

The second thing my change of course did was now send me in a diagonal bearing towards my finish line. The wind was blowing harder than I thought, though still very manageable with it behind me. The forecast had called for 3 mph wind, I’d guess it closer to 7 or 8 mph. The forecast called for due north winds. They were more (or at least for practical purposes were) north-east (for a south-west boost. Just what the doctor ordered). The change of course and a slightly higher breeze made this more of a down-winder than I’d thought it would be, and I with the current (which was significant, noticeable) pulling south all I had the best possible conditions you could ask for regarding wind and tide. I had thought it would be more flat water, with less boost from any tailwind.

I needed to stall in order to stay near the buoy marker while the HMS (or whatever it was) Laura slogged by so I just hung out. I’d guess the wake from that freighter was about 3 feet. I really wish I could have passed ahead of one of those ships (safely, drama freely, and not in a “call the coast guard on this fool” kind of way) so I could have tried to catch that swell. Turns out I didn’t get wiped by the swell and got over about 5 or 7 really large bumps before the Bay got back to normal. And as it turned out that was the most dramatic part of the trip. I crossed the channel unpressed. No other cartoonishly grand vessels erased me from the face of the earth. I didn’t sustain a repetitive use injury (a legitimate fear, I feeI) and my paddle didn’t snap off at the blade (I use Starboard, for what that’s worth). I feel recreational boat traffic was light as it was still pretty early on a Sun, and quite overcast. That is what I love about riding a tide early, fewer people want to be out that time of day. More for me. I did not use electronics on board so I don’t know exactly how much water I covered, or how fast I did it. As it turned out my unlimited wasn’t the best tool for this job as the bay got rougher. Again, totally manageable, and I definitely rode some small to moderate swells and enjoyed the wind. I almost never fall in on a calm Potomac (occasionally I’ll snag hydrilla at speed, and that can tumble you) and I”m pretty good on the Potomac in winds 10 mph or less. On this day I probably tipped 12 times, the vast majority in the middle. I feel a bit wider of a board would have helped but that was my first go at that open a condition with that much texture on the surface. My few ocean excursions had been in no wind and very calm seas. But it might have just been me. And I love that Riviera. I might get a second board, but I”m not trading this one. Flat Potomac paddling will still be my majority of outings.

I pulled into Columbia Beach about 10am. My watch said 6 35 as I shoved off from Hemmingway’s. “As the crow flies” distance calculator has the trip going 100 percent diagonally and looks to be 18 miles. I’m sure I zigged and zagged a bit, and did go due south for 3 miles before initiating a beeline but it’s probably about that 18 miles. Considering I stalled as I waited for the ship to pass and got dunked a dozen or so times, I’m pretty happy with the overall time.

But more than that I’m thrilled to go through the action of picking a difficult goal and succeeding. I was physically prepared for it. I studied the geography of the bay and gained enough knowledge on freighter ship speed (count on 20 mph, but think of it as about 1 mile in 3 min, and the captain probably can’t even see you at a 1/2 mile or closer) and their horn blasts as communication about how to not get run over (glad I avoided the need to know that, but I still know it), and shipping channel info (what the buoys mean, and that the channel is about 900 feet wide) were all things I’d never looked at before. It was a final exam, but in a class that I loved and I wanted to show that I knew the material.

Honestly the second to second paddling wasn’t much different that I’d done on the Potomac but the fact that I was 15 miles from a shore ahead of me was the sensation I wanted to go through. Of course if the shore ahead was 15 miles, the shore behind was pretty close, so in reality, it wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds. I was never 15 miles from every shore, I’d guess maybe 6 or 7 miles from any shore though in the middle. It was downwinder, but I’d been on the Potomac with conditions almost as bumpy as this and it was not a true open ocean, big swell type down winder.

With paddling being the slow act that it is I had a long time to realize that I was going to make it (I never was scared that I wasn’t), to let it sink in that I was going to make it, and at the same time still have a lot of paddling left to occupy my time and mind. I didn’t get the huge rush as I touched ground at the end as I’d thought I would since this idea first came to mind. I’ve succeeded in some other events and upon finishing crazy emotion came on I hadn’t expected, a couple times crying out of nowhere. Saying that, I felt a huge amount of accomplishment and I was really able to appreciate what I’d done and savor (yes really) the feeling of that final exam. I’d give myself a B-.

I had about an hour to myself as I waited for my wife, Tara, to come pick me up. It was one reflective and peaceful hour. When Tara pulled up and our 5 and 4-year-olds hopped out of the van another sensation came over me. All three were excited for me. They wanted to know all about it and see the Bay and hear stories. I hope one more byproduct comes from this: Maybe two kids will be that much more likely to make a big goal (who cares what the arena is) and go for one day as a result of cheering me on with my goal.

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