Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunrise to Throgs Neck

Four. 4 AM. 0400. Four o'clock in the morning. I set my alarm for this, on a weekend, because I managed to convince a couple of friends that a sunrise paddle to the Throgs Neck bridge would be fun.

It's a trip I've made before. I made sure to apply the lessons learned from that trip. We'd take nearly four hours to paddle out, have a one hour layover, and paddle back.

The thing was, to get there we'd have to leave at 0545. At that, we didn't get going till 0600, making our way in short order up the Hudson, through Spuyten Duyvil, and then down the Harlem.

The morning sky.

The Hamilton, Washington, and High bridges.

High bridge has the scaffolding off!

We took a little jaunt through my favorite new shortcut: the Bronx kill, along the north edge of Randalls Island.

Moving right along.

We don't have caves for NYC paddling, but we do have overpasses.
Under the rail and pedestrian overpasses.

And now the upper East River.

I've started using the appellation, "Upper" East River to distinguish between the East River that runs alongside Manhattan and the East River that separates Queens from the Bronx; these are connected by Hell Gate. For most NYC paddlers, the East River is just a little stretch to pass through on a circumnavigation, or perhaps a path to Hell Gate or the upper harbor.

In our case we were heading out past the Brother islands, Rikers Island, Laguardia airport, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, and ending at the SUNY Maritime college next to the Throgs Neck bridge.

The upper East River is a great place to teach chart navigation. For one thing, there's a great deal of variety in charted objects, from landmarks to channel markers, making it easy to triangulate position and practice orientation. For another, the current is generally mild but noticeable, and there is enough enough fetch that it's easy to demonstrate a ferry crossing. I didn't teach a proper class but I did show my paddlemates how to figure out where we were and where we were going.

The weather had been predicted to be cloudy and overcast, improving with the day. We had winds 6-10 mph out of the ENE, giving us a decent headwind and waves to paddle over on the outbound trip.

At one point in our journey I overheard a Coast Guard cutter repeatedly hailing an outbound power vessel, and later something about letting an NYPD boa out of Flushing handle something. I realized we were very close to part of Laguardia Airport and had just skirted the shore of Rikers Island, NYC's main prison facility. I hailed them.

"This is kayak three,  we just want to make sure we're not the cause of any trouble out here."

"No, ah, kayak three, we're not aware of any local law enforcement activity in your area. Just be sure to observe charted security zones and shipping regulations."

Or, something to that effect.

The skies improve.

Along the way, we spotted what seemed to be part of a submarine being towed out towards Long Island Sound. Which prompted the questions: who buys these things? How are they assembled?

Sub Assembly Required.

As we approached the Throgs Neck, we could make out a vessel I didn't see last time - the Empire State, the training vessel for SUNY Maritime College. It was moored next to the college, right next to the bridge. We crossed, and paddled alongside her.

Approaching the Throgs Neck.

The Empire State.

There is a small beach between the bridge and an old art deco building on campus. There we saw the remains of some wildlife - or maybe living wildlife in the case of the turtle.

Horseshoe Crab.


It turns out it was cadet induction day (or something like that). We saw quite a few of them marching up to what amounts to their parade ground, where they would salute the colors and then move on to wherever they were directed next.

This is where we stopped for lunch - well, second breakfast. We took a brief peek in the fort, but mostly sat watching the water, and or boats and the gently receding tide. Fishermen in small recreational craft drifted by.

Cadets on parade.

We only had about an hour. I was very specific about this, since the last time I made this trip, my friend and I got caught out behind some very strong current in the last mile of the Harlem river. I budgeted two hours each for the East River and Harlem river legs of the trip - a little generous for this group, but also allowing for conditions, gabbing, and gear dickering.

As I explained to the group, our departure was driven not by conditions where we were, but by where we would be near the end. We needed to be exiting the Harlem by one hour after low tide at Battery, or the end of our journey would be a bit of a challenge.

