Friday, June 20, 2014

Swapping Boats

I led a short trip the other night, just a mile each direction, barely. Along the way, one of out paddlers was a bit slow, in part because she had picked a boat that was too big for her.

I saw an opportunity for some fun.

I had one of the other paddlers hold the group up at the little nook before entering Spuyten Duyvil. We did a rafter an had a run raft game - stand and recite a poem. The, I had my little paddler trade with someone in an Elaho - a boat much more appropriate to her size.

She managed that boat quite a bit better. "I have a new favorite boat!"

Later on, I swapped boats with the other swapper mostly to see if I could do it without a raft. I did, and she was much more comfortable in myArgonaut, a fat, dumb and happy boat if there ever was one.

So we paddled a bit, and I got my water out of my "old" boat, and we paddled before.

Later when we put away boats, I looked for my water bottle. Where was it? Not until today did I realize I must have left it in my "new" boat!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Penultimate Mile

Sometimes, it isn't the last mile, but the mile before last, that is most challenging.

On Saturday I paddled with my good friend and fellow Inwood Canoe Club member AW from Inwood to the Throgs Neck Bridge. It's a trip we'd planned for two weeks earlier, but AW and other company were unable to make it, so we postponed until the 14th and move the departure time up by about an hour. Other company were still unavailable, so it was just the two of us.

Ideally we would have left at 0745, but left at 0815. For the ride out, this wasn't a huge deal- if anything we would cut our trip short. Ultimately we did not have to, as we were able to make up the time.

Paddling North on the Hudson.

It was a sunny but cool morning as we glided down the Harlem.

Paddling past Washington, Hamilton, and High Bridges.

We took a shortcut through Bronx Kill, a narrow creek - technically a tide race - to avoid going around Randalls Island. The kill is underutilized by most NYC kayakers - they're either going past Randalls entirely, or going the Hell Gate. No one seems to come from the north.

Paddling Bronx Kill.

In short order, we were staring at the Upper East River - the part of the river between Queens and the Bronx, home to Rikers Island, Flushing Bay, and further out, the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges.

A White Heron at Randalls Island.

Paddling out was fairly straightforward. We used a chart to keep track of our location, finding waypoints on the chart and matching them to fixed objects we could see. A succession of barges headed out, along with a few small pleasurecraft. At one point a sailboat gave us confusing signals; her captain later radioed, "sorry".

Behold, the East River, Bronx-Whitestone in the distance.

Past the Bronx-Whitestone, we saw some large, expensive houses on the Queens shore. One even had bot a boat garage with ramp and a lift on a pier holding a sizable pleasurecraft out of the water. Some had weird architecture; a few had clearly new construction at the waterline, presumably from Sandy rebuilding.

A Marker.

We crossed north, getting a little bit of ferry current and cutting just past an anchorage. Soon we were near the SUNY (State University of New York) maritime college, with a campus on both sides of the north end of the Throgs Neck Bridge.We passed a small beach, and paddled on around the neck, avoiding fisherman's lines.

SUNY Maritime College.

We were looking for another beach, but it was almost all rock landing. We turned around, giving the fisherman a wider berth. Off in the distance we could make out the lighthouse at Execution Rocks - a tempting target, but not for that day.

Execution Rocks in the distance.

We landed back at the beach and pulled our boats up to the high tide line. We unpacked for lunch, and negotiated a space-sharing agreement with some geese an goslings. Poppa was VERY protective. They later took a little walk. They were cute in their formation!

The Family.

While we ate, a security guard came by. Mr. Wong was actually very nice, demanding only to see our ID and get or names. Normally people checked in at the gate. We had bypassed that. "You're so brave," he said. "I used to outrigger, at least we had the arm to keep us from falling in!"

Fort Schuyler for Lunch.

We found our landing spot rather mesmerizing. The campus of SUNY Maritime is a fort dating back to the Revolutionary period, used to defend approaches to the city and later used as a POW camp during the Civil War. The grounds cover a lot of history, including a propeller blade from the SS United States. Old ships' bells and plaques to commandants past adorn the exterior walls, and supposedly there is a decent museum on campus.

The Campus.

We left, half an hour or so later than planned, but figuring we'd make up the distance. What we didn't account for was the stiff headwind on the way back across the East River. The current was with us and we made relatively good time, but it felt slow. It was only when we passed a barge in the anchorage areas that we could see how steady our progress was.

