Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Safety Patrol

So I embark herein on a somber post, one I've been ambivalent about: what can go wrong on the water.

Nothing terrible's happened on any trip I've been on, but a number of local headlines have brought the subject up. Recent back in July, at least.

For the good and the bad, all you have to do is subscribe to the US Coast Guard Twitter feeds. For example, this one from mid-March, near the Tappan Zee Bridge. The water was still very cold, and anyone unprepared was not going to fare well.

More recently, a paddleboarder disappeared off the coast of New York. Although it's worth pointing out that,  in some cases, people are found.

Even non-kayaking events give one pause. Sometimes planes crash on the Hudson. They don't always end this well. Recently a WW2 fighter-bomber crashed while preparing for showing off Memorial Day weekend.

So what's a paddler to do? When these events cluster together, it's hard not to think that this is a dangerous sport, and one should be careful at all times. Flat water, perfect weather, always file a float plan, never far from shore.

But, that's kinda boring.

It's easy to look at most of these stories and observe, "there were inexperienced, or poorly equipped, or poorly trained people who had no business being in those conditions at that time." Then you read something like this.

A trained and registered guide, with two clients, caught off guard by a strongly-winded storm, capsized in cold water, and two of three dead.

There's probably more local knowledge that I can't glean over the internet. The point is, it's not always the misguided idiots on a lark who suffer catastrophe.

It'd be too easy to wrap up with the familiar caveats: always check the weather, always go out in a capable group, have multiple means of summoning assistance. A proper trip, even a simple one, involves contingency plans that mimic disaster recovery plans; the most audacious expeditions have redundancy approaching the Apollo program in depth.

It can happen anytime. A medical emergency, a badly placed log that hits your head when you capsize while reaching for some snacks in your day hatch. Or maybe you just forgot that one thing, that one step, that makes a difference.

It's pointless to live in fear; it is the human condition. We can only take steps to address it.


You learn a stroke. Then you learn another stroke. Then another, and another, whatever order they come: propulsive strokes, turning strokes, bracing strokes. Along the way you learn how to wet exit, how to be rescued, how to rescue, how to self-rescue.

You go on trips. Short trips, long trips, so-long-you-thought-you'd-die trips, trips where maybe you did almost die or were at least at risk of severe inconvenience. You go with others, you go on your own. You see other people doing other strokes, or doing neat things in their boat, and you try to copy them and figure out what they're doing..

Then one day someone says, "can you teach me that?" And you kinda show them what to do. Then you take a class on how to teach, and you relearn all of your strokes because you don't want a bunch of people out there paddling as bad as you've been paddling. You learn how to introduce a stroke, demonstrate it, explain its purpose and block out time for students to practice. At that point, you're an instructor.

That is, until you see really good instruction in action.

I was fortunate to work with some excellent instructors at the Hudson Valley Paddle Symposium in late July. Organized by Matt Kane at PrimePaddlesports, with John Carmody of Sea Cliff Kayakers and Carl Ladd from Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, along with other coaches I saw some very zen, very effective instruction.

Some coaches will say, they don't teach strokes. They do, but not overtly. They just go on a journey and observe. Oh my, how they observe. I had someone ask me one time if I was holding my right knee too tight against the braces, and I was. They make a mental list of what everyone's doing and give everyone individualized advice.

Then they find an area suitable for practice. Talk about what the boat is doing. Give students a simple exercise and query them on the outcome. Pedagogically, if you give someone an outcome and steps to reproduce it, they'll get anxious if they don't get the desired result. Even worse if they get it right they'll lock in that behavior: "this is what to do, always". If you give them steps, and ask them what happened, they learn for themselves. They put together what works and what doesn't, and you can give them variants; try a little more of this or a little less of that.

And of course, always, both sides, forwards and backwards.

Least said is best.

In the course of the symposium one pairing I had was with a woman who had a lot of casual recreational boat experience, and was in a sea kayak for the first time. After nearly a full day's session, she was still having trouble controlling the boat. It was hot, and she was clearly growing frustrated.

