TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Diving

Northeast exposure of Halfway Rock ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHL

Solo Kayak Dive to Halfway Rock

(Or the Old Diver & the Sea – sorry Ernest)
Marblehead Channel, Massachusettes
by Tom Bergendahl

Before I get into the details…..here is one warning word of caution for my fellow divers and prospective kayak divers. It has literally taken me years of training, cautious working to get out just a bit farther and trial and error in my kayak before I felt really comfortable doing this. In addition to kayak diving, my normal weekly routine includes 3 or 4 days a week swimming laps in the pool as well as a walk or hike in the morning. (image: Northeast exposure of Halfway Rock)

I started swimming in the early 80s. As I have talked with my various buddies over the years about where we go and what we do, I usually make it clear that weather and conditions dictate what we do and whether we dive or not. A lobsterman out at the rock told me, conditions can and do change quickly out there. (Biographical note: I started diving as a teenager in 1971)

I am a fairly cautious person when it comes to solo diving. I normally only do it when weather or conditions are perfect and when no buddy is around or able to dive. I also would not go on a trip like this one with a relative "newbie" or someone whose paddling skills and/or boat were not up to it. My "learned from that one" story is the buddy who spent every last ounce of his energy trying to recover a weight belt in a rough surf zone and then came back to the boat totally exhausted.

Halfway Rock at the start of the trip ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHLI towed him back from Cormorant Rock into a westerly head wind. A trip which normally takes 35 minutes took me an hour. That it was stressful for both of us is an understatement. He could have died when all I had to do was come back a week later in calm weather and scoop it off the bottom. It took me about 7 or 8 minutes of bottom time.

In retrospect, my buddy acknowledged getting "tunnel vision" on his task and being sorry for not taking my advice earlier and letting it stay where it was for a while. Lesson #1….equipment can be replaced or gotten later. Nothing is worth getting exhausted over. (image: Halfway Rock – the start of the trip )

The point of that is, sometimes it's better to go it alone than to have to carry (or paddle) the "weak link" back to the launch site. Part of being cautious about destinations is understanding what it takes to get there. My first kayak trip out to Halfway Rock was roughly half the distance or halfway to Halfway Rock. We did that many years ago with no dive gear just to get a sense of how the trip would go. It confirmed my thoughts that the entire trip and back was a challenge.

The decision to dive Halfway Rock has been in the back of my mind for years now. I did it before, maybe 10 or 15 years ago under less than ideal conditions. I definitely wanted to go back but I have never had, until recently, a buddy or buddies whose skills and judgment I trusted.

With the dive season clock ticking away, I decided that I would try it again. After all, August was almost over. The weather looked calm. In fact there would be an easterly wind later in the day on Thursday, August 21st. That is a sea breeze which is always welcome. It's just what a paddler needs on the way home. The down side was being a weekday my buddies were working, so I would have to go it alone. I thought it might be helpful in convincing my buddies if I did it in a reasonable amount of time, maybe they would come with me next time.
Halfway Rock, Marblehead Channel, Massachusettes - NOAA Chart 13275
I launched from Chandler Hovey Park in Marblehead around 9:30 Thursday morning. The flag at the park was limp & not moving at all. Calm seas were the best. My paddling was not faster than normal, sort of an easily sustainable pace. I did stop for water and to flop out of the kayak to stretch my legs. I wasn't out to break any records.

If anything I wanted a realistic read on how long this trip might take my buddies. I also went with the knowledge that I could default to an easier rock or island if conditions changed.

My supplies included a waterproof Pelican box which held my cell phone, a camera, an some other helpful things like my lobster license, etc. Lunch was packed in a dry plastic container. Sandwich, pretzels, brownie, and chocolate were there for calorie replacement. Two water containers, one 32 oz. and one 20 oz. filled with ice and water were stowed in my hatches for staying hydrated.

Grey Seal just to right of center ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHLAn hour after launching from Marblehead, I was at my destination. I thought it would have taken longer. I was expecting an hour and 15 or 20 minutes. The first order of business was to paddle around the rock and check out my anchorage options. I liked the Northeast side about which I had heard so much, but the waves, eventual sea breeze and depth lead me to choose to try the north side, just back and around the rock a bit.

One of the best things happened next. I saw two large grey seals hanging out in the shallows of the Marblehead side of the rock. That alone was worth the trip. Even if I couldn't have dived, I would have felt rewarded for my efforts. Unlike the lobster fishermen, I am a huge fan of seals and the Marine Mammal Protection act. (Image: Grey seal center next to the rock)

So…having made new friends at the rock I got to the business of anchoring. The above water pictures which I took are really all that I saw of the seals. Unlike the seals up at Isles of Shoals, they did not come over to check me out once I got underwater.I got the kayak about 80 – 100 feet off the rock and dropped my 8 lb. mushroom shaped anchor.

 ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHL - Mike McDevittAs I dropped the anchor, I looked carefully at the anchor chain, my connector brass swivel clip, and the rope. I tied the rope to the front of the kayak, and then put the rest of it into the front hatch which I secured down firmly. Redundancy is not a bad thing when you are solo. Next the yellow inner tube with DIVER BELOW and my dive flag went in, followed by my steel 120 tank which was slightly over-filled.

It was an hour and a half or two from low tide and I noticed the current and the fact that the tank & flag were pulled to the back of the kayak. I am not that used to seeing a current, but I thought I wouldn't bail out just because it was there.

Having put on my fins, hood, weight belt, and arranging the rest of my gear for getting in, I got in the water. I was immediately pulled to the back of the kayak. The current was cruising, no doubt about it. Checking the anchor as the first order of the dive took on added importance.

I grabbed my tank, the air having been turned on earlier and backed into it with one hand holding onto the side of the kayak. Had I not done that, I would have begun drifting towards Cape Ann fairly quickly. It was not a "beginner" type dive. If I hadn't been a strong swimmer, I might have called it right then and there. Kicking my fins and pulling my way to the anchor line, I exhausted the air from my BC and held the line as I descended to check out my anchor's placement.

 ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHL - Mike McDevittThe anchor is attached to three or four feet of chain which is clipped to the anchor line via a brass swivel clip. I checked to make sure the spring in the clip wasn't stuck open. It seemed fairly well placed in 40 or 45 feet of water, but I moved it to a more secure notch-like formation on the bottom just to be sure. It would really ruin the dive to come up to a missing kayak. The good news would have been there were other boats in the area.

So yes….I am a bit cautious if not overly so when I am solo. I really don't want to wreck my day or anyone else's day.

The second bit of good news was that descending the anchor line I noticed the visibility was way, way better than what we get at Satan Rock or some of the closer sites. That was at low tide also.

My guess is that I had between 30 to 45 feet of visibility. The other good news was that once I was down below 20 feet or so, the current was less of an issue. It was still present, but not too strong. So I headed south into the slight current and toured the back or Marblehead side of Halfway Rock.

It was amazing visibility and the lobsters were everywhere. I started catching, measuring and throwing them into my catch bag. Among the other attractions were green sea urchins in big numbers, northern sea stars, blood stars, sea colander, kelp, green hair weed, Irish moss, Didemnum, bright yellow boring sponge, orange Palmate sponges, and colonal plumose anemones.

 ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHL - Mike McDevittFish included schools of Pollock, and Cunner, a Rock Gunnel or two and lots of Tautog. The place was full of life. As I went down a bit into the 40 and 50 foot depths there were not as many lobsters, so I came back up into the 30 – 40 foot range.

Checking occasionally on my air and time I was not in a hurry. With the conditions and temperature as good as they were I wanted to use all of my air. My total bottom time was over an hour. I was either 65 or 70 minutes. After 35 or 40 minutes, I turned around and started heading back towards the kayak. When I got down to 300 or so psi, I went up to check for the kayak after making a 3 minute safety stop around 15 – 20 feet.

The kayak was within 30 feet of where I surfaced. By then, the current had slowed significantly. I barely noticed it at all. I got my catch bag secured to the kayak and then took off my weights and stowed them in the forward hatch. Next came the tank. It went in the rear tank holding spot fairly easily. I strapped it down and pulled myself onto the kayak to get the rest of my gear off.

After drinking a decent amount of water to rehydrate and having most of my lunch, it was time to pull the anchor up. Fortunately with a slack tide and wind coming out of the east, my kayak was pushed straight up over the anchor if not a bit to the south of it. That made pulling it out of the notch a whole lot easier.

I started to paddle back and noticed a fairly large boat heading toward me. I thought….oh no, it the Fish Cops. Fortunately, I had re-measured my lobster and threw the slightly shorter ones back. I still had five.

 ~ ©TOM BERGENDAHL - Mike McDevittAs it got closer, I noticed the captain's hat. That was not the DMF official hat. It had to be a lobsterman. He said a buddy had radioed him that some diver had been down a long time and he didn't see me come up. The lobsterman was checking on my well-being. I told him about my steel 120 and it's being the reason that I was down so long. Anyway, he couldn't believe I was out there doing a solo. In all of his years he had never seen anyone do that. I explained a bit of my training to him so he wouldn't think that I was completely crazy.

We chatted a bit. I told him about the Grey seals and asked him to take my picture. I told him I needed proof. That is the back of his boat in the picture.

On Sunday a few days later, my buddy Mike McDevitt joined me. He is the one who took the following 4 great underwater shots. Thanks to Mike's camera, the other shots were w/o flash or other artificial light. It was that bright at 50 feet. Thanks for the pics Mike!!!.

When Mike joined me on Sunday, August 24th, we had a fairly similar trip out and back. The exception was that there was no current which made it a lot less stressful. In conclusion, those two dives will be really hard if not impossible to follow for the rest of the season. It doesn't get any better here in New England.

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