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...)

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