I asked her to watch me and tell me what I was doing wrong. I did everything that she was doing and got the same results she did.

"Look towards me," she said. This got me putting the boat on edge. "With your whole body!"

"Sit up straight.". OK, now I was in a stronger position, with more rotation.

"Extend your arms!" That got me more catch. By now I was edging the boat, paddling strongly, and grabbing as much water as I could. I was achieving the desired outcome.

"See," I said, "you know what to do. Everything you just said, do it."

She did, and was turning on the move and having fun playing with changing directions.

Getting students to own their knowledge is my latest challenge in teaching. I can show strokes, and I can critique strokes, but getting people to understand, in their own brains, what's working and what isn't, that's what I want to be able to do.

After all, the best instructors do.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A House of Surf and Fog

Over Memorial Day Weekend - nearly a month ago - I managed to do some camping out at Floyd Bennet Field. You may recall I camped out here with some friends last fall, and was back with most of them again. The difference was, we base-camped instead of kayak camping. We drove our cars and boats out, but only kept the one camp, rather than packing it all in for Staten Island.

Partly this was practical. I was organizing an event at the nearby Sebago Canoe Club that Saturday, so packing up to go and come back was going to eat up time I'd spend enjoying the area. The area, of course was Jamaica Bay. I'll write about the event itself later; here's what we did on our big paddle day.

We all wanted to try some surf, and there's brilliant surf at Rockaway and Breezy Points, where the open ocean first touches New York City. To get there we'd have to paddle about three or four miles, and as it happened we were a bit lazy in the morning, and so paddled against some tide on the way out.
Preparing to depart.

Passing along the old airfield.

Striking a pose.

After paddling out past the bay bridge that connects the Rockaways to Brooklyn, we made a brief stop for lunch on a beach before heading out to Rockaway Point. Breezy was a bit further, and we were already seeing nice wind waves pushed by an easterly breeze.

Testing the waters.

Trying to get a speedy start.

It took us a while to sort the waves. Primarily wind-blown, tide on current, they struck the beach at a very shallow angle. The result was, we had to paddle out pretty far just to catch them, and rather than surf evenly in to the beach, we'd just find ourselves on an elongated taper, coming off with a low brace and repositioning to head back out.


Keeping position.

Bad form!

Most of the waves were like this

After a while, we were tired, and the waves were getting less pronounced as the tide rose.  We took a few more runs and decided to head in.

Here is where the trip got interesting. We could make out a thick hazing drifting in from the west, and closer and faster, we could make out a low fog drifting northwards from the sea over the Rockaways. it looked more like smoke from two forest fires, but was fog, possibly an inversion layer.

In a matter of minutes we could tell that the entire outlet was about to be enshrouded in fog - and we had about a mile to cross at the bay and a mile to the bridge, before heading in to Jamaica Bay proper. We'd seen a large barge and some party vessels about. We decided to cross the bay earlier than planned, at about its widest point.

This turned out to be a wise course of action. As we crossed, we had to wait and radio our intentions to two party boats out of Sheepshead Bay, and by the time we were all the way across, the fog had dropped visibility to under a mile. We couldn't see the bridge, nor the far shore, but both were maybe a twenty minute paddle away.

We crossed one last marina mouth at its narrowest point, having seen a number of pleasure boats scurry in (and out, oddly). We were soon under the bridge, and handrailing close to the shore, until we could make out the old hangar and radomes.

It was an odd paddle, an eerie one in a way. The fog happened so fast, and was so thick. I've been in fog before but it's usually much more gradual, and a phenomenon of cool weather. We'd been in the low 80s F, wearing jackets only because of the breeze. It was muggy as we paddled back, and what photos I've got here of the fog are from when it was lightening. It was thick as soup before!

A good one for the Cowgirl's final send-off, should it occur.

The fog was a harbinger of bad weather to come; we ultimately called out weekend short and went out for dinner at a lobster shack on the way home. Jamaica Bay is lovely, and I hope to paddle there again, under more fair weather conditions.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Maine Again

There I was, watching the surf road in towards me as I peeked out from behind a little rock. I to the first wave well, but the second one caught my starboard bow and I was pushed into the cliff and capsized on a shelf, unable to roll up . . .

