Monday, November 28, 2011

Stone Bridge on a good day

Three years ago, almost to the day, I planned a paddle in the currents of Stone Bridge. The forecast was dire but the paddling never really lived up to the hype. This year Bob made similar plans. He was a bit more lucky.

The key to excitement at Stone Bridge is opposing wind and current. We have been out there when the current is running strong but standing waves won’t form due to lack of wind. The fast moving flat water provides its own challenges. Crossing the eddy lines in the long sea kayaks can be a bit disconcerting. But it’s not fun.

It was Wednesday when Bob started suggesting the paddle. That’s a little early for me to commit to anything. Especially when the commute is two hours long and I haven’t been on the water for almost three months. By Friday I could see that the temperatures would be reasonable (low 50s with sun) and the winds would have potential (high teens from the SW). In addition, all the other little life events seemed to be indicating a free day. The only remaining factor was how would my body feel on Saturday morning.

Saturday came. Out of bed a little after 5am. A cup of coffee and the hunt for all my winter kayak gear took about an hour. Loading the boat in the 32 degree temperatures took a while. I located my “land based” digital camera with the 10x zoom so Keri could take pictures from the base of the bridge (it needed charging). We were off by a little after 7.

Stop at Dunkin Doughnuts for a muffin. Stop at Cumberland Farms for a Gatorade and a couple of granola bars that I’d forgotten. Search for a place to pee. …. Arrive at Stone Bridge around 9am. Well before anybody else!

Eventually Tim arrived, then Bob and Tony and Jon and Todd and Rich. We began to suit up and prepare the boats. The wind was blowing and the water had some shape to it already. I put on more layers than I expected I’d need and struggled with a sticky dry suit zipper that needs fresh wax. Finally, with a “look out for each other” pep talk from Tim we were on the water.

I felt OK in front of the beach but as I made my first tentative pass through the slop I felt like it was going to be a short wet day. I felt so uncomfortable in my boat. Going directly from time off to testing conditions was a bit too ambitious. I fired up a little adrenaline and I made it through. I played a bit around the edges and before I knew it I was in the middle and comfortable. “It’s like riding a bike!”

Once I became comfortable in the boat the conditions appeared a bit tame. There was current and there was wind and the resulting waves but they weren’t overly large. We all began to hope for boats to pass through and stir things up. Tim used his time to focus on skills. Crossing the eddy lines, crossing the rough areas as opposed to traveling directly up and down them. Rich went ashore to peel off some layers. The conditions seemed to go even flatter. Jon and I were having a little conversation at the down current end watching the others up by the buoys.

Suddenly our boats were bouncing in some good standing waves. Jon and I recommenced playing. I called Todd over to our spot. But in a matter of minutes the whole area came back to life. I think the wind had shifted and increased a bit. We made our way to the buoys and things were getting exciting. Exciting enough that most people began to stay ahead of the slop. Backing in for a little excitement and pulling back forward to gain composure. At the transition there were many short wave length three footers. Not quite standing waves but chaotic transients with unpredictable direction sometimes almost abeam.

At this point I felt like I was beginning to run out of talent. My boat, very light because there was nothing in the bulkheads was being turned up wind from behind unless the skeg was down. Then, in the flat area, I needed skeg up to get the boat to turn back up wind. Generally, I don’t like to use the skeg. I feel like if I need it “I’m” doing something wrong. It has its place. It is great for balancing a boat to help hold a heading while paddling. But this was different. I needed skeg just to get the boat to do what I wanted. And if I need to be fiddling with the skeg to move the boat around in conditions it was only a matter of time before I was upside down.

I was also hot and thirsty. It felt like the right time to go over and take a break and get some Gatorade in me. I got out of the boat for a few minutes and talked with Keri, Tim (who was also taking a breather), and some spectators wondering what was going on.

I returned to the current for some more play. I wanted to make a run into the wind but it was a real struggle to get the boat to point that way. Wind at this point was more influential than the current. In hind sight, the nearby buoy reports indicated steady 20 to 25 MPH winds from the SSW with gusts near 30. It didn’t seem that windy from a wind in your face point of view but it certainly did from a boat handling perspective.

