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Lessons learned on a long-distance kayak journey from NC to Charleston

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Mike Sadler with the Hobie Outback that he sailed, pedaled and paddled from Swansboro, N.C., to Charleston. Provided photo

Whether it be on a large cruiser, a canoe or a kayak, almost anyone who has spent time on the water has at some point contemplated what it would be like to embark on a long-distance boating journey.

North Carolina native Mike Sadler, an adventurous 36-year-old licensed captain and professional poker dealer, decided earlier this year that he needed a break from the COVID-19 pandemic. So he sailed, pedaled and paddled a 2019 Hobie Outback kayak from eastern North Carolina to Charleston, a journey that covered some 200 miles and took 10 days. It was a learning experience for Sadler and could offer valuable lessons for others contemplating a long-distance journey on a tiny craft.

He began his journey in Swansboro, N.C., where his family has a home nearby, and chose Charleston as his final destination because his friend Johnny Pieper, who owns Striped Pig Distillery (stripedpigdistillery.com) lives on the Ashley River. Sadler said he had dreams of paddling up to Pieper's home but technical issues and fatigue forced him to shut down at Sullivan's Island.

"You cannot prepare enough," Sadler said in offering advice to others. "I kinda' threw this together in about three weeks once I got the idea in my head. I really made sure I covered everything I was concerned about and talked to as many people as I could who had experience doing long-distance paddles.

"You're going to have fears going into this and you're also going to have tons of time to think about what you're doing. I was sitting there 10 days and I did 110 hours. That puts my average at 2 miles per hour. You're going slow and you have to be extremely patient. One of the biggest struggles I had was that once I started getting close I really wanted to rush. You have to be able to step back and realize, 'I'm 60 miles away but that's still three days paddle.'"

Sadler said most people who undertake similar trips are traveling in streamlined kayaks meant for ocean trips. He got help from Great Outdoor Provision Company (greatoutdoorprovision.com), a North Carolina-based outfitter where his brother works, in obtaining the equipment. The boat, which is less than 13-feet long, was equipped with a Hobie sail and Hobie's pedal-drive, allowing operators to pedal and make headway.

Sadler said you have to be confident in your boat and also confident in your own ability to persevere and endure. He said he had plenty of safety equipment — a PFD, a foghorn, an emergency radio so he could contact the Coast Guard or other boaters, a whistle, compass, signaling mirror, running lights, headlamps and other lights. He also carried water and food.

"A lot of the sailing or making way I did was at night, so I wanted to make sure I was as visible as possible. I also carried the essential camping equipment you would use on a backpacking trip, a tent, ground pad and sleeping bag," Sadler said.

But there are some things you can't plan for or anticipate.

"The weather was really good to start when I did. The wind was blowing out of the North, Northeast. I figured those would be optimal conditions. If I couldn't knock out 15 to 20 miles the first couple of days, I was going to turn around and cruise back and call the trip," Sadler said.

What he didn't anticipate was Tropical Storm Etta, which came through during the trip. The North-Northeasterly  winds that had been pushing him changed direction and made the last five or six days more difficult. He had to abandon sailing and was forced to pedal and paddle.

Another big challenge was the large bodies of water he had to traverse.

"One of the first concerns that popped up when I started planning this trip was boat traffic, having to navigate the channel with all sorts of mega-yachts and boats coming from the north and headed to Florida. My concern was getting swamped, but the boat traffic wasn't too bad. You have to have your head on a swivel.

"Another concern was some of the inlets you have to cross. You have a lot of water moving in and out and you don't want to get swept out to sea. One of the biggest obstacles at the start of the trip was the Southport and Wilmington area. It's a major shipping line. I crossed that at night because conditions were perfect, an outgoing tide and I had a really strong tailwind. That was Nov. 8 and I did over 50 miles that day."

He said the Winyah Bay area near Georgetown also was challenging where he had to deal with 3- to 4-foot seas on big, open water. Sadler said sailing through the wildlife preserves at night in that area was spooky.

Sadler camped, often stopping on beaches or small islands. But he also got some help from people he met along the way.

"I did meet a few trail anglers along the way that really helped me," Sadler said. "The first night I was cruising, it was 11 at night and I had been on the water 12 hours. I was cruising by these docks on the Intracoastal and these two guys were sitting on the dock. They were laughing and giggling. I figured I'm probably the last thing they expected to see.

"I pulled up and asked if they were laughing at me. They said, 'No, we're admiring you.' They thought I was a homeless guy. They gave me a beer, a cigar and their leftover dinner. They told me I could stay at the house next door on the porch."

He said later, south of Myrtle Beach, a job boat pulled up and began a conversation, giving him a sandwich and beer. They talked and floated down the river for an hour.

Sadler said he decided to end the trip at Sullivan's Island.

"I ran out of battery for my phone and my solar charter quit working. I called the trip short because I wasn't going to be able to have contact with my support team. The tide had flipped on me and, honestly, I could not paddle any more," he said.

Sadler compared the journey to that of someone hiking the Appalachian Trail.

"When you do stuff like this, it's not necessarily fun," Sadler said. "You talk to people who have done the Appalachian Trail and they didn't have a good time. They were putting one foot in front of the other. It's just a grind. You're putting your body to the test and seeing how you respond to it and saying you did it once you get done. This is an accomplishment.

"Some days were really enjoyable, especially when conditions were optimal where I could actively sail for most of the days. Then there were the days where you were just grinding away. You start getting worn down. Everything's wet. You get tired of getting off the water, unpacking the entire boat, setting up camp, repacking the entire boat and tackling the next day. There were a couple of days I wanted to stop, especially when you get to the more isolated areas and you're not seeing people and it's dark when you're paddling."

Sadler, who has a YouTube channel called "Captain Card Shark," said he plans to post a video of his journey and hopes to gain sponsors and do more trips along the Intracoastal Waterway.