A Tale of Two Compasses

By Vladimir Brezina

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Course: 130 degrees magnetic!

I distinctly remember the first time the value of a good marine compass was driven home to me. I was circumnavigating Staten Island for the first time, clockwise, and had reached the gradual turn around the southwest tip of the island at Tottenville. I had never been there before—everything was new. I had a marine chart, but the very tip of the island was folded over on the other side, just out of sight. It didn’t seem necessary to refold the chart, especially as, as soon as I passed around the tip of the island into the Arthur Kill, I would have to fold the chart back again. And hadn’t I just studied the chart and knew exactly what was ahead? And so, as I made the turn and was faced with the choice of several waterways, I boldly set off toward the Raritan River instead of the Arthur Kill. Only when I was almost in the Raritan River did I happen to glance idly at the compass, to discover with a shock that I was paddling 90 degrees off course, west instead of north…

But as I grew familiar with New York Harbor, the compass seemed less relevant. I dutifully strapped it onto the boat for every trip, but I hardly ever looked at it.

Perhaps because I hardly looked at it, I was able for many years to get away with the Suunto Orca. For a folding kayak, I needed a strap-on, rather than a permanently mounted, compass, and the Orca was one of the few available. But it’s very popular, I notice, even among hard-shell kayakers, who have many other choices.

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But when in recent years we started to take longer trips into unknown waters, and I really needed a compass, I found I could hardly use the Orca.

Rather than having an evenly rounded globe of clear plastic, like most compasses, the Orca has a boxy shape, with an awkward bend along the top, just in the wrong place to distort the view of the numbers underneath. And the bend tends to accumulate scratches, making the plastic even more opaque.

But most importantly, the numbers on the Orca’s card are too small. On a kayak, you want to mount your compass as far forward as possible, so that you can keep both the compass and the horizon in view at the same time. But when mounted far forward, the Orca’s numbers can hardly be read, through the scratches and the water droplets that also gather on the compass.

Enter the Brunton 58.1.40241_eA much better compass! It has a rounded globe. The numbers, and especially the letters for the principal compass points, are much bigger than the Orca’s.

Underneath it is nicely shaped to sit solidly on the ridge of a peaked kayak deck, without sliding to one side or the other, like the Orca tends to do.

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And, online, the Brunton 58 is even a little cheaper—around $50—than the Orca ($70).

During the 2014 Everglades Challenge, I certainly appreciated having a good compass. On a number of occasions, when we were hesitating which way to paddle among the indistinguishable mangrove islands, a glance at the compass immediately made it clear.

And, as happens with the best equipment, the compass began speaking to me. (No, this was not a hallucination—although a speaking compass would not have been that remarkable among the bizarre hallucinations on that trip…) Rather than sitting there passively, waiting to be interrogated with difficulty only when absolutely necessary, as with the Orca, the Brunton was such a pleasure to look at that I naturally incorporated it into the round of things I looked at while paddling—the waves, the clouds, the compass… It was quietly pushing information at me, constantly telling me that we were on the right course—or sometimes not.

And having a good compass eliminated the conversations with Johna that always went something like this:

Vlad: “See those two islands, the big one and the little one? We’ll paddle through the gap between them.”

Johna: “You mean the big island with the tall trees?”

Vlad: “No, more to the right. The island with the white tower.”

Johna: “I see two white towers…”

Now I just say: “Steer 130 degrees magnetic!”

Or rather, I would say that if Johna too had a usable compass. During the Everglades Challenge, she still had an Orca.

We left Johna’s Orca behind in Florida at the end of that trip. Now we’ll get her a Brunton.

I Did It!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

On the beach after the race

This was the fifth year that Vlad and I raced in the Blackburn Challenge, the 20-mile circumnavigation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The race is named for Howard Blackburn, a 19th-century mariner of uncommon grit. (You can read about him here.) Any human-powered watercraft can participate, and there is usually a wide range, from paddleboards to rowing shells, dories, and dragonboats—plus several flavors of kayaks.

Thus far, I’d placed every time, helped out by the relative smallness of the field of women sea kayakers—there are typically only half a dozen or so in my class.

After collecting two third-place and two second-place finishes, I yearned for a first. Last year I missed it by a mere six minutes. And I just knew I’d gotten faster this year. I’d trained hard—though not as consistently as I’d liked—and still had some stamina left over from completing the Everglades Challenge earlier this year.

So I was pretty sure that this would be my year.

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Travel Theme: Purple

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Purple.

What's this??

What’s this??

Several times during our recent paddles through Southern Florida, we came across these large squishy creatures, brown with white spots, flapping their wings just under the water’s surface—

A swimming sea hare!

How is this connected with the theme of Purple, you may ask? Well, the connection was established as soon as I picked this one up out of the water. It immediately started oozing a dark purple liquid onto my sprayskirt. I hastily put it back into the water.

Actually, I was expecting this (although I wasn’t expecting the animal to be quite this trigger-happy). For this was an Aplysia, a sea-slug commonly known as a sea hare—and, as it happens, one of the experimental animals that we work with in the lab (although we work with a slightly different species). So I am very familiar with its defensive mechanisms. Rather like squid, a disturbed Aplysia releases, along with other secretions, a cloud of defensive ink.

This ink is deep purple—perhaps the most intense purple color I have ever seen. No wonder that such ink (from a different species of mollusc) was in antiquity the basis of a much-prized dye, Tyrian or Imperial Purple.

I don’t have a photo that does the color of the ink justice, so here’s one by another photographer that begins to give some idea—

Aplysia californica releasing ink

For much more about Aplysia and its ink, including a video of the ink release, see here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Containers

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Containers.

The key to efficient expedition kayaking is the successful management of containers. It’s taken us a while to learn that lesson…

How will all this stuff fit into those two little kayaks??

How will it all fit?(2014 Everglades Challenge)

It’s a matter of the right containers

Camp in the woods(2011 Hudson River paddle from Albany to NYC)

to be able to find things when we need them

Found it!(2012 Long Island circumnavigation)

and quickly set up camp before the evening mosquitoes swarm

Setting up camp(2012 Long Island circumnavigation)

or make dinner on a dark beach before the tide comes flooding in…

Dinner on the beach(2014 Everglades Challenge)

Cardboard Kayak Race, Redux

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Last year, I wrote about the first annual Cardboard Kayak Race, held on City of Water Day at Governors Island.  This year, I was in it!

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. We didn’t build a boat out of cardboard and then race it. But others did! And I was part of a fleet of “safety kayaks” whose job it was to rescue paddlers whose cardboard boats sank (and fish out the sodden detritus).

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Celebrity Sun

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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In Manhattan we get our share of celebrities. Some live here year-round. Many zoom by in a blaze of flashbulbs and applause.

And some show up reliably every day, unapplauded, but make a celebrity entrance a few minutes out of the year. That’s what happens at Manhattanhenge. Twice a year, roughly three weeks before and after the summer solstice, the setting sun lines up precisely with the east-west streets of Manhattan’s street grid.

It’s  a well-known phenomenon, and has become more so with each passing year. Photographers gather at major intersections, awaiting that perfect moment when the sun touches the horizon, framed precisely between buildings on either side. For a moment or two, the sun is a celebrity.

I’ve heard about it, and Vlad has taken pictures of it many times. But this year was the first time I’d actually experienced it.

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Travel Theme: Decoration

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Decoration.

Inspecting the decorations at the 2012 and 2013 Tugboat Races—

Tattoo decorations 1
Tattoo decorations 2
Tattoo decorations 3
Tattoo decorations 4

We look forward to this year’s North River Tugboat Race & Competition!