By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
(click on photos to expand them—they look a lot better when they’re BIGGER!)
I was determined to see sunrise at least once during this trip, and today was the day! We were both up at 5 AM…
But once the sun was up, there was no more time to admire it. This was the big day. Today we were going to paddle more than 35 miles up the open coast, without landing, and round Montauk Point.
There were several challenges involved. First, we had to pass out into the open Atlantic through Shinnecock Inlet. Inlets are narrow passages through the barrier islands that fill and empty the entire bays behind them as the tide rises and falls—and because they’re narrow, they feature very strong currents. Which means they can get rough, especially when a strong outgoing ebb current collides with large incoming ocean swells. In a narrow channel, the result can be huge breaking waves—risky for paddlers.
The best approach is to time things properly. Ideally, you want to pass through just around the time of the slack before ebb, before the ebb current gets dangerously strong. This morning, the slack before ebb in Shinnecock Inlet was predicted to be around 7 AM.
After that, the next challenge would be the paddle up the coast. On a calm day, there’s nothing particularly risky about paddling offshore through ocean swells. Landing on the beach through the surf, however, can be trickier. And for us—not entirely expert paddlers with heavily loaded boats—landing did pose a significant risk: one mistake and we risked a boat-breaking end to our trip. So we weren’t planning to land along this stretch of coast, except in an emergency. And 35 miles—10 hours or more—was going to be a long paddle without a break.
Oh, and if there were going to be any sharks… this was where they’d be. (As it turned out, we were attacked—but not in a way we anticipated!)
Finally, we were going to round Montauk Point. A strong tidal current flows round the point, and, when it collides with the ocean swells, can create what kayakers like to call “conditions”. Conditions are fun to play in—and good for practice—but at the end of a 35-mile trip they can strain your abilities. Ideally, we wanted a flood current at Montauk to smooth the swells and carry us round the point. And the flood current would cease around 9 PM—we had until then to reach Montauk.
So today we would face not one, but three major challenges. And we were ready for them—or at least, as ready as we’d ever be. We’d listened to the radio, and the prediction was for three-to-five-foot swells—and so even larger surf—with perhaps a chance of a thunderstorm in the afternoon. The swells sounded fine. The thunderstorm? Not so much. But there was nothing we could do about it—besides, there’s always a chance of a thunderstorm in the summer!
So, after a hearty breakfast (salmon, oatmeal, and the obligatory fruit and nuts), we broke camp and packed up.
We paddled away from the Island of Barking Gulls just after 7 AM. We were a bit late: we could already feel the strengthening ebb pulling us toward Shinnecock Inlet, as yet unseen in front of us.
But at least we were moving fast! In no time at all we were at the mouth of the inlet. Looking through it out to sea, I could see that the waves were already large, but most of them not yet breaking.
As we set into the inlet, Vlad remarked, “One side of the inlet is supposed to be better than the other… but I can’t remember which one.”
But we were already committed to the right-hand side—nothing to do but paddle onwards and brace ourselves for the first big wave. It hit me with a shock, and then I was riding the up-and-down, up-and-down, motion of the ocean swells.
We passed fishermen lined up along the sides of the inlet, and several motor boats fishing in the center. We were almost through the inlet when I saw a man and a woman on a boat. The woman was holding up a large fish—easily two feet long, and clearly just caught—as the man took a photo of her.
“Congratulations!” I yelled. “Thanks!” the woman replied.
And I realized that I was feeling confident and comfortable enough to pay attention to my surroundings—not worrying about the waves.
Then the inlet widened, the waves subsided, and we were out in the Atlantic.
We turned left and started to paddle.
Nothing to feel but the constant up-and-down, up-and-down of the swells. Often they were high enough to hide us from each other—even the tip of Vlad’s yellow hat disappeared from sight. But they were fun to ride, and at times even surf a little.
The sun rose higher, and we admired the houses along the shore. As we got into the Hamptons proper, the houses got bigger, and spaced father apart. I wondered idly why so many of them had an odd number of chimneys: one, three, five, seven or nine? Is there some secret equation that links odd numbers of chimneys with luxury?
