One of my favorite parts of wilderness kayak camping with the local clubs, is sitting around a nice campfire, talking, sharing food & drink, and the story-telling. Stories of past trips – some funny, some dramatic. Some tell an occasional bawdy joke or two, or… ten. Some tell stories of tough conditions & how we got through them. On this particular Friday, the stories continued into the night, through the shared blackberry brandy & warm duck (isn’t it supposed to be “cold duck”?).  Bit by bit, the circle got smaller as people drifted off to their tents, to rest up for the next day.

Sitting around the campfire.

Saturday, to me, is the “payoff day”. You plan for days, or even weeks. You wake up in the pre-dawn hours, load the car, drive, pack the kayak, paddle 10 miles or so, set up camp, and after all of that – on the first day, you’re almost too tired to do much of anything. On a one-night trip, you have to do the whole thing in reverse almost as soon as you wake up! But if you’re out there for 2 or more nights, you have ALL DAY Saturday, to explore, take pictures, fish, or even simply lie on a beautiful, quiet beach and read… whatever you want to do. I wanted to go fishing.

Going fishing.

I paddled out between Whitehorse & Gullivan keys at first, hoping to find some of the mackeral that we had seen on our way out on Friday. I didn’t find the mackeral, but I did catch & release some ladyfish and spotted sea trout. The spotted sea trout were out of season, but I toyed with the idea of keeping some anyway. It’s a dishonorable, yet time-honored tradition among campers, to call it “mystery-fish”, or “camp-meat”. People that wouldn’t otherwise even go so far as to jaywalk, have been known to do this. I thought, for a while, about keeping a ladyfish and using it for shark bait, but then I thought that I’d much rather catch a nice snook or redfish, so I didn’t. Pete had mentioned the Four Brothers Key area as a possible fishing spot, so I headed over that way.

Whitehorse Key, Four Brothers, and the Hidden Lake.  Click on any of the images to enlarge.

On my way to Four Brothers, I hugged the shorelines, casting my tipped bucktail jig under the mangroves at all of the likely points, but having no luck. I continued this way, working the shoreline until about 2:00 or 2:30… getting more & more frustrated at not finding the snook & reds. The afternoon heat was steamy, so I loosened my sprayskirt from the cockpit, to let the air circulate. It was a calm day, with no power boat traffic, so I didn’t need the sprayskirt to keep waves from crashing into the boat. I finally came into an area where I was catching some ladyfish and… uh… ummm… a kind of fish that shall remain unidentified, but let’s call them “speckled-mystery-sea-mullet”, OK? I wanted something to share with my campmates, and that seemed to be all that was available. I put them on a stringer, and clipped it to a bungee on my kayak’s deck, to keep them alive and fresh. Hopefully, I would catch a redfish or snook, and release the “mystery fish” alive.

After fishing the shoreline along the full length of Four Brothers Key, I decided to try a hidden lake in the center of an un-named island just to the north. My chart showed that there was a mangrove-lined creek that entered the lake from the north side of the island. The creek was easy to find, and quite picturesque, with the mangroves even forming a shady overhead canopy as it wound its way into the interior of the island. It was a fairly deep creek, with a good amount of flow from the outgoing tide. As I made my way to the hidden lake, a beautiful pink roseate spoonbill took flight ahead of me, flashing the bright slash of red on its shoulder. There were other wading birds working the shallows, as I entered the lake. Now that there was room enough to cast again, I made a few tentative casts, while watching for the telltale signs of snook popping the surface, or reds tailing.

I sat there, close to the opening, trying to decide which part of this fairly large hidden lake to fish first. I was about 15′ from the mangroves to my left, and maybe 50′ to 75′ from the mangroves to my right. As I sat there, pondering my plan, I saw a large wake coming from the mangroves to my right, and heading straight for the bow of my kayak. All that I had on my mind, at this point, was snook & reds. My first thought was “Snook! BIG snook!”. The wake crossed under the tip of my bow, and did a 90 degree turn to the left, no more than 2 feet from the side of my kayak. I positioned myself to cast behind me, to place my lure ahead of the fish, to “lead” it, when the wake seemed to disappear.