The time came to leave, and we set out under the bridge, returning along the north, or Bronx, side of the river. The wind died down pretty quickly, and it even got a bit sunny and warm, so we just had to paddle. We made good time, and took a short detour to peek at the mouth of the Bronx river, the only freshwater river in New York City.

The Way Home.

We went 'round the Brothers, veering to North Brother and then crossing the channel again to the Bronx side. Once back in the kill, the boys took a short break, and then we continued on.

Back in the Bronx Kill.

The Harlem was uneventful, remarkable only in that we were passed by no commercial traffic - just a couple of jetskis, and recreational craft, remarkably polite craft at that - they all cut their engines to produce no wake. We waved a a small crowd of people hanging out from a large housing complex. The shouted "ole!" as we passed by.

Our timing worked out well, we managed to be half an hour ahead of schedule, which is better than being half an hour behind. By the time we passed the Broadway bridge, we were content to drift, paddle a bit, drift, and so on. Once on the Hudson, I took a little roll, mostly to cool off, but also to practice and give myself a little victory move before we went in.

I ought to mention that I tried out a new bit of kit, some paddling clothes I picked up at the shop. I got a short sleeve top and a pair of shorts, and both are basically an inner lining of a warm, quick-dry material, and a waterproof/windproof outer material. I wore it bc I expected the wind to bite a bit more, and wanted something that could block the wind when I was out of my boat.

I'm happy to say this stuff was warm and I was downright toasty on the Harlem legs of the paddle; I appreciated it on the East River legs, when my buddies were pulling out their jackets. There's a dry cag on sale from the same manufacturer, and I think I may get it as an interim step between my paddling jacket and drysuit.

All in all this was a good trip, and an improvement on how I did it last time. It's not a hard trip but the distance make it something for experienced paddlers. I'm working up some variations - going deep into Flushing Bay, or landing at nearer shores. It's nice to know my understanding of tides isn't totally off.

Hours later, after we're off the water and all our boats and gear have been washed and put away, I was walking to the subway station past a bunch of restaurants serving brunch. I scanned the skies, reading the clouds as I had so much earlier in the morning, as if I were still at sea.

I'll look forward to the next!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sedge Island

Last weekend I went on a cartop trip to Barnegat Bay. What happened was, my friend LB put together a trip under the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) banner, inviting friends from various walks of her paddling life, primarily whitewater and the Sebago Canoe Club. I met her on the one whitewater trip I did last year, but since we live in the same neighborhood we've kept in touch and she asked me along.

We cartopped to Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. This is a long barrier "island" the forms the northern stretch of land between the bay and the ocean. The inlet to Barnegat Bay itself is about forty miles south of Sandy Hook, a destination I know well.

I rode with local paddlers-about-town O & D. My first leg in this journey was to paddle my boat from Inwood to Pier 84, next to the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space museum, a retired aircraft carrier handing off midtown Manhattan.

D & O showed up later and we loaded all three of our boats on our car, then raced out of the city, down the highway, to the park. After introductions, we put in and paddled about a mile out to Sedge Island, our home for the weekend.

Boats Ashore, Argonaut in the Foreground.

The sun sets over the high deck.

The Big Sky.

Sedge Island is a combination research and education center, near the channel bisecting the bay. Our host, Bob, was a biology teacher who'd grown up and worked on he bay, participating in research projects and leading summer trips of students. We stay in a cabin powered by solar panels, with limited water. Generally, I woke and slept with the sun.

One of the ongoing projects involved protecting turtle eggs from predators. Interns would scout for eggs and move them to a caged area pretty well sheltered from predators. When the eggs hatched, the turtles would be nurtured before being released back into the wild.

Protected Turtle Hatchery.

The south porch - better described as the southwest porch - became our main congregating area.

The South Porch.

On our first night, we mostly unpacked and made dinner and learned about the island and each others' names. We were given a demonstration of bioluminescent jellyfish - little critters, the size of a child's hand, that when the water was stirred would spark off some light.