We paddled some more. Out of nowhere, a bee appeared, aiming for my face. I blew it away.
We paddled some more.
Then after about ten miles, I wanted to take a photo of Vlad. I reached into the pocket of my yellow PFD for the camera. But when I took it out, something was wrong. The display was the “white screen of death”—blank—and the camera was buzzing. I’d never heard a camera make that noise before.
I shook it, and rebooted it, and stared into the display once more. Nothing happened. Then suddenly I felt a tickling on my neck—followed by a sharp sting.
“Ouch!” I yelled, and slapped my neck.
Then I realized what had happened. The bee that had flown toward me before had managed to crawl into my PFD—and came out when I reached for the camera.
Improbably, the bee had stung me just as the camera decided to go belly-up!
Fortunately, I’m not allergic, and the pain of the sting faded after a few minutes. But it wasn’t the last bee attack of the day. Later on, one launched itself at Vlad’s yellow hat (he tried to dislodge it, but it wouldn’t leave, and in the end he had to drown it). And another one tried to camp out on my yellow water bottle.
We later recalled that bees like the color yellow—and acknowledged that, with all the things we’d worried about, we’d never once thought to worry about bee attacks! Fortunately, the dreaded sharks never materialized—and the bee attacks were the worst we’d experience on the trip.
We paddled on, along the long sandy beach, up and down, up and down on the swells as they swept under us toward shore, periodically hiding it from view.
The next excitement was a couple of hours later, when we rafted up so I could take a refreshing dip in the ocean. (Okay, jump out of the boat and pee.) Experienced paddlers know this isn’t really a good idea. Getting out of the boat always introduces some small risk. But we’d done this a couple of times before, and didn’t think there would be any problem.
To get back into the boat, I used the BCU-recommended re-entry method (starting on my back and rolling into the cockpit) while Vlad stabilized the boat. But just then a big steep swell sloshed against the side of the boat—and by the time I was in the boat, it was mostly full of water.
No problem, I’d just pump out the boat. Except…. as I was pumping away, with Vlad holding the boat, another big swell hit, dumping even more water in the boat.
This clearly wasn’t going to work. We looked at each other. What to do? I tried bailing the water out with an empty water bottle, but that worked no better than the pump.
Finally I figured out how to put on the spray skirt, tuck the pump in under my waistband, and pump from inside the spray skirt. That got the water level down far enough that, after a few minutes, I could pump the rest of the water out the normal way.
No harm done—but it was a clear reminder not to take unnecessary risks. No more “refreshing dips” in future—not until we were safely out of the swells.
We paddled on…
Periodically, Vlad checked the GPS to see how far we had gone since Shinnecock Inlet. 10 miles… 15 miles… 20 miles! And just then, we passed a brightly-colored cluster of balloons that said “Congrats!” :-)
The next stop was for a late lunch, around 4 PM. We rafted up and had some coconut cream, fruit, and almonds. By then we’d gone 25 miles—still another 10 or so to go. But we were slowing down: the swells, now coming at a slightly different angle, were no longer helping us. The day was still hot and bright, but clouds were massing to our left, over Long Island.
“I’m worried about finding a camping place after we round the point,” I said.
“Well, I’m worried about not getting to the point before the current turns at night,” Vlad replied. “If we don’t make it there by nine, we won’t make it around the point at all. And since we can’t land, we’ll have to paddle all night.”
Paddle all night, after paddling 35 miles? Navigate in the dark? I resolved to pick up the pace.
And I did. I mentally divided the number of miles left to go into tenths, then ticked off the tenths on my watch. And I adopted a hard-soft sprinting strategy: for one minute I paddled as hard as I could, and for the next minute I paddled slower, but with perfect form.
Slowly the remaining miles began to tick away. Ten… nine… eight…
At mile eight we heard an ominous bang.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Maybe fireworks?” Vlad replied hopefully.
“Fireworks,” we agreed. After all, it would be the Fourth of July in a few days.
