Monday, December 5, 2016

O Captain ! Great Captain !

I paddled right after Thanksgiving with the westchester crowd - my good friends the 2 Geeks, and AD, JT, JB, and B with the Nordkapp. We're paddled pretty regularly, some more than others, as AD and Jean look to build their leadership logs, and the others just want to practice basic skills. We went around Hart Island, and later went out to Jones Beach, and most recently, met up in AD's back yard (literally) to paddle from Mamaroneck to the Captain Islands - right around the corner in Greenwich, CT.

AD lives in a swell-looking condo right on the waterfront, complete with a kayak rack in the back yard and a proper gym and sports club on the grown floor. We were able to park in a pleasant residential neighborhood, putting in at a beach at a the end of a dead end street. The 2 Geeks paddled over from their boathouse in Larchmont, and once we were all assembled, we set out.

Unlike our previous journies, this one had a pretty stiff onshore wind, and the tide was unusually high as well. The tide meant we were able to take a shortcut out over a low point in Hen Island, but the wind would be hitting us abeam as we came about along the coast.

Leaving Mamaroneck.

A pleasant little gap.

Assembled for the briefing.

AD ready to lead.

After a short on-water briefing in the lee of a rock, we set out, and went around Milton Point to cross the long harbor from which we could see Rye Playland - and old amuement park, still operating in the warmer months. To lessen the wind we paddled closer in, and after assessing the overall speed of the group, made a short stop for a bio-break.

Rounding Milton Point.

From here, it was determined that about half the group would want to turn back earlier than the rest, owing to off-water obligations later in the day. We knew by then that Great Captain would be a longer journey, and more exposed to wind and an open crossing, so Jean and JT and I became the "Captain" group, and the rest formed the "Byram" group, that would go no further than Byram point.

We left and went around the next curve to be alongside Manursing Island, when suddenly an alarm was raised. Where was Alex?

We had separated into two smaller pods, and we all took a quick look around. The answer was quickly given: Alex's skeg had broken, and owing in part to the frustration, he'd opted to turn around and land where we'd been previously, and paddle back with the group on the return.

This was fine, except only two people knew that. We'd all seen Alex launch, too, so everyone else assumed he'd be with us. We had a quick talk about communication. Changes in plan are for everyone to know, not just the trip leaders.

By this point we were paddling into the wind, and the Byram group turned around to head back and pick up Alex on the way, while the remaining trio of Jean, JT, and myself, heading on the Great Captain.

Great Captain Island is one of the Captain Islands, part of the town of Greenwich, CT. It's home to a proper lighthouse that, until recently, had a live-in lightkeeper and his family. Hurricane Sandy made the local drinking water brackish, so the family moved ashore. The island is a park for the town, but in the off-season local paddlers have landed and taken in the view.

We paddled north a bit and then a fairly steep ferry angle to account for the wind, and landed on the northwestern corner of the island. After pulling our boats up, we hiked a bit to see the lighthouse.


Approaching the light after landing.

It's a sizable home.

Originally established in the 1600s.

The wind was still a-blowin', so we took our lunch in the lee of the lighthouse. Here, we could talk, soak in some sun. If it weren't for the wind, it'd have been a warm and pleasant day.

I'd brought roasted chestnuts, leftovers from Thanksgiving. Though cold, they still had some sweetness to them. I'd never considered it before, but they do make good paddle food!

A beautiful front lawn.

Long Island Sound.

By now, the wind had picked up and was easily on the upper end of F5, gusts to F6. We still had outgoing tide in our favor, but to cross the mile or so from the island back to the mainland, we were going to take a roundabout route - heading up towards Calf Island, then cutting over and letting the wind and current carry us south. Even at that, we might've overshot and gotten carried out further than intended, if we weren't paying attention.

Ready for the Wind !

I rarely use the hood on my drysuit, and was keenly aware that with a headwind, it would be more likely to catch wind, so I cinched it up. I was glad for it - my head kept warm, and when not taking wind in the face was actually quite comfortable.

