Friday June 4th
Training day 1:
It is the case that I do not know how to Eskimo roll. I have never capsized and I have never been so far away from land that if I had capsized I wouldn't have been able to make it back by swimming with a boat in tow. As much time of my training as is necessary will be dedicated to mastering the roll, so that I can do it with any boat in any condition. And all that starts the day after tomorrow.
I have recently arrived in America, where I will be staying in northern NJ with my folks in order to train for my trip. With my morning taken up by a young lady, I had only a few precious hours of my first day back to take my boat out on the water. With the Sabbath beginning at 8:05pm I had to be back home and showered before that time, and preferably before services which where scheduled for 7:30, or else face the consequences of sin. Since there is often significant traffic coming out of the city into NJ, that would mean that I had to leave the Hudson, my destination, by 6:00 and be out of the water by 5:45. I threw the boat on the car, and drove to a small put-in just South of the George Washington Bridge (GWB).
A small grassy area between two houses that cost more then I will probably make in my entire life, is marked as part of the Hudson River Walkway. The Hudson River Walkway is a path along parts of the NJ side of the river that allows one to walk alongside and admire the Hudson and the view, in this case, of Manhattan, on the other side. This particular section of the Hudson River Walkway allows a leisurely stroll of almost 20 ft before turning back and a park bench for sitting on.
As I brought my boat down to the water I said “Hello” to the friendly couple sitting on the bench and eating a late lunch. The fellow politely though sternly asked me if I had a permit to put my boat in there. Rats. “No? Do I live in, or am I staying at any of the adjacent houses? ”
I responded quite cleverly “Ehh.”
The woman, however, was beginning to laugh, and told him to stop, she informed me that he was putting me on and that she was sorry on his behalf. We then had a friendly chat. Among other things I informed them that I happen to be a decent kayaker and that I was training for an expedition. They jestingly expressed concern that this late on a Friday afternoon I might find myself violating the laws of the Sabbath, and while I took the concern more seriously then they, I still had 45 minutes to make my boat move as fast as I could on the river.
The feeling of pulling out, having not been in a kayak for 3 months, was a good one. I was in the water and on the move with my two onlookers behind me. I thought that I would start by crossing the river, which was at a slack tide. The sky was overcast, but almost no wind so, alas, there were no waves. I would soon be appreciative of this fact.
The bridge was on my left and I was crossing the river. My hat blew off, so I went after it and capsized. A few points: I have kayaked the length of the Hudson, from Albany to the GWB and not once capsized, as I wrote earlier, before that moment. But this was training, so when my hat blew off and landed some distance behind me, it was a perfect opportunity, or so I thought, to try a new technique. Leaning the boat way over on its side so that less of it would be in the water should allow me to turn faster. I have been leaning on my turns for a long time now, but I had recently seen a picture in a kayaking book of the author, Derek Hutchinson, leaning so far in to his turn that his shoulder was only inches away from the water. And that's what didn't work for me.
So I was sitting in my boat under water as I had done in the past when beginning to learn to roll, and contemplating, “Is this a good a time to learn to roll?” I decided that, no, I wanted as little of the Hudson water going up my nose as possible, and pulled my spray skirt's loop letting myself out.
Rule Number One: Never ever ever let go of your boat.
I had neither a baler nor pump with me, after all, it was just going to be 45 minutes of pushing myself on the water, not a long haul. Training is all about learning, and there are mistakes I made that I will not repeat. I did however have with me a really big sponge.
The boat was upside down and I was treading water next to it, made much easier by my life jacket. Also, as a result of years of experience, I had not let go of my paddle. I looked around, no freighters coming, thank the Maker, and I couldn't tell which shore was closer, rats, I was very much in the middle.
I managed to right my boat with only a small amount of the river getting in. My sponge, which was stored behind my seat was then used to remove the remaining water.
Reentering a kayak is tricky business for those who can't yet roll, and cannot be done from the side since that would just result in tipping it again. And without my spray skirt and me covering the cockpit, if my reentry failed I risked filling the boat up with water. So I managed to get the front of the boat in between my legs and begin the tricky task of inching my way forward without tipping the boat.
Closer … closer … just a little more .. I began trying to figure how to turn around and get my legs into the boat, and then it tipped a little and I couldn't quite right it, and some water got in, and then it tipped some more, and I was back in the drink and my boat had taken some on.
When at first you don't succeed, try try again.
