Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A House of Surf and Fog

Over Memorial Day Weekend - nearly a month ago - I managed to do some camping out at Floyd Bennet Field. You may recall I camped out here with some friends last fall, and was back with most of them again. The difference was, we base-camped instead of kayak camping. We drove our cars and boats out, but only kept the one camp, rather than packing it all in for Staten Island.

Partly this was practical. I was organizing an event at the nearby Sebago Canoe Club that Saturday, so packing up to go and come back was going to eat up time I'd spend enjoying the area. The area, of course was Jamaica Bay. I'll write about the event itself later; here's what we did on our big paddle day.

We all wanted to try some surf, and there's brilliant surf at Rockaway and Breezy Points, where the open ocean first touches New York City. To get there we'd have to paddle about three or four miles, and as it happened we were a bit lazy in the morning, and so paddled against some tide on the way out.
Preparing to depart.

Passing along the old airfield.

Striking a pose.

After paddling out past the bay bridge that connects the Rockaways to Brooklyn, we made a brief stop for lunch on a beach before heading out to Rockaway Point. Breezy was a bit further, and we were already seeing nice wind waves pushed by an easterly breeze.

Testing the waters.

Trying to get a speedy start.

It took us a while to sort the waves. Primarily wind-blown, tide on current, they struck the beach at a very shallow angle. The result was, we had to paddle out pretty far just to catch them, and rather than surf evenly in to the beach, we'd just find ourselves on an elongated taper, coming off with a low brace and repositioning to head back out.


Keeping position.

Bad form!

Most of the waves were like this

After a while, we were tired, and the waves were getting less pronounced as the tide rose.  We took a few more runs and decided to head in.

Here is where the trip got interesting. We could make out a thick hazing drifting in from the west, and closer and faster, we could make out a low fog drifting northwards from the sea over the Rockaways. it looked more like smoke from two forest fires, but was fog, possibly an inversion layer.

In a matter of minutes we could tell that the entire outlet was about to be enshrouded in fog - and we had about a mile to cross at the bay and a mile to the bridge, before heading in to Jamaica Bay proper. We'd seen a large barge and some party vessels about. We decided to cross the bay earlier than planned, at about its widest point.

This turned out to be a wise course of action. As we crossed, we had to wait and radio our intentions to two party boats out of Sheepshead Bay, and by the time we were all the way across, the fog had dropped visibility to under a mile. We couldn't see the bridge, nor the far shore, but both were maybe a twenty minute paddle away.

We crossed one last marina mouth at its narrowest point, having seen a number of pleasure boats scurry in (and out, oddly). We were soon under the bridge, and handrailing close to the shore, until we could make out the old hangar and radomes.

It was an odd paddle, an eerie one in a way. The fog happened so fast, and was so thick. I've been in fog before but it's usually much more gradual, and a phenomenon of cool weather. We'd been in the low 80s F, wearing jackets only because of the breeze. It was muggy as we paddled back, and what photos I've got here of the fog are from when it was lightening. It was thick as soup before!

A good one for the Cowgirl's final send-off, should it occur.

The fog was a harbinger of bad weather to come; we ultimately called out weekend short and went out for dinner at a lobster shack on the way home. Jamaica Bay is lovely, and I hope to paddle there again, under more fair weather conditions.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Maine Again

There I was, watching the surf road in towards me as I peeked out from behind a little rock. I to the first wave well, but the second one caught my starboard bow and I was pushed into the cliff and capsized on a shelf, unable to roll up . . .

Or, There I was, bobbing up and down in the surf trying to catch some admittedly not-great waves, getting some speed, getting a little cocked by the wind, and suddenly I'm sideways to two feet of water column crashing over my boat, bracing, then getting cocked again and dropping a stern rudder to keep it straight. . .

Or maybe, I taught the class of new-to-sea kayakers how to launch into surf - pointing perpendicular, getting some speed, not getting between their boat and the shore if the came out prematurely. Then I launched them, one by one, all successfully, including the fellow who was nervous because his spraydeck did not fit well and all his previous surf experience was, in his words, "disastrous." The lead instructor later told me I managed a Four Star level launch.

They say, lead with your strengths, but those are never the good stories.

I was in Maine again, in the Georgetown / Five Islands area, for less time that I'd planned for. I was going to be up there Wednesday through Friday but day job responsibilities meant that I only got two of those days, rushing home Wednesday evening to hop in the car, completely pre-packed, and make the drive to Maine by midnight (some detouring made it more like 1 AM). Five hours of sleep later, I was meeting the crew, mostly paddlers from the New Jersey and Hudson Valley area, whose experience was primarily lakes and the calmer portions of the Hudson River.

John Carmody and Matt Kane were teaching the course. What the other students described sounded similar to my first time up there: some work in eddies north of camp, and then some surf, and then some rock-hopping. They were all very excited about the eddy work. The area around Knubble Bay is rife with narrow tributaries all keeping into Sheepscot Bay and thence to sea, with some tideraces as well as strong eddy lines.

My role was as a sort of flywheel; I learned and reinforced some of what I'd learned in previous trips to the area, but also got the chance to instruct and lead in an environment with features that are not easily found in New York City.

For the surf session we drove out to Reid Park and observed the shore from an elevated area, talking about different water features. As we prepared to unload boats and kit out, one of the instructors approached me and asked, "you're OK with coaching a surf launch here, right?"