That said, the Gore-Tex is stiff, and so it was more like a porthole than a hood. My head tended to turn inside the hood, rather than the hood turning with my head. I had to really goose-neck my head around to keep an eye on my companions.

The seting sun.

As the sun went down, the wind declined as well, and in short order we were just paddling the miles back to Mamaroneck.  By now, everyone else had landed, and all but Alex had left.

Paddling again past Hen Island.

Contrails, Clouds, and Sunsets.

Approaching the harbor, we had to wonder if all those contrails in the sky were holiday traffic taking visitors home.


As we approached the harbor, we could make out a lone figure in Mango yellow with a white hat, walking about on shore to keep warm. Jean radioed in to let Alex know we would be there soon, and with sunlight dwindling, he prepped his boat so as to get going right as we approached. They had to paddle another couple of miles back to their boathouse.

JT and I helped each other with our boats and drove off separately. By now it was dark; I'd left my house around seven in the morning, and hadn't considered how long the day might be. But it was grand - a journey of at least 16 nautical miles, a mildly challenging wind, a split group, and some great scenery, most of which was still new to me. It was a great trip, and one I'd happily do again.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Jones Beach

A group I've gotten to know recently wanted to get some more ocean-side practice, so we set out for Jones Beach, on Long Island.

Jones Beach Inlet is between Long Beach and Jones Beach, basically two barrier islands on the south side of Long Island. The inlet has gated community on its western side, and a park on the eastern side. We put in at a marina west of the gated community, and paddled out through the inlet.

The wind turbine near the marina.

Paddling out on the bay side.

Past the "gated community" and their raised boats.

The inlet itself was wide, and we were against the back half of the flood, so a bit of work heading out. There was also a channel to traverse, with the occasional pleasureboat. We ended up ferrying a bit more than half a mile against current, before landing briefly so one of our number could adjust his drysuit.

Newly replaced, the overskirt was a bit tight and restricting his breathe. He cut it off.

A brief moment ashore.

At last, we were to sea.

JT taking in the waves.

We had a bit of a tiderace as we left the channel, exacerbated at times by the vessels passing through. We could see waves crashing against the far side of the fisherman's pier, water cresting over it.

We found the swell a but underwhelming, long period but still a bit fast-moving. It was fun to play in but hard to surf. We thought we'd have a go at the beach on the opposite side of the pier, but the waves were very large and very dumpy - coming at an angle from the sea, with a steep beach, giant claws were formed, reaching up and over to claw and the strand and the pier.

We just paddled a ways.

Eventually, AD and JB left early, as planned, for another engagement. JT and I stayed out, and paddled over to Lido Beach, on the south side of Long Beach. I wanted to practice a beach landing and found a decent spot. I meant to hop right back out, but JT had followed me in, and we had a brief snack and bio-break before launching again.

The Gemini SP at rest.

While the day so far had been bright and sunny, we saw tendrils of clouds creeping in from the east. While we played some more in the waves, the slowly filled the sky, until we were heading in, by which point the air was completely overcast.

On the way in.

Blue sky's gone away.

Point Lookout, not so cheery anymore.

We found one more tiderace on the way in, something AD had told us about, forming on the ebb. It was something of an escalator, current over a shallow sand bar. We could addle through it, then ride the current back up.

The tiderace.

We paddled harder than I wanted to on the way in. I'd expected we would head in earlier, but we'd had so much fun, and JT had driven quite a distance, that we stayed out long enough to be fighting at least a knot of current on the way in. At least we were rewarded with seeing this lovely vessel on its way out to sea.

One form of wind power.

And, finally, back to the turbine.

Another form of wind power !

That was our trip! Huzzah. Here us some video to round it out:



Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Whale of a Tale

If you haven't seen it in the news, let me just tell you up front: humpback whales have been spotted off the shores of Manhattan. This is highly unusual - unprecedented in my years of paddling these waters, and not something in memory of anyone I know.