Or, There I was, bobbing up and down in the surf trying to catch some admittedly not-great waves, getting some speed, getting a little cocked by the wind, and suddenly I'm sideways to two feet of water column crashing over my boat, bracing, then getting cocked again and dropping a stern rudder to keep it straight. . .

Or maybe, I taught the class of new-to-sea kayakers how to launch into surf - pointing perpendicular, getting some speed, not getting between their boat and the shore if the came out prematurely. Then I launched them, one by one, all successfully, including the fellow who was nervous because his spraydeck did not fit well and all his previous surf experience was, in his words, "disastrous." The lead instructor later told me I managed a Four Star level launch.

They say, lead with your strengths, but those are never the good stories.

I was in Maine again, in the Georgetown / Five Islands area, for less time that I'd planned for. I was going to be up there Wednesday through Friday but day job responsibilities meant that I only got two of those days, rushing home Wednesday evening to hop in the car, completely pre-packed, and make the drive to Maine by midnight (some detouring made it more like 1 AM). Five hours of sleep later, I was meeting the crew, mostly paddlers from the New Jersey and Hudson Valley area, whose experience was primarily lakes and the calmer portions of the Hudson River.

John Carmody and Matt Kane were teaching the course. What the other students described sounded similar to my first time up there: some work in eddies north of camp, and then some surf, and then some rock-hopping. They were all very excited about the eddy work. The area around Knubble Bay is rife with narrow tributaries all keeping into Sheepscot Bay and thence to sea, with some tideraces as well as strong eddy lines.

My role was as a sort of flywheel; I learned and reinforced some of what I'd learned in previous trips to the area, but also got the chance to instruct and lead in an environment with features that are not easily found in New York City.

For the surf session we drove out to Reid Park and observed the shore from an elevated area, talking about different water features. As we prepared to unload boats and kit out, one of the instructors approached me and asked, "you're OK with coaching a surf launch here, right?"

Well what am I gonna say? Yes! And then I'm thinking, I better get down to look more closely at that beach. 

Not to worry, it was perfectly fine. The wave period that day was about 8 seconds farther out, and the beach was such that it had a gradual slope resulting in 1-2 foot waves that petered out over about 10 yards at the break. So I coached them. The only two things I would have done differently were to launch one at a time (I'd tried two, and it was just hard to keep track of) and also, setting them further into the surf. I ended up having to drag four or five boats a full boat-length to get them floating. But the students were great.

Maintaining Position. Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

Then, I got to be a student. We went to a spot where an inlet was draining in to the ocean, and there was a gentle yet scary-looking bit of surf that students could paddle through to get to sheltered water, and an even scarier-looking tiderace that I was encouraged to surf through. John caught a great wave and surfed it through, letting it cock the back of his boat to come right around into the sheltered water. Matt went in and out of the rough stuff several times to shepherd each of his charges.

I sidled up to the rough stuff, paddling backwards to keep position, just looking. Where was the line? Where was the big rock to watch out for? I spotted both and then BAM! a big wave caught me and suddenly I was ruddering my way in, and God help me my little 15' Gemini started to pearl - the entire front deck was underwater! I leaned back and the wave passed under me and I quickly got in to the sheltered spot.

Ridin' the wave once more.  Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

There was plenty more. We practiced controlled landings, paddling backwards into incoming surf, paddling forwards into incoming surf in order the land backwards, carving turns to come off waves, back-paddling in order to give up a wave. I got a little more coaching in too, advising one participant to no lean back when he was trying to power forward and over a wave. He noticed the difference and brought that up as a learning point with our group review.

End of a Bongo Slide. Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

I really like surf. I mean to do more locally this summer.


Can't stop . . .can't stop. . .can't stop, stop, the rock . . .or the waves.

On our final day we drove out to Five Islands and put in near the mooring yard there. Within less than half a mile we had two sizable rock islands to paddle around, with features changing as the tide ran out.