The next morning, the seagulls were OMG loud. I said we woke and slept with the sun, but Saturday morning it was the gulls what woke me up. I made coffee and walked about. Bob was fishing in the narrow channel in front of the house. Across the bay, we could see cloud formations swirling in the distance, a portent of things to come.

As people woke up we slowly assembled breakfast. We expected to be out a bit so had a big breakfast, figuring we could always snack and work it off later. After cleanup, we kitted our boats and Bob led us on a little tour of our environment.

Viewing the Osprey Nest.

This was mostly marsh, with channels cutting through wetlands; ducks, egrets, and wading birds were all on display. Osprey nests were on platforms in the middle. We could also make out oyster beds clinging to the mud in the channels.


We paddled on, eventually exiting and coming to a channel called Snake Creek. The tide was growing against us, surprisingly strong, and we eddy-hopped as much as we could until we reached a small beach near the inlet.

Ol'Barney, aka Barnegat Light.

The Broken Shore.

We saw the remains of a recent Army Corps of Engineers project. The idea was to drape a large canvas tub to block Snake Creek, fill it with sand, and allow a new topography to form. However Nature did not get the memo, and proceeded to flood over and the break the dike. We paddled over its remains the next day.

Later we paddled back over some shallow water. A few got out and hunted for clams.

Paddling Across the Shallows.

I took a stab or five at i but had no luck. Eventually I and about half the group gave up, landed, took a break and then some of us went out for a proper paddle.

D & O and I (that is, me) decided to go for a wee paddle across the channel and around Gull Island. We saw kiteboarder and plenty of  . . .gulls, as one might expect.

Paddling Out.

One thing that was a bit of a surprise was the traffic. On the one hand, we're bad-ass New York City paddlers, accustomed to the harbor and the ferry traffic, tugs and barges and the occasional cruse ship. What were weren't used o was the near-constant parade of recreational boats powering out or returning from the sea. Furthermore, the channel was narrow, but winding, meaning that it wasn't always clear which way or when a given boat was going to turn.

When we came back though, we had a nice surprise.


The hunt was successful!

While we'd been out, some of our party had grabbed proper clamming tools and gone out to scoop as many up as they could. Some were grilled, opening as they heated, and others served raw, on the half shell.

Later that night a handful of us did a night paddle around Sedge Island. We kept our lights off in order to better see the glowing jellyfish. It took a while but we spotted a few!

Meanwhile, most of our comrades went night crabbing. Apparently crabs are drawn to light. Shine a light and they'll walk right into your net. They caught a bunch and they were put in a bucket overnight to make crab cakes the next morning - but most escaped, and the last one was too cute to boil.

The next morning LB and I, along with a couple of others, went for a wee paddle before breakfast - before the traffic roared up, more importantly.

Cowgirl on the Water.

Cowgirl with LB.

After breakfast, we packed up and cleaned up. I'm happy to say I got all my kit into the Argonuat, with a little room to spare, which means I'm getting better at packing - though I did not have my tent, or expedition levels of food.

We took one more spin around the bay, again through channels, with some of us heading out to run along the channel, to the worry of our host. We're sea kayakers! We're meant to be in a bit of chop. The boat wake combined with the shallows made for a somewhat bouncy ride, but nothing terrible.

Anointed by the sun.

This was a great trip, and honestly something of a surprise. In the weeks leading up to it, I though, "boring sheltered flatwater", but it really wasn't. For one thing, the dramatic effect on shallows by the tide, changing the topography and creating unexpected eddies, was a surprise. For another, we had steady wind and a ton of fetch, which meant we had to do a little work and instruction on how to manage wind. The fabulous scenery and genuinely interesting ecology topped it all off.

Once we met up again, we finished lunch and then paddled back to where we put in, pulled out the boats and unpacked them, and said our goodbyes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Coach

The best, most consistent advise I've gotten from nearly all of my paddling instructors is: work with as many coaches as you can. Take what works and discard the rest. Learn not just paddling but teaching, organization, and communication styles. Teaching paddlesports is a bit like being a rodeo clown - you've got to be entertaining but also capable of ensuring the safety of others when things go awry.