Sure, whales have previously been spotted in the lower harbor, off the Rockaways and Sandy Hook. However, these places are practically the final gateway to the open ocean. Past them, only the true seafaring ships go. So, to have whales so close, first sighted at the Statue of Liberty and eventually, as far north as the George Washington Bridge, is astounding. It's the kind of thing that most people would have said is unlikely at best. It's the kind of thing one might have said as a joke.

"Hey," says the Cowgirl," let's go looking for whales by Chelsea Piers, har har har.".

Well, it's a reality now.

The first day, Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, they were spotted near the Statue of Liberty. As it happens, I've been working some daytime hours at New York Kayak Company, located at Pier 40 in Manhattan (Houston Street, basically), about four miles north of the Statue. Me and the boss-man talked about it, amazed. Too bad we weren't out there to see the whales ourselves.

Then, when I got home, I saw footage posted online of a whale surfacing next to the Holland Tunnel blower on the Manhattan side. That's the southwest corner of Pier 40's little embayment. Pier 40 is in the background. The shop where I work is directly behind a whale surfacing in the Hudson River.

Dang it, whale, you're goading me !

I'd already made a playdate that weekend to paddle on the ocean near Jones Beach. You know, the ocean, where whales go. I figured they'd been in a few days and would have left.

But, no. Oh no, no no no. Sunday and Monday, very windy days, they were still being sighted. NY Media Boat has great pictures, and Gotham Whale has been at the NYC whale game for quite a while.

So I continue to look out the window at New York Kayak Company, walking along the waterfront when gale-force winds aren't blowing, looking for that whale. Or whales. Paddling acquaintance Frogma informs me that it's two whales, at one point photographed side by side.

Oy, whales in love. Teenagers. Apparently the younger whales don't have to migrate, and can chase fish all they want - even if it means getting lost near the Holland Tunnel, like so many of the more ape-like mammals.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Liberty Paddle

It's usual, but it happens: a client calls up New York Kayak Company in the off-season and wants to go on a journey.

In this case, it was a pilot, Kiwi by way of a Pacific city-state, who came in to buy a paddling jacket and inquired about trips - in November, when the water temperature drops below 60 F.

"Well," I mused, "depending on which day and for how long . . ." He was recovering from an injury and so we settled on either a short trip south or north, or to the Statue of Liberty. As it turned out, that last is what we went for.

The Statue of Liberty is about four miles away from Pier 40 - shorter as the crow flies, but we cross the river then head south, so roundtrip it's about 8 nautical miles. We went, coincidentally, on Election Day in the US. We had very little wind, sunshine, and a bit of sun, and very little river traffic. On a workday, and in the off-season, there wasn't much besides the occasional water tax and Statue ferry, and maybe one or two barges.

I did use my radio twice for bridge-to-bridge communications. First, as we were crossing, I saw that a tour boat was on track to get to where we would be if we'd kept going. I'd heard her on the radio earlier and hailed her. "This is kayak two, just south of the Holland Tunnel. Captain you mind if we keep going straight across and you cut astern."

He didn't see us. I waved my paddle high in the air. "Oh, there you are. Sure, no problem."

She altered course and we headed straight across. I radioed my thanks.

Later, just south of Morris Canal, we saw a Statue ferry just about loaded up, and waited for her to cast off. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally I hailed her. Rather than a radio response, one of the deck crew waved at us. I got close enough to shout for confirmation and he nodded his head.

We passed astern and continued on our way.

Waiting for a Statue ferry.

Curiously, the client asked for a winged paddle, which we were only able to oblige by digging in to some personal stock. Yet, he wasn't especially athletic. He had just learned on the wing and greatly preferred it. I'm going to have to practice some more on the wing so I can keep up with my clients' knowledge!

Halfway there !

