Saturday, April 18, 2015

Rollin' on the River

In case you missed it, I took a short at rolling on both sides last week.

The water is still a little chilly - I wouldn't make a practice day of it!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter at the Brothers

For Fire Island to Sandy Hook . . .Winds 18 to 20 miles per hour from the South-Southwest, gusting to 30. A small craft advisory will be in effect from Eleven AM till late this evening.

I was listening to the synoptic on Easter Sunday, undecided if I wanted good news or bad news. It was a beautiful day, predicted to get cloudy and windy in the afternoon.

My plan was to paddle out to the Brothers, a pair of small islands just north of Hell Gate, west of Rikers Island and northeast of Randalls Island.

What I figured was, the hardest parts would be the transit from the Bronx Kill to the Brothers and back, and the last mile or so on the Harlem and Hudson. The westerly winds we get here have a lot of fetch on the Hudson, and at the entrance to the Harlem the heights on both sides form a giant wind tunnel reaching back to the Broadway Bridge.

I dressed for warmth - and second-guessed myself the first hour or so as I paddled in light wind and brilliant sunshine. I debated stopping ad taking off my wool sweater, but the winds started to pick up and with the breeze, I was no longer heating up.

Paddling down the Harlem was uneventful. An NYPD boat passed me twice, once up and once down, and a Classic Harbor and later a Circle Line boat passed by. I radioed the Circle Line - our courses were such that right after we saw each other, a bridge tower obscured us from each other's vision and I could tell he slowed down to avoid me. I let him know I was well out of the way.

These early spring paddles are always tough. For one thing. I haven't been out this long, and such a steady pace, in months, and the conditions are relatively rough. Spring roars in on the back of stiff breezes, and the water is still cold enough that you don't want to spend any time in it.

In time, I came to the NYPD marina at Randalls Island, took a left into the Bronx Kill, and made some observations.

First of all, at Battery High +2 hours, the current in the kill was flowing west - that is, against me. Not super strong, but useful to know for future trip planning. I took some photos but they did not come out well. There's a little baby overfall that indicates quite clearly the direction of flow. It was clearly not in my favor.

I paddled against it until I was through the kill, and took in the water. I love this view: The upper East River opens up in a way completely different than Manhattan waters short of the harbor. Once nosed out to the edge of the channel, you can see the towers of Manhattan, factories in the Bronx, offices in Queens, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and Laguardia Airport, all at once. If you wanted to paint a picture of a city, this would be everything.

The Brother Islands are storied in New York City History. Both are now bird sanctuaries controlled by NYC Parks, and landing at either is forbidden. I've paddled this way before, in a group and in warmer times, when I was less experienced. It's a fun trip.

I paddled out towards the channel between the Brothers, and once over, took a peek at South Brother. This is the "lesser" of the two, smaller and never used as much by humans - a former owner of the Yankees built a summer home there over a century ago, but it burned down. Decades later, some other industrialist bought it but never made much of it, and it came under NYC control nearly a decade ago.

South Brother Island.

I always paddle past South Brother Island but never really take time to look at it. It's only a few acres, not much more than the plot of land my grandparents retired on in the country. It's more bucolis - a couple of big spindly trees, some marsh, a pebbly beach. I saw some gulls perched on rocks, getting ready to launch much as the planes at Laguardia were: facing into the wind.

Approaching North Brother Island.

I started paddling over to North Brother. North Brother Island is, in my opinion, the island with the most tragic history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it served as a quarantine hospital, ad in fact is where Typhoid Mary was taken, not once but twice, the second time after she violated the conditions of her release. She was kept there until she died. North Brother is also where the General Slocum ran aground, the most deadly civilian maritime disaster until the Titanic sank just a few years later - hundreds of mostly women and children drowned or were consumed by flames and smoke as the Slocum, on fire, barreled through Hell Gate full of German immigrants out for a picnic. It's said the disaster on the Slocum so devastated the community that many relocated from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side, which kinda explains a decent German BierHalle in the area.

The Old Ferry Dock at North Brother Island.

North Brother had extensive plant facilities: power, water, electric. They even had their own crematorium. By the 1960s, the facility was used to dry out and treat indigent drug addicts, and eventually the facility was shut down, probably due to the massive near-bankruptcy the city experienced in the early 1970s.

As I paddled, I noticed an NYPD boat slowing and tailing me. There was no attempt to hail, and even after I pointed at my radio and tried calling, there was not response. I paddled over. Turns out they only listened to channel 17, not 16 as the Coast Guard do, or 13, which is what I rely on to hear bridge-to-bridge.

