“You are not wearing a drysuit,” said a paddling acquaintance. I ran into her and a couple of other paddlers I know on Governors Island. I was in a small group being assessed for a British Canoe Union Three Star paddling award.
“You know,” I said, “I agree it’s ridiculous.” The water temperature was in the mid-sixties and the air temperature in the low seventies, with very little wind. “But I know I’m going to get wet a lot today, and I figured I may as well go with the most protection rather than get cold in the middle of things.”
Part of the assessment involves rolling, and capsizing to be rescued in various ways. Altogether I think I went in the water five times later in the afternoon, and I was really glad I was wearing my drysuit. Although, it did present some other challenges.
The day started around 1000. I’d gotten in early and finished assembling my kit and putting it in the boat I was going to use – an Impex Montauk for all you boat geeks. There was only one other candidate, AD in his carbon kevlar Necky Chatham 16. Our assessor and his assistant, in a Necky Eskia and a Tiderace Xplore-S, rounded out our crew of 4.
“Expect no feedback from us,” said the assessor. “If you see me scowling it doesn’t mean you failed. I won’t be smiling and giving your thumbs up if you do well. All of that takes place at the end.”
We went over some other details, such as what to do in case of a real emergency or a dramatic change in conditions, then went over our charts to get an idea of where we’d be going. The entire span of New York City harbor was in play: from the Battery past Governor’s Island, and on down to the Verrazano Bridge. That was our assessment venue.
We set out towards Governors Island with a strong ebb current. The assessor had advised us to “play like dolphins” demonstrating various strokes as we paddled down the river: braces, edging, rudders, and so on. Then, once past the ferry terminal at Battery Park City, he had us move as close as we were comfortable against the sea wall. I got within a few feet, enough that my paddle didn’t scrape the wall, but could have if I extended my arm.
The thing about sea walls is, they reflect waves. The thing about the waters near Battery is, there is enough traffic that there are plenty of waves. The thing about an ebb current is, the water level is low enough that waves tend to be bigger as they come in from deeper water.
I used some edging and bow ruddering to keep my distance, as well as a hanging draw. Speaking of which, the most common hypothetical I’ve encountered for the purpose of a hanging draw is, “there’s a log in your path that you need to move around without turning.” Sure enough, there was a small piece of wood, log-shaped, just slightly wider than my kayak, that I sideslipped around using my hanging draw.
Next we proceeded out across the harbor, waiting for the Staten Island Ferry to cross our path first, along with some other small craft. The western edge of Governors Island is shallow, and so we crossed over some small standing waves before negotiating some chop as the ebb ramped up into the shallows. Here, we did backwards figure eights between the assessor and his assistant. We also took time for some at-sea bearing and navigation work: identify buoys, find our position on a map, take a bearing on various landmarks, and so on. I should point out that one of the buoys we looked at was not on our chart.
Then, we paddled around the southern point of Governors Island and up the eastern edge of it, to a small embayment at one of the piers there. This was where we’d do the hard part.
The BCU is big on precision. The “Body, Boat, Blade” mantra breaks all strokes down into the proper position and utilization of each. Here, we’d do increasingly tight turns around three pilings: figure eights, backwards figure eights, not losing momentum, turning as tightly around each as we could be.
I’d been practicing this, especially the reverse part. My backwards stern rudder with edging is beautiful in my opinion. There are smaller but more closely-positioned pilings near my home club, and I’d practiced forwards as well as backwards, but apparently not enough. My big note at the end of the assessment was to improve my edging (even though the water was at my coaming level) and maintain forward momentum using a forward stroke on the outside of the turn.
After that, we paddled up to the kayak dock at Governors Island, in a little bay just below the white octagonal blower tower for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. That’s where we saw our friends, who were out paddling for fun, and the LIC Community Boathouse program wrapping up their trip.
On land, we had lunch, and then went through our kits. For this assessment we’re expected to bring complete day trip kit: first aid, boat repair, spare clothes, food and drink, extra food and drink, safety and signaling equipment, and so on. We both needed to improve our boat repair kits, but everything else was fine. The assessor had me actually unfurl and climb into one of my mylar emergency bivvies. Then he demonstrated an impressive piece of kit he carries – a large plastic storm shelter than can also be used as a soft stretcher, and which folds up into a small bag the size of a soccer ball.
It was a beautiful day, sunny, not too breezy, but cool enough to not be terribly hot. After going over some more navigation and safety exercises, we set out again, promised that, “the worst is yet to come”.
As we came out, we found ourselves having to wait for a NY Waterway boat to leave the main terminal on Governors Island, the Staten Island Ferry to leave Manhattan, the Governors Island Ferry to leave Manhattan, and a commercial yacht to pass us by. We crossed the wake of the latter just about 15-20 yards astern, and then headed towards Battery.
The assessor called out to me. “[Assistant] has a blister. Tow him.” Clearly a faux scenario, but one to abide. I hooked in my line and started paddling. Yet, I was still next to his boat. My rope was not unraveling smoothly from my belt, tangled in the bag. I switched ends and pushed away, then paddling hard, and it started to unfurl. That took some doing, and meanwhile we were east of the Statue Cruise ferry terminal and west of the Staten Island ferry terminal.
