Quest Updates

Storming Home

By on July 1, 2016

John Connelly Canoeing by Mike LynchI waited out the high winds and thunderstorms at the Inn on Peaks Island, enjoying great food, Shipyard’s new Island Time IPA and time with Nicole who commuted to work by ferry during my brief stay on the island. True love!

The forecast was for 2-4 foot seas and minimal wind until 1:00 pm, when a front was due to move through bringing wind and the possibility of thunderstorms. Wind, I can usually deal with, but thunderstorms are the universe’s way of telling you to stay ashore and do your laundry.

My earliest start ever, to make the the 33 mile trip from Peaks Island in Portland to Kennebunkport, saw glassy water and sunshine. With a favorable tide, I thought the 7:00am launch would see me at my destination before Mother Nature got too feisty.

I pushed my loaded kayak off of the beach and felt a scraping resistance under my seat. I put my hands on the sea bottom, lifted my boat with arms and knees to relieve the pressure on my hull and ground my way a few inches into floatable water. “That felt different. I’ll bet I have a scrape on the hull. Shouldn’t be too bad,” I thought. Waving goodbye to Nicole as she headed for the ferry boat and work, I set my sights on the day ahead. But no sooner did I switch my focus, than my boat acquired a port list. I weighted my right butt cheek to correct it, thinking, “this is different.” About the time the boat leveled out, I felt coolness on the back of my calves and thighs.

Instantly, I knew I had a sea water breach and was filling up! I popped my sprayskirt and looked inside. Much to my horror, my cockpit was nearly half full with Casco Bay water! I did a 180-degree turn and hammered for the beach I had just departed. Nicole watched my antics and knew something was wrong. I hit shore and grabbed my bilge pump which shot a four-foot stream of sea water from my cockpit with every stroke. Nicole knew instantly that she needed to take a later ferry and came to my aid.

The next several hours were spent drying the area to be repaired and applying a fiberglass patch to a quarter-sized hole and gouge that required three hours of drying time. Once cured, I covered the patch with Gorilla Tape, saw Nicole off to the later ferry and set my sights on putting in for Kennebunkport. It was now 1:00pm. I knew that with no problems, I could make the 33-mile paddle and arrive at sunset. But if there were issues, it wouldn’t be like that at all. Hmmm…

At this point, I had completed about 1,450 miles of a 1,500 mile expedition. I needed the final 50 miles to go without a hitch and tried not to let bad karma elbow its way in, damaged boat and approaching front not-withstanding. They say that most accidents happen within a mile of home. At Peaks Island, I was literally about five miles from my house and considered that close enough for the axiom to apply. I tried not to be nervous, but deep-breathing didn’t help. It was time to reassess the radar, current and forecasted conditions, have a sober talk with myself about risk tolerance, and decide whether or not to proceed.

I was keenly aware that while I had so far made the right decisions about weather, conditions, my abilities and my equipment’s capabilities, there were already a few times when I had put myself on a precarious edge, both on the canoe portion of the trip, but more significantly, on the ocean kayaking portion. While meteorologic events had materialized unexpectedly that required every ounce of my energy, focus and boat handling, I had also set out in fairly extreme conditions, knowing what I had in front of me and that there was little-to-no margin for error. This clearly was going to be one of those times. Call it over confidence or the right amount of confidence, I feel like I thrive when the elements and conditions are at their most challenging, even when they extend for many hours and miles without so much as a pause. It seems crazy, but at the age of 60, (that include 42 years of paddling experience) I feel I am at my prime for this stuff. As it turned out, I would complete the journey with no blisters, aches or pains and never once would I feel compelled to reach for the ibuprofen bottle!

Risk assessment complete, I decided to launch at 1:00pm, just when the storms on the leading edge of a front started moving through, prompting darkening skies, spitting rain and churning seas. I computed my estimated speed, tides and winds, and felt I could make the destination of Kennebunkport, 33 miles distant, by dark, and set off. I rounded the corner of Peaks Island into open ocean only to find that the NOAA forecast for sea swells was wrong. They were much larger, about 6-7 feet, but with a long wave period, so were manageable. The wind waves from the front were already building from still yet a different direction, and wind-whipped rain was nearly parallel to the water. Two large vessels passed by, throwing three-foot wakes at me just to make things even more interesting.

Canoe and Kayak by Chris WallI thought about turning around, but on radar there was no evidence of lightening on my route and I was managing the seas. If they got a bit worse, but not a lot worse, I could still manage them and make the miles. It was disconcerting to scan the shoreline of the last nearby islands for miles and the mainland shoreline to see the ocean exploding on rock cliffs and ledges, with absolutely no place to land if needed. I chose not to look at them and to focus on the next waypoint of my route, ten miles away.

Waiting one more day for calm seas was appealing, but I was feeling the vibe to dive in and crank this out. I battled the sea and wind for 6.5 hours before the wind finally let up, and I battled only the sea. I arrived in Kennebunkport exactly 7.5 hours after I launched, at 8:30 p.m., just before dark. I was greeted by those awaiting my arrival, many of whom who had been watching my DeLorme inReach satellite tracking online throughout the day. There is some comfort in knowing that people concerned for my wellbeing were tracking my progress in realtime online. I had executed my plan precisely and was grateful to plant both feet on firm ground.

