Last month I did a circumnavigation of Dauphin Island Alabama in my 16 ft Dagger Reflection canoe. Conditions were NOT ideal but after bringing my canoe 600 miles from SC on a week-long vacation, I was stubbornly determined to do this trip which I have always wanted to do since I got into paddling 22 years ago.
Our entire week we had a stiff easterly wind due to a tropical depression due south out in the Gulf creating a counter-clockwise swirl where Dauphin Island was getting steady 15-25 mph winds. On the 20th of June I headed out from the Mississippi Sound side (north shore) about mid-island heading east towards Mobile Bay. I had somewhat protected waters on the easterly leg where I passed many vacation homes and the small airport landing strip jutting out into the Mississippi Sound. My canoe had only a couple gallons of ice water and a 6ft long water-logged 4x4 piece of lumber for ballast (smartest thing I did on an otherwise stupid journey).
I wanted to paddle under the D.I. bridge HIGH SPAN where ships pass but it would have been a 2-mile extension of an already ambitious daytrip of 12 miles so I stuck close to the island and passed around the northeast channel past the ferry landing and Coast Guard Station where I began to encounter some UGLY water. It was at this point where I really should have turned around but the full force of the expanse of Mobile Bay was crashing on the rocks that have been placed around Ft Gaines to stabilize the fort grounds.
Some fisherman looked at me in amazement as I struggled into the boiling haystacks making very slow progress out into the point where the water from the bay collide with the Gulf. At this point there were 6 foot breakers randomly crashing in both NE and NW directions and I was getting scared and DID NOT like the idea of having these waves behind me in a following sea so my only safe option was to quarter them head-on as I paddled out into the Gulf in an attempt to get outside the surf zone. I was hoping to see the long spit of Sand Island (aka Pelican Island) which merged into Dauphin Island a few years ago as a possible safe zone but it was not even in sight at water level.
I also began to realize that with me heading SW towards where Sand Island should be appearing I had to eventually correct my heading back towards the east meaning having the 5-6 foot swells on my port broadside. This proved acceptable as the canoe just rolled over them without any problem as long as they didn't begin breaking. There were two shrimp boats between myself and D.I. and heading directly at me on a SE heading so I had to correct my heading a little to pass in front of them meaning I had to paddle further out into the gulf back on a SSW course.
Sand Island began to appear as a few scrubby trees and a white sandy strip jutting due south about 1.5 miles out into the Gulf. I picked out a feature that was about 2/3 of the way out or one mile from D.I. Luckily some funny sandbars in odd patterns allowed me to negotiate the 5-6 foot breaking surf without any problem where I FINALLY was able to peel my white knuckled fingers from the paddle and beach the canoe and stretch my legs.
It was very pretty with almost turquoise lagoons and lots of birdlife. I had to drag my canoe over the narrow sandy strip to the western shore and saw a weird scene that really had me worried - the waves crashing on the beach were coming at a very steep lateral angle coming from the gulf and instead of breaking directly onto the west facing beach, they were breaking continuously ALONG the beach heading north towards D.I. about one mile to the north. The waves were bigger and were coming in sets of three or four.
My options were to either abort the paddle trip and drag/carry my canoe along the beach to D.I. (what I should have done) or attempt to time a launching between wave sets and quickly get out away from the breaking waves into the deepwater. Certainly I would have to drive into at least one or two significant breaking waves if I tried option #2 but felt like once I got some momentum and a good quartering angle I could safely make it. I went ahead and pounded through the surf and made it out into the REAL gulf about a mile from shore.
Here is where the most frightening part of my journey began. Apparently due to the Sand Island spit being attached to D.I. there develops some REALLY BIG swells. I felt comfortable enough heading INTO the swells as I could see them and prepare my heading accordingly but this meant continuing paddling south AWAY from D.I. further into the Gulf. I decided to "ferry" westerly keeping the canoe pointed SW to a certain point where I had to finally turn NW and have the swells at my port stern quarter which was a little harrowing. The swells were easily 8 feet from trough to peek and this is scary in a 16 ft canoe in a following sea. Each swell was causing me to surf them for a few seconds as they passed under me and simultaneously yaw off my heading where I had to quickly correct before the next swell. The winds were still stiff and many of these swells were breaking on the top two feet which made the situation even more scary. D.I. began to get larger with each swell forcing me towards the beach. I began looking for a blue roofed house where we were staying and then prepared for a landing that was surely going to test my skills.
The waves were 5-6 foot breaking about 150 feet from shore. The rocker in this canoe and having the easily positioned 4x4 lumber really helped as I timed the chosen wave and surfed it all the way to within 30 feet of the shore where it washed out and forced me to paddle hard towards shore but the next wave knocked me over and I swam. Lucky it was only 4 feet of water and I had spectators help me recover my canoe and gear. I recovered all my gear,..even the 4x4 that made the trip possible. There is no way that I could have done this without the added ballast. What an ending!
Lots of beach rentals and Gulf Breeze motel along with a state park campground on the island
Take Dauphin Island Parkway south from interstate 10 just west of Mobile.