We took the group out and practiced running along the shore, T and I ahead of the group. John encouraged me to back into a little nook not much wider than my kayak. It was sheltered from the incoming current, and somehow there was water that would flow around and back out. I was able to back in, and then get pushed out, eventually surfing my way back out.

A little further up, T and I paddled through and back a narrow race where the water deflected around a rock, and then were given the task to guide the newer students through it. We did, and everyone came through OK, slicing up over some sizable waves and away from the cliff face.

Working out the route with T.

Next, we found a large horseshoe route around a large rock. Here, the incoming ocean swells would hit one end of the passage and then break over the rock. What this meant was, it was harder to enter the first end, but easier on the second, because the energy of the wave was dissipated. The trick was to enter the far end, line up perpendicular to the incoming waves, and paddle out.

I managed this on my first try, and then the group went through one at a time. John pointed out there was a chill spot of water behind the rock. The water level moved up and down but otherwise there was not lateral movement.

On my second go, I made a critical mistake. I got in to the relaxed water and then watched the horizon for a smaller wave set. I saw things flatten out and started to nose out, going a little wider to my left to avoid a rock I knew would be to my right. This put me in a bad position though, as a wave came in and caught me while I was trying to turn into it. The wave caught me boat and pushed me into out little inlet.

No problem, I thought, I handled that well, and started to turn to again. But now, here came a second, larger wave, at a pretty good speed. She caught the front quarter of my boat and as I braced into the wave, I was pushed against the rock face to my left, and capsized. I felt my helmet hit rock. I tried to roll up, but I was on a sloped ledge, no longer with water supporting me. It was time to give up.

Matt raced in and we quickly did a swimmer contact tow to get me and my boat out. I held on the his boat and mine, paddled under my arm, and he pulled me out of the zone, and then we did a rescue.

I'm sure it looked dramatic, but throughout the whole ordeal I felt fine. At the point of capsize I was a little worried about popping my sprayskirt while getting pounded by surf, but before and after I felt like it was fun. I pushed myself. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. I did everything I've been trained for to be rescued in a dynamic environment. I was properly protected both for water temperature and head trauma. This is the sport. This is the sea.

Anyhoo, we continue on a bit. As a group we practiced getting our noses and tales up close to the rock, finding chill spots of water, paddling backwards to keep position. We had a fair amount of eddy current moving us clockwise around the island, and I had to reset a couple of times to find the good stuff. Here's what it looked like, more or less, with my PowerShot carefully balanced on deck.

Kiss the Rock.

After that, we moseyed on home, back to where we put in, at a considerably lower water level. We climbed out and dragged our boats, even the glass ones, over seaweed.

And with that we were done. We unkitted, packed the boats, and a few changed clothes. We made our farewells after final debriefing with the coaches, and then excellent lobster rolls at the local country store (and not for nothing, I found cans of Moxie soda! So rare and divine, and aptly named for my activities there).

I love Maine, and expect to go there again. I will need new shores to develop skills against, but these now-familiar waters provide plenty of development opportunities. Plus it's just beautiful.

Many thanks to Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports for inviting me, and John Carmody for some long-term coaching and development in these waters.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Another Rainy Day in New York City

It’s another rainy day, in New York City. 
Softly sweet, so silently it falls, 
As crosstown traffic crawls.

So begins a song by the band Chicago, one of my favorite ’70 era rock-horn fusion ensembles. The song is exactly what we had: an overcast, dreary day, with patches of fog now and then.

What a perfect day for a circumnavigation of Manhattan !

We had a client flying in on holiday, an experienced sea kayaker from Jersey (the channel island, not the US state immediately across the river). This tiny island, roughly the same circumference as Manhattan, doubles in size at the low point of a spring tide, owing to the dramatic tidal heights. Surf, rock-hopping, and expeditions to various points offshore, Jersey has quite a bit to offer the intrepid sea kayaker, so it was very flattering to have someone with that in their background claim Manhattan as a location on their paddling goal punchlist.

One thing we do have, that Jersey has much less of: boat traffic. More about that later.

