Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bon Voyage

A post on a Facebook group for Hudson River paddlers caught my attention: a woman, Margo Pellegrino, set out from Newark for Chicago. After a layover at Pier 66 in Manhattan, she'd be heading north, and: would anyone care to join her?

Kayak Cowgirl here, free time on hand, paddling out of the Inwood Canoe Club.

I left around 0730; Margo had launched from Pier 66 about an hour earlier, against what was some pretty fierce ebb tide. To her immense credit she'd gotten nearly to Mitsuwa, the Japanese supermarket in Fort Lee, by the time I met up with here just north of the ferryboat Binghamton.

Along the way I stopped to say howdy to the crew of the USCG Ridley, a cutter that appeared to be tending a buoy. I didn't have my radio with me so I paddled close and hollered, but was waved off by someone in the conning booth. I suppose they don't like unknown vessels pulling up to close, but the crew seemed friendly enough.

It was a good thing Margo came up the NJ side of the river, because guess what? Fleet Week, the annual gathering of military vessels in NYC, started up, meaning there was a 500 yard security zone in midtown. If she'd stayed in NYC she would have had to go to the middle of the river, where the current is strongest, to avoid the zone.

Checking In.

We paddled for a bit - hard, against the current, though it was weakening. We waited for a tug pulling two barges to pass and then crossed the river, ferrying a bit, then continued north along the Manhattan side. Shortly after passing under the GWB, the current eased up, and we ran into a fellow paddler from the Inwood Canoe Club, Mac Levine, resident paddleboarder out for her morning routine.

We stopped at the Inwood Canoe Club so Margo could take a short break and view the grounds. We got out at the club's new dock - built by club members over the past month or so,  and only floated into service two days earlier - and took a look around. Margo's paddling an outrigger canoe, and the club's heritage includes canoe and kayak racing. We talked a little shop, but just a little.

Margo is heading to Chicago, heading up the Hudson, planning to paddle via the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and on over to the windy city. Previous expeditions include Miami to Maine and Seattle to San Diego. You can follow Margot on Twitter @slowpaddler and you can read about this project in particular here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cut Your Own Drysuit

A few months ago I paddled with some friends at the Inwood Canoe Club who'd bought some new drysuits. Inexpensive drysuits, at that. The quality seems good but there was one caveat - they had to cut their own gaskets.


The suits basically come with standard rubber wrist and neck gaskets. However, they are completely sealed. It's hard to make out in this photo, but trust me friends there is no hole there. They had to cut the hole themselves.

The first step was to take a little nip - not big enough for head and neck, just enough to get a proper hole started.

After that they tried a technique seen on more customary neck gasket trimming: Poking a CD stack case evenly to stretch it out, and then running the sharpest blade availabled around it in one cut. Ideally this would have been an X-acto knife (or, "Blade of Exact Zero", if you will), but in this case the scissors were adequate.

They haven't gone on a "swim test" but the gaskets were certainly tight - my friends reported some additional trimming later on when they got home. These are unisex with limited sizing - not the sexiest suits we've seen, though they do make a big deal about having a flap to cover the front relief zipper, aka the pee-hole.

These drysuits are made and sold by Mythic Gear, . Check out their website for more information.

For myself, I'll stick with my Gore-tex drysuit, going on its fourth year with only one gasket replacement (which was my fault - my right hand got a little impatient once). There are other low-cost alternatives out there, including trilaminate materials, plastic zippers, and and open feet.

Before making any drysuit or cold-water paddling purchase, it's very important to have a solid understanding of cold water paddling, and knowledge of what a drysuit does and does not do.

That said, these semi-DYI suits are another option to consider.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Sound Idea, Pt. 2

Part of the original plan was to meet up with some friends of mine - Jean and Alex from the 2 Geeks 3 Knots blog. The 2 Geeks paddled up to meet us from their home base in Larchmont, arriving in the evening and setting up camp next to ours.