I told them my plans and they advised me not to land. Landing was not in my plans. I was just paddling around the island taking photos. I continued on, working my way clockwise.

A Glimpse of the Old Hospital.

I was in a bit of a hurry though. I was getting hungry and wanted to land for lunch, and also, was running a bit behind schedule. I was worried about missing the tide, and also aware that the longer I was out, the more likely I'd run into bad weather.

My original plan was to paddle down to Little Hell Gate park, where there is a nice area to get out and eat, but that would have taken me a mile out of my way roundtrip, against current. I considered going through Hell Gate but decided no on my own, with the gusts expected.

This was wise, because crossing the half mile or so back from the Brothers into the Kill was pretty challenging. I took a transit based on buildings in the background, but was quickly blown off a couple hundred yards by wind abeam. I figured I'd just cross the channel - a shipping channel mind you - and make up the distance once across, and that plan mostly worked, but it was a lot of distance to make up, against a steady headwind that gusted into something stiff from time to time.

I figured I'd find a place for lunch in the kill. I did, but after one clumsy bit of exploration. The first rock I tried to climb out on turned out to not be entirely fastened to the earth, and I ker-plunked right into the water. I stood up, straddled my boat, and got back in, then looked for a better spot, eventually deciding on a sandy patch on the north edge of the kill, just before exiting into the Harlem.

The Harlem was like an express ride, lots of current in my favor. This was good, because even after resting for lunch, I was still pretty tuckered from that crossing. Also in my favor was that those gusts were now tail winds, and until I reached the first major bend in the river, I felt myself blown along a couple of times. So I paddled easy, and pretty soon found myself nearing Peter Sharp Boathouse and the final bend in the river.

Here was the final challenge, part one. What I figured would be the hardest part was certainly borne out. From about the Broadway Bridge, it's almost a straight shot to the Hudson, which means for any westerly wind, there's a barrel of air blasting at you. I've seen the water pebble before, and it wasn't this time, so I can say I've seen worse. I had the current with me and that helped, but it was still a slow and steady pace until I reached the railroad bridge - at which point I really had to crank it to get past the wind on current waves driving in from the Hudson.

Then came part two of this final challenge. Now on the Hudson, I had no protection from these southwesterly winds coming abeam and sometimes quartering angles. I have no shame in admitting I used my skeg, and kept away from the shore as best I could with the wind pushing me towards it. I've paddled in worse but this is in my top five, maybe top ten challenging conditions. It wasn't dangerous it was just hard: keep paddling, fight the wind, just another mile, and we're home.

And, bam, I was back at the boathouse. Exhausted for sure, but after a little break, I unpacked my boat and cleaned up.

Most of my layers were wet with sweat. I'd eaten all my vittles and finished my hot tea to warm up. As soon as I finished putting things away, the wind seemed to relax just a little and the clouds started to wander off, and I could see sun soaring over the west.

It was a beautiful day after all. It was just one I had to really work for.

Monday, March 30, 2015


The past couple of years I've managed to get away to Florida. Mostly this is to get away from the cold in New York, and to practice my other expensive hobby: scuba diving. I came down this weekend with a friend and, for the first time, paddled a proper sea kayak in Florida.

I've been staying at a small place in Key Largo. About a block away is a kayak shop that rents deck boats (sea kayaks). On the map above, we're about halfway down the lower right reverse "C" that runs along the highway. I rented a boat, once with a friend and once on my own, to paddle east a bit across Blackwater Sound, then south through the first channel into the mangroves and into Tarpon Bay.

Both days there were steady winds, in the 15-20 mph range. This created a lot of wind waves on the sound itself, which while fun to play in were more than a little work. Once in the mangrove channel however, we were sheltered a bit from the wind, and had to content only with passing motorboats  and the fishermen they carried.

What we weren't protected from were critters. My friend SS saw something, probably a manatee, that startled the bezeezus out of her. We later took a turn into some more narrow mangrove channels and saw some ginormous pelicans. Our biggest start came from a cormorant emerging from below the water, silhouetted against the bright open background like the Loch Ness Monster. We then took a look at the wind effect on Tarpon Basin and decided to turn around, catching some current back and saving our energy to fight the wind.