Now, this Cowgirl was as prepared as she ever is, perhaps more so owing to the early season, for such a trip, but forgot one key piece of equipment: her camera. Therefore, this post will rely on painting pictures with words. Bear with me.

We’d scheduled the trip for May 1 earlier in the spring, coinciding with JR’s vacation. With various plans in place, this past Sunday was the only day he could paddle. Unfortunately, tides and time wait for no one, and so the timing was not optimal for a daytime trip, and we both had plans for the following Monday. The best I could manage was to leave Pier 40 at about 1100, and be done by 2100, paddling against current a fair portion of the way, and including a significant layover. Our other options were to start at 0500, or to start later in the afternoon and proceed clockwise, and down the East River after dark – something I wasn’t willing to hazard with just two paddlers, at the end of a trip, cold and dark. We settled on the 1100 start and, following some onshore traffic delays, were underway by 1130.

Weather is also not known to bend to the will of man. In this case, I watched rather obsessively through the preceding week and kept fingers crossed that a series of storm systems would move slowly and leave us a fair if cloudy day. Instead, they sped up, and after a rather nice Saturday, Sunday was a navy-gray day of low clouds, higher clouds, and more clouds up above. In the morning and for a while in the evening there was some fog limiting visibility to about five miles, less in the evening. Fortunately the wind prediction was low, and the rainfall for the day was predicted to b half and inch, so it was quite bearable in our drysuits. In many ways, the dank and dreary day brought out more color in the spring foliage, and in the evening gave a surrealist glow to the lights on ships and on land alike.

We moved quickly down the Hudson River to the Battery, floating near Pier A while we assessed the traffic situation – Statute ferries coming in and leaving, a water taxi that had just landed – and while we waited a Coast Guard RIB boat came over, close over for a crewman to talk to us, even after I lifted my radio.

“If visibility drops under a mile, you’ll need to get off the water.”

I looked around. I could still make out the Verrazano Bridge in the distance, about five miles away.


“You have a radio?”

I lifted my radio, again.

“Sure thing”.

The RIB motored off, and we later saw it guarding the Staten Island ferry as it departed Whitehall for St. George.

We paddled around the Battery to the East River, which by this point was beginning to flood to the north. Traffic was remarkably clear, and we started to line up to make the short ferry across the East River.

Suddenly, as is often the case, traffic appeared. A NY Waterway boat was coming down the river for a little dock at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Further up, we could make a party boat coming in to land, presumably at the South Street Seaport. A water taxi came across the Buttermilk Channel for the dock we were near, and a Zephyr came ‘round Battery. Suddenly we were where everyone wanted to be, and to get where we wanted to go we’d have to avoid them.

We stayed in place and let the larger vessels finish what they were up to, then passed along and across. New York City traffic, I tells ya.

After passing all that traffic and heading north up the East River, traffic was remarkably light, nearly-non-existent. We saw perhaps two or three more water taxis, and only one barge, which passed us to the left and headed up the channel between Manhattan and Roosevelt islands. After a while, JR remarked on how peaceful it was, a quiet bizarrely juxtaposed against the city immediately around us. We were alone, on the water, with eight or nine million people within a few miles reach on land.

Hell Gate
We approached Hell Gate, which by this point was about an hour and a half into its flood cycle. While Hell Gate can get upwards of five knots speed, we were on a neap tide and I estimated the speed was still under two knots. We sheltered in an eddy near Blackwell Light, and after a quick check for traffic we ferried over to Mill Rock and then paddled up to Little Hell Gate park, a little marshy nook on the western side of Randalls Island. It’s all the remains of the old passage between Randalls Island and Wards Island, which are now connected by landfill on the eastern side.

Normally, I paddled through a winding stream that spirals to the middle of the park, landing at a dirt bank that leads up to a bridge where we can egress to the rest of Randalls Island. At this point in the tidal cycle though, the water was so low it was impassable, and we landed instead on a pocket beach near the entrance of the waterway.

