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Night Crossing

“Swipe to the last screen, open the Outdoors folder, and then look for Weather.” I was giving instructions on how to pull up specific apps on my iPhone, to the man whose car I was driving. “That one indicates wind.”

“Six to eight miles per hour,” he said.

“OK, back out of that and look for the Tides app.”

“Uh . .this is set to Edgewater, right? Max ebb, about 1132 PM.”

Well that made sense. We had crossed just about twelve hours earlier a max ebb, with the tide flowing down the Hudson and full force.

How did we get to this state of affairs? Four of us had made a recent acquaintance of a kayaking coach, and with half of us having taken a course with him, we organized a rolling session at Lake Sebago. The water would be cleaner, stiller, and the atmosphere as bucolic, as our regular home in Inwood. The plan was that two of us would paddle across to meet the coach and load our boats and his boat on his car, and the other two would drive straight from the clubhouse.

We were all running a bit late, but it worked out, and we were in the water at the lake by 1500.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Rolling takes practice. Anyway, while the rolling was fun and all, and we had a great time, but that isn’t the point of this story. As with any kayaking trip, the return is as important as the outbound trip.

That is why, as I changed lanes to skip the George Washington Bridge, I was talking our instructor through my apps. “Cool. A girl with video games and kayak info on her phone.”

He had lost his glasses on a roll; I had lost a tail light for my kayak. My friend had no lights, but I had bow lights and glow sticks. We passed through a poorly secured gate at the top of the cliffs and proceeded down to the marina almost directly across from Spuyten Duyvil. The water was fairly smooth, with a gentle breeze from the south and strong current from the north. All we’d have to do really was paddle straight out, letting the current carry us down to our destination.

We untied out boats and carried them down to the water. While it was late at night, there was enough cloud cover that the city’s ambient light reflected well, we could see far, and there was no traffic. We sorted our gear, got in our boats, and paddled out, saying goodbye, for now, to our instructor, who very clearly said that if we did not feel safe then we could drive across the bridge. We felt safe. We had lights, simple conditions, and no traffic.

We got about a third of the way out and the wind picked up. Waves got a little deeper , and we had some footers hitting our hulls. My boat started to weathercock a little bit, but some simple sweep strokes kept me in the right direction. A light pattering of rain and the spray of the ways lightened things up.

Then the wind began to pick up, and we started getting sheets of rain. the waves doubled in size, mostly hitting us broadside. Wind pushes water, and when it pushes directly against current the effects are dramatic. Since we were crossing the river laterally, that meant we were getting a constant broadside of waves, some washing over our deck.

Now, that’s OK. That’s why we wear sprayskirts. It helps keep water out. Waves are manageable; they are moving hills, and simply edging into them helps take them broadside. it’s like falling up a hill that is moving under you. Sea kayakers love waves. That’s what our boats are built for. We enjoyed it.

The rain, however, killed our visibility. We were no longer on a calm surface with plenty of visibility. The George Washington Bridge was like a fuzzy Van Gogh; on the shore we could only make out floodlights at a local restaurant and a construction site near our club.

The wind picked up, and frankly I started to worry. For one, it was really cocking my boat, and two, it was making the waves even more problematic. I’ve been in conditions like these, but not in the open river, at night, without all of my gear. The water wasn’t cold enough to kill me off the bat, but a prolonged exposure would be problematic.

We were getting blown apart. My boat was angling into the wind and waves, but my friend was continuing mor laterally. “Stay with me! In case we have to raft up.! If it gets much worse we should raft up!” We did, lining up next to each other for less than a minute, just enough time to assess and make a plan.

We were closer to Manhattan by then, but it was clear we were going to overshoot our destination. As battered as we were from the southerly winds, the current from the north had carried us about half a mile south. We continued towards shore, knowing that we’d eventually cross the eddy line and paddle up a bit, against some current, but not a huge amount, and not with a constant barrage of waves that were shoulder height.

We made it. Against the gray, granite waves, into the rain and fog, we bounced over and over until we were a couple hundred yards south of our boathouse. We paddled up, and our friends were there to greet us. They had been worried. We had texted fifteen minutes earlier.

“We thought you were a motorboat,” said one. Literally, not figuratively. Paddling together, with our lights, and moving with the current, she thought we were a small, foolish motor boat, and not two foolish kayakers.

Now, to be fair to everyone involved, conditions changed rapidly. Even checking the various forecasts, including doppler radar, it didn’t look like things would get that bad. I’ve been in worse; I’ve paddled in high wind, waves, strong current, I’ve paddled at night, I’ve paddled under duress. It’s rare, though, that all of that happens at once.

It is coincidental that we had been practicing rolling; ideally that would have given us confidence. However, practicing (and whiffing at times) on a placid freshwater lake is not the same as trying to roll in the middle of 2.7 knot current and 15 mph winds. A bow rescue would have been difficult, and any other rescue would have been time-consuming. We would have been alright, but lost a lot of time.

So, lessons learned? Don’t trust the weather. Always be prepared. Always have lights!

Published in 2013 Backpaddle ICC Inwood Canoe Club


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