About halfway to Ellis Island, the ferry cast off and passed us. I always get a kick out of waving to people on these boats. If you kayak in New York City, you'll definitely be in other peoples' photo albums!


Other than that, it really was an uneventful day. I did take the opportunity to try out a Tiderace Xtreme, a discontinued model that is the most Greenland-style of Tiderace boats - now supplanted by the Xtra in their product mix. However, we didn't really have the conditions to push the boat in; the best I got was a bit of surf off the ferry wake.

Sandy Hook Launch

MM is a friend of mine who lives in Monmouth County, basically the stretch of land from the I-95 corridor over to Sandy Hook. She's outdoorsy and athletic, into things like winter camping and biking and climbing and hiking. She's also a surfer, in the board sense, so while we met in a kayaking instructional class, she's always talked up how we should try some surf sometime.

So, last Monday, I drove all the way down to Sandy Hook and met her in one of the parking lots on the ocean side, to survey the scene. Sandy Hook is a long spit pointing almost straight up towards the NYC harbor; it receives a lot of swell on the ocean side, and has a protected bay side, albeit with a lot of fetch. It's a short walk from one side of the hook to the other, so paddlers have their choice: ocean side or bay side.

I've launched from the bay side before. I've heard of people launching on the ocean side, but it's challenging. First of all, along most of the short, the water level rises quite sharply; you can even see this standing on the bank, where a gentle slope of dry sand abruptly dives into the water. The waves are therefore a bit dumpy, and hard to get into the water at all, let alone paddle against.

On this particular day, the other challenge was a steady F4 wind lingering from the previous day, pushing with swell, to create some short period waves (5.2, 5.4 seconds) with wave height of three to four feet. Put this together with the dumpy characteristics, and what we saw was constant rollers cascading just past the shoreline, washing up, and then falling out to be recirculated by the next wave.

MM knew a spot near a jetty though. Also, the shore extended out a bit, so the break was farther away, and while we were still watching foamy hills come up to the shore, it wasn't quite as intimidating.

Here, take a look for yourself.


We decided that the surf zone was, at best, going to be more work that it was worth: it was short, and there wasn't a lot of runway to come off a wave before landing, and coming out again would be a lot work, even assuming no out-of-boat experiences. So, we decided to "circumnavigate" the Hook to the bayside, what MM and her local buddies call a "reverse hooker".

As we proceeded north-ish, we took steady wind abeam, along with swells. You can get a good idea of wave height at about the 2:10 mark in the video above. Generally 3-4 feet, with occasional 5. There were moments when we couldn't see each other, so we kept close.

As we came around the hook, we paddled over a large bank known as the False Hook. As the tide was flooding in, there wasn't as much action there as we hoped, but we had some current and small swell as we paddled past the channel marker.

The entire day was sunny and brilliant, and we could see for miles: ships coming in from sea; the skylines of Manhattan and Jersey City; Romer Light, just two miles away, even the bridge connecting the Rockaways to the rest of Queens.

The bayside had much flatter water, though by no means still. We paddle along the now-familiar shore, past Horseshoe Cove, landing at a small beach that was literally across the street from where we parked. We washed up and had lunch, and that was our day.

Sandy Hook is an interesting place to paddle. It's far to get to, and once there, specific features can be a ways off from paddling. All the same, it's proving to be a good place to go to work in conditions that are hard to find in NYC.




Friday, November 11, 2016

Recent Paddling

I've been out a few times since coming back from the Rendezvous symposium in Maine; here are the highlights.

About a week after I came back from the Rendezvous, Mr. Cowgirl and I went out with my good friend Kayak Dov. It was a very windy day - technically "out of remit" for the Four Star, with F5 winds gusting to F7, though otherwise sunny and beautiful. We went down to the GWB zipper, a minor race that forms under the George Washington Bridge as the Hudson begins to flood. It was fun, but a bit washed out with wind coming abeam.

Heading on down.

Approaching the Zone.