This was one of those trips where you realize sea kayaking is a mental game. We felt beaten back, but we were. We simply had to paddle into the wind and keep going.

On the way back, we got a closer look at the Vernon C. Bain, an immense prisons ship/barge moored in the Bronx directly across the river from Rikers Island. The boat, as it is called, holds about nine hundred inmates and is named for a well-regarded prison warden. Who wants their name on a prison ship?

Paddling past the Vernon C. Bain prison ship.

Onwards we went, rounding the Brothers the long way to the north until we came back in to the kill. We paddled along, and found that the rapids we'd passed on the way out were now flowing in! This makes it technically a tiderace . . .although a meager one.

Moving up the Harlem, we continued to experience headwind. Even when we attempted to use Manhattan as a windbreak, he wind shifted to come more from the north. It wasn't terrible but it wore us down psychologically. Even after singing some trail tunes, we were ready to be home long before we would be home.

Around Peter Sharp Boathouse, I noticed he current had turned against us. It wasn't bad, but it meant we had to get past the next mile before we'd be back in friendly current. As we rounded the corner to the Broadway Bridge, it became more pronounced - the old Spuyten Duyvil creek is a constriction that makes the whole things go faster. Also, the wind came howling down the canyon. With steep cliffs and hills on both sides, a westerly wind off the Hudson funnels into a tunnel in this stretch.

We pulled out all of our tricks. We eddy-paddled. We used low angle strokes. We fell into that sea kayaker cadence to keep into a steady rhythm. We were fortunately in that the wind was mostly straight at us. Abeam or quartering would have been worse.

As we crept along, we saw signs of how struggling this would be - strong eddy lines, water building up against fixed objects. In particular, the Columbia dock looked very strainer-ish. I'd remembered earlier that the nigh before had been a full moon, making this a spring tide. The mudflats seemed especially high, and the current therefore stronger.

Where'd all the water go? Oh yeah, behind us.

We eventually arrived at the little nook near the railroad bridge, which affording a brief respite. We ran into fellow club member IB and his niece and nephew. While chatting, we drifted a bit, and by the time we parted company we were about to be pulled over the eddy line into the current. We had to paddle backwards to stay in the eddy, and then charge out through the current into the Hudson.

And then we were  . .free. The Hudson was flowing steadily south. Free from the Harlem's grip, we paddled lazily, resting half the way, back to the boathouse.

And that was that. The penultimate mile, from Peter Sharp to Spuyten Duyvil, was the hardest. I never thought I would say the Harlem river was the most challenging part of the trip, but it was.

While it was challenging, I didn't feel exhausted afterwards. I didn't ache. Oh I was tired in the moment, but once through, I thought, that's it. That's kayaking. We practice these skills for when we need them. Oh sure this wasn't high surf, or the rocky coast of main, but we were fighting current and wind, and crossed from one tidal stream to another. the weather changes. You miss your waypoint. You've got to make up for. That is kayaking.

As we washed up our boats and unpacked our kit, the sun set behind the Palisades. We nibbled on boathouse bananas and snacks left over from lunch. We both felt like we'd pushed our skills. AW in particular amazes me as someone who will plow through these sorts of things. I like paddling with her for her tenacity. Creative Commons License
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Monday, June 9, 2014

I Dined in the Ruins of an old Missile Battery

Every girl knows her first time should be special. The weather should be beautiful, rose petals should line the way, and someone more experienced should take her hand.

That is how I finally got to Sandy Hook, as a day trip with my good friends at Wind Against Current, JJ and VB.

I'd been wanting to go for quite a while, and even had a camping trip planned last year, that was washed out by the weather. JJ & VB do this trip regularly, and had one planned already. The weather was predicted to be near perfect - by my standards at least -  sunny with little wind.

So, beautiful weather and good company. I was off to a good start.

We left Pier 40 early Sunday morning, leaving the embayment by 0745. JJ and I both paddled Tiderace boats (me in an Xcite, she in her Xplore-S) while VB paddled his trusty red Feathercraft. With little traffic so early in the morning, we quickly went past the Battery, over the shoals of Governor's Island, and on into the upper harbor, past sleeping giants, moored and at rest.

JJ and a barge, Verranzano in the distance.

I've been this far a couple of times, but only once along the eastern side. After Governors, we kept left, past Red Hook, and on down to the Verranzano Bridge, where JJ showed me a handy little beach to know about in case a trip goes awry.

