Seth Peichert, 24, paddled his 17.5-foot kayak into the Inner Harbor yesterday on the last leg of a nearly 1,500-mile trip that began near Miami on April 1. The Towson resident had spent 90 days on the water and most nights camping on sandy beaches. He had lost 20 pounds from his lanky 6-foot-5 frame, grown a thick beard and despite gallons of sun block, he sported a leathery tan.
Family and friends who had followed his trip along the Intracoastal Waterway and up the Chesapeake Bay on the Internet gathered at the Inner Harbor Marina and quickly spotted the white kayak as it rounded the turn from the Patapsco River.
"It's him!" shouted his mother, Joyce Peichert. "I am so glad to get him back on land."
For one brief moment, her son stopped paddling and waved back.
"All he wants to do is get here and get that boat out of the water," said his father, David Peichert, a cardiologist, who would eventually help his son lift the 150-pound kayak onto the pier.
As he paddled to the dock, Phil McKnight, a college friend, played a lively rendition of "Over the Waterfall" on the fiddle and then handed out slices of Smith Island cake. Girlfriend Sara Schultz, who had posted Peichert's daily blogs, held a hot-pink "welcome home" banner. Devin King, a young fellow kayaker who had met Peichert in Florida, clanged a cowbell. Joan Hurley snapped photos of her former St. Paul's School student.
Peichert's 92-year-old great-grandmother came from Virginia for the homecoming, while others traveled from Kentucky, Boston and New York.
Climbing out of the kayak, he said, "It's so nice to see everybody and to know I don't have to get back in that thing." He added that he was looking forward to a jumbo egg custard snowball.
When he started the trip on April Fool's Day, friends thought he was joking. He and his older brother, Adam, christened the kayak with a bottle of wine. Adam wasn't worried as he pushed the kayak into the waves at Key Biscayne, Fla.
"I knew if he got into trouble, he could just rent a U-Haul and drive home," said Adam, who might write about his brother's adventures.
Along the way, many asked why.
"This was purely a personal challenge that grew from a whimsical idea, which came together very quickly once I made up my mind," Peichert said.
A kayak guide on Hilton Head Island since graduating from the University of Vermont, Peichert trained at home for several months. He had the advantage of sea legs and a sturdy vessel, he said.
"It's a light, durable plastic boat, a real workhorse," he said. "It's stable, with a huge capacity, but not a very comfortable seat. I added as much comfort as I could, but any seat gets uncomfortable after 10 or 11 hours with your legs stretched out in front of you."
He traveled up to 4 mph and averaged 35 miles a day. He encountered large alligators, venomous snakes and aggressive dolphins, skirted the wakes from cruise ships and was stung by a huge jellyfish whose tentacles were wrapped around his paddle. It's all on his Web site, thanks to Shultz taking dictation.
"That Web site almost destroyed our relationship," he said. "I'm a mumbler, and she paraphrases what I say."
Weather presented major obstacles, with frequent storms and many campsites washed out by waves. There was one long night of lightning that included frequent phone calls home to his younger sister, Rachel, who was tracking the storm.
Securing overnight camping spots "was tricky, especially since there are not enough public parks, and people are so funny about their waterfront property," he said. If offered a bed, he didn't turn it down.
"I found a tremendous amount of good from people I never met before," he said.
Honeymooners offered him a meal and an extra room in their suite. Friends of friends would find him on the water and take him home for a night. Wayne Heimiller of Vero Beach, Fla., brought Peichert and his kayak home for a crab feast, a shower and a comfortable bed.
"I found him after he had been on the water for about 10 days, loaded the kayak onto my truck and gave him his first break," said Heimiller, who was part of the welcoming crew yesterday.
Four days north of Vero Beach, 12-year-old Devin - who had been following the journey on the Internet - took his kayak out on a canal, found Peichert and brought him home.
"I paddle for an hour and a half, and I get tired," said the boy. "I don't know how he did it."
Peichert carried enough food for a week - lots of pasta, tuna in pouches and Pop Tarts ("cheaper than power bars with just as much energy," he said). In color-coded dry bags, he stored charts, a tracking system, a solar battery-charger, an iPod, a cell phone and a device that relayed his latitude and longitude home daily.
David Peichert called his son cautious, level-headed and savvy.
"He had experience, a lot of safety equipment and was most of the time in protected waters," he said.
A durable life jacket kept him safe, even amid large ocean swells, his son said.
"I would not paddle one foot without a life jacket," Seth Peichert said. "I feel totally weird without it."
Although he savored the communion with nature, he struggled to keep loneliness at bay, he said. By Thursday evening, Peichert had reached Annapolis, with home just around the corner from his campsite. He made Gibson Island on Friday and left there at 6 a.m. yesterday, arriving in Baltimore about 20 minutes past his predicted arrival at noon.
"I have had three months on the water and off work," he said. "I feel lucky and a little sad now at the end, but I have had a great time. I have learned so much."