We traded stories and talked about gear, especially the keeping-warm kind, as we shared dinner and a little wine. Kayak Dov shared a story from his hiking days, about a man he met on the Appalachian Trail who always built a fire, and always attracted company. "Fires are the center of community," the man had said. "Build a fire and you pull people together."

As warm as it was during the day, the temperature dropped considerably overnight, into the low forties. Our nighttime dinner was fortified with hot tea, dry clothes, and a storm cag to keep the wind off.

The original plan was to leave early the next morning, but we all decided to sleep in. Kayak Dov and I were in no hurry, and the geeks had only gotten to the island. We took our time Sunday morning, before packing all our things and heading out on the sound.

Breaking Camp.

Good Morning !

We headed out to exit the islands.

Threading through the islands.

Past nice houses on the shore. . .

. . .and a nice house on an island.

Up around a little point.

And finally, back out on the sound.

Our first major landmark - a flagpole on a point.

We passed a lot of nice and very interesting houses along the shore.

House with gazebo.

Seawalls and townships.

Jean on the shore.

Eventually we approached Stamford, peeking in the harbor and passing to the interior of the eastern breakwater.

Coming on Stamford.

We paddled along the breakwater.

The channel between breakwaters.
Heading back out.

We spotted Osprey hatchlings high in this marker.

A marker and a home.

Passing an old lighthouse.

We paddled past Stamford and over to Greenwich Point, which is the southeastern point of Lloyd Neck. There's a wide wading beach there with facilities and concessions. Closed to kayakers except during the off-season, we pressed our luck and landed away from the crowds, making use of the facilities and taking a prolonged snack and water break.

I learned a new term on this trip: diaper streak. It's not something I see on the Hudson or the harbor, whether because boaters are better behaved or the water flushes more. Diaper streaks, the 2 Geeks informed us, are where vessels discharge their human waste into the sound, an it spreads out in a long, brown stripe on the surface of the water. They look as appealing as they sound, and they can be quite long and unavoidable. We saw quite a few - more than is typical, the 2 Geeks said. It was disgusting and we encourage all boaters to be cognizant of how to manage their waste properly.

Sound Keeper offers free pumpouts to boating vessels. Give a hoot, don't pollute.

A shady shack.

There were a few little kids who side-eyed our boats as they scooped sand near the surf with their parents. We saw a lot of people in swim clothes and bikinis, mostly just sunning themselves. They were quite a contrast to our drysuits and layers underneath! We got a few looks but nothing more than, "there's something you don't see every day."

Kayak Dov paddling close to shore.

Once rested, we continued our voyage. In short order we were at the Captain Islands.

Wee Captain.

Little Captain.

Great Captain.

The Captain Islands were actually our first choice for a trip like this. They're far from our home base in Inwood, the northern tip of Manhattan, New York City, but can be reached in a good day's paddle. However, everyone we talked to indicated that 1) they're all private property except Great Captain and 2) the township of Greenwich is very strict about people landing on their shores, and there is no sanctioned camping at all. Having seen the landscape I don't think there is a way we could have avoided being seen.

The funny thing about the lighthouse at Great Captain is that the light atop the house is no longer in service. It's been replaced by the tower out front.

Paddling past the light at Great Captain.

After this, the clouds started obscuring the sun intermittently, and our headwind started to pick up and gust a bit. We were close, but our pace slowed. The last few miles would be challenging, partly because we were growing tired but more because the conditions increased against us.

We gradually passed Rye, New York, where we could see parts of the Rye Playland amusement park. Then on a bit further to Peningo Point.

Passing into a cloudy later afternoon.

Approaching a pass.

Off in the distance, we could start to make out the Manhattan skyline. What was really curious here, more easily seen later than when I took this picture, is that our angle had us seeing from left to right the Throgs Neck Bridge, Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, and then lower Manhattan. The bridges made sense because the Throgs Neck is the first one in from the sound. However they're lateral from the Upper East Side. Manhattan seemed very out of place!

Home, in the distance.

The skies lightened up for a bit for the final push in. We were soon paddling through sailing marinas, the American Yacht Club and Milford Harbor, the Larchmont Yacht Club and Larchmont Harbor.