Along the way, at various points the water was alive with jumping fish. It was like a rainless storm, plop plop plop, I'd stop to look but only saw the water, not the fish. As the morning warmed and the sun came out, it was downright magical.

Then we saw birds flying in. It was morning still, time for the breakfast crowd.

JJ about to cross under the Verranzano.

Below the bridge, we waited for some acquaintances, two chaps who put in at Liberty State Park. One was a friend JJ & VB knew from the Water Tribe community, and the other was his friend, paddling a wooden CLC kit boat he'd assembled himself.

Paddling along the Belt Parkway.

We set off,  paddling past Gravesend Bay towards Norton Point, our company of five, talking about boats and adventures on the water. Close calls, with nature or sometimes law enforcement, as well as mutual admiration of boats and paddles.

Our friends decided to stick with their original plan to paddle to Dead Horse Bay. They rounded Norton Point and set off towards the east, as we confronted the lower harbor and the miles before our destination.

Now, Voyager.

"See that low haze of beige," said JJ. "That's Sandy Hook. It will seem far away for a long time."

She was right - but it was great! Here I was below the Verranzano, paddling across the lower harbor, exposed to the open sea, making a proper open crossing at last.

Along the way, we spotted a few unusual sights. We saw these oddly angled objects that, at a distance, looked like a fellow paddler about to make a high angle forward stroke, or perhaps a bow rudder. On closer inspection they were just markers of some kind.

We also saw roses, or at least, rose petals. First just a few, then, at one point, a cluster.  A good omen?

"My money's on either a wedding or a burial at sea," I said. But then we saw a partially deflated Happy Birthday balloon near a pile of stems and petals.

I used the crossing to practice some of my navigation skills. Since I was in a borrowed boat I only had my hand compass, but I'd look at, say, West Bank lighthouse far in the distance, then another landmark or a buoy, and triangulate my position to see where we were. I got pretty good at guessing what the next object would be.

As we paddled, we saw more fishing boats - mass charter boats with a ridiculous number of fishermen hanging their rods out. It didn't look like much fun, for the fishermen or the fish.

We did see rose petals scattered along the way. The more we saw, the weirder it got.

Our course was unusual in that we went farther east than JJ and VB normally go. Whales had been sighted the day before off Romer Shoal, which we were paddling directly over. However, while we saw plenty of fishermen, we saw no whales. We later heard they've moved over to the Rockaways, farther to the east than we would go.

We wound up just north of Gunderson Beach - the nude beach - and paddled in the eddy back westward, up and around the point. There were tons of private boats out fishing, plenty of people enjoying the sun, with a little bounce from the waters coming in. We threaded past them, clearly an odd sight to some. Where had these kayaks come from? There was disbelief from one fellow when we told him Manhattan.

Osprey repurposing of ranging tower.

Once we rounded the hook, our water was nearly flat water paddling. With no wind, and no current, we slogged through the midday heat. For the first time that day, I started to feel a bit warm in my paddling jacket.

VB on flat water, bored out of his mind.

We paddled to just short of Horseshoe Cove, landing on the outer edge of one of its sides. We pulled the boats up to the high water line, then unpacked and climbed up for lunch.

Our landing zone.

Sandy Hook has a ton of history. Among other things, there was once a Nike air defense battery located there. The Nike system was an early anti-aircraft system intended to shoot down enemy bombers. Now, they're just runs, low-slung bunkers that almost look like post-modern housing, overgrown with sand and shrubs.

That was where we ate lunch.

Old Battery. We lunched atop one like it.

While JJ and VB chatted, I did a little recce and saw some land-based fishermen, all mounted on the crumbles ruins of the missile battery overlooking the sea. I saw some dead fish parts here and there - bait, or unlucky fish? And then I saw the oddest sight.

A row of rose petals, aligned with the high water mark.

After lunch, we stepped into the marsh behind us, and looked for fiddler crabs. These little guys live in tiny holes in the mud. If you stand still for a minute or two, they creep out, but if you move or make a sound, they scurry back to their holes. It must have been mating season because the males tried to hook up by standing straight and waving their big claw. It was rather comical when viewed at a distance, if you could make out four or five of them at once, swaying back and forth.

Fiddler crabs in their natural habitat.

As addictive as it was to play peekaboo with the fiddler crabs, eventually we had to load up to catch the current back. We returned largely the way we came, not as far east, but to the eastern end of the hook's point, before venturing out and letting the current move us west and north.

