Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Ying and Yang of Cuttyhunk

Some would say that paddling to Cuttyhunk this early in the season is crazy. Others would say that this is the perfect time to go. I sit squarely on the fence in this debate. Considering the level of exposure and the water temperature, it is early in the season for such a long paddle. Only people who have paddled over the winter are really in good enough shape to have the reserves to make it a safe trip if conditions go awry. (Note: I haven't paddle much over the winter.) On the other hand, the boat traffic hasn't picked up and most of the things on the island are open.
A group of 10 boats set out from Gooseberry Pt. to make the crossing. It was a strong crew consisting of Carleen, Carole, Alison, Ray B., Ray P., Jonathan, Bob H., Joe, Peter, and myself. As Carleen pointed out, it was a group of chiefs without many indians. That was all good for me because I was tired and more than happy to relinquish my leadership role.
When we put in the weather was ideal--mid-70s with a touch of wind. The forecast was for the conditions to hold until late afternoon when there was a chance of showers. Accordingly, we planned on being off the water by fourish and not spend too much time on the island.
Before setting out we had a pow-wow to get our bearings. It was decided that we would paddle over on a course of 155 magnetic and stick together as a group. After about a mile, we modified our float plan to follow a GPS based course. This worked out pretty well as it meant only Ray P. had to worry about where we were going.
The trip over was calm and uneventful. One of the odd things about long crossings is that they can be boring. All there is to do is paddle in a straight line for a few hours. There isn't even much to look at in the middle of Buzzard's Bay. We did see some nice barges.
A long straight paddle on mostly flat water does have a few pluses. It gives you plenty of time to chat with friends without having to really worry about paddling. It also provides a nice patch of Zen paddling where you can lose yourself in the slight sway of the boat and the repetition of the swinging blades. I found it very peaceful and reinvigorating. By the time we got close to the island the fog of waking up early had pretty much burned off.
After lunch and talking to the few interested bystanders about our voyage, the group set off to explore the island. I decided to hang with the boats. As I sat under the flag pole I noticed the flags sticking straight out and fluttering. A passer by saw the boats and asked about the wind. Nonchalantly, I pointed out that it was blowing our way. It looked like the wind would be at our backs on the way home.
Once out of the harbor, it became apparent that I was wrong. Instead of a tailwind we had a beamy headwind and it was kicking up some nice 2-4ft swells. Paddling back in those conditions is a challenge no matter how in shape you are or how skilled you are.
The other thing about long open water crossings is that they can be intense. They are unpredictable and, because there are few bailout options, challenging. They test you physically and mentally.
Physically you must be prepared to stick it out until you can get to shore, which in this case was 5 miles. You must also have the skills to keep your boat upright and on course. On top of that, you must be able to have a little left in reserve to help put in the case of an emergency.
Mentally you must believe that you can do it. You must listen to your fear, but not let it overwhelm you. You must stay alert to what is happening to your kayak and be aware of what is happening to the other kayaks in the group. You must be alert and relaxed at the same time.
Joe took charge of the situation, put Ray P. at point, and admonished the group to stay together. Ray set out at a decent clip and the rest of us fell in line behind him. Despite the fact that keeping kayakers in a group is a bit like herding cats, we managed to stick pretty close together. We meandered a bit, but given the winds and the swells most of us did pretty well.
Shortly after the island was behind us--and I developed a need to pee--Peter started having troubles. He was in a new boat, had sun screen in his eyes and an upset stomach, and was having trouble keeping the boat on course. Joe hung back with Peter and kept him going. Other members of the group also did a good job of checking in with Peter and helping out. Peter, for his part, did a great job of working through his troubles.
One thing a slow paddler does to a group, however, is tend to stretch it out. The pace Ray P. set was brisk and the head of the group kept getting ahead of the tail. This meant that we had to stop a few times to regroup.
This is a common problem in larger groups when there are conditions--10 is a large group. The point doesn't always, or cannot always, look back to see how the tail is doing. The wind makes it hard to communicate and using a radio while trying to paddle, brace, and steer is not so easy. People begin to concentrate on getting themselves safely home. One of the joys of kayaking is that it is easy to be alone in a group, but that is also one of the dangers.
While the paddle back was tough, it was fun. It was nice to have the opportunity to put some of that practice to use in real, but manageable, conditions. The adrenaline was also good. The fact that we all made it back to the beach safely without any swimmers made it even sweeter. I also managed to pull off a roll before landing and making a mad dash for the porta-potty. (I tried to pee in a bottle while in the boat, but just couldn't do it...)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Loving the Miseries

