Paddle Across the
Bay August 17, 1997
William G. McArthur
revised August 19, 2005
I met Craig Forrest during the summer of 1988. My family and I were on sabbatical leave from my professorship of mathematics and computer science at Shippensburg University; we were spending eight months in a condominium on the oceanfront in Cape May to "test drive" the area for a possible permanent move in the future. Craig was one of the regular lifeguards on the Grant Street beach that we frequented daily. Craig was a high school student and a well-known local surfer at the time. Unlike some teenagers, Craig was quite willing to engage adults in conversation and we chatted with him on a daily basis. That summer, Cape May hosted the national lifeguard competition. Craig was entered in the beach run event and he asked if I would cheer for him. I positioned myself at the edge of Grant Street beach and cheered as Craig raced by. I met Craig's mother, Libby, and we talked a bit about Craig and the race. At the end of the summer we took a snapshot of Craig on his guard stand; the photo remains part of our scrapbook for that year.
In 1995, Cathy and I moved to the North Cape May area into a chalet that we had built on the shore of the Delaware Bay three miles north of the Cape May Canal. Because we were right on the beach, I bought two kayaks and added kayaking to my cycling, jogging, hiking, cross-country skiing, and aerobics activities. As seasons changed, I became a year-long kayaker and paddled through the icebergs of winter at times. During the first summer of 1995, I had a dream of paddling across the Delaware Bay from Cape Henlopen to Cape May. My only problem was to find some people crazy enough to go with me. My friends, Mike and Lisa Bernstein, who run the Aqua Trails kayak tours, helped me keep a lookout for an opportunity to cross the bay. This summer we started to hear about a lifeguards' trip across the bay. The same day in July we all discovered that Craig Forrest was organizing a benefit for his mother Libby, who is suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS); a group was going to paddle across the bay! On August 5, I went into the Cape May Lifeguard headquarters building to inquire about the event; I was told that Craig was guarding Steger's Beach, so I went to the beach to find him. I reintroduced myself to Craig and asked if I could be a part of the event. Craig graciously accepted me and my offer of the use of our powerboat as one of the support craft for the crossing. Two of the Aqua Trails tour guides, Jeff and Phil, also arranged to be part of the group, so I decided to help them get over to Delaware with their equipment. Mike gave me an Aqua Trails tank top to wear (I was a part-time tour guide last summer), so there were to be three of us representing, and sponsored by, Aqua Trails for the event.
The week prior to the crossing, I made two training paddles: the first was a sixteen mile trip to Reed's Beach and back to my house; the second was a thirteen mile paddle from my house around Cape May Point, along the Cape May beaches, into the Cape May inlet, and up the harbor to the Aqua Trails kayak dock. When I arrived at the kayak dock, I arranged to trade in my Ocean Kayaks Scrambler XT for a Necky Kayaks Dolphin. I thought I was ready for an upgrade and the upcoming trip was a good motive for doing it now. Cathy picked me up in our Jeep and we loaded the new kayak on the top. The first water that the Dolphin would taste would be in the ocean off of Cape Henlopen on Sunday.
On Saturday, we met with Jeff and Phil at Aqua Trails to get their kayaks. Jeff loaded two Sea Lions belonging to Mike and Lisa on his truck and we headed for our marina. In a feat of packing-engineering, we put the two 17' Sea Lions side by side through the open windshield of our boat, "Anaerobic". Then we put my Dolphin on top of them.
THE MAIN EVENT
This was it - the big day! I awoke around 5:50 AM and packed for the trip. Cathy and I arrived at lifeguard headquarters in Cape May at 7:45 for the 8 AM briefing. The other participants dribbled in during the next hour and a half. During the wait, Craig executed a dramatic rescue of a youngster trapped in the rough surf on Grant Street beach; that child was lucky - in the presence of his parents he was swimming before the lifeguards came on duty. We finally left for the marina around 9:30. We ended up with ten passengers: me, Cathy, Kim and Katherine the rowers, Jeff, Phil, Tracy (Jeff's wife), Joe (another kayaker), Deacon Kline (the alternate captain of "Anaerobic"), and Josh (Deacon's grandson). We headed out of the Cape May Canal with the boat laboring under the weight. It was really hard to bring up to plane. We moved out to a spot about a mile off of Cape May Point to wait for the other powerboat, "Emotional Rescue II". That boat had to pick up a Cape May lifeguard boat packed with kayaks and other equipment. We finally saw the boat coming through the rips pulling the rowboat at about 11:15. We headed out across the bay with our boat struggling to maintain its hydroplaning configuration. When we arrived at Cape Henlopen, we rendezvoused with a sailboat named "Santa Cruzin" which had a couple of paddleboards and paddleboarders on board. We three boats converged about ¼ mile off of the ocean beach at Cape Henlopen State Park. It was an impressive landing party with its five paddleboards, six kayaks, and a lifeguard boat. Once onshore, Craig's stepbrother John and wife Tara assembled a portable "suitcase kayak" while the lifeguards slapped hands and got each other pumped up for the trip. After answering questions of curious beachgoers and holding hands for a send-off prayer, we embarked at about 12:30, heading for Cape May. The weather was sunny and hot with a gentle breeze. Since we left on the remnant of