I’m fairly new to kayaking, and have so far enjoyed a few afternoon paddles in the Hudson River near our home and in Goose Pond near Lee, MA, where we vacation in the summer. The more I do it, the more I enjoy the challenges it offers. It’s a great way to get alone time for a few hours, and maybe enjoy some non-work related photography. Or to just sit, bobbing up and down like a cork, watching clouds.
And so when Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports invited me to join with him and a group of kayakers on an overnight expedition to the Execution Rocks Lighthouse, I was totally in. The longest kayak trip I’ve had to date was about 3 hours on the Hudson, so this was a big step up. We’d meet in Rye, NY, paddle 5 miles from the coast, south by south west, to a pile of rocks with a lighthouse few miles north of Port Washington, NY, and back again the following morning, which happened to be Memorial Day.
After meeting up at the appointed time and place, and getting our boats and gear sorted out in the Edith G. Read Wildlife Sanctuary parking lot, we popped into our kayaks and shoved off into the setting sun. Despite the increasing clouds, the weather was calm and pleasant as we paddled, keeping a wary eye out for holiday pleasure boaters and quietly chatting about the lore of the Execution Rocks.
During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers were reported to have used the 9 foot tide at the island to execute prisoners, chaining them to the rocks during low tide. Additionally, Execution Rocks is where cereal killer Carl Panzram claimed to have dumped the bodies of his numerous victims. They say on starless nights you can tortured hear voices calling out as the water rises. This is where we plan on spending the night.
We were running late, but thankfully the lighthouse’s beacon began it’s regular pulsing in the dark, and we were able to plot a good path using it and some nearby buoys. Our landing on the rocks of the island was going to be a technical one, and as we finally reached our destination, the ocean seemed to want to test us by picking up its energy. Our hosts, Craig and Linell, helped by shining flashlights down on us as we methodically lifted one heavy, packed kayak after another up the rip rap that makes the island, to safety.
The lighthouse is a creepy, remarkable affair, feeling abandoned and ancient until you poke around a little and discover signs of the owners. Tables with glowing lanterns, food and water in the kitchen, a nice grill outside. Ironically, though Con Edison uses the island as a switching point for millions of volts of electricity and the Coast Guard is obliged to keep the lighthouse’s beacon flashing, there’s no electricity for Craig and Linell. Not yet, anyway. They’re in the process of raising funds to renovate the historic structure. So we bumbled around using flashlights and settled in to the smell of cooked meat wafting off Craig’s BBQ.
After a good burger, made fantastic by the long trip, I figured some photography was in order, and began setting up to the complaints of nesting seagulls. I normally do portraits of people, and since the lighthouse now had it’s own persona in my mind, I decided a portrait would be fitting. It being Memorial Day and all, I decided on a patriotic theme, and introduced red and blue light to compliment the white beacon at the top of the lighthouse. I left Matt’s silhouette undoctored because it’s so ghostly, a fitting addition to the image.
Later, as I dropped into dreamless sleep, I kind of hoped I’d see a ghost, and at the same time, really wished I wouldn’t experience a haunting. Around 2am I was jerked from my sleep by a loud crash and howling wind. Somehow, a door had come loose and blown open as a storm moved into the area, rattling the living room I was camped out in. Assuring myself it was wind and not spirits that had roused me, I got up and walked outside. It was high tide. The waves that had earlier been yards below us, were now right at the door step, as if to remind me of the location’s gruesome history. Gusts of wind clawed at me and I watched waves roll in out of the east. Though no apparitions made themselves known to me, I felt aware and vulnerable as I realized we might have to paddle back in this.
In the morning we powered up on food and coffee. I had instant coffee in a pink sippy cup. Literally. What? I have 3 little girls at home. That’s how I roll.
After that we packed our boats, casting nervous eyes off the island. The seas, calm and serene yesterday, were now breaking on 5 foot swells, with winds gusting over 20 knots. The plan had been to paddle around, maybe to the north shore of Long Island, and then back to Rye by the afternoon. But that was looking less and less realistic. Matt called a meeting where the group decided the most prudent thing to do was head directly to Pelham, seeking shelter from various islands on the way. From there we’d figure out a way to get our cars and go home.
Getting our kayaks off the island was just as tricky as getting them on, and once we were all safely bobbing up and down in the water, we paddled around the sheltered side of the island and into the oncoming swells, which were now topping out at about 6 feet. My kayak, a red Wilderness Systems Focus 150, is known for getting pushed around by the wind due to it’s higher stance, and for being hard to edge and turn. To my dismay, this turned out to be completely true. Going into the wind and into the oncoming waves was a cinch, and I found myself having a great time. Until we needed to turn at a right angle from it. That’s where my trouble began.