So, I was surprised when, as I was taking my Sunday morning class out, one of the head coaches at the shop introduced me to a Brit, I'll call him G, from the UK. G is a multi-discipline coach at a county paddlesport center. The guy does this  for a living. On top of that, having started in the British (BCU) tradition, any coach from the UK automatically gets at least demigod status here in the US.

"He'll be joining you on the water."

"Do I need to do anything special? Am I being evaluated?" My local coaches have been known to spring surprises on me. My paranoia is not unjustified.

"No, just do your thing. He's there if you need him."

So of course, I proceeded to nearly ignore him the whole time. I couldn't think of how to introduce someone who I hadn't properly met. I did have an aside with him at one point to explain/apologize for my use of the environment - the wind was stronger than the current so I moved where we were practicing. Then, I struggled to find a way to manage two neophyte paddlers who barely had control of their boats for about an hour. Thank God the conditions were flat.

After the class, he joined us for lunch and after some chitchat about the local paddling scene, I got some good feedback from him. It echoes what I've been told before, but I got more affirmation of what I got right.

I was very organized, he said, and made good use of games. Overall the class went well. He suggested more discovery, even in the beginning - give them a problem to sole without any instruction, or pair them off with my assistants to ask questions, but my assistants can only answer yes or no. We also talked about the particular problems I had with each student: one just was not going to sit up straight, and the other was so worried about capsize it hampered his ability to learn. Matching boats to people is turning out to be one of the most important things an instructor can do!

Afterwards, we went for a short paddle. It was low tide when we left, and we only had a couple of hours, so basically we paddled north against a spring tide (a supermoon spring tide, I might add) to the Intrepid, an old aircraft carrier docked at 44th street that has been turned into an air and space museum (they have a space capsule hanging off the side). There is another paddle shop there, and we took a break before practically flying back with the current.

I got some good additional feedback there. I was telling him I was learning new games to try, including one called Follow My Leader, when *splash* -

"Uh oh," he said. "Your assistant's in trouble."

This particular assistant has been learning to roll, and practices whenever he can. Unfortunately he decided to do this about seventy yards out, and failed. He came out of his boat and I gave him an assisted rescue.

We tried some more rolls, and critiqued both his and mine. Then, it was time to go in.

It was a good opportunity to get some feedback from another highly rated coach. I've worked with a couple here in the US but they are few and far between. This guy was succinct and very clear, but also very positive. His coachismo, as I call it, was present but not overpowering. He had very specific points but did not belabor them. I felt like I learned more in half an hour of conversation than I have learned from days of paddling with certain other people.

The Old Men and the Sea

Teaching at the shop, we get all kinds of comers: young, old, couples, singletons, professionals seeking escape from the 9-5 grind, hipsters looking some something even more obscure to do. So, there's a bit more variety than when I teach in club settings. In the case of this past weekend, I had two students for our level one course. R was 60. P was 78.

Whenever you start a new student, especially beginners, it's a good idea to get their goals. R was simple: self-taught, he wanted to learn proper technique. P was a little hard to believe: he was going on a weeks-long trip to Alaska in two weeks, which inlcuded a four-day kayak camping component.

"Have you ever paddled before? Kayak? Paddleboard, canoe, even surfing."


Oh boy.

So from an instruction perspective, these two presented a couple of challenges. Both were new, and on the bigger side. P was so tall I put him in our widest boat, a Necky Eskia, which while stable also tends to track very, very well - meaning I had to teach him how to stop early on. R was not as big, but on the tall side. I took a chance and put him in a Chatham 17, my go-to fits-everyone boat. However, his experience was with wider, more stable boats, so while he fit the boat, he was not confident in it. This limited his torso rotation.

We managed to step through the class. I was a little nervous because a well-credentialed BCU coach was visiting on holiday and sat in on the class. He was very nice, not interfering at all, occasionally paddling off on his own, and he gave me great feedback at the end. Still, I was a little nervous at first, even though I wasn't being formally evaluated!