Then the first lightning bolt hit. I counted the seconds: One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand… The storm seemed to be about ten miles away.
The thunder and lightning grew more intense. Above us, the sun was still shining, but the sky to our left was filled with darkness. Darkness that was increasingly lit up by lightning.
We looked at the shore, but it was impassable: tall waves crashing into the base of red cliffs. We’d reached the part of Long Island where the surfers go out to play—and it was no place for (our kind of) kayakers to be landing.
By the time we were about three miles away from Montauk Point, though, it was clear that we’d dodged the bullet. The thunderstorm was passing us, moving ahead, out to sea.
… And then we heard it. More thunder, this time from behind us. A second thunderstorm, even bigger and more powerful than the first, was heading our way.
Once again, lightning flashed and thunder cracked—and this time it was getting very close.
We could now clearly see the lighthouse on Montauk Point, bright white against the lowering clouds. It was a picturesque scene, straight out of Norman Rockwell’s New England.
I would have appreciated it a whole lot more had it not been for the approaching storm. After a few more minutes, it was clear that we weren’t going to escape this time. This storm was going to hit.
We paddled harder.
And just as we reached the very tip of Montauk Point—the easternmost point of our entire trip!—the storm hit. We later agreed it was a perfect Hollywood-choreographed moment. All at the same time, powerful gusts of cold wind swept down, a cold rain started, and the waves began breaking fiercely. Lightning flashed down all around the horizon. And off to the left, the clouds parted to show an orange setting sun. Over to the right, meanwhile, a full moon was rising.
Sunset, full moon, storm—all in the same moment!
But I couldn’t properly appreciate the visual drama—I was too busy keeping my boat from capsizing. In the powerful gusting winds, it was everything I could do to avoid being blown backwards. And with the waves rising up and breaking all around, I was edging and bracing to the best of my ability. I was making no progress around the point, and the wind and waves threatened to push me over.
Remembering the difficulty I’d had getting into and emptying out the boat earlier, I was getting concerned. A capsize-and-rescue under these conditions would be challenging, to say the least!
Vlad had paddled on, around the point, but when he saw the difficulty I was in he came back toward me. “Don’t worry!” he shouted. “It will be over soon!”
He was right. The fierce wind only lasted a few minutes, and when it lessened a bit, I was able to make headway. The waves were still choppy, but much less threatening.
And slowly, slowly, we rounded the point. Vlad took pictures, and I just paddled.
Slowly the thunderstorm pulled out to sea and the clouds opened up—and, lit by the setting sun, put on quite a show!
But what was that? Not a third thunderstorm, behind the other two?
“If this storm hits, we make straight for shore,” Vlad said. He was right: we were on the protected side of the point. The surf on this side of the point was much smaller, even though the sea was still rough from the previous storm.
But fortunately, the third thunderstorm passed us by, and we found ourselves paddling through slowly calming waters, looking for a possible campsite as the sun set.
A couple of miles round the back of Montauk Point, we located a friendly-looking beach, and went in for a landing.
But we’d misjudged: Although it looked peaceful enough, there was a steep ledge just underwater, and we landed in small but dumping surf. My boat ended up half filled with water, but fortunately I avoided getting pounded. I emptied the water out, and we dragged our boats up the beach, which was rather steeper than we were hoping it would be, grumbling and complaining at the effort.
After 35 miles and 13 hours, we were around Montauk Point and safely ashore! And the views all around in the last light of the setting sun could not have been more magnificent…
Before it got too dark, we still had to find a campsite. And we soon found the perfect spot: a grove of trees on a firm, peaty embankment, elevated about eighteen inches above the back of the beach. Sure to be safely above the high tide line, in other words. We promptly dubbed it “Pleasant Grove”.
After just a bit more effort—we had to trail the boats through the water a hundred yards from where we’d initially landed, then completely unload them to be able to lift them onto the bank—we were there! We made camp. Too tired to cook, we shared nuts, salami, and cheese before tumbling in to sleep, as the full moon rose high over Pleasant Grove.
The ground under me kept going up-and-down, up-and-down… But we’d made it!