Afterwards, we paddled south a bit, and did some downwind surfing in the bay immediately below. It was great fun, with the long fetch of the river taking western winds and pushing up water towards the Manhattan shore.



We crossed the river, and along the way Mr. Cowgirl heard two large "kerplunk" sounds as we paddled under the bridge. He didn't think they were large enough to be people, but could easily have been pieces of bridge, or bottles tossed haphazardly by passers-by. He reported it to a nearby police boat (in person, sidled right up to her), but their only concern was whether it was a body.

About a week after that, I had a jam-packed series of days. We joined my good friends the 2 Geeks, and several of their friends and acquaintances, at the Touring Kayak Club in City Island, NY. J is pursuing her Four Star, as is another acquaintance I met at my 3 Star, AD. They wanted to practice some trip leadership and incident management, so we corralled a group of about eight paddlers to head out around Hart Island and back.

It was great fun. First, J and AD gave the trip briefing and practiced some navigation. Then, en route, everyone wanted to throw surprises at them - in short order we had bellyaches, injuries, and a capsize - all for show, all for practice - and they were handled well.

I got a little taste of it. Leading the group around the southern edge of Hart, I spotted J lagging considerably, a classic attempt at being the lost/lingering paddler.

The Brief.

To Water !
In a change, I paddled the Argonaut while Mr. Cowgirl put the Gemini SP seriously on edge.

Edgin !

We came up around the eastern edge of Hart, and took it easy, enjoying the scenery and company. Then, someone had the bright idea to husky tow a "tired paddler". I was the support while two others clipped in. I'm just going to say: in-line tows over husky tows whenever feasible.

I wrote about Hart Island a little bit the last time we were out here. Suffice it to say it's presently NYC's potter's field, worked by inmates from Rikers Island, and no one is allowed, except those who have business with the dead. Even on a sunny day like the one we had, it's a morbid place.

Paddling past Hart.

Crematorium?

J for scale.

Some dedicated Greenlanders were present, and the stick was passed around.

D. Trying the Greenland paddle.


The group at large.

Signs in the distance.

The wind began to pick up. We were still in the lee most of the way, but off in the west we could make out several sailboats heeling over quite a bit in the wind. They were having a race, and it looked like a lot of fun, but it meant we had a bit of work to do getting back.

A frothy rock, just below the surface.

Passing the northern end of Hart.

Mares tails forming in the sky.

We passed Rat Island, which we noticed had gained some structures since our last visit. Most notably, a statue of William Tell.

Swiss Mister.

Flags and Signs.

Yodal-ay-hee-hoo !

Shortly afterwards we landed back at TKC - and found the tide had completely covered out beach! Fortunately this excellently appointed club had a launch ramp, so we got out there and carried our boats up.

After a debrief, we had lunch and talked kayak geekery - boats, kit, etc.

Cowgirl's two boats.

The Pelhams, and Hart in particular, are among my favorite paddling spots. I hope to bring some others out here, and am glad to have made the connection with TKC.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stars, Aligned

It started with a move of camp. During the Mid-coast Sea Kayaking Rendezvous, I'd been camping in a tent at the Sagadahoc Campground, but after that I moved to the AMC Beal Island camp at Knubble Bay. I pitched my tent and set up my kit, then met fellow candidates as they filtered in. Most had also been at the Rendezvous.

Reminder, once back home.

We were all here to take a two-day assessment for the British Canoeing Four Star Sea Leader award. In the BC scheme, the first three stars are personal paddling skills awards; after that, the fourth and fifth stars are leadership awards. Paddling skills are part of the assessment, but the baseline assumption is to take those skills and apply them in progressively more challenging conditions, and also to lead a group of paddlers in those conditions: planning trips, accounting for weather and currents, and being capable of rescues if something goes awry.

I think it's worth contextualizing the BC scheme in general, to contrast with some of the move skills-based assessments I've taken in the American Canoe Association (ACA) scheme, and my paddling experiences in New York City. In the sea kayaking discipline, there's an assumption of a journey, and along that journey the group might encounter various features to play in.