Since it was high tide when we started, I had us on the south edge, but the light wind from the north proved more of a factor so I moved us to where Pier 40 blocked most of it. Highlights, from my perspective, were that I had more activity and less of me talking - and at that, I probably still talked too much. However, using my assistants, in short order I had them paddling around the embayment in circles, then lanes, and then figure eights. I felt like I got the hang of demonstrating and then sending them out while I evaluated them, and then gave them individual and collective feedback.

P had a habit of leaning back all the time. Even when I got him to understand the value of sitting upright, I'd have to remind him. R understood things a bit better, but was nervous about capsizing. He also had shades and a mustache that made him hard to read. He was actually friendly and open to instruction when I talked to him, but at first he looked like an impassive drill sergeant!

Near the end, we took a little jaunt out around the Holland Tunnel blower towards Pier 26. The students got a taste of the river. R was willing to do a wet exit, which is optional at this level. We went back, and he capsized and I rescued him. Then we went in and called it a day.

The nice part: I got a tip, which I split evenly with my assistants. Also, one of them opted for a private lesson with me specifically. That was gratifying.

Rescues and Shepherding

This past weekend was a fair amount of rescues and instruction. On Saturday I taught a small rescue class at my club. 

It was small because, I think, the weekend before was pretty intense - the boathouse was in use nearly twenty-four full hours. People needed time off. Also, I gave short notice - just a couple of weeks - grabbing an increasingly rare open slot on my summer paddling calendar. Altogether I only had three students - which made it a cozy class!

This was good, because I was trying something new - a hybrid class on shepherding and rescues. I've decided this doesn't work, at least not for a day class. Even at three students I had to shortshrift both topics. I'll have dedicated sessions for each from now on.

I started with shepherding. I like that term better than trip leading, because I've seen too many people take trip leading into trip bossing. Sherpherding also connotes the actual responsibility of any journey: these are your charges, and you are responsible. Put another way, one of my coaches with a police background used a phrase from that part of his life: there are wolves, and there are sheep. A shepherd's guide is to protect the sheep - although most of the time the 'wolves' are the elements - wind, water, etc. 

So we talked about CLAP (Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance, and Position of maximum effectiveness). I used some simple props in the class to talk about various scenarios: what positioning would work, how to communicate and hand off problems or potential problems, and so on. One of my students is keen on radio communications, which are often impractical for paddling since you need two hands to paddle and one to use the radio. Line of sight, group awareness, and environmental awareness are more valuable than a radio in most situations.

Then, I handed out random secret roles and we went on a little journey, where each of the students was trip leader in turn. We had the fast paddler, the lost paddler, and the sick paddler. The last of these was so convincing that the trip leader though he was actually sick! We paddled north from Inwood into the Harlem river, coming back as the tide turned against us. I demonstrated belt tows and contact toes, including hand-on-deckline tows. I had the students try those as well.

Then, we did rescues. I started with balance exercises - sit legs out, then on the back deck, paddle around a bit, then get back in. Then we did scramble exercises: only one had trouble, and the rest commented on how a scramble was much easier than expected. 

We relocated to the north side of the river, which worked well in terms of depth and being very sheltered from the current, as well as river traffic. A Circle Line boat roared past us, creating little relative wake, and we had the depth we needed to capsize and rescue. We did paddle float rescues, both back deck and heel hook, and after one student had trouble securing her paddled, I demonstrated holding it against the coaming and using weight to help keep it secure.

With that, we ended the morning session, and two of them left for the day. After lunch, I worked with the remaining student on various eskimo rescues. What was interesting with her was how turned round she would get. She would find her stability (my boat or my paddle)and somehow reach for it behind her, practically somersaulting the boat length-wise in the process. I got her to get her support in front of her, and also to use her hip flick more.

The best part for me was, near the end, I had her spot me on my own work - and I finally got a re-entry and roll. It needs work, but at least I know for certain that I can do it.