Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fishers Island Sound 2015

I know I'll go again. I wish I could have spent more time.

Fishers Island is a long, narrow island about two miles off the Connecticut coast, northeast from the north fork of Long Island and part of NewYork State, even though it's technically farther away from it.

There's a lot of lore about Fishers Island, but we weren't there for the island. We were there for the sound!

At the eastern edge of Fishers Island sound, the underwater hydrography is such that water coming in (westward) with the tide ramps up rather quickly, about forty to sixty feet in less than an eighth of a mile. Additionally on the days we were there, there was a steady Western wind blowing, making for great wind-against-current conditions.

D, K, and CC taking a wee break.

Several folks had gone out on Friday. I had to work, and so drove up Friday night for the Saturday play. This turned out to be the most challenging day we faced.

The challenge was the wind. Not only was in in the Force 6 vicinity (25-30 mph with gusts to 35), it changed direction. As we tried to surf down wind, our boats would get cocked and the direction of the waves would change. I felt comfortable in the conditions - big, lumpy water, waves three or four feet high, sometimes taller - but trying to surf was pretty tough. We took a break on Ram Island for lunch and to figure out what to do next.

The Break on Ram Island.

We decided to split into two groups. There were over a dozen people all in, so each group had more than enough for safety's sake. One group would continue surfing downwind and work out a shuttle to get back to cars. The rest of us would paddle into Mystic harbor, then up the river. We were expecting to meet a couple of friends of mine who were driving up Saturday and putting their boats in far up the river.

Among our Fleet, a Rockpool Taran.

We expected the latter trip would be the easy one, since no one was paddling against the wind. However, the wind shifted to come from the north (making this a veering wind rather than a backing wind, weather nerds), and so we slogged against a northerly headwind for about three quarters of a mile.

The Slog.

Over the radio we heard the other group announce they were quitting their plan and would sort an alternative. Our leader directed us to head up the river, and he'd go back for a car to shuttle us back.

An HV paddler struggles against the wind.

That's the kind of weekend this was. We were in a dynamic environment and had to work out alternatives to our various plans.

We rounded a corner and started to find shelter from the wind. Our contingent had spread out with varying strategies for the wind. One paddler in particular struggled, in a new boat and a bit fidgety with kit. Once in the harbor though, the wind was no longer ridiculous but merely a nuisance, now coming at the quarter but greatly reduced by the town's structures. We paddled up and met our friends, who were happy to return and avoid the adventures we'd had coming in. The rest of our journey was a scenic trip through the harbor town of Mystic, Connecticut.

Paddling up the Mystic.

An unusually named boat.

Paddling under a coutner-weight bridge.

On past lovely homes.

When we arrived at our destination, our trip leader presented us with hot chocolate and in short order we loaded our boats onto vehicles. We drove back to the parking lot where we'd put in, and then back to the house we were staying at.

The house is worth mentioning. It's a large house, owned by a family and rented out to groups like us, or graduation parties, or weddings. I arrived very late the night before, after everyone had gone to bed, and the street address proved to be around the corner from parking. The afternoon was my first chance to really assay the place.

We all pitched together for dinner, pooling money for some fine salmon and steak cuts, and salad, and baked potatoes. I chopped garlic for garlic bread. Despite our shortened day, we were all hungry - these calories were all burned easily, replacing the old and ready to fuel the next day.

Sunday was more enjoyable. Winds were still in the Force 4 range, gusting to Force 5, but the direction remained consistent. We started in Stonington - a historic town with a speed limit of twenty miles per hour - and this time paddled out farther lunching on the northeastern tip of Fishers Island itself.

But first, we were in the chop. This was tremendous. It took some doing, but I did manage to catch some waves and ride them for a bit. I practiced starting my sprint before being fully in the trough - some advice I got was that with a shorter boat I needed to start sooner.

I did take a dive though - while looking where I wanted to go, according to one observer I was on top of a wave, went for support, and found none, so I capsized. I managed to roll up though, and felt rather chuffed about that.