At that moment, it all happened. The left side of my kayak lurched underwater, and I was pulled upside-down instantly. I instinctively knew what it had happened. A shark had grabbed the fish on my stringer and pulled me down. My spray skirt had been off, so in an instant, the kayak was half-full of water, and I was dumped into the water with the shark, with my kayak drifting away from me. I took a couple of quick strokes & grabbed the kayak, scrambling to pull myself up onto the hull of my upside-down boat. I wanted to be OUT of that water, and NOW. My only thought was, how much my kicking, lily-white legs must look like fish on a stringer.

The thing I didn’t realize was, the huge splash that I made, and the solid resistance of the weight of the kayak against the stringer of fish, must have scared the shark off. All I knew was, it was somewhere close by. As I climbed onto the kayak, it sank at my end, filling it with more water, so I did the “cowboy crawl” toward the center of the boat, to balance it, all the while, keeping my arms & legs on top as much as possible. If you think that it’s any easy thing to do, balancing on top of a 22-inch-wide, upside-down sea kayak, then I invite you to try it yourself, sometime. You could say, that I was “highly motivated”. I reached around to the front deck, where I had the stringer clipped, and unclipped it, then I threw the clip away from the kayak. I didn’t want that shark to start pulling the kayak around again, since I had a pretty tenuous grasp on the boat at this point.

Now that I was in a “relatively safe” position, I had a chance to assess my situation. I was unhurt, balancing on top of my upside-down kayak, still holding onto my fishing rod! I never let the rod go, through the whole ordeal. To this day, I have no idea how I did that.  As I looked around for signs of the shark, I could see my paddle, chart, and water bottle drifting slowly toward the creek, with the outgoing tide. I was in a hidden lake, where no passing boat could ever see me. Even a plane flying overhead in a search pattern would have to have a tremendous amount of luck to spot me. I got there on my own, so I was going to have to get out, on my own.

My paddle. It was floating toward the mouth of the creek. I was going to need that paddle to get back to camp, and there was only one way to get it back. I had to swim for it. I hadn’t seen the shark’s wake since before everything started happening, and all was quiet, so I decided to go for it. I slipped back into the water & swam over to the paddle, still with a firm grip on my fishing rod, using the smoothest stroke possible, so as not to make attractive vibrations. Then I swam back to the kayak with the paddle. Nothing was happening… I wasn’t being bitten! So, with feelings of trepidation, I decided to stay in the water & swim the kayak to the mangrove shoreline.

The mangroves were thick, with no beach area to speak of, and the water was fairly deep right up to within about 6′ or so of their roots. There were enough roots to keep me from sinking into the muck, so I started emptying the water from my kayak. It was then, that I saw that the stringer was still attached to the kayak, having gotten tangled up in the deck bungees! I pulled on the stringer, and to my horror, I saw that the fish were still there! Shark bait!!! I quickly stuffed them into the cockpit behind the seat, and continued to empty the water out, as quickly as possible. You have no idea of the relief I felt, when I was once again able to climb into that kayak. I sat there trying to calm my breathing, and slow the pounding of my heart.  After a few minutes, I finished clearing the water out with my sponge, then paddled back out the creek, in a vain attempt to find my chart and water bottle.

I had spare charts, a submersible GPS and VHF radio, and they were both still functioning properly. At this point, however, the emergency situation had passed, so there was no need to call anyone.  I knew exactly where I was, so I headed back to camp by the shortest possible route. Somehow, I just didn’t feel like fishing any more that afternoon.

After getting back to camp, I took my first good look at the “spotted sea mullet” that were on that stringer. There was a bite mark that measured 5 1/2″ wide, cut cleanly about 1″ deep on one side, with small lacerations matching that size on the other side. I “guesstimated” the size of the shark to be in the 5′ to 6′ size range.

Shark bite.