In my formative paddling experiences, so many of the attendant skills were imaginary. When would I encounter rocks or cliffs? Or ocean swell-based surfing? My journeys were about getting from point A to point B, and ever mind what was in between. The biggest obstacles would be commercial marine traffic.

Therefore, working towards the leadership award meant not only affirming specific skills, but also practicing a different leadership style, one that was open to group play, and less insistent on shepherding the group like a docent in a museum.

I didn't take many photos. On assessments I want to be as alert as possible, and also want to keep my deck clear of any unnecessary equipment. The last thing I want is to get caught out futzing with my gear when I should be paying attention to the group and the environment around me.

Day 1
It was quite possibly the quietest breakfast I've ever had in the camp cabin. This was my fourth time to Maine, and to the cabin; I'd previously paddled here for fun, and also taken my Four Star training the year previously. As other candidates shuffled in and made breakfast, each pored over NOAA tide tables and charts, locking in those vital details of the dynamic environment we'd be tested in. It was like monks at breakfast, each candidate locked in their own focus on the day coming ahead.

If it sounds intense, it kind of is. It's a two-day assessment. If one were to look at the syllabus, there are many broadly-stated skills checks, from things as simple to properly lifting and carrying boats, to rolling on both sides in seas up to a meter in height and in moving current, to rescues in conditions, to navigation in poor visibility and moving current.

It's not an inexpensive award either, between the cost of training (mandatory to register for an assessment) to the assessment itself. Failure hits the ego, and success, while gratifying, just means formalizing a level of responsibility. You can't say, "I'm qualified as a Four Star sea leader", and then go on a trip someone else organizes without paying attention to how you'd organize the trip, or by sitting back quietly when something goes awry.

Due to the number of candidates, we were organized into two separate assessments with two assessors each, and an assistant or two in each. Our classes were subdivided in half, so on each day we'd work with one assessor and on the following day the other. In my pod there were two more candidates besides myself, and we took turns leading our group of three "teabags" (practice students) in conditions.

Our basic route for the day was to paddle from a beach launch at Reid State Park up to the Five Islands area; thence across the Sheepscot River and back, and from there up to the camp at Knubble Bay. We three candidates were tasked with sorting out the route and deciding who would go first, second, and third. GA took the first length, I took the crossing, and MS guided us back to camp.

While another candidate was leading, those of us "off" were permitted to play, and at various points asked to perform certain skills or answer certain questions. While GA was leading, MS and I took a large breaking wave sideways and backed out of it using some reverse strokes to gain momentum over the next wave. We also did rolls in three-foot waves just a few yards from a rocky cliff. Later, we also had to roll in moving but flat water.

On my leg of the journey, my central challenge was to get the group across the Sheepscot River to a specific point with a lighthouse. The river is about a mile wide, and the initial task was pretty simple for me based on my experience. The crux points were gathering the group together, making the crossing, and arriving, and on the return, the reverse, with an additional waypoint.

Aside: in the distance, we glimpsed porpoises.

I did nearly screw the pooch on the return though. I was tasked with not only getting the group back across, but navigating to a ledge in the middle of the river, and from there on a difference course to the northern tip of Turnip Island.

First, when asked directly for a bearing, I waffled on the declination. I also took my bearing off a charted buoy that I could see with my eyes; subsequent discussion with the assessor made it clear the expectation was to navigate to the ledge that was just north of the buoy. I gathered the group together and led us to the buoy, and from there changed course to Turnip Island. It is very easy, with the numerous islands in the area, to mistake one for another, or to mistake a headland for an island.

Second, as we crossed, the river had just started to ebb, and further upstream there was a long, shallow bay beginning to empty into the Sheepscot. This produced just enough tidal flow to push us south a bit. Now as we crossed, I simply eyeballed this and got us to the buoy and then to the island. In the debrief though, the assessor made very clear that the task was to navigate by paddling a heading and course that accounted not only for the declination but also the ebb. My heart just about sank. I seriously believed I might have failed right then and there.