A Big Buoy.

Eventually we arrived at our final destination: Horseshoe Harbor in Larchmont, a tiny little nook of sheltered water next to a sizable boathouse. We unloaded our boats first, and then took a group photo. A park surrounds the cove, so almost as soon as we began a couple stopped and offered to take our photo, so we could all be in it.

I have to say again that this was an amazing trip and I'm so happy it came together. All three of my paddling partners were great company, and as a bonus I saw one friend meet two others for the first time. The weather of the three days was as near perfect as could be for paddling and for camping. While the paddling legs were long, they were rewarding, and the island was very interesting.

It's the first expedition of the season. We're off to a good start!

At the very end of our journey, once the boats were stowed and we'd all showered, and Kayak Dov was fetching the car for our ride back, the 2 Geeks and I found ourselves overwhelmed with choices in a restaurant:

6 oz steak (with mushrooms? onions? rare/medium rare/well done?)
8 oz steak (with mushrooms? onions? rare/medium rare/well done?)
11 oz steak (with mushrooms? onions? rare/medium rare/well done?)
chicken (grilled, smoked, barbecue)
Half a dozen kinds of beer and half a dozen house coctails.
Choice of two sides.

Camping, and at sea, your choices are very simple:
 do you eat the food you brought now or later?
  do you stop for water now, or later?
  Do you paddle out of your way and out of the wind, or stay on course and fight the wind?

Life at sea, and camping, is very simple. We recognize that we are privileged to be able to live so humbly as a choice, and not a permanent state of affairs, unlike so many in the world who are permanently without a home. "Getting away from it all" here meant the countless decisions, checklists, and short personal transactions that make up our daily lives. It does put in perspective the wealth of choices those of us in the modern first world have. When our only major choices are where to build shelter, when to eat, and how to deal with the weather, coming back to "civilization" and its myriad  options for each of these is a bit jarring.

That said, I'm not complaining. I'll take a hot shower after a long paddle every day if I can.

A Sound Idea, Pt. 1

Martha's Vineyard. Block Island. Captains Harbor. These were all ideas we had for a long weekend paddling off Long Island Sound (or Block Island Sound). We had a few constraints in terms of when we could take off from work, but the major ones were: where would we have a good chance of camping without getting in trouble? After asking around, we settled on another set of islands, based on the advice of some friends.

I won't say specifically where, but basically the incredible Kayak Dov and I started in one place further east, paddled eighteen nautical miles, landed and camped for two nights, then paddled to where our friends lived, also about eighteen nautical miles.

Anyway, who wouldn't want to live on an island all to themselves?

Weight for It
Pouring water takes time - and it's heavy. I bought a couple of collapsible eight liter bags and filled them . . .filled them . . .filled them with water bought at the store.

As I poured, I contemplated that all that water would go into me, and then out of me. It was mesmerizing.

We figured we would need about fourteen liters apiece for the trip. Water weighs 2.2 lbs per liter, which meant that these bags alone added over 35 lbs of weight to my boat. I looked forward to dropping all that weight as the trip progressed.

We both brought along food as well. Snacks, as well as breakfast and dinner. I had a camping stove and fuel for it, as well as some enamel bowls and mugs.

Most of my kit I've looked up the weights and written on them (mugs, 4 oz weight). Of course, the biggest items were my tent and sleeping bag. My tent comfortably sleeps two. My sleeping bag crunches down quite a bit, but is still 3 lbs 3 oz. Weight and volume. Suddenly kayaking involves elementary school math.

We'd found a little public launch about two miles up a river from the sound, right in front of a shopping center. Kayak Dov would leave his car there, take the train back, and come back to pick me up, when it was all done.

My boat was very near capacity. We could barely lift it fully loaded, and when I slid it into the water off the dock, the wood beneath creaked and groaned. However, once in the water, it was imminently paddle-able. I had good trim, a little biased to the stern. I could edge comfortably, and while it took a bit more effort to get going, I could go.