Radio marker just north of Sandy Hook.

Not too far from Sandy Hook, we could already see the fruits of our efforts. Even five or so miles away, we could clearly see that we were moving sidewise as we looked towards Coney Island. We nosed out a bit and committed to paddling northward in what is probably the longest and most relaxed ferry glide I've ever made, eventually ending up immediately east of Romer Shoal horn. It used to be a full-fledged lighthouse, but is now an empty shell with an automated foghorn.

Romer Shoal horn, with VB before it.

The wind picked up, and that was annoying because my boat had a broken skeg, so it was all paddle and edging to keep straight. I managed to keep the Parachute Jump at Coney Island as a heading until we got to where the Ambrose Channel - the major shipping channel into and out of NYC - turned north-ish, and after that it was less effort to move forward with the current, leaving me with more effort to keeping the boat straight.

Celebrity Cruises Summit, bound for the sea.

While there had been no major vessels on the way out, as we headed in, we saw one pass behind us in Sandy Hook Channel, and as we saw one container ship leave the city and three more came in - and two more after we passed under the Verranzano and were in the upper harbor. We also saw two cruise ships depart.

As long as we kept to the right of the red cans, I was happy.

Maersk Iowa, bringing in goods.

We made our way back the way we came, along the eastern edge of the harbor. The harbor was more alive now than before - still plenty of fish jumping, but also barges moving, along with the big container ships moving in to the Kill Van Kull. A couple of tugs crossed our path at different points, from Jersey Flats to Red Hook, or Gowanus. Also, the Staten Island Ferry was more active, and we saw a couple of runs as we made our way across the harbor. Fortunately, our timing was such that we were ready to cross from Governors to Battery right after one of them landed at Whitehall.

Still a ways to go: Jersey City to the left, Manhattan Center, Brooklyn right.

All in all, it was a great trip. I was feeling it near the end - with the wind, the way in was harder than the way out. But, from Battery onwards, it was "just another day at the ranch," the kind of trip we run with even the most basic clients. As we paddled into the embayment, we surfed some waves coming in, and then JJ and I did victory rolls - spotting each other in case we flubbed, of course, but we both made our rolls.

I kinda regretted it while I unpacked my boat and washed it up. Even with my dry clothes on, I was a little chilly in the wind. I took a hot shower at the shop before putting on street clothes and a jacket. I kinda stood out at dinner, with all the regular folks dressed for a nice summer day.


To know I can paddle that far, and in at least he low end of the spectrum of conditions out there, is a great feeling. On a more practical level, to have simply been there, and be able to associate actual experience with data on a chart, is huge. Now I know what five miles looks like, and what I should expect when navigating - as well well as what to be worried about when visibility is lower. There's a lot of fetch - in stronger winds, we would have had a completely different paddle.

Sandy Hook is a destination with all kinds of fun history, and a pleasant place to visit in its current state. It's a moderately challenging trip from NYC, and one I hope to make again, and again and again.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Maine - Day 2

Day Two was surfing - but first, where the heck was I staying?

Camp Cowgirl

The Drying Line

The Hitchin' Post

Day Two was a day of surfing. After the morning briefing, we loaded up the boats on cars and a trailer, then went out to Reid Park, where we put in and paddled out a ways.

While we were paddling along the beach, parallel with it but with the swells coming in at a sight angle, I was chatting with one of the coaches. Suddenly, a large swell came along, and as I've been trained to do, I edged into it. Suddenly I was pointed at the beach! I stern ruddered all the way in and landed on the beach. I hopped out, turned around and launched, and caught up with the coach.

I should have edged away from the swell. I'd hear more about that in a bit.

When we arrived where we would surf, there was a small creek streaming out from the interior, creating some interesting chop where it met the incoming swells. The lead coach had us use the swells to help turn, edging to the outside of our turns and away from the swell, letting it lift up our boats and turn as we came about. In short order he had us running circuits, paddling out, coming in, turning back into the surf, and heading out again.

I loved it. I would feel the wave come up behind me, catch it, and ride right in. I worked to keep control, edging one way, then the other, ruddering, bracing, sweeping with an edge to go back out.

"You're a natural." Two of the coaches told me that.

After a while, we took a snack break and walked a ways in, out of the wind. The tides in Maine are so dramatic, easily changing by over eight feet each cycle. Eventually we returned to our boats, relaunched, and set out back to where we put in, nearly unrecognizable now at low tide.

