North Carolina has 3 capes: Cape Fear, Cape Lookout, Cape Hatteras. Each of these promontory spits of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean has a long and deadly maritime history.
Cape Fear (pictured above) on Bald Head Island (the southernmost of NC’s cape islands), is formed by the intersection of two sweeping arcs of shifting low-lying beach, the result of long shore currents which also form the treacherous shifting Frying Pan Shoals, and are part of the ship graveyard of the Atlantic.
Pictured below is the SPOT track of my 21.8 mile circumnavigation around Bald Head Island. Starting on the beach at Fort Fisher, paddling across the Cape Fear and the infamous frying pan shoals, around Bald Head Island, and into the Cape Fear Inlet, up the Cape Fear River and out on the river side of Ft. Fisher.
Saturday was a pretty exciting paddle. I joined friend Virginia and her husband Curry, and a couple of other paddlers I’d met last year at a fall gathering of the Cape Fear Paddlers Association (Ryan, Chris, Robert, Mike). We were also joined by Barrett and Lee, and formed a large group of 9.
I’d met Virginia online a year ago. She started a women’s paddling group in the Wilmington area, and had invited members of a women’s group I belonged to down to the coast for a trip. We’d kept in touch a bit since, and have had a few occasions to paddle together, including in the the intermediate surf class at the BIK symposium earlier in the month (I’ve still to get a report posted).
Virginia had been planning this trip for a couple of months, and with some consult on tides and conditions from Ryan, Robert, and Chris (who had each done the trip previously on separate occasions), and who along with Virginia were all from the Wilmington area. It was Virginia that made this trip happen, and I’m grateful to have been invited.
Tides demanded an 8am start, so I arrived the night before as did Lee (from Raleigh), and Barrett (from Winston Salem), and we all camped at a local campground, meeting up with the rest of our group at 7am Sat morning.
Our launch point was a beach on the south side of Ft. Fisher State Park. After a few minutes of packing boats and shuttling cars, we all had a successful surf launch off the beach. Conditions were great, similar but on opposite sides of the cape as in the picture at the top of this page. Predicted winds were 15-20 mph SW early morning, lessoning to 10-15 mph through the day. We started out in lighter winds (10 mph), and smooth conditions (1-2ft swell), and as the day picked up the winds built (15-20 mph) with 4-6 ft swells on the west side of the cape, which provided a nice push for the last 6 miles of the trip.
The first 8 miles of paddling brought us to the cape where we chose to land, have lunch, and scout a way around the Cape through the breaking zippers of clapotis waves. Four kayakers in the group had good combat surf rolls (Ryan, Robert, Chris and myself), four others had almost/no roll, and one was on a plastic sit-on-top surf-ski (I didn’t know you could get them in plastic!). Chris was really quite anxious to play, and did so while some of us started eating our lunch.
The varied skills of the group had us more conservatively deciding to pick and time our way across and through areas that appeared to have deeper water. We took a bit of a longer route, paddling out from shore and trying to paddle more around the biggest breakers as opposed to barreling right through the thick of it, still the crossing was a real roller coaster ride of confused swells and breaking waves. Fun, fun, and more fun. No rescues needed, the only flip of the day was Mike on the tippy surf-ski.
Once crossing the shoaling and rounding the Cape, the real fun actually began. The ocean swells were much larger and on our port beam, 3-6 ft (some well over my head), for the next 6 miles down the beach. It was incredible fun for everyone, except Virginia, who quickly became quite seasick. Luckily, she’s pretty tough and quite strong, as she still managed to maintain balance, paddle, take sips of water, and continue to vomit for the next six miles.
Once we rounded the other side of Bald Head Island, and entered the inlet of the Cape Fear River, we found a nice beach to land and let Virginia take a needed rest. It was also at this time we had a good look at some late afternoon thunderstorms out in distance. I was pretty sure I’d heard a clap or two of thunder, some insisted it was just cannon fire, part of the civil war reenactment going on at Fort Fisher.
While Virginia rested, Robert, Ryan, and I discussed possible bail out options. Bald Head Island has no cars, and is only reached by a passenger ferry. We were not sure kayaks were allowed on the ferry. After about 30 minutes, Virginia rallied, and the storms did not look threatening. They were quite a ways off and seemed to be moving away from us. Though we continued to hear both cannon fire and thunderstorms for the remainder of the trip.
Launching upriver, we now had strong winds at our backs, some nice little wind waves to ride, and lost time to make up. We also had some river current now running against us.
After a couple miles up river, we paddled to the right (well off the shipping channel) and between some salt march islands and back onto river right again (The ICW stays well to the left side of the River here). At this time the group split a bit (thought always in sight of each other). Some choose to take the deeper channel hoping to ride the wind waves; others chose to stay close to a long rock impoundment known as ‘The Rocks’ where there was less current to fight. Varying paddling speeds after 18 miles of travel also broke up the group a bit.
Ryan, Barrett and Lee were now quite a bit ahead, I was staying with Virginia who was slowly totally bonking, Chris was off finding every standing wave he could to play in, and Robert and Curry were out in the middle of the Channel. Finally Virginia announced she couldn’t go on and was heading to a sandy beach just a few hundred yards in front of us. Chris seeing the change of direction quickly joined us, and I hailed Robert and Curry on the agreed upon VHF radio channel we’d been using throughout the trip. Robert eventually got hold of Ryan (after they took out) to let them know our status.
We only had about 1 ½ miles left to paddle around the Basin to reach the take out point (or only a few hundred yards as the crow flies or the portage goes.) Another 30 minutes of rest, and Virginia was ready to get the job done, no portage for her, even though the wind had now shifted from southwest to west and now in our face.
Quite a nice accomplishment, one Cape down, two more to go J. I’d not been paddling much distance lately, and was very pleased it was fairly effortless. A few others are now emailing about needed kayak outfitting for comfort J.
More importantly, I’ve some new paddling partners. Ryan and I are now talking about getting some joint paddling trips together on the coast for both our clubs (Cape Fear Paddlers Association and the Carolina Kayak Club). And I’m quite excited to have started a friendship with Robert, owner of WaterSmyth Kayaking down in Wilmington.