The next day, after she had left and one of my diving trips had been cancelled, I went out again, on my own. This time, rather than stay near the shore, I paddled out into the sound, taking wind and 1 foot waves abeam and practicing landmark navigation. At sea, without well defined landmarks, the shore blends together into a single depth of field - what looks like a long unbroken line may turn out to be a point or headland jutting out a mile or two in front of a more distant shore. Using my chart, compass, and starting point as references, I decided a course to take me to a point that lined up with the channel, and that worked out well. I took following seas into the channel.

This time, I took a different route than I had with SS, following the markers for bigger boats as far as I could. I considered going in to the next basin - Little Buttonwood - but the wind had picked up and I wasn't sure how much it would slow me on the return. I took a stab navigating back through the mangroves, but after about my third major turn, I was no longer sure I wasn't in a dead end, and I backed out and returned the way I came.

Back out on the sound, the wind was stronger than when I left it coming mostly from the NNW. I thought that might push me against the southern shore of the sound, so I opted to essentially ferry against the wind. I picked a radio tower in the distance a bit north of what I thought was my destination, and paddled towards it, keeping the wind at about a 30 degree angle to port. In this manner I found the wind slowly blew me towards the eastern shore as I paddled north. As I got closer I realized my destination was not quite as far up as I'd thought, and I paddled due east the last half mile or so.

After that, I practiced skills: braces, edging, rolling, hanging draws. I put on quite a show for the locals at waterfront bars to either side of the shop. The water here is much saltier than the Hudson. After that, I hopped out, talked shop with the local staff, and went on home to clean up for dinner.

I would love to come down here and paddle a proper journey at sea. Perhaps one day I will.

Brutal Winter

Holy cow, has it really been nearly two months since I blogged about kayaking?

But I've been paddling, I would say. I've been to pool programs, played polo.

I suppose I haven't felt like anything has been blog-worthy. If you want to keep up with Kayak Cowgirl, be sure to look her up on Facebook and Twitter.

After my last paddle on the Hudson, the ice overtook the river for about six weeks. New York City and the surrounding area were hammered with blow after blow of sub-freezing cold waves. The city was encased in ice, and ice flowed down the river from further north. The New York Times had a little video about a hardworking icebreaker farther north on the Hudson. Heck, even just getting to her day job, the Cowgirl found herself slipping downhill backwards on the iciest of days.

Looking North, Tubby Hook, Early March

All that started to clear up by the third week of March, but while the days got warmer and prettier, there was still a lot of wind out. And, by then, I'd been to enough pool programs to make some progress in skills that would have just been uncomfortable on the river.

For a while I did Kayak Polo. That was amazing, and if you want the full picture, look back at some earlier posts. Sadly, that came to a premature end the very day a fun tourney was organized. Enough people signed up ahead of time that everyone was organized into teams and we'd have a little playoff. Unfortunately, something happened to the physical plant of the pool building, and the season was cut short indefinitely.

After that, I'd go to Riverbank State Park, a program run by a collective of people from different clubs. Not far from where I live, Riverbank State Park is a large water treatment facility with a sports complex built on top of it - including an indoor pool. In exchange for offering the occasional lesson, your fried the Kayak Cowgirl got a sheltered space to work on her roll and certain rescue techniques. That less-consistent (well, less reliable) side has improved nicely.

So that's been the winter. Hopefully the work of it is over and, with Easter coming right up, the real start of spring will begin, and we'll be back to our regular scheduled programming of adventure and instruction and just plain how-do-you-do observations of paddling life in New York City.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Frosty February

I got out on the water today with my paddling friend Dov Neimand. Th air temperature was much warmer than yesterday, with much less wind. A storm is expected overnight, and so we decided to get in some time on the water.

Actually, it was that neither of us had been on the river for a while. While I've done some pool sessions, I still prefer proper sea kayak, out in the open.

First we had to contend with this.:

It looks worse than it was. The ice was mushy and melty. The day before saw temperatures below 20 F and stiff winds. Air temps today were above freezing, with little wind, and less cloud coverage than predicted.

Before that, I had another problem to solve. I couldn't assemble my paddle - a small amount of water had frozen in the ferrules.

I managed to pick it out with my knife - but I still couldn't press the button down to open the catch! Turns out, water was more even farther down, and around the spring. I poured some hot tea on it and let it sit, twice, before it finally melted. So, hot tea? Good for your gear, not just you.

All the same, small ice floes had collected in the marina area to the north of the boathouse, and were flowing past with the growing ebb tide. Dov had paddled across the river already from his put-in in Englewood. He switched to his Greenland paddle once he saw the ice.