Next, he directed the other candidate to hook into me, for a tandem or I-tow. We made steady progress.
“How’s [assistant] doing? Anyone think to check on him?” Oh yeah. I thought. “How you feel?”
Next we were directed to paddle into a little nook between Pier A and Manhattan proper. There were a couple of challenges here. First, it’s narrow, not much more than the length of a sea kayak, and there are pilings to one side and a sea wall to the other. Water rushes in and out and gets choppy. Second, there were a bunch of fisherman hanging lines of it, very upset that we were anywhere near their lines. This was problematic for the other candidate, an out-of-towner, unaccustomed to random strangers yelling and cursing at him, during a stressful situation, while receiving countervailing orders from the assessor.
We paddled in, three boats attached by ropes in surging seas through a narrow pass, until instructed to disconnect and idle in the back of the nook, which was actually rather calm. We stuffed our ropes, caught our breath, and then went back out.
Now, with the current coming in but still on the low side, we were getting small hills of water from the harbor, bouncing off the sea walls, and sometimes exacerbated by boat wake. Now things were getting exciting!
Addressing me, the assessor said, “swim”.
“What?” I heard him, I just wanted to make sure I understood him.
“Swim. Capsize and come out of the boat.”
I did so and stayed with the boat and my paddle while the other candidate rescued me.
Next, he had me capsize in order to be rescued eskimo-style: not exiting the boat. I capsized, banged loudly, and held my breath. Where was this guy? I swept my arms back and forth. I felt a bump – good – now where was the boat?
Suddenly, I felt it, and grabbed what was the port bow of his boat. I lifted myself up, and we went on our way.
Now, at this point the exact order of events gets a little blurry, but I know I went in the water a few more times, as did the other candidate. We both had to do paddle presentation and boat-based eskimo rescues, as well as T-rescues where we came out of the boat. My biggest moment of panic came when I glided in for a near-perfect paddle-shaft rescue, and the other candidate grabbed my bow first. “NoNoNoNo!” I was panicking only because I thought I’d take a hit on the assessment if I didn’t adapt quickly enough, but instead, the assessor reminded him that this was meant to be a paddle presentation rescue, and I tried it again, successfully.
One bit of comedy involved my drysuit. Drysuits are waterproof bags. The first time I tried to roll, I went in part of the way, upside-down but with my right higher than my left. Air trapped in my drysuit had formed a little bubble that kept me from going all the way in. This happened again on one of our rescues, and the assessor had me exit the boat, stand vertical, and open the collar for air to escape. I had bilged air earlier, before we left, but had captured air somewhere along the way.
So – rolling in chop, rescues in chop, lots of time in the chop – I was glad I had opted for the drysuit. I get cold easily to begin with, and despite the sunny day, I was feeling cool inside. Not so much that I felt hypothermic, but enough to know that with anything less, a steady breeze would have brought me to a halt.
After that, we finished up by moving to calmer water and demonstrating our moving abeam and sculling strokes: static draws, sculling draws, and sculling for support (down to elbows on the water). With that, we were nearly back at Pier 40’s embayment. We paddled in, landed on the dock, and carried our boats up.
This was a hard day. I enjoyed every minute of it, the more so once I stopped caring about passing and just enjoyed what was, at the least, a nice trip with a lot of skills practice in conditions that are unusual for me. One reasons I started worked at Pier 40 this year was to make sure I got steadier exposure to rougher and more varied conditions. New York City: if you can paddle there, you can paddle anywhere.
I was pretty pumped for a good hour coming off the water. I didn’t feel tired although I cognitively knew, and I am sure the assessor knew, that I was tired, as was the other candidate. We did a lot of work through the whole day, and were ready for it to be over.
I don’t know how the other candidate did. I’ve seen different behavior in different assessments, sometimes people share, sometimes not. Neither of us asked each other how we did, but we talked about the day, and kept chatting when he gave me a ride back home.
In the feedback afterwards, the assessor started off, “Do you want to good news first, or the bad news?”
“Bad news,” I said.
“Bad news is you owe me forty bucks for the paperwork fees. Congratulations, you passed.”
I was ecstatic inside. This has been my big goal for a couple of years now, and one I’ve worked all summer for. Paddling more frequently, paddling in winter to maintain my skills, learning to roll, learning to coach, practicing with various coaches – it all led to this point. Getting my BCU 3 Star award was the last paddling goal I laid out for myself this summer.
I was mentally prepared to fail. This assessor is known as “tough but fair”, and as we went through the assessment I kept running into things I though I could have done better. I tell my own students it’s about the skills and not the award, and that is what I came around to – I felt comfortable in these conditions, I felt like I got most of the skills right, and that I can handle myself, with others, at sea.
I celebrated that night with a new variation of my typical post-paddling achievement reward: a medium rare burger with fries, a beer (Guinness!) and, for the first time, Scotch. With this assessor, and several of my coaches, the UK in general and Scotland and particular are held in high regard. I like Bourbon, and can drink whiskey, but Scotch has never appealed to me.
That is, until now.