One kind gentleman questioned out plans. "The river gets up to ten knots. I've pulled people out myself. People just like you." Really? Nothing we researched indicated such strong currents, and we certainly didn't experience them. In a little more than half an hour we'd gotten to the mouth of the river and on to Long Island Sound.

We paddled past a lot of lighthouses and markers, including this one at Stratford Point.

Kayak Dov Rounding Stratford Point.

We debated whether to stay near shore or go farther out. I favored the latter, as for me this was a navigation exercise. I'd worked out that a heading of 240 based on a couple of offshore waypoints would get us there. However an offshore tailwind steadily blew us back towards shore, and I spent a lot of this leg of the trip just keeping track of where we were using buoys and landmarks.

We did keep ourselves entertained though. Pretty sure this was Black Rock. If you squint hard you can see that the sailboat is being towed in.

Black Rock, Towing.

Near an area called The Cows, we were a bit perplexed because we only saw one rock-mounted light where we expected two would be in sight. We later attributed this to one compass not being set correctly for magnetic deviation, leading to a lot of head math and a little disagreement about where things were. We took a guess that the lighthouse we saw was the outermost of the two, and in hindsight we were probably right.

Pretty sure Black Rock, near The Cows.

We paddled on. One thing I learned - or had reinforced rather, as I've experienced it before - is that bearing paddling is very much an act of faith. If I keep going in this direction for two hours I will get there. It's not totally an act of faith - have your wits about you regarding the wind and current. However, far from landmarks, there can be little sense of progress, and you just have to trust that as long as you maintain a given course, you'll be near enough to your destination to find it.

We Paddled.

I have to confess a couple of things.

First of all, I was low on energy. I'd carb'd up the night before, and had a decent breakfast, and lunch, and power bar on the way, but I was flagging. I felt slow, though Kayak Dov later pointed out that, along the lines of what I wrote above, without anything nearby against which to gauge speed it's easy to feel like you're going nowhere. I stopped for breaks more frequently than I would have liked, and ten minutes felt like half an hour.

Once we landed, I worked out that I hadn't been especially slow. Despite the deviation from plan, we'd more or less followed the plan and arrived only a little later than expected. It's only that along the way, I hadn't been feeling that.

The second thing was that I misread the horizon. There was one point where we were much farther offshore than I'd intended, perhaps half a mile to a mile. It's easy to fail to distinguish between a piece of land many miles away and a low headland closer by. For the longest time I mistook our destination for a small spit that we never seemed to have passed, when in fact we were just so far out we never crossed it.

In short order we realized we had already passed the easternmost of these islands and could make what we thought were the middle and westernmost. Suddenly I had renewed energy, just like I've seen in clients. The destination is right there. Full speed ahead!

Unfortunately, we had a little more noodling around to do. There are many islands in this little archipelago, and some of them are connected at low tide. What we thought was our destination clearly wasn't, on account of a house being on it, and the next one over was clearly for the birds only - there were signs posted. However by now we were close enough to shore that I orientated myself and got to a beach.

We got out, checked it out, and made camp. Partly as a result of having to paddle around the islands we'd originally mistook for our destination, we landed at the wrong beach. Instead of a sandy beach with fire pits and outhouses, we were about half a mile around a small point, on a beach mixed of short reeds and large pebbles, with a long mound of shells forming a berm.

We didn't know, and in any event decided it was good enough. We set up camp and made dinner, watched the sun set, and went to bed shortly after.

The Island
The next morning, we got up and explored the island.

The interior pond.

The Argonaut after landing.

On Saturday I took a wee paddle by myself around the island - actually two islands, connected at low tide by a land bridge.

Much closer than usual to this gull.

The old lighthouse.

As I rounded the far point of the far island, I saw a paddleboarder putting out to sea from a long soft beach near the lighthouse. Now, I am a friendly paddler, and said howdy as we got close, but I got barely a response.