Two cats scampered by on the seawall, one violently chasing the other. They disappeared behind a large rock, and we her some hissing. We joked that perhaps they had escaped from the nearby psychiatric hospital, which we could see along with the high fence around it. One of the cats’ heads popped up from behind the rock and gave us a quizzical look, as if the chase had been interrupted by the realization that, “that’s not usually there”, us strangely-garbed people with our long, narrow boats.

At this point in the tidal cycle, the Harlem was flooding south at nearly two knots. We decided to wait it out rather than paddle against it, and spent nearly two hours at Randalls. In that time, the water level rose and we moved our boats twice. We finally left when we were running out of land, and also to get moving and generate some body heat. The cold and dreary weather had started to chill us, so paddling against a knot and a half was more inviting.

Heading up the Harlem was uneventful. While I saw one vessel leaving it while we were are Randalls, we passed no moving vessels on it: no Circle Line boats, no NYPD boats, no pleasure boats, kayaks, no rowing shells. We had the entire river to ourselves.

After paddling against current to Peter Sharp Boathouse, we stopped for a short break, staying in our boats. By now we were in near-pure parkland, the industrial storage of the Bronx and the Harlem River Drive in Manhattan giving way to a rocky railroad path and High Bridge Park. We continued on, and I pointed out the cuts where Harlem used to not flow, as well as Marble Hill, the neighborhood in the Bronx that is technically, politically, part of Manhattan to this day. In short order, we were past the Columbia “C”, under the Henry Hudson Bridge, and then out onto the Hudson, across from the majestic Palisades cliffs.

The entire area was shrouded in fog. We could see the cliffs, and in the distance the George Washington Bridge nearly two miles away. But there was no wind, and just two lit barges on the river. We were on the watery moors of Inwood, as I like to style it.

By the time we got to the bridge, a wide plain of fog was before us, and we were about an hour for sunset, so we fixed lights to our vessels and watched traffic ahead. Mostly, barges were tied up or tying up. By the time we were to the mooring yard north of the 79th Street Boat Basin, it was hard to tell if it was nighttime or just extremely overcast sundown. On the radio I heard a captain complain about something – I’m not sure what, having missed part of the conversation – and shortly after saw a tug hurriedly tying up and turning to face the current.

By Pier 96, it was dark, but fortunately the fog had subsided; I could make out first responder lights on the road atop the cliffs in New Jersey. Building in Manhattan took on a surrealist glow though, their lights refracted through the moisture into big glowing balls of light. We could make out water taxis hurriedly making the ferry crossing. My radio, still on, came to life with renewed chatter.

The Classic Harbor Line Manhattan was heading north. Various barges were rounding Battery, and some were heading to sea. Circle Line Queens was moving from Pier 76 to Pier 84.

Wait, what? We were just north of the Intrepid, which is essentially Pier 84.

We stayed in place. I radioed the captain that we would hold while he came in. Right about the time I was starting to lose patience, I saw her lights, little green and white and red dots, emerge from the darkness, and she started to turn.

“Circle Line, Circle Line, this is Kayak Two. Captain, we’re going to swing wide around you and pass astern.”

“OK. Thanks,” was the response.

We did so, and then waited for a water taxi to pull in, and then entered the final leg of our journey. Our only other traffic was the Manhattan, announcing her return to Chelsea Piers right as we were about to pass. I radioed that we’d hold but the captain politely said, “no, go ahead.” So we sprinted forward as she turned to and pulled in right behind us.

By this point I realized JR had been operating not just with ordinary paddle fatigue, but also jet lag. Having just left the UK the day before, for him the hour must have felt more like two or three in the morning. I commended him for being as alert and capable as he was. At 26.4 miles on the GPS and eight hours of paddling time, we’d put in a lot of time and more-than-typical effort on this circumnavigation – under wet and gray conditions, no less.

We pulled in to Pier 40 around 21300, pulled off the water and rinsed boats and kit. We rinsed our drysuits by leaving them on and walking in to the shower. After packing everything up, we made our farewells, and that was that.

Another circumnavigation completed. It won’t be the last for this season, but it will certainly take place as one of the more interesting ones.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Execution Rocks

Last weekend I fulfilled a goal I've had for more than a couple years now: paddling to Execution Rocks.

