Kayaking with NASA

Kelly Park Kayak Launch
Kelly Park Kayak Launch Matt Graham
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“Rocket kayaking” may sound like the latest trendy extreme sport, with mental images of small watercraft transformed into dangerous airborne projectiles. But, for in-the-know paddlers on Florida’s east coast, also known as the Space Coast, hopping into a kayak is simply the best way to experience the sights, sounds, and pure power of a rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

Your first mission: Picking a scheduled rocket launch. But before the rocket launches, you and your kayak do, and Kelly Park is an ideal starting point for the adventure (the park is open 24 hours and is also available to motorized watercraft). Head left after launching and go under the bridge; from there, the Banana River No Motor Zone (NMZ) is roughly 2½ miles to the north, where you’ll be able to anchor up and enjoy an excellent view. Since this trip is affected by the tides and exposed to the wind, give yourself at least an hour before the scheduled launch time to paddle and get in place.

Smoke tail from rocket
Smoke tail from rocket Matt Graham

Near the edge of the NMZ are plenty of wooden pylons that offer a great anchor point for kayaks, about eight miles away from the heavy launch pad. As the clock ticks toward the scheduled launch, the anticipation is almost tangible on the water. But, depending on where you are, you likely won’t be able to make out the words coming from the loudspeaker at the launch pad, so you won’t hear the official countdown.

But on a recent launch, that didn’t matter. At 7:04 am, the exact time scheduled, a flicker of orange appeared on the launch pad. At first it looked like a small spark, like someone had struck a giant match on the horizon, expanding into a streaking fireball almost in a blink. As the rocket lifted into the hazy morning sky, streaking toward the clouds, it was eerily silent on the water except for the cheers from observers in their boats or on shore.

Within 20 seconds, the rocket and its fireball tail slipped into the low-hanging clouds with the finesse of a needle through thin fabric. Just as quickly, it was gone, and on a clear day, you can even see this spectacular event from across the state.

Because of the distance to the launch site, there’s a delay from the light to sound, making it easy to almost forget about the silence amidst the awe of watching the rocket arc into the sky. But, just after it disappears, a faint rumble will start to grow from the launch pad, building into a primal roar that rolls like thunder across the water, boats bobbing and metal navigational signs clanking with the vibrations. The sound and sensations from the blast seem to overtake the entire Banana River, almost as if the small watercraft will be yanked from the pylons they’re tethered to. (They won’t be, but still make sure your knots and anchors are secured properly.)

Post-launch paddle
Post-launch paddle Matt Graham

In other words, it adds a hefty dose of adrenaline to an otherwise ordinary paddle. Just try not to be hooked on watching every future launch this way.

But there’s something to be said for the full fanfare experience as well, with loudspeakers broadcasting the launch commentary and facts and updates. If so, head over to KARS Park, a NASA employee campground and recreation area with great views of Kennedy Space Center. For a $5 entry fee, you can join others to watch the launch from dry land—or, even better, a spot on the pier. (There is no kayak/canoe launching during rocket launches, so plan accordingly.)

Inspired to start rocket kayaking for yourself? Here are some simple tips to navigate the waters.

  • Check the tides and weather before you go, and plan your excursion when the tide is rising.

  • Launch from Kelly Park and paddle roughly two miles north.

  • Bring cord to anchor up to a pylon, or just float around.

  • A 10-pound weight tied to a cord makes an easy and effective DIY anchor.

  • Be ready for a launch by keeping an eye on the rocket; also be prepared that the launch might be canceled.

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