After relating my story at camp, a few people asked me if I was done with kayak fishing, or if I would do it differently. No – I am not done with kayak fishing, but I AM done with stringers. I was aware that a shark could come along & grab fish off of a stringer, but for some reason, I thought that there would be more warning – like tugs on the line, that sort of thing. It was that scene in “Jaws” that had me fooled. Do you remember the scene, where the guy throws his wife’s roast off of the dock, tied to an inner tube? That gigantic shark gave a couple of feeble tugs on it, before shredding that dock to pieces. That, my friend, was FICTION. This was REAL. That rushing wake was my only warning, and I didn’t recognize it as the only warning that I would be given.

There’s always a few stories that come out of each camping trip, and that’s mine, for this particular trip. I learned from it, came out of it unscathed, and hope that by sharing it, that others will learn from it too. If you use a stringer in salt water, YOU. ARE. TROLLING.

Anybody else up for some kayak camping, and fishing? I am… but don’t expect me to provide you with any “mystery-fish-camp-meat”, OK? Karma… is real.

Advertisements

Diana Nyad and me, just a few hours before she started the September 2011 Cuba swim.

Diana Nyad is one of the most dynamic and inspirational persons that I have ever met. She gained worldwide fame while in her 20’s, as a long distance swimmer, breaking or establishing world records that stand to this day, nearly 40 years later. Those records include swimming 28 miles around Manhattan Island in less than 8 hours, and the 102 mile crossing from North Bimini Island in the Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, in 27 1/2 hours.  The one great record that eluded her grasp in her younger days, which still holds her in the tight grip of an “Extreme Dream”, is to swim from Cuba to Florida, without the use of a shark cage or a wetsuit.  Now, at age 62, Diana Nyad intends to achieve that dream.

When she is not training for her next distance swim, Diana often works as a motivational speaker, always earning standing ovations from her audiences. I’ve been privileged to hear some samples of her inspirational speaking, when she has spoken to her “Extreme Dream Team”.  I am lucky enough to have been able to play a small part in the team.  It seems as though she just can’t help but motivate and inspire people.  Every time she is with a group of people, and she starts talking, everybody just stops everything to listen.

Diana speaks, and everyone listens.

During the gathering of the Extreme Dream Team, just prior to Diana’s September 2011 attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she gave us all a motivational speech.  She told each one of us how important it was, that we play our part… do our job… to the best of our abilities… because she would not be able to do HER part, without each and every one of us.  At the end of her talk, she taught us all the “team cheer”, which we repeated, going faster & faster, louder & louder each time, until we finally ended by yelling at the top of our lungs,
“Where we gonna leave?
Cuuuu-BA!
What are we gonna achieve?
Flo-ri-DA!
Onnnn-WARD!!!”
We were nearly breathless with excitement, after finishing our rowdy group cheer.

Onnnn-WARD!!!

My role within the Extreme Dream Team was small, but as Diana pointed out to each of us, it was a very important job. I was one of the 6 kayakers that were chosen for the kayak team. Our job was to provide one essential part of the defense against the sharks that Diana would almost certainly encounter, while completing the 103 mile swim across the mile-deep Florida Straits. Our kayaks were fitted with electronic “shark shields”, which give off an electronic field that repels sharks. We kept 2 kayaks in close proximity to Diana at all times, staying close enough to keep Diana within the 12-foot radius “zone of protection” that each kayaker provided.

Buco plugs one of the shark shields in, while Elke supervises. They are both members of the kayak team. Elke will be the kayak team captain for the 2012 Cuba to Florida swim.

Another essential part of the shark protection, was the shark divers. These roles were played out by some incredibly brave men, whose job it was, to get between Diana and any sharks that came anywhere near her.  They were armed with only a stick, and a fiercely protective attitude towards Diana. I did NOT leave out the word “bang”, when I said “stick”.  No – this was not a weapon that could kill a shark with a bullet or a concussive explosive blast… these guys were armed with a STICK. They used these sticks to push the offending sharks away… to point them in another direction. I seem to hear you asking, so I will tell you… YES.  They were called upon to do this during the September 2011 swim, when an extremely dangerous and unpredictable shark known as an Oceanic Whitetip, showed a little bit too much interest in our activities.  But that is their story, for them to tell… this is my part of the story.