I managed to launch, and we set about practicing. The marina has pulled up their slips for the winter, leaving a series of pilings that are great for practicing the finer points of turning on the move - and with the growing current we had different experiences paddling with it and against it. We certainly knocked boats against the pilings a few times, and one of us went in a rolled up - no mean feat with water temperatures of 35.6 F at the Battery.

By this point ice was clearing up, and we found buoys to run some figure eights with. We also practiced backwards, and talked shop a bit - plans for the season, paddling, and so on. 

We decided to paddle north, against near-max current, to Spuyten Duyvil. As we did, we saw more and more ice - a long trail out in the main channel was amusing at first, but as we approached the railroad bridge we saw larger floes, and at the bridge itself, I realized a lot of ice was coming out of the Harlem, and from farther north on the Hudson.  We realized we wouldn't make it much further, and turned around to go back to the boathouse.

Before we went in, I took the opportunity to take a couple of cold water rolls. Now, my goal was to do one in the river every month, but I didn't get to in January. While I paddled twice, Once I was alone and the other time, had dinner plans with my paddlemates. I was also real sick for a spell. Anyway. I did it - and boy howdy do you feel the water. I was layered enough to not feel it on my body, but my face, covered in a balaclava, with the hood of my drysuit on, carried a lot of water up. I took it off once up. Not sure I want refrigerant cooling my head once upright.

If you haven't read Dov's blog, you should. He does long distance expeditions that put my day trips to shame - he's paddled months at a time across the Mediterranean, facing weather, traffic, language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, authoritative border guards, baffled marina clerks, bureaucracy, and all the usual mishaps of the expedition sea kayaker. 


I went to my second session of kayak polo last night. I mentioned my first in an earlier post on pool sessions. I'd meant to go this morning instead, but when the added another "Saturday Social", I opted for it instead.

If you're interested in kayak , you can read about the NYKP on their site, and the game in general here. NYKP relies on Meetup now for scheduling, so don't be put off by stale dates on their site. It's a fun game, the NYKP people are amazing, and it's a great way to stay active in the winter seasons.

We started with some warmup drills. OG worked with me to improve my throw which, surprise, works better with torso rotation. The trick is that you end up rotating your boat as well, which is why polo players get good at one-handed ruddering - a skill I meant to develop this summer anyway.

Once we'd played pass-the-ball on a bit, we lined up and too turns shooting the goals. Each had a goalie, and a passer to collect and pass balls, and one by one we took our runs at the goals. I was much better at getting on target than last time. Now, if I could only do something about that pesky goalie.

The lead organizers had us try working a play. This was a good idea, because my experience with polo so far is that with these being pickup games, most people play with no tactics other than, "get the ball, block the ball". In the play, basically the ball started in the corner and the offense team would pass the ball, one player to the next, across the pool, to shoot from the opposite side. I's refreshing to know that tactics are a consideration - and not a total surprise that they are, considering some members have actually played competitively and won championships.

So we played. We switched up teams a bit, the took a halftime, then played some more. While I didn't score any points this time, I did play "chase" role to harass whoever has the ball. By the way, it's easy to foul in this game if you aren't careful. Player competing for a ball will clash their paddles but once a hand is on the ball, paddles can't touch it. A player with possession of the ball also can't have a paddle wielded lass than an arm's length of distance from their body. I learned this one in zealously trying to block passing options.

In between halves, people practiced their rolling skills. Most of the regulars worked on their hand rolls, which are a bit easier in polo boats than sea kayaks. I'm pleased to report I managed at least a couple of paddle rolls he side I need to improve on, but I also completely failed once and had to wet exit. What happened was, my paddle angle was in completely the wrong angle and  couldn't get it right. One trick, which tried but needs development, is o let the paddle float for a bit to let the blade align with the surface.

Well, I did a few more, including a couple in the improve-on side, and that more or less restored my confidence.

Afterwards, a few people went out to dinner, but the Cowgirl and her ride-sharemates were plumb exhausted, and we drove back to Manhattan and went home. I'm feeling it all this morning - some minor aches and creaks, but that beats the slothful loss of musculature I've been feeling in these cold winter weeks.

Till next time.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winter Paddling & Cold Water Paddling

In winter, the water is cold. Hence, most people conflate the two: when we talk about cold water paddling, people often think of winter. However, the two are separate yet related.

Following some discussion with my paddle-mates and my coach, I thought it would be helpful to share some of our experiences and research.