In hindsight, I would have estimated an additional change in heading by estimating the flow of the river (rule of thirds) and figuring where we'd have drifted to, then eyeballed the difference between that and the course I'd plotted, and estimated an additional set of degrees to add.

Most of my guiding experience is in waters I know and in good visibility. It's easy to pilot based on landmarks, and adjust course visually by taking ranges. If the current is moving me faster or slower than expected, I can see that, and intuit course corrections.

That won't work in poor visibility whether at night or in fog. And, it was becoming foggy, as a warm front moved in, bringing moisture that curled and sat over the water. We still had a few miles of visibility when I came "off", but if we hadn't, finding that ledge, that marker, and that island, would have been far more challenging. This was a very real skill that I needed to demonstrate.

That night, I got super-remedial. With two other candidates eating in, we got around the table and reviewed our notes, and I zeroed in on declination, and made sure I wrote down at least four different data points each for local tide heights and time of current change.

I was not going to get caught out like that again.


Day 2

With the dawn of the second day, I awoke, still kicking myself about the previous day's mistake but resigned to it. I wasn't going to fix the past; I could only take care of the day ahead of me. I made breakfast, checked my notes, and transcribed them to my deck slates.

Tides and currents on the left, with peak currents noted.

Trip log and waypoints, for dead reckoning.

The second day, we launched and landed at the camp, making a round trip around Macmahon Island to the Five Islands area. Once again, GA started, then MS was second, and I only lead the group for a short bit for feature play and landing at Five Islands, and later for the final push past Robin Hood cove to the camp.

The day was nicer, and quite a bit warmer. In fact it got hot in our drysuits, something of a predicament given the cold water that made them necessary. 

The first half of the day was relatively straightforward. GA led us out to the river and south a bit. I spent a lot of time taking bearings and comparing them to the compass; I was told later that this was noticed by the assessor and I expect worked in my favor. Even if I wasn't being asked, I was ready to answer where we were and what was going on.

When we landed at Five Islands, we landed in a slightly different location after being informed the group ahead of us had had "a real incident". In the course of the assessment, a candidate in another group had been sent to find features for the group to play in; in the course of doing so, she ended up in a bad position and her boat was damaged. 

Once ashore, of course the plethora of candidates all had boat repair kits that they wanted to whip out; if anything the challenge the assessors had was to keep the event from turning into a marathon repair session. In short order, the boat was patched enough to be seaworthy, and the candidate was able to finish the assessment and paddle back to camp. The good news is that she rolled more than once to stay upright, so you could say her roll was stronger than her boat.

After lunch, as our group moved up the Shepscot, we stopped to do some self-rescues. Each of us candidates, and our practice students who opted in, did both re-entry and roll and also scramble rescues in a spot of water with 3-4 foot breaking waves, less than ten feet from a bald-faced boulder. Afterwards, we did an "all-in" rescue. MS and I paired up and got my boat empty, then me in it, then finished our rescue, by which point our mates had done the same. It was great fun !

Shortly after that we did a tow rescue. We'd done some short tows before, as well as rescues the day before. Here, we had one person support the casualty, towed by another, with a second in-line tow. We went quite a ways, further, I think, than any practice tow scenario we'd had before. And here, we had some dissension by the lead candidate. 

Basically, he had lodged in his head that the little Sheepscot, the stream between Macmahon and Georgetown islands, had a tidal current that exceeded the remit. The "remit" is the limit of conditions in which a candidate can take a group, and part of the assessment was being able to recognize conditions that exceeded the remit. One of those conditions is tidal currents not to exceed two knots. Based on an anecdote about a standing wave, he thought the river would exceed the remit.