Execution Rocks is a lighthouse, presently unmanned, in the western end of Long Island Sound; it marks marks a set of reefs midway between New Rochelle and Sands Point in Long Island. Supposedly, American colonial rebels were shackled to the rocks at low tide by the British, to commend their spirit to the sky at high tide for crimes of treason. I'm not entirely clear on whether this is true, but it makes for a good story as to how the rocks obtained their name.

The best part of the trip for me was that I got to paddle with a bunch of friends. The current Mister Cowgirl, and Kayak Dov, and my good friends the Two Geeks. All but the first of us last paddled together nearly a year ago, on our trip to the Norwalk Islands. It was good to be reunited ! 

-- -- -- 
The Two Geeks are fortunate enough to live in the area; the rest of us cartopped to Larchmont, and found Horseshoe Harbor much as we'd left it fifty weeks ago: mostly empty, with a great view of the sound. The air temp was predicted to be high (in the seventies, and sunny), but the water was still very cold, under fifty. 

This is the paddler's dilemma in this season. Three of us opted for drysuits, one a wetsuit and paddling jacket, and one with nary more than a rash guard.

In relatively short order we unpacked, parked cars, and got kitted out. In short order, we were out - and how! Once assembled on the water we fairly bolted out to the Rocks.

Jean in her Tiderace.

Mister Cowgirl and Alex.

Approaching the Rocks.

The trip out was mostly uneventful. The day was pretty, it was 2.35 miles, and as a group of mutual friends, we caught up socially (and some made new friends). Given our various interests, this was more of a "Five Geeks" trip.

In the distance we could make out the regular shipping channel, as barge after barge made its way out from New York City. As we approached, we caught a little motor wake on one of the reefs, and surfed the final couple hundred yards in.

Alex approaching the Rocks.

The Rocks.

The Light.

We'd had such an easy time, and were feeling good, so the Two Geeks suggested an additional destination where we could hop out and nosh. We paddled on to Sands Point, just another couple of miles, down along the eastern edge to where we could see . . .a castle looming over the beach !

Paddling to the channel.


A barge.

I have to admit to being something of a boatspotter, and it was fun to watch the barges. But Mister Cowgirl, being a keen sailor as well as a paddler, spotted a vessel embarking out on the water. Turns out the skipper had built her himself, using these plans. Some more photos here.

We paddled past the point and along the beach. With little wind, the water was flat, right up to the beach. A little cold for wading though.

Children Splashing.

We disembarked, collected our valuables, and hiked up the hill to the "castle": an old financial baron estate (Gould, Morgan, etc) overlooking the bay.

The Garden.

We walked about and found restrooms, then a spot for lunch. As nice as it was, off the water we were overdressed, and opened our drysuits to vent.

The Home.

The Bay and Sound.

The "Castle".

It was posh alright. The servants' quarters were larger than any house I've ever lived in - including a multi-family home cut into apartments.

There was a bee colony kept in place. Do not disturb!

Bees !

In short order, we wound our way back down the hill and lined into our kayaks. I should mention that on this trip the Cowgirl paddled her old Argonaut and found it wasn't as bad as she might have remembered. Sure, the high volume boat is a bit much for her lithe frame, but it responded well, more importantly, actually fit a new Reed spraydeck that doesn't want to wrap itself around the Gemini.

Back at Horseshoe Cove.

Once back, we fetched cars and loaded up. Kayak Dov drove on home (a teacher, and it was a school night) while the rest of us retired to a diner, some still wearing drysuits, and enjoyed a fine dinner and wine, before driving to our respective homes.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

S.I. Saw the Light(houses)

Last weekend I made it out to the lower harbor again, joined by my good friend MM and some mates she invited along from her New Jersy club. All were experienced sea paddlers. Weather was very gentle, with low winds and only partly cloudy. It was a bit chilly, but warmed quickly.