In my mind, the outcome was never in question. It wasn’t until I finished PaddleQuest1500 last Friday in Kittery, Maine, that I learned that on that very day, with the front roaring through the Maine coast, a party of three sea kayakers in solo kayaks experienced the worst of all disasters. All three capsized in the stormy seas, two died and the third nearly perished as well. One of those to lose their life was the small group’s sea kayaking guide. Later, I learned that (unlike me) they were not dressed for immersion in cold water. Apparently, that figured into their inability to survive, immensely. Before hearing the results of an investigation I will not speculate, but I suspect that other factors figured into this tragic incident. It is almost aways a series of small events that cascade into the larger tragedy, like the watchman on the Titanic not having handy the required binoculars, the crew not heeding the reports of icebergs ahead and reducing the ship’s speed, and the cruise line’s decision to carry fewer lifeboats than necessary to abandon the ship. Then, when tragedy struck, the crew launched many of the lifeboats with empty seats. Those left to the frigid North Atlantic waters perished.

I am certain that had I experienced tragedy or any problems on my solo 33-mile paddle that day, many of the factors I described above, that I fully considered, could have pointed to the cascade of events leading to that type of incident. In the end, I am my own risk manager and have my own tolerance for the risks I am willing to take. The decisions I make for myself differ greatly from the decisions I make when others are in my care. The ocean is as a dynamic and potentially lethal wilderness as there is on the planet and demands knowledge, experience, the right equipment, good decision-making and above all, an over-generous portion of deep respect.

The welcome and hospitality I received at The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport was incredible. I had landed on the beach in front of the hotel, had gone to my room for dry clothes and minutes later was enjoying a dinner with Nicole and friends consisting of two ginormous cheeseburgers, a pile of fries and Shipyard Export Ales. I made short work of all of it!Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 9.37.57 AM

The next morning was the classic “calm after the storm.” Light winds were forecast, and the general manager of the hotel, John Martin, an accomplished sailor, pointed to the open ocean, referring to the current conditions as the “Atlantic lake”. I was eager to get on the water before anything changed!

I set my sights on Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick near York, Maine, an indistinguishable distant point on the horizon. Instead of following the coastline, I would make a beeline for that point across open ocean to save time and a few thousand strokes. At about 20 miles, it would prove to be my longest crossing of the trip and the one with the friendliest seas. I’m not big on open water crossings. I completely agree with my friend Dan Carr when he says it’s the least gratifying of all paddling. Nothing changes for hours and you don’t feel like you’re even moving. I definitely prefer the more intimate settings where I feel like I’m making progress and there is much more of interest to see.

I arrived at the lighthouse, found some calm eddy-water where the lighthouse tender’s dingy was hauled out, and gorged myself on Cliff Bars, Vermont Turkey Sticks and water. Matt, the lighthouse keeper, soon appeared to row for the mainland and we had a great chat. I had only five more miles to cover before reaching the day’s destination of Brave Boat Harbor just over the Kittery town line. I would meet Nicole and her dad at a friend’s house for the last night of this amazing journey.

The next day would be the day I’d been anticipating for weeks; a three-mile paddle into Kittery Harbor to Fishing Island where I would be greeted for the PaddleQuest 1500 finale party with friends and supporters! The day was an 11 on a 10-scale, and the ocean was a reflecting pool with a gentle swell with talkative terns and gulls circling overhead. The moment was surreal and would feel that way all day. I launched alone for the last time on this adventure and felt a mix of emotions. I was sad it would be over, but elated at being able to finally go home with Nicole. I would miss paddling every day, but was relieved that the stress of facing challenging, even life-threatening, seas would be lifted from my shoulders. It was all good. I only had three miles to go. Don’t hit any more rocks! Sinking at the finish was not an option.

Nicole Connelly welcoming her husband to shoreJust before the harbor I was intercepted by my exuberant friend Dan in his kayak, who had paddled with me from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Machias, Maine, weeks before. It was indescribable to see him again. He was accompanied by a kayaking friend and as we rounded the point into the harbor, there were rowing shells, kayaks and canoes and a Maine Island Trail Association motorboat filled with reporters to greet me. My mind was blown right in half. It was amazing!

The reporters shot video, took pictures and asked me questions while we bobbed in the harbor, and then it was time to paddle with the flotilla to the official end-point of PaddleQuest 1500 at Fishing Island for fresh steamed clams, corn on the cob and ice cold beer! Again, Fred Forsley from Shipyard Brewing Company was there to greet me with an icy one. I couldn’t help thinking, It just doesn’t get any better than this!

I was overwhelmed by the reception I received and am eternally grateful for all the support I have experienced from friends, family, sponsors, media partners, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and Maine Island Trail Association throughout the 70 days and the days leading up to my launch. This whole thing, this first-ever expedition to connect four major water trails in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, and to inspire outdoor desire, was a group effort. All I did was paddle and stay safe to make it to the finish. I can’t thank my incredible wife, Nicole, enough for her support over the 70 days of the expedition, the days of preparation preceding and now the days following. She’s a superhero! And I can’t thank her enough for orchestrating such a fun and memorable finale event on a beautiful Maine island on a stellar Maine summer day.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank all who have supported me in this endeavor, who have followed my blue satellite tracking line on the website and who have urged me forward these many miles and days. I was alone, but I was never lonely because of you all. You were right there with me and I couldn’t have done it without you. When things got really tough, I’d think of you out there, shrug it off, and lean forward even more determined. Thank you for bringing me home. And I’ve known it all along… there’s no place like home.

I am just now beginning to sort through the thousands of images, hours of video and the ramblings in my journal. There will be more to come and I hope you will like it! Continue to conserve, steward and enjoy our incredible water trails! Keep taking it outside!

Cheers!

John

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John Connelly
Kayaking in Maine

In April of 2016, I’ll launch on a 75-day river/ocean odyssey that will carry me over 2 countries, 4 states, 22 streams, 58 lakes, and 1500 miles. As leader of L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools for 10 years and a former member of the US Canoe & Kayak team with numerous whitewater first-descents to my credit, I believe I am uniquely qualified to meet this challenge.

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