Weathering the storm: double-edged downtime
Thirty miles downstream of Baton Rouge I struggled on. The wind had been strong to my nose each time the river bent towards the east, but until now it hadn’t threatened to take me off the river. Now on a long, four-mile straight, I could visibly see the wind coming. It tore through the treetops way ahead of me at 20 miles per hour, like a giant tyrannosaurus had sensed its prey. Me. As the front rushed in my direction the visibility dropped to 500 metres, a thick wall of rain and fog.
The wind I could deal with, but without visibility I was now in danger. Ever since passing the low bridge at Baton Rouge I’d been sharing the Mississippi with ocean-going liners that made even the biggest barges I’d seen upstream look pitifully small. What’s more, they’re silent, cruising beasts. Magically they kick up very little wake, but in a flash they appear and pass me in both directions, and not being able to spot them from miles away put me in a bad position.
The wind hit, and hit hard. When I’d left Baton Rouge I’d known that a tropical depression had formed over the Gulf and was going to make the next few days nothing less than tricky. What I didn’t know was that the depression had been upgraded to a tropical storm, and it had been given a name just to signify that this was a weather system worthy of respect. Tropical storm Lee was now slapping me around the face and raining on me so hard my skin was later to look like I’d been bitten by ten-thousand mosquitos (no surprise there, then).
With this headwind my paddling speed was now reduced to 0.4 miles per hour. Having averaged a slow 4.3mph per day, this was it. I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d been hoping to make at least 45 miles but at 37 I had to call it a day. Charlotte Guedry, a fellow Brit who just happens to be the Editor of the Gonzales Weekly Citizen, had offered me shelter if I needed it and what’s more she was hoping to come and take pictures for her paper today. I forced Artemis over to the left bank, grabbed my communications drybag and eventually found semi-adequate cover in the trees. As soon as I pulled my phone out it rang, it was Charlotte. ‘Where are you? We’re coming to get you, you can’t be out in this.’
Charlotte’s house had lost electricity earlier that day so she’d contacted a local hotel, The Clarion. They’d agreed to comp me a room but probably hadn’t expected a bedraggled, hairy man in boardshorts and cut-off t-shirt to walk in, dripping all over their stone floor. I smiled at the staff and their raised eyebrows, thanked them and promised that I scrubbed up much better than this.
That was Friday. I’ve been hidden away from the wind and rain all weekend, keeping one eye on the Weather Channel and the other on article-writing and video editing. Although frustrating to be stalled so late on in the journey, I’ve honestly welcomed the rest. I can’t control the weather but I can control my safety, so the decision to wait it out meant that yes, I may now be unable to reach the Gulf of Mexico before my visa runs out this time next week, but at least I’d have a chance to rest and give myself the strength for three or four big days once the storm passed.
Now Monday morning, Lee has lost its tropical characteristics. Winds are still gusting up to 30mph but the direction has changed so in theory it should be largely behind me when I get back on the river. This isn’t necessarily glorious news though, big tailwinds serve to toss waves over the back of my board, weighing me down rather than pushing me on. I’m going to get out on the river today but without my gear, hopefully giving me the chance to make some miles before returning to the Clarion for one final night. The rest of the week will be breezy to say the least, but tomorrow morning Artemis and I will load up and go hard. The clock is ticking, the conditions are not ideal, but I’m around 200 miles from the Gulf and I’m going to give it everything I have to get there.