Cold Water
Cold water paddling can occur year-round, depending on location. In more northern climes, water may be technically cold (less than 62 F) year-round, and colder in periods shortly before and after winter. Paddlers in Scotland, Maine, and the Pacific Northwest wear paddling suits or drytops year round, because the water rarely exceeds the 50s F.

Cold water paddling can occur when the air is relatively warm. The challenge there is keeping dry, and warm in the event of immersion, but not overheating while paddling. I've run into this in April and October, when the seasons change.

One common anecdote is that the months of early Spring - March and April in the northern hemisphere, September and October in the southern hemisphere - are the most dangerous, because casual paddlers assume warming air temps belie warmer water temps. In fact, the water takes longer to warm, and to cool, with the seasons. Paddling seasons extend into the fall, but don't really start till the end of spring, in most locations.

The challenges in cold water paddling are managing hypothermia and cold shock. In water, we lose heat twenty-five times faster than in air. Cold water exacerbates the issue, and even out of the water, being wet continues to chill us. Cold shock occurs when we are suddenly cold, and gasp in shock: not a good thing to do underwater. Staying dry, having the tools to get dry and warm up, and avoiding situations that could put us in danger, are key. Going out in a group is preferred; with three or more, one person can support a casualty while the third raises help.

Paddling and immersion in cold water have non-catastrophic effects as well. Cold hands lose dexterity, making it harder to operate things like: hatch covers, carabiners, ropes, mobile phones and radios, and fasteners on PFDs. This can make rescues and self-rescues challenging. Pulling your self up on your back desk, or scooping a buddy, can be more difficult when your fingers can barely bend.

In winter paddling, all the challenges of cold water are present, compounded by additional factors. The water is relatively very cold - water temperatures in New York City have recently dropped below 40 F. The air temperature is even less forgiving, dropping into the 20s F, or lower on bad days. Wind compounds this. An unfortunate paddler who gets wet will be very cold in and out of the water.

On our last trip, I felt sufficiently warm, but I had more layers than I've ever worn before underneath my drysuit. The air temperature was 26F and the water was 39F, with winds from the SSW less than 5 mph. I had a light sweating layer, a one-piece wicking layer, wool pants, a synthetic long-sleeve running top, and a heavy wool sweater - that's one thin layer and two thick layers for my whole body, with a USMC surplus sweater on top. On my head I had a balaclava, and on my hands I had gloves covered by pogies.

Balaclava, after immersion in December 2014.

With all this I was actually comfortable, but I could still feel the cold - and this was on a nice, sunny day. On the way back, the wind picked up just a little bit, and the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was starting to feel a chill as we approached Pier 40. If Id been out much longer I would have been too cold to do much of anything.

While I haven't done immersion in January, I did in December, when the water was warmer by about seven degrees Fahrenheit. I was good for about two or three dunkings, but believe me I felt it. Practicing rescues for speed might seem like a lark on flatwater in summertime, but in the winter, getting someone out of the water quickly is vital.

Another hazard with winter paddling is ice. There wasn't any ice on the river itself in our last trip, but this time last year there was - and I didn't go out for the hazard. On this last trip, we observed thin, breakable ice in the marina.

Here is a great writeup on winter paddling:

And for ice, in particular:

The hazards with ice have to do with propulsion and entrapment. I've seen firsthand that when the water is full of ice, you're paddling less than poling through the water. Entrapment works horizontally and vertically - you might navigate into an area that is later blocked off by ice, and in the event of capsize, you might find yourself inches from the surface but trapped by a sheet of ice.

These are extreme examples, but real possibilities. Most terrible incidents on the water are a result of bad judgment: over-estimating skills, or under-estimating nature. To quote one of the instructors I've worked with, "nature will win.". All we can do as paddlers is negotiate the margin of that win.

Ice can also form on your gear. While it's worth a giggle, it could be problematic if you actually needed it.

Spare paddle and stirrup pump encased in ice.

Hatch cover with ice.

I kit out a contact tow, and what I noticed was that the entire slipknot was covered in ice, making it hard to pull loose, even once we'd landed and were undressing our boats to put away. Next time, I'll use a longer lead, and consider a thicker line that will be easier to grab when I can't close my fingers easily.

I posted a note once to a club about winter paddling, and one of the responses was, essentially, why take the risk? The point here is not the emphasize dangers, or to "scare straight" anyone interested in cold water or winter paddling.

Cold water is simply a fact of life in some places - you won't paddle at all if you can't manage the temperature. Winter paddling has its own charms, much in the same way as snowshoe hiking or mountaineering do. Being properly prepared is simply the bar for admission.