Latimer Light - Halfway There!

A brief respite in a windbreak.

We had rougher, bigger water between the lighthouse and Fishers Island. It was still great fun, but the waves had a shorter period and after a while I felt like I was just managing big following seas - the waves riding up under me and passing me before I could gain much momentum.

Then I saw it: a flash of white, and cries of "boat over!", just about twenty yards ahead of me.

The waves lifted the boat in and out of sight. Another paddler got to the boat but the casualty was separated from it, floating further back. In hindsight, the current was carrying him towards me but the wind was blowing his boat away from us. I got in and provided support while his boat was emptied.

I tried to get closer to that vessel but we eventually decided it was easier to bring the boat to me. I then supported the rescuer while he supported the casualty's boat, all while bobbing in three to five foot seas. In short order we were on our way.

We continued surfing, working our way south, and then we landed for lunch.

Lunch on Fishers Island.

I have to mention this Rockpool Taran. These are well-regarded boats, but very rare in the US. It's like finding a right-hand drive Triumph.

I learned here that a friend of mine I'd invited was not having such a great day. She was game, but the conditions were strong enough that she'd capsized a couple of times and spent most of the session on shore.

On the way back, we ferried against the wind, no longer with the current against it. If we hadn't ferried we'd easily have been blown out of the sound. We got to the lighthouse, took a break, and then continued on.

There were two more capsizes with subsequent rescues. With one of them, we decided to tow the paddler, and yours truly served as support while two others formed an I-tow. I clamped in my contact two as without it, the larger waves pushed our boats apart, and meantime we were bobbing up and down in these immense seas. We did this about three-quarters of a mile, until near shore, and we landed and everyone got out.


All but one that is. There was one unaccounted for, until we spotted him near the far end of the inner side of the breakwater. We still don't know if that was on purpose or not, but he paddled in, and we were all glad to have everyone in.

These were an exciting two days at sea. They were certainly a challenge, but this was a great bunch of people, and qualified for the conditions as well. I certainly got my first taste of big water, lumpy water, and I want more. I am reminded though of an adage one of my coaches is fond of:

"The sea will often give the test before the lesson."

Circ Circ

[Note: note sure how this never got published - back in July 2015]

A little buckaroo came to visit - my eleven-year-old niece - and out of that, I got some different views of New York City's waterways that help inform some of my trip planning.

First of all, we got real high up in the new World Trade Center and the old Empire State Building, and also took a trip out to Liberty and Ellis islands. These various trips afforded views I don't normally get of the upper harbor, and certainly from high up looking down at the East River. From these vantages I was able to more clearly see how sharp a bend it makes around the Lower East Side, and see very clearly the path from the East River through Hell Gate and on out to Long Island Sound. Sometimes a Mk 1 Eyeball if more informative than a chart or map.

I also took advantage of a Circle Line Cruise circumnavigation of Manhattan. This was informative in some different ways.

First of all, observing first hand the operations of the Circle Line. How the boat backed out and then essentially turned in place while drifting in an ebb current. That was a surprise - we'd moved to the next pier in the time it took to turn the boat in the direction of travel. 

Second though, was the guiding. We had a very informative guide who kept up a good patter through nearly all of the 2h15m trip. I learned a few things to incorporate into my own guiding. Now, to be sure I was giving my niece the lowdown on certain areas I knew about, sometimes pre-empting our guide, sometimes mentioning things he didn't. At the end of the cruise, the ladies in front of us complimented me and said they learned quite a few things the guide hadn't mentioned. That left me feeling chuffed!

We also saw seaplanes taking off from the East River seaplane terminal. I knew it existed but had never seen an actual takeoff or landing. That was cool! We also saw the Hermione, a French vessel that is a replica of the one that brought the Marquis de Lafayette from France during the American Revolution, offering the support of France in our War of Independence. 

Lastly, I saw some effects from the boat that I rarely get to see. There was a major wake wave being created by the boat as we churned up the Harlem River, easily three feet high and breaking at a low angle against the shore.