We landed and carried out boats back, stopping at a local shack for some snacks and spirits.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Boat Handling

After two weeks away from my own boat, I was pleasantly surprised at how well I can maneuver it.

I paddle a Valley Argonaut, a discontinued model which is essentially a high volume (HV) Aquanaut. It is, plainly, too big for me. When I get around people who know boats and tell them what I paddle, they all state, or ask, "isn't that a little big for you?"

It is, but I've learned to manage it. I can edge that boat very well, and it turns well on an edge - and only on an edge. Turning without an edge makes it a one-boat parade, marching across the water in a long processional arc.

So yesterday I spent some time getting familiar with it. It takes effort to hold and edge, especially when stationary, but it does take an edge well. On the move, I was able to make very tight reverse stern rudders, turns in place, and carving turns. Even simple edging with a forward stroke works well.

It's a bit of a relief, because I'm not nearly as proficient doing this with the boats I paddle at the shop downtown. The Montauk I settled on last year is gone. I do pretty well in a Force Cat 4, but I've decided to try making a Tiderace Xcite my go-to boat for teaching and guiding.

I can roll the Argonaut as well. I made easily eight attempts, and got them all. Admittedly in a couple of cases I needed to brace up after my hip snap, but the roll is there - and the Argonaut is a lot of boat to roll.

I've considered selling the Argonaut. Having been in better fitting boats it's really tempting. However, now the urgency is off. It's not a terrible boat. It's a camper, it's a Lincoln Town Car. May be a bit big, but it's totally manageable.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maine - Day 1

If you're late to camp, you will miss the briefing about which well has been bleached, and which is more potable.

I learned this lesson the hard way - thankfully, not too hard - when I woke up early Saturday morning and took a swig from the bottle I had filled the night before. We'd gotten in late, around midnight or so, and after pitching tents, pumped water from the well at the foot of the cabin. When I took a sip in the morning, it was . . .sprightly, like extreme toothpaste. Turns out that the potable well was up the hill, near the kitchen entrance.

We were there for kayaking. Saturday, Sunday, and Memorial Day, we paddled in the vicinity of the Sheepscot Bay, out of an Appalachian Mountain Club camp at Knubble Bay. Each day brought us new adventures.

Day 1, Saturday, we spent time in tidal streams. We started low and worked our way up, practicing ferry techniques in progressively stronger and bigger streams. Eventually, we had a competition against a somewhat complicated stream, with multiple smaller tributaries, each of us working our way up based on how we read the water.

After that we paddled on and came to an overfall near a point of land; the feature was called Lower Hell Gate, reminding JJ and I of our feature here called Hell Gate. Unlike its New York cousion, this was a proper overfall, or I'm told like a hole in whitewater lingo, as the water spilled over from one elevation to another to form a bubbling cauldron releasing into a strong bit of current. Coach encouraged us to nose in, edge away from the fall, and ride it.

We did. I'm happy to say I took two runs facing with the current and came off alright, while I saw others capsize. Then I tried nosing in, and facing the point of land, talking to our coach on the land, my tail towards to direction I would follow to get out.

I rode it. I "edged like a mo'fo'" as other paddler put it. I smiled. It was great! And then suddenly I was underwater, in 50 degree Maine spring water.

I looked at my toggle. It was so inviting. And I hadn't rolled in a while. With that, I gave up and popped out. I should have rolled but I didn't. I have a ton of excuses and I'm not happy with any of them.

In short order I was rescued. I was cold, but out. I paddled around a but was done.

We landed shortly after and I asked, what had I done wrong? What had any of us, and there were several who capsized, done?

"You leaned back. Ever so slightly, but it was enough to drive the stern down, just enough to catch."

So, posture.

This is funny because when I teach, I always push good posture, to the point of sounding like a nineteenth century schoolmarm. And some people just insist on a nice, lazy, lean-back paddling posture. However it really makes a difference, even in flatwater paddling. Your posture affects the trim of the boat. Use that fact to your advantage.

After that, we paddled back to camp, with a few more tidal streams, and some rolling practice at the end. JJ even let me test drive her Avocet, which was a marked change from the P&H Delphin I'd been paddling.

We landed, tied up the boats and laid out our gear before breaking for dinner. In camping, you really do rise and set with the sun. I'd been up since 0530, and after dinner was so exhausted that I was ready for bed by 2100.

I slept soundly, looking forward to our next adventure the the next day, whatever it might be.