an ebb tide, we were pulled farther out into the ocean for a while. There were five-foot ocean swells of very clear water, but the paddling conditions were excellent. We saw a huge freighter that passed about ½ mile away. Also, I saw a brown pelican flying low over the water. The "Emotional Rescue II" led the fleet. Most often, the rowboat was next in line. I was usually up front somewhere, too. The paddleboarders struggled a bit since even these superb athletes couldn't match their hands against the blades of a paddle or an oar. Some of the paddleboarders took brief breaks under tow of one of the three boats, but for the most part they used their hands and hearts to move them toward New Jersey. Two of the kayaks also spent a small amount of time under tow. After about three hours, I spotted the Cape May lighthouse looming in the haze. Soon afterward, we began to see the raging whitewater of the rips. I had experienced nightmares about fighting the full moon currents that race around Cape May Point on a flood tide. At this time, as we entered the maelstrom of the rips, the group had split into two parts: one part was following the rowboat and the other was following "Emotional Rescue II" closer in toward the Point. Two paddleboards, one kayak, and the other two boats were in the outer group with the rowboat which lost three oars in the rips. Our group surfed through some interestingly rough water. One of the paddleboards kept being overturned by hydraulics. I noticed that our group wasn't making any forward progress. In the past two years, I'd been defeated three times trying to traverse the rips against the current and I was determined to win the battle today. So I broke away from our group, paddling frantically for the east side of the concrete bunker in Cape May Point State Park. After some brutal paddling, I made it in close to shore where I noticed the huge waves pounding the beach. I paddled just outside of the breakers and made it to the cove jetty just as "Anaerobic" dropped off two paddleboarders it had been briefly towing. I could see the rowboat back behind me, so I waited for them. Actually, the current carried me back to them. When I reached the rowboat, I could see that it was inching backwards in spite of the valiant efforts of its crew. I told the captain of "Santa Cruzin" about their situation and he guided them out into a lesser current where they could progress. Meanwhile, I struggled back to the jetty where the four paddleboarders were forming up for their grand entrance onto the lifeguard headquarters beach at Grant Street. I fell in behind them. There was loud cheering on the beach as the paddleboarders landed in the rough surf and the loudspeakers carried the announcement of the accomplishment. Still offshore, I carefully stowed my hat and Gatorade bottles into the middle hatch of my Dolphin and headed to shore on a big wave, encouraged by applause from the beach. As I was proudly surfing into the beach, paddle overhead, I saw that the wave was about to smash me on a storm outflow pipe, so I dove off of my kayak in one of my patented wipeouts. Guess what I forgot to stow? My prescription sunglasses were lost in that wave (I had lost another pair while kayaking in Key West last December). I recovered my paddle and kayak at the edge of the water and dragged the kayak and myself onto the sand at 5:53 PM.
I stayed on the beach long enough to see the rowboat and double kayak arrive and to congratulate the participants. Cathy had told me earlier that Deacon didn't want to pilot our boat back into its slip, so I had to kayak out to the boat and board it. I struggled in the crashing surf and succeeded on my fourth try to escape beyond the breakers. Beaten up and without glasses, I boarded the boat while the crew brought the Dolphin on board. There was so much fog at the Point that the lighthouse was barely visible. We could see a storm coming so we headed for the boiling rips. I was too tired to be as nervous as I should have been traversing the rough water. We made it safely through and headed down the canal, accompanied by the rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning behind us. We arrived at our slip uneventfully and all hustled like crazy to close the boat and load the kayak on the Jeep. We had to drop Deacon and Josh back in Cape May before we raced the storm to our house. It was a tie, so the Jeep stayed out in the rain overnight. The thunderstorm was intense; we could only wonder what it would have been like to have been caught by it on the water.
I have the greatest admiration for the participants in the crossing. All of the paddlers and support people worked together for a worthy goal. The paddleboarders, those crazy lifeguards, had the strength and the heart to use only their muscles and flesh to travel so far and to fight such fierce currents. Craig, John, and Tara organized and carried out a memorable event.
I think that Kim and Katherine were the soul of the trip. These two women, mothers of two and three children respectively, stolidly rowed their big boat for six hours across the bay and through the rips. All afternoon I could look around and see these two athletes pulling on their oars, relentlessly. When I shook Katherine's hand after the ordeal, I held a tiny, delicate, soft hand; it was hard to believe what that hand had done.
I accomplished my dream, thanks to a lot of good people.
When I was registering for the 2005 version of the Coombs/Douglass Memorial BayRun, the man on the other side of the table asked if I was the guy that paddled across the Bay (I had done it 9 times by then). I said that I was and he said that he was Deacon from the 1997 paddle. He asked if I had read Craig's book and said that I was in it. I immediately bought the book and found it to be a very inspirational read.