Maybe he thought I'd criticize him for being underdressed for the water, or maybe I was just ruining his zen. We were vessels passing in the day, and that was all there was to it.

A paddleboarder.

The inner shore of the westernmost island.

On the back half of my circumnav (duo-circ? It was two islands at once) I came across what I dubbed the wishing well and some old structures that I suppose once supported a walkway out to it.

Remains of former grandeur.

Opposite the north shore of the island was a power plant. That stack had been one of our landmarks the last few miles in. It was quiet, and not smoky.

A power plant.

Several smaller islands dotted a small bay just northwest of out island. On the one hand, we thought it was a shame that they'd been turned over to private development. On the other hand, if we had one, we'd certainly put it to use! They seemed to be summer homes though. I didn't see any signs of habitation in any of them.

Houses in the interior bay.

More houses.

Each one unique.

On this last house, the forces of erosion had clearly taken their toll. I don't expect this home has too much longer, relatively speaking.

The high ground - for how long?

When I got back, I joined Kayak Dov for a walk around the island.  At low tide, we saw quite a bit more than our earlier reconnoiter.

Dead Horseshoe Crab.

At times we saw other kayaks in the distance. This fellow was making great speed. We tried to identify the style of his boat. It looked somewhat ski-ish, or race-style sea kayak. Kayak Dov thought it might be a skin-on-frame boat.

We tried hailing him but got no response.

Another Paddler !

You can't stop a boy from frolicking over nature !

Beautiful tidal strands.

As we came around the island, I found that parts of this bay were closed off at low tide.

Those same islands.

A wading bird - white egret, I think.

What really took me about this island was that you could clearly see the effect of tide on the geography and local flora. At low tide so much more of the island was exposed, and at narrow bars of sand and stone you could make out the flow of water, and even visualize the slow erosive effects that must take decades, even centuries, to change the landscape. I really felt like I could see Earth as a living planet, and the effects the tides, and by extension our moon and sun and our oceans and the wind, have on the world we live on.

Most of our isthmus.

This included the mussels and reeds. Most of the island's flora were these short stubby reeds, amongst which sprawling clusters of mussels grew. Our camp awoke each morning to the calls of oystercatcher birds, and we could see them streaming down to the fields for breakfast. The tides, the moon, the sea, they pumped in and out, feeding the mussels, which filtered the water and fed the birds. We were living in a great organism, this little island, on our living planet.


Huge tracts of mussels.

In this next photo, everything greenish was submerged at high tide. Our first trek around the island we'd walked very close to the tree line and only seen the remains of one old dock. This time around, we saw so much more. There was quite a bit of old working equipment, indicating either a formerly working embayment, or that old ramps and docks and other detritus from those houses washed up here.

A formerly working embayment.

As I mentioned, some parts of the bay closed off at low tide.

Grandeur from the shore.

 Kayak Dov checked out the scene of the low tide plain.

Patrolling the remains.

I spotted a little hermit crab. At first we thought he was dead, but he moved a bit. Perhaps he was lost, or got in a bad spot with the tide.

A wee crab, lost in the reeds.

Speaking of grabs - we found this major crab city in a small channel at low tide. There was plenty of mud for them to build homes in, tons of little holes we could watch them crawl in and out from. I didn't take video but believe me, they were scurrying all over the place. I'm not sure what kind they were - they didn't seem to possess the huge claw of the fiddler crab. They seemed very busy - until we got too close and they scurried underground!


We ended our little walkabout atop a high point overlooking the north and east. I could spot my little wishing well from there, as well as a light farther out in the sound.

Tomorrow's Horizon from a high point.

Afterwards, we had an early dinner ("first dinner" - we'd eat more later) of bean and rice burritos with salsa, cheese, and bell peppers.

Burritos for dinner!

This was the first part of an amazing trip. It was my first take at long distance trip planning and navigation, and I learned what worked, what didn't, and what to account for once on the move. We had brilliant conditions for paddling - much less wind than expected, sunny, great visibility. It was my first really long trip of the season and I re-learned old lessons on pacing and managing nourishment.