Swept Out to Sea

The waves, winds, and tides conspired to send the canoe miles into the Gulf of Mexico. A writer deals with his own mortality during a life-and-death struggle.

On the first evening, Katrina's rain fell all night, and we got drenched while breaking camp in the morning at the Lopez River. An hour later the rain stopped, and we had a mild, sunny day for the 15-mile paddle through the backcountry. To get to Mormon Key for the second night, we had to paddle through Gulf waters, our first taste of the seas on this trip. It wasn't a pretty sight: The surf that we remembered as a beautiful teal was dark, brownish and gray, and more dangerous than we'd ever seen it. Brittany looked back at me with alarm after two four-foot waves crashed into us in rapid succession, tossing us up and down and splashing a distressing amount of seawater into the canoe. I had to use the folded waterproof map as a bailer. To avoid getting knocked over, we paddled into the waves diagonally, and we zigzagged. It was a startling end to the day, and we knew we were in for a tough three more.

After a lovely night on Mormon's beach, we headed to Pavilion Key, which is located about five miles out into the Gulf. I decided we'd go out with the tide, figuring it would help us. Paddling against the tide in the Gulf is analogous, in some cases, to paddling upriver. When you aren't paddling, you make no progress, and in stronger tides, you go backward.

On this trip, I misjudged the tide and the wind. Pavilion was northwest and the tide and the constant whipping wind were working in tandem to push us southwest, out into the Gulf at large. What we didn't know was that a cold front had moved in, increasing the winds to 25 knots with higher gusts and squalls. The wind out there is usually 20 knots at its worst. Bernie Esposito, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, says the front also "joined forces" with Katrina, adding fuel to the already dangerous conditions. The weather service was reporting seas of five to seven feet in the inner Gulf, about twice the usual height. We didn't know all this at the time, but we felt it and fought it. We constantly had to paddle on the left side to keep from being blown out to sea. It was murder on our shoulders. And again the waves, set roiling by the winds, were pretty high. I was thinking four feet at the worst, but maybe they were higher. Seawater was getting in the boat, and every time I stopped to bail out the water, the nose of the canoe would get pushed by winds and water toward the Gulf expanse.

Heading out to Pavilion Key (visible in the distance) on day three
Bob Norman
Heading out to Pavilion Key (visible in the distance) on day three
Mark Lang

At the stern of the canoe, I had the job of steering and had to paddle my arm off to keep getting it back on course. It was only a five-mile paddle, but we had to fight for every foot. Brittany and I both got a full head of steam, feeding off each other's strength, and we worked like a machine to get to Pavilion. The first thing I did there was cut a two-liter bottle in half to make a nice bailer.

Night began to fall as we explored the island, so I gathered up wood and we made a fire and drank some wine and watched the stars, which were bigger and brighter and more lively than we'd ever seen them. They fell and twinkled and shone bright and shot across the sky.

That night as we slept, the tent filled with a gusting wind that uprooted the stakes and nearly blew it over. To keep the tent weighted down, we slept in opposite corners.

We had decided to set out to Rabbit Key with the tide coming in, so we wouldn't have to deal with getting pushed out to sea like the day before. Rabbit was almost due north of us, a five-mile paddle parallel to the coast. An outgoing tide would push us back and out -- a terrible combination. Low tide was scheduled for 6:47 a.m. Too early. High tide would come just after noon. I woke at about 8 or 8:30 and Brittany, usually the early riser, was still sleeping. I tried to wake her, but she wasn't ready to get up. I waited with my eyes wide open, thinking that every second was crucial.

The wind seemed much stronger that day, but the weather service was reporting that it was the same as the day before. Candace Tinkler, a supervisor with Everglades National Park, received reports of seas between four and eight feet. "Almost unheard of," she said of the conditions on that day, November 4, adding that it sounded more like the Pacific coast than the Gulf.

Brittany woke at 9:30, so we set off at 10. Way too late. We'd now be fighting tide for most of the trip. I thought of staying, but Pavilion, with the whipping wind, didn't seem very hospitable. And I thought of the previous day's trip, when we'd successfully fought the wind and tide the entire time. We could do it again. I buckled down for a hard paddle, and both of us strapped on our life preservers. I absentmindedly sang the refrain from Gilligan's Island before we set out: "The Minnow would be lost… the Minnow would be lost."

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