H and I decided not to waste a beautiful day and headed up to Manchester by the Sea to hit water. Like most places on the North Shore parking in Manchester is scarce. We tried to park behind the police station, but it is two hour parking. We found parking in a lot just up the road. It is listed in the guide book H has. There are about 15 parking spaces. When we pulled in just before 9am, most were full.
The only bad thing about paddling in New England at this time of the year is the disconnect between dressing for the weather and dressing for the water. It was in the mid-70s and sunny, but H was wearing a wet suit and I was wearing a dry suit because the water was 50. It was so cold that it was uncomfortable to put your hands in the water. Still, I always find myself thinking that I could get away just wearing shorts and a T-shirt, or maybe a drytop. Its not like I don't have a mostly reliable roll or that I was really worried about tipping over. There was hardly any wind...
Setting out of Manchester Harbor was idyllic. The water was smooth as glass and there were hardly any boats on the water. The houses out that way are lovely and BIG. We paddled south down the shore for awhile checking out the houses before crossing over to the Miseries. The water was a little bouncy. It was a good reminder that ocean paddling is nothing like paddling on the Salt Pond or even Upper Naragansett Bay. The swells were under two feet, but they were powerful and steady.
The crossing to the Miseries was uneventful and we quickly found ourselves parked on the beach ready to explore Great Misery. It is not a big island, but it is pretty and sports a real toilet. The island is maintained by the Trustees of the Reservation and they keep two composting toilets on the island. Sometimes they charge you $5 to land, but it is a small price to pay. We took a short tour of the island and had a bite to eat on the beach. The sky was clear so we could see all the way down to Marblehead.
Over on Little Misery we spotted two paddlers who were out in just shorts and T-shirts and as we were landing a group pulled up who were even less equipped. There were three people in a row boat who were shocked to find that their digital cameras got wet sitting in the bottom of the boat... They then unpacked their Boston Sunday Globe and laid it out on the rocks to dry. The kayaker with them was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He had no PFD or spray skirt and he carried his beer like it was liquid gold.
It is no wonder that every year some politician tries to pass safety regulations to make kayakers safer. Personally, I think that the Darwin rule is perfectly OK for people on the water. If you cannot take the proper care when you go out on the water in a small boat, then you must accept that you may die. The ocean is not a safe environment. Despite its beauty, it can be deadly.
H and I headed off Great Misery through the eastern spilt between Great and Little. It is the rougher of the two gaps. We headed out around the back of Little Misery where there is much less protection from the open Atlantic and it was interesting. The swells were coming fast and strong, plus they were refracting off the rocky cliffs on the back side of Little Misery. It took a second to settle into the groove and feel comfortable. It is still pretty early in the season and we both needed to regain our sea legs.
Once we put the Miseries behind us, things calmed down. We circled around the back of Great Misery and checked out the power boat fest at the south beach.
The crossing back to Manchester Harbor turned out to be pretty challenging. The wind had begun to pick-up and the wave action picked up with it. The crossing is about a mile and the swells were coming at us breach. It wasn't really rough, but it was enough to keep you on your toes.
To make matters worse, H had a pretty bad headache and was feeling unsettled. She was a trooper, kept herself together, and powered through to the put-in.
Once back at the put-in I tried to do a roll, but just couldn't put it all together. After multiple tries, I popped out the boat and swam it to shore. The water was COLD!!! Even in my dry suit I could feel it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Blown away in Pt. Judith Pond

The forecast on Sunday hinted at possible danger, but a good crowd showed up at Marina Park to venture out into the Pt. Judith Salt Pond under the steady leadership of Tim Motte. Tim was upbeat about the weather, and correct (mostly) as usual. He predicted that things would stay pretty calm until late in the day.
The group consisted largely of regulars: the Bomes, Carol C., Bill Luther, Rich R., Bill Hahn, Christie, and my better half. There were also two people from the flatwater group that joined us.
After introductions and Tim's speech about being a responsible group member, the plan was laid out. We would beeline up the outside of the Salt Pond to the fishing ramp in Galilee. The hope was to beat the wind. Then take it easy and make our way back to Marina Park protected by the islands. The sun was out and, from the boat ramp, the wind was pretty mellow. Anticipating a beautiful level 2 paddle, we hopped in our boats and set out following the channel.
Upon emerging from the protection of the harbor, we quickly realized that the plan had changed. The wind was blowing straight at us at a steady 15 knots. Even late in the season a strong head wind makes for a slog, but in May it is miserable. A number of the paddlers had also been out on Sat. and were still stiff from that. The group continued to make strong headway and everyone held there own.
Always conscious of the group and committed to ensuring that everyone enjoyed themselves, Tim decided that the best course of action was to slip behind the islands at the earliest opening. Once protected by the islands, the paddling got much easier and we proceeded towards the head of the pond. There was still a fair headwind, but it was much more manageable. At the breaks in the island cover we got a taste of the hurt being offered on the other side. From our protected lunch spot we could also see the water being kicked up by the wind just around the corner.
The conditions were just enough so that you could practice skills without really needing them. I practiced a technique for locking the back of my boat when in the wind. It is interesting to see how the boat reacts to leaning in the wind. One way causes water to pile up and hold the rear of the boat. The other way allows the water to flow right under the back of the boat and makes it weather cock. The tricky part is remembering which is which. I still cannot remember. I also tried out different turning techniques for maneuvering in the wind. A bow rudder does a great job of turning a boat into the wind. And a low brace turn while leaning away from the paddle will spin the boat pretty darn quickly, if you don't fall over...
It was a nice day so there people out in their yards and at one point we had a little crowd as we rested in a little cove. The residents gathered around and started gawking at us. It was hard to tell if they were worrying that we intended to land and pillage their homes; kayakers=pirates.
The way home was quite nice. The wind just pushed us home, but it didn't give us much opportunity to stop and play. There were a few spots on the return journey when the wind reared its ugly head. It was just enough to make us work.
Once back at the dock, Tim took a small group over to a protected cove for some practice. Bob Bomes did four stunning roles. Each one looked more effortless than the one before it. He has come along way in the short time he's been kayaking!! Heather pushed herself to practice her wet exits and practice being rescued-twice. Rich R. did a great job of putting her back into the boat. He also did some rolling practice. Tim, of course, made sculling and rolling look easy. I even managed to get a roll or two in.
After we got the boats on the car and were safely at Java Madness--possibly the best coffee place in RI--the rains came.