Bailing, this time more water to get out. I also was now kicking at the same time to begin moving the whole operation towards the NYC side which seemed a little closer (Or was it just my imagination). I had made some progress with the bailing when I noticed a mid sized boat coming in my direction fast. Uh oh. I began waving my paddles and arms in the air, I needed the boat to see me. It was far enough away so that I could probably escape, and so I began to swim frantically towards the NJ side, but not letting go of my kayak, away from the oncoming boat. Swim damn it, swim!
Finally I turned around to sea the boat slowly pull to a stop about a hundred feet away. On it, a man in military dress, presumably Coast Guard, asked me if I was OK.
“Yes, thanks I'm OK” I called. I gave him two thumbs up and a smile so that there would be no doubt.
“Do you need a hand?”.
“I think I need to get myself out of this mess.” After all, if I needed the Coast Guard to help me every time a little thing went wrong, then I would not be expedition material. In order to demonstrate I began again attempting to reenter my kayak, except there was still to much water in it. And as the Coast Guard pulled away my kayak tipped again, this time the weight of the water puling it all the way over, causing it to swamp completely. The good news was that the Coast Guard would now be keeping track of my location; I would not need to worry about freighters (I still worried, but there weren't any).
I began using my sponge to bail. Stick it into the now full cockpit, take it out, squeeze. Stick it in, take it out, squeeze. Wave, and the cockpit was full again. There was no progress, I tried some more, but I couldn't get the water out. The boat was too low.
At first, I attempted a side stroke while holding onto the boat with the paddle firmly lodged inside of it. I had in the past practiced swimming using the powerful strokes of the paddle to pull myself forward, and now I remembered that. I got ahold of my tow rope, which was soon secured tightly to the shaft of my paddle, I learned the hard way that knots come undone more easily when tied under water, and began pulling myself and my boat in tow towards the shore.
My trick, with any sort of time consuming physical activity, weather it's a long bike ride, or a 10km run, is not to check my watch or count increments, but to tell myself that it will never end. I employed this mental technique here. I was making slow progress, lugging a boat full of water across the Hudson, and I told myself quite simply, I would never get there. This was what I would spend eternity doing, so I had better figure out how to enjoy it. And so it became a pleasant never ending, slow going, swim with paddles. Why not, that was what there was and that's all there would be. I noticed a helicopter hovering overhead for quit some time. The last few days here have been really hot, so despite the time of year, the water was comfortable, and of course, I couldn't feel the carcinogens, so that's all there was to it. There's a nice red light house under the NYC side of the GWB and I admired it as I tediously pulled myself forward. Soon, I noticed there where cyclists and a group of people that I could just make out on the shore who seemed to be watching my progress. Were they getting bigger, maybe? It didn't matter since I would be out there forever either way. I tried to make sure that I wasn't swimming towards a particular point on the shore but in the general direction of the City so that if I did get caught up in a current I wouldn't be fighting it. The helicopter was gone but before long another, or the same one, had appeared in a different spot. I was worried that I wouldn't make it back for the Sabbath, but I pushed such thoughts aside since I would be on the water forever.
Someone on the shore was waiving to me, he was too far away to hear me so I tried giving him the thumbs up again. But he was too far away to see. I though that any larger hand gestures I made might appear as struggling and from this distance shouting might sound like screaming, so I continued my methodical paddle swim as the man on the beach took of his shirt and began waiving it in the air.
Eventually, and it was a long time, though much sooner then the eternity I had imagined, I was close enough for him to shout “Are you OK?”
“I'm fine, thank you.” A moment later “How are you?”
The conversation went on a little longer. He wanted to make sure and I thanked him for his concern. I don't remember your name, sorry, but if your reading this, again, thank you. And he had in his concern called an ambulance and as I finally pulled up there where paramedics there waiting to make sure I was OK. Yes, I was fine. Soon there was another ambulance, and a couple of police cars, and a couple of fire department vehicles, and a whole lot of people in uniform to stand around me and watch me begin the process of getting the water out of my boat. I thanked them for their concern and didn't know what else to say. One fellow was able to provide me with drinking water, which was a kindness (remember, I hadn't intended to be out for very long, so my water was in the car.)
It's a shame that all the forces of the city of NY where unable to contact the coast guard, whom I had already spoken to, in order to help someone in the water. But instead, these noble rescue services had to wait for me to get myself to land before they could ask me if I needed help, though I imagine if my progress was not steady someone would have swam out, still not the best way of dealing with it.
I finished getting the water out of my boat, got back in it, and kayaked as fast as I could back to the NJ side. I made it home about 20 minutes before the Sabath started. If it had come while I was still driving I would have had to get out of the car and walk, or risk damnation. I showered the Hudson off of me, sat down, and thought, 'Huh, I guess I might have gotten a little more exercise then I had intended.