As members of the kayak team, the 6 of us each worked in 3 hour shifts. Each kayaker would be on the water for 3 hours, then off of the water for 6 hours, around the clock.  In our 6 hours of “off” time, we could dry our clothing, get a sponge bath, eat, and catch a little bit of sleep.  These shifts were partially to prevent our fatigue, but it was also to be certain that our shark shield batteries could be recharged in between shifts. This was our whole reason for being there, so keeping our shark shields fully functional was of prime importance.

The kayaker's shift schedule - day one.

Our kayak team leader, prior to the swim, told us that we should not distract Diana by talking to her during the swim. She had handlers on her main support boat, Voyager, that would be talking with Diana during every rest break. She would swim for a pre-set time period, then Bonnie, her #1 support person, would sound 3 long blasts on a whistle, calling her over to Voyager’s starboard side. There, Diana would be given bottles of water, coffee, hot broth, and bite-sized pieces of food. She would be given a warming shower from a water bag that was held over her by one of the assistants. During this entire rest break, communication between Diana and her handlers was vital, and there should be no distractions from the kayakers. Later in the swim, I was to break that rule wide open.

The Cuba to Florida swim was expected to take Diana about 60 hours to complete.  I want to be clear, here.  What I am talking about, is 60 hours of constant physical effort, with no sleep.  Not only is she not able to sleep, but she cannot be physically supported by her assistants, or by the support boat that they are on.  Diana must tread water, or rest while floating.  An observer from the International Marathon Swimming Hall 
of Fame was on the main support boat, watching every moment of the swim, to make sure that these rules were followed to the letter.

Sixty hours of virtually continuous physical exertion is daunting in itself, but there is a mental toll as well.  Sleep deprivation can play havoc with one’s mind.  Diana Nyad knew what she faced, and prepared herself for it mentally, just as she prepared her body for the rigors of the long hours of swimming.  She planned to deal with the mental fog that accompanies the lack of sleep, by creating a “playlist” in her mind.  She has a collection that ranges from sixties sitcom theme music, to popular music, and even some of her favorite books are stored away in that iPod player in her brain.  By the end of the 60 hours, when the mental fog would be closing in on her, she planned to fight it away with the help of Stephen Hawkings.  She would battle the fatigue, and the mental wandering,  by using that wandering to her advantage.  In her mind, Diana and Stephen would be pondering the mysteries of the universe, together, while she continued plying the water to achieve her Extreme Dream.

The swim begins!
One of the kayak team is beside Diana, while the other follows behind closely. You can see Diana in front of the kayaks. To the left of the kayaks, is Voyager's drogue chute. This drags in the water, allowing Voyager to move slowly, without needing to slip into and out of gear constantly. It is much easier to maintain a steady speed.

The weeks prior to the swim were filled with anticipation.  Diana needed a “weather window” of 4 days, for the best wind and wave conditions for crossing the Florida Strait.  The everyday lives of all of the members of the Extreme Dream Team were put on hold, while keeping track of every storm system that approached from inside and outside of the waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys.  The Weather Channel was the first to come on, whenever turning on the TV.  Weather Underground dot-com was one of the places that I visited on the internet, several times per day.  I wore a headset & CD player while working, trying to brush up on my rusty Spanish-speaking skills.  I hoped for a chance to use it while in Cuba.  I knew that most of the team only saw Cuba very briefly during Diana’s August 7th attempt, but a few of us were hoping for a little more time to be able to do some sight-seeing while there.  We were to get that opportunity, albeit, a short one.

~TO BE CONTINUED~
(Do you like this true story?  If you have registered with WordPress, be sure to click “follow” in the upper left, to be notified of future posts, and “like” to show that you enjoyed it.  If you want to “rate” the story, click on the stars under the title – the farther to the right you click, the higher the rating.  Thanks for reading!  – Don)