Crossing the Chesapeake Bay on a Kayak

When I first realized I wanted to cross the Chesapeake I knew of four others who had made the crossing from Chix Beach to the Eastern Shore: Kayak Kevin Whitley, Lee Williams, Galen "Tug" Owen, Josh Tart and one other on a Sea Kayak that was made for such trips. The first four were in sit on top (SOT) kayak fishing boats and I planned on being the 5th in a fishing kayak to make it across the Chesapeake Bay. 

I have been to the 1st island on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) complex numerous times. I have been wiped out after returning from the six mile round trip but found myself wanting to push myself and my kayak to the limits. I knew it would take some training and the right tools but I was confident.

My GPS plotted route across the mouth of the bay.

I first looked up the tides and found days that were favorable for the paddle. Its not the 17 miles that hurt, its that you never have the tide working with you and have to deal with the water either rushing in or out of the bay. The cross current is what most paddlers underestimate, and that's when this trip becomes dangerous. This, in my mind, was the single most  important consideration when planning my trip. The tides can rip as the water empties out of the Chesapeake and can easily sweep a kayaker out to sea. I chose two dates to be prepared by, the first was August 3rd and my alternate date was the 31st. I didn't want to force the paddle on iffy conditions so I made sure I had a "plan B".

The next consideration was the winds. I watched the winds the week leading up to the original date and decided on a "go / no go" by Friday before the Saturday crossing. The winds constantly change throughout the week so it was back and fourth before a decision could be made.

I then looked at what kayak was the best for the trip. I wasn't going across with the intention of surviving multiple days on a tour the way Kevin did in his trips. You can see how he did it on his DVD "Kayak Kevin's Chesapeake Bay Tour". I was only planning on making the trip as efficiently as possible. I chose a Lime Green Wilderness Systems Tarpon 160. Its an extremely fast sit on top, that has been touted as the fastest fishing kayak on the market. I really like several colors but since I was crossing during low light conditions and on a weekend I needed a yak that was not only fast but also very visible to other boaters. Hook 1 is the only company that has this color.

My Wilderness Systems "Hook 1" Lime Green Tarpon 160.

I wanted to maintain the efficiency the kayak provided so I knew I couldn't skimp on the paddle. I began looking and decided on an Adventure Technology Xception Superlight. It is a carbon paddle made for low angle paddlers that comes with an ergo shaft. Its really light at 28 oz which is really what I was looking for when paddling distances; a saying in the military is "ounces make pounds". With thousands of strokes in my future it was crucial to have the lightest paddle possible with an ergonomic shaft. I paired the paddle with NRS Paddling gloves which I bought from Appomatox River Company (ARC).  

I then focused on my training. I already work out religiously but I added long distance paddling after work.  I worked up to ten miles in the Tarpon 140. I quit that day only because it got late so I knew I could make it. I also worked out on the ERG machine, commonly called a row machine. Its not the same motion but it was work on my shoulders and back conditioning so it would help on the 17 mile trip. I combined this with my weight training and running routine. 

                                 My Tarpon 140 before a training paddle in Camp Lejeune.

I packed several power gels for easy to digest carbs and ease of intake. With hours of cardio in front of me I knew I needed to constantly intake carbs, sodium, and liquids. There are premeasured carbs and sodium in each packet so I new every three miles I would take a pack whether I wanted it at that time or not to keep energy levels high. I also took a full camel back that clipped onto my PFD. I also took extra water knowing the August heat would take its toll. I needed both the nourishment and liquids to be nearly hands free due to the cross current. I wouldn't be able to stop paddling without losing ground. I had to maintain momentum even while eating and drinking. 

Safety gear was paramount in planning. I had my cell phone, which is water proof, an extra charger to ensure I had enough battery for the entire crossing. A radio to contact other boaters, a pump (from ARC) in case I took on water, an extra paddle, and my PFD a NRS Chinook (From ARC). I packed my phone and any additional gear into my dry bag. I also created a float plan that I left with my wife. She was also my pick up so she knew where to find me at what time. 


I watched fish weather very carefully and decided that Sat August 3rd would be too windy to chance the paddle by myself. I took the day off and did some chores around the house. I checked the winds again and found that had been inaccurate and it was a beautiful day. I would have had a slight tail wind the entire trip with little current. . . I was not a happy camper. That day a 12 foot Great White shark was caught 5 miles from where I wanted to paddle. That night I kept an eye on the winds, they were predicted 15 - 20 mph all morning but just before I went to sleep I noticed a change. The wind was forcasted to be 5-8 on Aug 4th until 1000. I knew I could make it in 6 hours if I really went to work so I loaded up the Tarpon and gear, woke up at 0245 and checked the weather forcast, which remained 5-8 Knt. I headed to Chix Beach and quickly offloaded after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. I launched right a 0400. 