Our goal was to paddle to at least one lighthouse, and possibly a second one. West Bank Light sits about four miles off Staten Island, two miles south of Swinburne Island, which is where I went to see seals earlier this month. Another two miles further is Romer Shoal Light, which is actually closer to Sandy Hook than to Staten Island. Both mark very shallow waters, warning big ships to stay away and serving as markers for smaller vessels.

As it happens, one of our party has a son who knows the owner of Romer Shoal Light, and through such short degrees of separation we were able to get permission to land there. You know, just in case.

In short order, we rendezvoused at the north end of Roosevelt Boardwalk, portaged and kitted our boats, and set out for our destinations.

Setting out past Hoffman Island.

The Verrazano behind us, Manhattan in the distance.

The water was a bit chilly when we left, but as we paddled we got warmer, and the water seemed nothing against our skin.

We pulled past Swinburne, watched a couple of container ships drive through the Ambrose Channel, and took stock of the lower harbor.

We were definitely on open water.

West Bank Light.

The lower harbor is one of the few places in NYC where a New York paddler gets a sense of the open ocean. The rivers around Manhattan are a tidal estuary, to be sure, but there are plenty of landmarks and the shore is never more than half a mile away. Even in the upper harbor, trafficked as it is, there's still a sense of being in relatively sheltered water. It's just a large bowl, bounded by Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Staten Island.

The lower harbor is still sheltered but immensely broad. The exit to the sea is between Sandy Hook and Breezy Point in the Rockaways - five miles as the crow flies.

Beyond that is the open sea.

Closer to the Light(house).

Far Out.

Looking up.

We marveled at West Bank Light. Unmanned, it's still an impressive presence. There is something appealing about lighthouses, in their remoteness and resilience, something that inspires admiration in all mariners.

This part of the journey had only taken an hour, and we were all feeling nice and warmed up. The flat conditions - Sea State 1, technically but barely - invited us to journey on.

Onward to Romer Shoal.

Take a Break.

Make Adjustments.

Romer Shoal Light has a curious history. Originally the lighthouse was ashore and used for testing new methods of lighting. One of its keepers disappeared at sea when he set out for shore, leaving his assistant in charge until his body was found. At various points the light was operated by the US Navy, the Coast Guard, and eventually automated.

Now it's owned by a Staten Island businessman.

Romer Light, Worse for Wear.

At this point we'd been paddling for about an hour and a half and had at least two hours paddling to get back, not to mention breaking for lunch. One of our number floated the idea of landing, and I took that as a nudge to work on my "manage a group landing on rocks skills", notably, have the person in a plastic boat land first.

That would be me.

I scoped out various places to land. The tide surged about one to two feet in a cycle, not breaking in our protected cove, but adding some vertical challenge. It was also near low tide so we had slimy, slippery rocks, and none that really offered a flat surface.

I found a spot, popped my skirt, then pulled myself out quickly before grabbing my boat and, with a little finesse, lifting it up on the rocks.

I then helped MM, and brought her boat up, and with two ashore we were able to help the rest out quickly.

Shore Landing. Not shipwrecked!

Shore Party - for Lunch!

We took our lunch and watched a dredging tug come in from sea. We'd spotted hear earlier, a vessel with four distinctive stacks on the corners, to make her a platform in shallow-enough water. Done with her work, she was heading in. From our vantage, we could take in the sea, Coney Island, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook with equal east.

Interlopers on the way back.

We launched in reverse order of exit and paddled back towards Staten Island. The tide was slack and therefore not in our favor as had been the case on the way out, so the trip took a little longer.

On the way back we saw a different sort of voyageur.

Another way to view the seas.

I should mention too that we saw seals, but not as many as before because we were not near their winter home. They showed up late - L and R missed them, but MM and I spotted them and lagged behind trying to spot more - so long in fact that eventually L and R stopped and waited for us, took pictures of us, and only later noticed the seal in frame! The photos have been posted on the New York Kayak Company Facebook page.


Once back, we un-kitted and put our boats back on cars, then drove to a German bierhaus and had smoked meats, potatoes, and beer. It was grand.

Always a lovely day at sea to make new friends and enjoy new views. I hope to make it out here more frequently once the weather is warm.