The thing is, it wouldn't. His key data point, in addition to the anecdote about a standing wave, was based on an overfall two miles north. A closer data point indicated slower speeds that, while high, were within remit. Furthermore, we were at a point in the tidal cycle just before slack. While even at peak we'd be in remit, we were certainly well below it. So, rather than taking his preferred route around Macmahon's eastern side, adding miles of towing for our simulated casualty, the assessor had us paddle up the lower Sheepscot quite a ways, and that was fine.

At the end of that passage, I took us in the final leg for the camp. I was fortunate in that the water had just started to ebb, and there was a group ahead of us demonstrating a good line to take. I still played it like they weren't there, directing my group via landmarks and making some jokes to keep everyone engaged, rather than quietly paddling along. We came around the "knubble" and into the camp's cove, and disembarked at the highest tide I've ever been in there. 

The landing beach was entirely covered, as well as the final step of the stairs leading up. All the groups had arrived at about the same time, so while it was crowded, with many hands we made light work of carrying our loaded boats up the stairs.


Debrief
At the start of the assessment, one of the assessors addressed our anxiety by saying that their role was to ensure we were fully prepared to be sea leaders, and that we would not have been there if we did not have the required skills. I really liked this statement. At this point in my paddling career I have taken several assessments and I've truly sweat them all, even while I was confident. The goal is to become a better paddler, not to accumulate awards. So, pass or fail, we were all going to get feedback on how we could improve.

As far as I could tell, I was the first of our group called in. I may have been wrong but it wasn't a long wait. I'd changed into street clothes and finished un-kitting my boat, and just started in on my camp. My feedback was as follows.

  • First, I passed. Both assessors agreed on this.
  • My group leadership was a little "guide-y", but that was attributed to my experience being predominantly in a working harbor. In a more open, less trafficked environment, group leading can be more like a rubber band, or a retractable leash.
  • We did talk to the navigation errors, and at this point it was made clear that they saw me put extra effort into it the second day. 
  • My action plan is to go lead some Four Star trips and really lock in that experience, and focus on my navigation skills, rather than go straight to Five Star. Which, I gotta say, is totally fine to me. The way I'd put it is I'm a bit "coached out" after working hard for this award, and five days of coaching and assessing. I could use a break of just paddling and guiding for fun!

I'll say that this is largely how I feel after any assessment; relief, and also, barely able to conceive starting down another. I felt this way after my 3 Star in particular, but also my instructor assessments. Oh my God, I think, that was a lot of effort and I made x, y, and z mistakes. But, a year or so later, I'm fully recovered, and ready to start in on the next.

We'll see how I feel. For now, truly, I just want to paddle.

Denouement
With that, I finished packing up the tent and all my camping gear. My paddling clothes were soaked with days of sweat, and my drysuit was stiff with layers of sea salt. 

I lingered for a little bit to see how some of my fellow candidates, including some who were in my group in the Rendezvous but not the assessment. Nearly everyone I asked passed; I only found one who had not. Everyone had different feedback and action plans, from setting up safe play areas to navigation to personal paddling skills. There is always room for improvement.

With some help, I loaded my boat on the Saab and got going, driving down the rutted road, to the steep gravelly climb, to the town road, to the county road, to US 1, to the interstate. I stopped at the last service center in Maine to take this photo: a woman, her Saab, and her boat:


I've been paddling ten or twelve years now (truly, I am not certain). I've been more serious in the past four. Certainly the past year, starting with that Four Star training I took with John Carmody, Todd Wright, and Steve Maynard, kicked off a pretty intense period of not just practicing, but logging my trips and making sure I got experience leading groups in conditions more advanced than "Force 2, Sea State 2, partly cloudy on the Hudson River". 

This award meant a lot to me, an in particular, it's a responsibility, not an achievement. I need to practice more, for sure. I got my own car this time last year, and since then I've expanded my range, literally and figuratively. I really do look forward to more paddling, and paddling more, if you know what I mean.

Like the song goes, "the road goes on forever, the party never ends."