Kayaking Technique Forum

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Great Lakes vs. Maine (long)

I and my friend Kelly paddled on Lake Ontario today for the first time since we returned from an extended Labour Day weekend on the Maine coast. It was fascinating comparing conditions on the two bodies of water.

We were very fortunate to have a day with Mike Scarborough to introduce us to kayaking in Maine -- thank you Mike. Kelly says he will particularly remember your expertise with your beautiful kayak and your smiling patience with two new-to-ocean paddlers. You gave us a wonderful day on the water and we envy you your island environment down there. We went back to the same islands later in the week, with great pleasure. You even managed to get us great weather for the whole trip -- you must have good friends in high places!

After trying coves, channels and harbours, rock gardens and open crossings in Maine, I can report that, yep, there sure are a lot of differences between the Lake Ontario and the Atlantic.

Kelly car-topped his Current Designs Storm down east and I rented a Perception Eclipse in Maine. (Taking the Storm across Lake Champlain spawned the inevitable jokes about ferrying a kayak.) Although I was in a new (to me) boat, I realized instantly the salt water was more buoyant -- Kelly's Storm even sat noticeably higher in the water.

There was a lot more happening under the hull: swells, waves and tidal currents pushed the boats around in 'interesting' directions. Maine waves are different from Great Lakes waves. In Toronto, waves are comparatively simple -- even in confused seas, they seem come at (relatively) predictable intervals and fairly consistent heights. On the ocean, the waves are more complex in shape and there seems to be an almost random distribution of larger waves (on top of swells) and small waves (between swells). The first couple of days I spent a lot of time in the low brace position, wondering which wave might have my name on it. (None of them, fortunately.)

In Toronto, we aren't really aware of how the coast affects the currents and the wind. We learned in Maine! One day, we were battling high winds and decided to go through what we thought would be a sheltered harbour. Instead, we found that the narrowing coastline funneled the winds -- they were the strongest we encountered in the whole day.

It made for fascinating and focused paddling. After that, Lake Ontario paddling seemed effortless.

In fact, the only way Toronto paddling is more challenging is in the marine traffic. This is the harbour from hell, with four commercial ferries, three yacht club ferries, four yacht clubs, five marinas, a sailing school, tour boats, the odd lake freighter or cruise ship, Tuesday-and-Thursday yacht club races in the harour -- and an airport approach zone that forces kayaks out into all this mess. The local Maine harbour seemed peaceful, even with lobster boats zipping around. But I'd be happy to trade our challenging traffic for the beauty of Mike's ocean backyard.

Before we left Maine, Kelly and I did a "lessons learned" list.

1. Always have a 'plan B' route -- and if your route doesn't permit a 'plan B', change your route. Take tide and winds into account in your plans. Remember that harbours and channels funnel currents AND wind.

2. Recognize that the Coast Guard doesn't patrol the Maine islands. Take full survival gear, compass, charts and a cell phone/VHF.

3. Always wear yellow. It's the only colour the lobster fishermen say they can see reliably. Even if you wear yellow, assume that the lobstermen can't see you. Stay well away until you see which way the boat is going.

4. Put in and take out on a beach, not the rocks. Learn to walk on seaweed-covered rocks before you try it carrying a kayak. Wear heavy duty surf boots and carry neoprene gloves for close encounters with barnacled rocks.

No doubt this is second nature to those of you on the coast. For us Great Lakes folks, it highlights some of the ways Atlantic Ocean kayaking is different from lake paddling.

Thanks again, Mike, for the day you spent with us. We really appreciated that wonderful tour. Thanks also to David, who got our technique in shape for the trip.


P.S. Nick, we saw a lot of Guillemots in the bay during our stay. What a great birds to name your kayaks after. (Mike, that was the small, duck-like bird I couldn't identify. Our natural history tour guide helped us out on that one.)