Then, far up wind, I could see Tim’s boat upside down and only Bob was near him. Rich and Tony were off the water. Todd was near me (I think). And Jon was taking a break (I think). I felt I needed to get there quickly. I decided to go the longer route around the channel where the water was a bit less lively. If Tim was upside down the conditions were formidable. I did not want to be “another” casualty. I was surprised how quickly I got there given that I was struggling to go up wind just moments earlier.

As I approached I could see that Tim was separated from his boat. Bob was struggling to collect the boat and Tim was attempting to paddle-swim towards it. I paused to set up my tow belt. I was assuming it would be helpful to tow the two of them out of the area of rough water and towards the east where things were a little more tame.

… flash back to the beach before we launched… Tim and Bob were discussing “break away” connections for their tow belts. Many paddlers pull the hook of the tow belt out of the pouch and clip it to their vest. This makes it much easier to grab in times just like this one. I need to take both hands off the paddle to fumble with the pouch and find the hook. This leaves me unable to brace for short periods of time. The counter problem is that if the hook is out of the pouch there is a short length of rope out with it that becomes one more thing to get tangled up in. Tim just tucks his into his vest. It is not hooked to anything and can easily be pulled out. Others clip to a “break away” or “quick release” loop. This allows you to easily disconnect should the short length of exposed rope get tangled. … flash to the future… I need to decide on my method. In real conditions fumbling for the clip of the tow rope is not acceptable. I’ve managed to not get in trouble so far but when seconds count accessibility is important. I don’t want to tip over fumbling with my tow rope when somebody else needs a rescue…. Back to the present…

Tim and his boat do not seem to be converging. Bob is dealing with Tim’s boat so I decide to go to Tim and try and bring him to the boat by letting him hold on to or climb up on my bow. As I am doing this the four interested parties (Tim, Paul, Bob, and the Boat) seem to converge. I switch to performing the rescue.

Grab the boat: it’s already upright because Bob was towing it. It is difficult to grab because everything is bouncing up and down on the waves.
Drain the boat: there is not a lot of water in the boat but it seems appropriate to drain it. We are a good distance from land and it will be much easier to paddle empty. Things feel pretty stable once I am well connected to the boat.
Stow the paddles: This is usually where I go wrong in a rescue. When I try and tuck them under a deck line they often seem to end up askew and out of reach or a blade ends up in the water almost pulling me over. I put my paddle into my paddle biner on my deck. I attempt to hold Tim’s paddle under my arm between the boats. The paddle of course ends up in the water between the boats but I keep an eye on it and this time it doesn’t get away. I need to master tucking the paddle under the deck line quickly with one hand.
Get Tim in the boat: Tim’s a big guy. He has a lot of experience getting into the boat but he doesn’t just ‘pop’ in and it’s hard to keep his boat flat during the transition. We suck some water into the boat in the process but not too bad.
Attach the spray skirt: The skirt is always a bit of a problem. Tim gets it mostly on but I spend some time helping him get a section behind him pulled properly over the combing.

Meanwhile… Bob is upside down. I’m not sure exactly when it happened but he got his paddle tangled in his own tow line and went over. Fortunately Jon and Todd headed over to help him. Todd gets him in his boat, Jon retrieves his paddle. After finishing up with Tim I headed over to Bob and helped stabilize the rescue.
After the rescues Jon and I headed back for one more pass. When I realized everyone else was headed directly for the beach I decided to stay on the edge of the chop and keep an eye on Jon. He had just gotten back on the water and probably wanted to stay longer but we both returned to the beach.

After we finished, Jon commended Tim for holding his paddle vertically above him while he was in the water. From the distance it was all that Jon could see to locate where Tim was. We also discussed that Tim ended up in the water after a failed roll that Bob had encouraged him to attempt. In the end it made for some great practice in conditions.

I know I say this all the time but it was another great day on the water. We got the chop we were looking for, I re-acclimated to my boat relatively quickly, and I got to spend some time with friends I haven’t seen for a few months. Can it get any better?

11/12/2011 Stone Bridge, Sunny and low 50s, Water mid 50s, winds SSW at 15 building to 25