It’s solstice; so here’s a true winter sea kayaking tale that will make you glad to be in your toasty abode. Padre Jack Izzo, S.J., Tsunami Ranger Chaplain, shares his tale of swimming under the ice.
Going with the Floe
by Jack Izzo, S.J.
The ocean was twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The air about eighteen. Cohasset Harbor had frozen, and the ebb and flow of the tides had broken the six-inch ice-cover into ragged floes the size of grand pianos. The ice floes fit together like pieces of a puzzle nuzzling each other in a rhythmic, undulating dance, orchestrated by the wind, the currents and the waves. From shore, it was beautiful to watch, mesmerizing, awesome to contemplate: this wonder of nature—frozen saltwater rippling like a giant sheet floating on the waves. It was even spectacular from my vantage. However, at the moment I was more interested in breathing than seeing. I was upside down, in a kayak, under the ice and underwater—looking through the floes at the gray sky hoping I could hold my breath ’till I found an opening.
I had been paddling through the floes, something I had never tried, and was alone. With ice covering the harbor there were not the usual fishing and lobster boats plying the channel. I do not know if the Harbor Master was in, but if he were, he could not have seen me on the far side of the harbor, hidden from view by the long jetty separating the inner harbor from the outer. I was by myself, imagining myself Nanook of the North. But unlike Nanook, I was not in a sleek skin-covered kayak. I was paddling a molded plastic Necky recreational craft—sealed in with a waterproof nylon skirt. My goal was to paddle through the floes out to the open sea where there was no ice, about a quarter-mile away.
When I launched from the rocky shore there were four-to-six inch spaces between floes. And as the kayak moved forward it pushed them apart creating just enough paddle space. The going was slow, but easy. The kayak was only pushing ten or twenty floes to either side as it bulled forward. But by the time I reached the channel thirty feet from shore, the boat was pushing fifty or a hundred floes to either side; and the spacing between the floes had shrunk to barely nothing. And all these fifty to a hundred floes were pushing against the kayak—not along the gunwales, but under the waterline where they destabilized the craft.
There was no water-space for the paddle. I started pushing with my hands, inching the kayak between the floes. The more I pushed, the harder they jammed. I tried knifing a channel between them, but the floes were heavier than the combination of the fifty-pound kayak and my wetsuit-clad two-hundred pound body. No sooner would I wedge a tiny crack than they would close, lifting bow and stern above the water.
I was on the ice. I tried sliding across, hoping to reach open sea four hundred yards ahead. At first I tried balancing half on one floe and half on another, but one floe would always have a little more of the boat than the other and tip it toward the other.
I tried sliding across the middle of the floes, but could never stay perfectly balanced. I would always be a little more to one side, and slide in that direction. The further I slid, the steeper the floe tilted. I was broaching on the ice, or trying—but had never learned to broach very well. The kayak would slide off one floe and onto its neighbor, and the neighbor would tilt in the opposite direction, forcing me to reverse my broach quickly.
Then the floe I was on tipped steeply, creating a little opening, and spilled me between the two floes. Just as quickly the floes closed. I was like a fish in a frozen pond without gills. I fumbled for the skirt handle, hard to feel with the thick neoprene gloves, and yanked the skirt off the cockpit rim. Then I kicked myself out of the cockpit and looked for an escape. The channel about twenty feet deep. No bottom to stand on. The kayak and I were both floated against the underside of the ice floe—I thanked God I had installed flotation bags in the bow and stern—but even with the kayak and myself together, we did not have the buoyancy to lift the heavy floe.
I was covered from head to foot in heavy neoprene and wearing a waterproof paddling jacket, so I was not worried about hypothermia. The only place that felt cold was my face, especially my eyes. But I had to keep them open to see. I stuck the tip of a paddle blade between two floes and worked it in slowly—careful not to break the blade. After I got the blade through I jammed the handle between the floes and levered enough space to reach through and grab an upper edge. Slowly, I pulled the edge down until I could hold it with both hands. This was like doing pull-ups in an anti-gravity chamber. I forced the edge down until the space was large enough to lift my head and shoulders and breathe. From this point I knew I would live.
The swim to shore did not seem that bad. I swam holding the paddle and kayak painter with one hand, and pushing the floes apart as I went. Hard work, perhaps more than I had reckoned, but doable. I never did paddle on ice again. Once was enough. When I started that winter day I thought all I would have to do would be go with the floes. It looked easy But what had seemed clear quickly became cloudy. I had tried doing it my way, but the floes had their way.
Anyone else have a cold kayaking swim story to share? Please click on the comment button below and go for it. Jack will be happy to respond to any queries or comments about his adventure. Just post a comment below.
Happy holidays! Eric