The only thing you have to fear is fear itself. So goes the saying. As I wrestled my boat to take the wind and swells broadside, it kept slipping even further away until I had the wind blowing up my ass. The grin on my face from sloshing up and down over the oncoming waves gave way to tight, eye-bulging anxiety, as I attempted to keep the kayak headed in the right direction. It seemed that every wave tried to twist the boat away from me, forcing me to madly counterbalance, bracing first one side up the face of a wave, then the other side as I slid back down. The dread of possibly getting knocked over seeped into me. The water was cold. And murky. And probably full of sharks. Maybe even a Megalodon and a Spinosaur or two. And we were at least a mile from the nearest solid ground. Fuck.
I heard my paddling partner Robin yelling at me to relax and go with the waves. “Your kayak wants to float! Let it!” That helped for a bit, and I was able to get myself sorted out. But soon the anxiety rose again, causing me to loose my rhythm and tighten up, fighting more than paddling.
Getting knocked over was almost a relief, breaking the fear with a cold, wet plunge, cutting it off and replacing it in one motion with the clarity of the moment. One second I was rigid with resistance, and then, almost instantly, forced into the relaxation that comes with holding your breath deeply. I looked around in the greenness for the toggle on my spray skirt, popped it out, and surfaced, making sure not to lose my paddle. Or my hat. Or my camera. Shit, I had a lot of stuff floating around. Robin paddled over and asked in a friendly voice if I was ok, almost casually, as if we were on solid ground and just I’d stumbled a bit as we walked.
Performing an assisted or self-rescue in the chilly, rolling ocean is very different from one in the well-lit, chlorinated safety of a heated indoor pool. Thanks to Robin’s thoughtful coaching and her relaxed attitude, I was able to get back in my kayak and continue on, losing only a little of my pride and my favorite baseball cap, relieved now that the fear of falling had literally been washed away.
She and I rejoined the others and we all landed on Huckleberry Island to rest, pull ourselves together, have a snack, take a leak, and to figure out where, exactly, we were going to paddle next. It can be difficult to discern one small island from another when you’re sea level, so after making sure we were where we thought we were, we established a plan for the last leg of our journey, and got ahold of Lynda’s fiancé, Dave. He’d meet us at Orchard Beach Park and drive a group of us to go get our cars.
We shoved off again and paddled through one last nasty bit, quickly finding shelter near the coast. We then navigated past various beach and yacht clubs to an inlet and calm water. The passage underneath the small bridge that leads to Glen Island was as much a psychological relief as a physical one. Boom. Just like that the wind disappeared. And, and I could be mistaken here, it seemed the clouds began to lighten up a bit as well, and we were able to enjoy looking at moored pleasure boats as we dipped our oars in the water, propelling ourselves on.
From Glen Island, we glided around to the backside of Hunter Island and the Orchard Beach parking lot where Dave and he and Lynda’s dog were waiting. Tired, happy, ready to go home, we pulled ourselves from the water and unloaded our boats. Then we figured out which order we wanted to get our vehicles in. Dave drove the first batch away, leaving me with Robin, Gary, Ann and Kerry to chill and wait.
It was over. Happily, only two of us had been rolled by the water, and thanks to the competent experience of our group leaders, the dunkings were uneventful. And despite the challenges, everybody seemed to have had a great time. Indeed, it had been an excellent trip, and as I drove home to my family, I found myself thinking about the next one. Hopefully I’d learn to roll my kayak back up this summer so that an assisted rescue wouldn’t be needed. We’ll see.
Thanks for reading! To see my portrait work, please visit my website: http://www.NJohnstonPhotography.com
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse is an historic structure built in the 1800’s, and is currently owned by Craig Morrison and Linell Lukesh. Money for the pleasure of our over night stay and the amazing BBQ they welcomed us with go to the restoration of the lighthouse. To donate, please visit their website: http://www.lighthouserestorations.org
Prime Paddlesports is owned and operated by Matt Kane, and promotes paddlesport learning, adventure and fun for kayakers, creating opportunities for skill development and on-water confidence building with courses, workshops, coastal retreats and events. Learn more by logging on to: http://www.primepaddlesports.com
Robin Read, it turns out, is actually a bonafide pro in the kayaking world. She leads tours, runs workshops and teaches fools like me who wish they knew how to kayak. She also has some semi-instructional videos on Youtube.