 The first mile my nerves were starting to get to me because I felt like fatigue was already setting in. I knew I wasn't tired but I couldn't shake the feeling. Mile two is when the wind really started blowing directly from across the bay. I knew it was supposed to be 5-8 so I was thinking it would pass. I got to the first island and at 3 miles out I had to make a decision if I wanted to turn back and wait or push the envelope. I knew I wasnt going home yet so I aimed the yak toward the second island and began my cadence. I looked over my shoulder once to see a large blacked out freighter moving out of the bay. I was sure he couldn't see me so I picked up the pace and arrived safely at the second island rejuvenated.

1st Island

2nd Island

I pressed forward into what turned out to be 15-20 Knt headwind for the next 4 miles to the third island. To me it was the longest segment, piling after piling, not enough light to look for Cobia, just distance to cover. The sunrise was beautiful, red in the morning sailors take warning. . . I reached the third and saw my first boat, a charter out of Hampton trolling. To this point I had not felt the least bit worried despite a 20 Knt headwind and waves crashing over the sides of the 16 foot long piece of plastic.

Dawn on the Chesapeake Bay

I knew my skills were up to the challenge. The rip and shoaling between the third and fourth island were big and rough. These breakers were confused with the tide coming in and the wind moving in a 45 degree angle. The breakers were comparable to the shoals at fisherman's, if you get in the wrong spot at the wrong time there is nothing you can do but hold on. I made it through without incident but my adrenaline was working. I made a blind cast at the #14 Buoy but no takers on my eel. 

Passing the third island, buoy 13 ahead. 

I kept moving and eventually had enough light to start looking for Cobia on the pilings. I checked every one but I only saw a rock crab and turtle. . I kept moving toward the highrise and veered over to fish the latimere shoals buoy which yielded nothing but waves in my lap. The winds actually picked up and at one point I was swamped and my sandals floated out of the yak. I back tracked and scooped em back only to lose my camel back. I gathered my gear and finally rounded fishermans and headed to wise point. My wife was waiting for me when I got there. I asked for my time and she told me it was almost 1030! I had made the trip through a stout headwind across the Chesapeake Bay in 6.5 hours. 

 Pelicans on the pound nets.

Finishing the trip at Wise Point Boat Ramp. 

This all being said I should not have went past the first island, not in that type of winds. I should have known the forcast was off and waited till my alternate date. I am a very experienced paddler and I knew there weren't alot of situations that could shake my confidence. If you are thinking of making this trip, ensure you are efficient at your paddle stroke so you don't wear yourself out. Make sure you are able to handle a boat in surf like conditions, like those I found with water crashing next to and over the kayak throughout most of the day. The day can begin beautiful and can be forcasted as such but it can turn on you in an instant and you'll need to be able to paddle out of trouble just to stay safe. I found out later a Small Boat Advisory was issued after I had launched. If I wasn't able to ride the waves learned in years of surf launching I dont think I would have made it. 

One of many waves over the side. 
(I couldnt get of photo of the worst ones due to having to maneuver the boat to stay right side up.) 

Overall I wasnt as beaten as I thought I would be, but I dont know if Ill plan to do another crossing anytime soon. I credit the advice of Kevin, my training and my equipment for helping me be as efficient as possible.     

Warning: Kayaking beyond your skill level can cause death or severe injury. Please don't try this without proper supervison and training.


  1. conradulations my friend on a job well done ,you are so right on so many levels about safety,next time use a spotter boat to follow you in case something goes wrong ;)
    i never doubted you for a minute on being able to do this so again congrats.

  2. Great write up man! Glad to see you made it back safely!

  3. Congrats Jay - awesome accomplishment. At least you now know what you can handle and what makes you "pucker" a little bit more than normal. Top notch dude!

  4. Welcome to the CLUB. I guess I am the only one to have done it in reverse. My paddle started at the Concrete Ships and ended at Chix Beach.....20.3 miles in 7 hrs.

  5. Excellent and informative write-up!! I won't be taking on that type of expedition however the skills articulated are necessary for any type of safe paddling.

  6. Rock on man. It's nice to see someone else who pushes their limits. This seems completely feasible, but I'm planning to cross in one of the shorter middle sections to check out Calvert Cliffs. I figure that's more challenging and fun than driving around the Bay.