Well what am I gonna say? Yes! And then I'm thinking, I better get down to look more closely at that beach. 

Not to worry, it was perfectly fine. The wave period that day was about 8 seconds farther out, and the beach was such that it had a gradual slope resulting in 1-2 foot waves that petered out over about 10 yards at the break. So I coached them. The only two things I would have done differently were to launch one at a time (I'd tried two, and it was just hard to keep track of) and also, setting them further into the surf. I ended up having to drag four or five boats a full boat-length to get them floating. But the students were great.

Maintaining Position. Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

Then, I got to be a student. We went to a spot where an inlet was draining in to the ocean, and there was a gentle yet scary-looking bit of surf that students could paddle through to get to sheltered water, and an even scarier-looking tiderace that I was encouraged to surf through. John caught a great wave and surfed it through, letting it cock the back of his boat to come right around into the sheltered water. Matt went in and out of the rough stuff several times to shepherd each of his charges.

I sidled up to the rough stuff, paddling backwards to keep position, just looking. Where was the line? Where was the big rock to watch out for? I spotted both and then BAM! a big wave caught me and suddenly I was ruddering my way in, and God help me my little 15' Gemini started to pearl - the entire front deck was underwater! I leaned back and the wave passed under me and I quickly got in to the sheltered spot.

Ridin' the wave once more.  Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

There was plenty more. We practiced controlled landings, paddling backwards into incoming surf, paddling forwards into incoming surf in order the land backwards, carving turns to come off waves, back-paddling in order to give up a wave. I got a little more coaching in too, advising one participant to no lean back when he was trying to power forward and over a wave. He noticed the difference and brought that up as a learning point with our group review.

End of a Bongo Slide. Photo courtesy Chris Brown.

I really like surf. I mean to do more locally this summer.


Can't stop . . .can't stop. . .can't stop, stop, the rock . . .or the waves.

On our final day we drove out to Five Islands and put in near the mooring yard there. Within less than half a mile we had two sizable rock islands to paddle around, with features changing as the tide ran out.

We took the group out and practiced running along the shore, T and I ahead of the group. John encouraged me to back into a little nook not much wider than my kayak. It was sheltered from the incoming current, and somehow there was water that would flow around and back out. I was able to back in, and then get pushed out, eventually surfing my way back out.

A little further up, T and I paddled through and back a narrow race where the water deflected around a rock, and then were given the task to guide the newer students through it. We did, and everyone came through OK, slicing up over some sizable waves and away from the cliff face.

Working out the route with T.

Next, we found a large horseshoe route around a large rock. Here, the incoming ocean swells would hit one end of the passage and then break over the rock. What this meant was, it was harder to enter the first end, but easier on the second, because the energy of the wave was dissipated. The trick was to enter the far end, line up perpendicular to the incoming waves, and paddle out.

I managed this on my first try, and then the group went through one at a time. John pointed out there was a chill spot of water behind the rock. The water level moved up and down but otherwise there was not lateral movement.

On my second go, I made a critical mistake. I got in to the relaxed water and then watched the horizon for a smaller wave set. I saw things flatten out and started to nose out, going a little wider to my left to avoid a rock I knew would be to my right. This put me in a bad position though, as a wave came in and caught me while I was trying to turn into it. The wave caught me boat and pushed me into out little inlet.

No problem, I thought, I handled that well, and started to turn to again. But now, here came a second, larger wave, at a pretty good speed. She caught the front quarter of my boat and as I braced into the wave, I was pushed against the rock face to my left, and capsized. I felt my helmet hit rock. I tried to roll up, but I was on a sloped ledge, no longer with water supporting me. It was time to give up.

Matt raced in and we quickly did a swimmer contact tow to get me and my boat out. I held on the his boat and mine, paddled under my arm, and he pulled me out of the zone, and then we did a rescue.

I'm sure it looked dramatic, but throughout the whole ordeal I felt fine. At the point of capsize I was a little worried about popping my sprayskirt while getting pounded by surf, but before and after I felt like it was fun. I pushed myself. I made a mistake, and I learned from it. I did everything I've been trained for to be rescued in a dynamic environment. I was properly protected both for water temperature and head trauma. This is the sport. This is the sea.

Anyhoo, we continue on a bit. As a group we practiced getting our noses and tales up close to the rock, finding chill spots of water, paddling backwards to keep position. We had a fair amount of eddy current moving us clockwise around the island, and I had to reset a couple of times to find the good stuff. Here's what it looked like, more or less, with my PowerShot carefully balanced on deck.

Kiss the Rock.

After that, we moseyed on home, back to where we put in, at a considerably lower water level. We climbed out and dragged our boats, even the glass ones, over seaweed.

And with that we were done. We unkitted, packed the boats, and a few changed clothes. We made our farewells after final debriefing with the coaches, and then excellent lobster rolls at the local country store (and not for nothing, I found cans of Moxie soda! So rare and divine, and aptly named for my activities there).

I love Maine, and expect to go there again. I will need new shores to develop skills against, but these now-familiar waters provide plenty of development opportunities. Plus it's just beautiful.

Many thanks to Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports for inviting me, and John Carmody for some long-term coaching and development in these waters.