The Inland Paddler: Winter Wonderland with Dolphins

Lisa Schell Columns, The Inland Paddler Leave a Comment

deal with Winter

Last week at this time, much of eastern North Carolina was in the midst of its first Winter storm.  The below freezing temps and precipitation dumped a classic wintry mix of ice, sleet and snow on the Raleigh area.  Roads were bad, school was cancelled for several days and the rest of the nation, especially the parts that routinely endure so much more than our few inches laughed at us Southerners and our inability to deal with Winter.

Yesterday, at Wrightsville Beach, it was about 75 degrees.

And there was only one thing for this landlocked inland paddler to do – get to the beach. Especially since there was supposed to be surf.

I’ve written before about the famous saying about the North Carolina weather – don’t like it? Wait five minutes.  Well, same goes for the surf forecast. When I arrived at Access #2 at about 8:30, the blue sky was brilliant and cloud free, the sun was out and the water was emerald green.  And it was warm.  Gloriously warm. There was only one thing missing.

The three to four foot waves.

Rob and Jason were there and were just getting ready to go out, but April had decided to go get her flatwater workout in instead.

I only brought the Starboard Whopper.  I came to surf and only surf. They call it the Whopper for a reason.

I looked at the thick, bulky straightjacket that is my 4/3 mm wetsuit. And the rubber foot prisons that are my booties. It takes about 15 minutes just to get dressed to paddle when I have to wear that gear. And despite the warm air, the water was still a very chilly 52 degrees.

But, it was a gorgeous day.  And I drove all the way to the coast. Even if I just paddle around in the ocean for a little bit, it is still better than not paddling.

By the time I made it out onto the beach, Rob and Jason were catching some small but decent waves. Once I got in the water, I was surprised that I was not cold in the slightest – even though I was not wearing gloves. There were decent, fun, soft waves to be had and I caught more than a few.   I recently switched over to the split toe booties, which made it easier to feel my board and move my feet.

There might’ve even been a party wave or two.

Despite the sunshine, there was still a definite “winter” feel to the beach…hardly anyone was there, the way the sun was catching on the water…it was clear this was not a spring day. There is a desolate beauty to the Atlantic in the winter that is markedly different from the summer beauty of our ocean.

Winter on the water can be magic.

And the instigators of yesterday’s magic were dolphins.  Lots of dolphins.

deal with Winter

Photo: Lumina News

Now, whenever I see the cetaceans, I take it as a sign of good luck. And it is not uncommon to see dolphins when I paddle at the North Carolina coast. But yesterday, the large pod was inside. Close. Very close.  And not just feeding.  They were playing.  Jumping. Frolicking.  Catching little runners.  And they were all around us.  And they stayed there. While waiting for sets to come in, we watched them. It was hard not to. In fact, I missed several really nice waves because I could not take my eyes off of the dolphins.

At one point, a mother and her baby swam right by us.  I made eye contact with her, and they turned around and came in closer.

The magic of the ocean and her creatures.  Right there.

Our two hour session came to a close – we were getting hungry.  As I got out of my wetsuit and booties, I realized that it wasn’t really all that difficult to suit up and that there had been nothing to fear about the cold water since I was well-prepared.  The warm air helped with that, I am sure.  But even if it had been cloudy and cold it still would have been worth it.

I decided to hang around and go out again for an afternoon session.  The morning had been so wonderful, I wanted more. But, as is so often the case, when you have had an amazing experience and you want to indulge in more of the same, it can never be quite as perfect. The waves were all but gone. The beach was crowded with people seeking to start their weekends early and take advantage of an unseasonably warm day at the beach.  The parking lot was full of agro and impatient drivers.  And, my Whooper was hobbled. On the last wave of the morning session, a rather largish one,  I somehow got sideways and got kicked off the top. The board flipped over and my right foot came down on one of the side bite fins.  Snappped it right off. I was fine. Grateful for wearing booties.  I will never complain about having to wear them again! But, I tried surfing that board with just the center fin. And that was not easy.

But the dolphins were still there!!!

It was as if they were enjoying the weather just as much as we were!

Beachgoers were running as close to the cold water as they dared with their phones to take pictures.  Kids were squealing with delight as the pod performed more aerobatics for them.

I paddled out right into the middle of the show.

I kept my distance, as you must do when around Federally protected marine mammals. But they decided to hang out with me some more.  They swam underneath my board. I saw more babies and moms.

At one point, I looked over at the beach, and saw the people standing at the waters edge, pointing. At the dolphins, and at me.

Suddenly it hit me.  In that moment, on this day, I was the luckiest person in the world.  All because of a piece of foam and fiberglass, a stick of carbon and some neoprene.

I will never complain about winter paddling again.


(Note: there are no pictures documenting my day at Wrightsville Beach.  I chose to leave the GoPro at home.  For which I am thankful. Had the camera been on, there would not have been any dolphins.  That’s just how magic goes!)


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