Daily Post: Compass

Compass on deck.. and a chart in the case!

By Johna Till Johnson

Today’s daily post is “Compass”.

I almost always paddle with one, even when there’s almost no chance of getting lost. (Hint: If you’re going south on the Hudson River, Manhattan is to your left!).

A compass can be useful in many ways. You can practice guessing the directions, and checking your guess against the compass: “The sun is behind me, and it’s an afternoon in the winter, so the sun is in the southwest which means I’m pointing… Northeast? Yes!”

You can also use one to precisely locate objects, particularly when paddling with a friend:  “See that bird on our left? About 90 degrees?”

And believe it or not, a compass often comes in handy when you least expect it. I’ve had fog so thick that I couldn’t see the Manhattan side of the Hudson from New Jersey—I was happy to have a compass then!

Because I have several boats, I have a compass that clips on to the deck lines, so I take it from boat to boat. (Actually, I have two compasses; I inherited one from Vlad). Many paddlers have the compass physically attached to their boats, so they don’t have to worry about traveling with one.

And, oh yeah, here’s a tip: Don’t put your compass on top of the deck bag in which you also have your car keys. The metal and electronics in the key will mess up the compass… and, as happened to me on a recent trip, you’ll wonder why the compass always tells you you’re pointing north!

An Autumn Paddle in New England

The source: Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures

By Johna Till Johnson

October 7, 2017

To me, Rhode Island is New England’s quirky little brother.

In the New England family, Massachusetts is the corporate CEO:  rich, polished, well-connected, and casually dominant.

Connecticut is the suburban matron with pearl stud earrings, perfectly pressed khakis, 2.5 blond kids and a white picket fence.

Vermont is the crunchy-granola hippie sister, with flowing locks and skirts and beads.

New Hampshire is the gruff older brother with flannel shirts, pickup truck with a gun rack, and the “live free or die” bumpersticker.

Maine… that’s the far-off cousin I’ve never properly met, distant, mysterious, and cold.

But Rhode Island is the bright, tattooed little brother with grommet earrings who’s working as a barista while waiting for his band to hit the big time.

The person I’d naturally gravitate to at Thanksgiving dinner, in other words, because he’s likely to have the most interesting stories and unusual perspectives.

So when the email arrived notifying me that the paddles I’d ordered had arrived at Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, it was a no-brainer for me  to decide to drive up and pick them up. My weekend had come unexpectedly free, with an unusually warm and sunny Saturday forecast. A visit to Rhode Island seemed like a brilliant idea.

Technically, Osprey Sea Kayak isn’t in Rhode Island. It’s in southern Massachusetts, on the banks of the eastern fork of the Westport River.  But the owners, Carl and Samantha Ladd, live in Rhode Island, and it’s always seemed like a Rhode Island institution to me.

I’d never paddled the Westport before. Whenever I’d headed up to Rhode Island for past trips, the whole point had been to play in ocean surf. In fact, I’d barely noticed that the tiny “creek” behind the kayak shop was actually a river.

But it is, and like Rhode Island itself, it’s an under-appreciated gem. See for yourself: Click on any of the photos below to see the vistas from that day. And you can read about my timely discovery of the boat named “Sea Hare” here.

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A Winter Nighttime Paddle on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Brian Fulton-Howard (see note)

George Washington Bridge from the north

December 3, 2017

It was to be Brian’s first winter paddle. That is, even though it wasn’t quite winter yet, the air and water temperatures told us it was time to don drysuits—something Brian had never done before.

The conditions were perfect: the forecast was for a misty overcast day, with air temperatures in the 50s and water temperatures in the 40s, with virtually no wind.

And thanks to the “supermoon”—a larger-than-usual moon due to the moon’s close orbit to Earth—we’d have king tides, bringing currents of between 2 and 3 knots in the Hudson. That meant an easy paddle in both directions, if we kept with the current. (Currents that strong and stronger are common in the East River, but more typically in the Hudson they range from 1 to 2 knots).

There was just one catch.

To travel with the current in both directions, we had two choices for our launch from Yonkers: A predawn launch heading north to the Tappan Zee bridge, or a midafternoon launch heading south to the George Washington.

Realistically, I couldn’t picture getting up early enough for a pre-dawn launch.

But if we took the latter option, we’d be spending most of the trip in darkness.

Was that really wise?

One of my good friends and coaches, Taino, likes to illustrate kayaking risks with a slot machine metaphor: Each risk may be acceptable individually… but if enough of them line up—disaster.

So what were these risks? Well, it was Brian’s first time paddling in a drysuit. And it was winter paddling (paddling in cold water is always riskier than in warm). And paddling in the dark.

But countering that were the near-perfect conditions (particularly the lack of wind). There was fact that we were two paddlers (two are always better off than one). Also, Brian is a strong paddler, with a level head and good judgment. And we both felt healthy, with no injuries or ailments.

The deciding factor was esthetic: The morning was predicted to be cloudy, with little chance of a beautiful sunrise. But if we opted for the evening paddle, there was at least the chance the clouds would part and we’d get to see the supermoon as it rose.

The evening paddle it was!

Brian arrived at my apartment around 2, and we prepared to pack. Hot, sweet tea: Check. Plenty of chocolate (Brian’s contribution): check. All the usual cold-weather gear: hats, gloves, “space blankets”: check.

Except for one thing…

As Brian pulled on his drysuit (discovering in the process that it fit perfectly), I asked, “So you brought your neoprene booties, right?”

Ahhh… nope!

Brian hadn’t realized drysuits need shoes (or some kind of foot covering) to avoid getting punctured. (Drysuits basically consist of GoreTex, zippers, and gaskets—you need to wear insulating clothing underneath, and put on some kind of foot covering.)

But Brian is nothing if not resourceful. “Got any duct tape?” he asked. I did, along with the cardboard and Sharpie he requested. And in a few minutes, he’d made himself a pair of cardboard-and-duct-tape “sandals”—not super fancy, but enough to protect the soles of his drysuit from damage.

That problem solved, we proceeded to Yonkers, where we managed to launch around 3:30 PM. Manhattan was visible in a haze of pink as the last hour of daylight slowly faded into dusk.

Manhattan in a haze of pink

We paddled south with the current (which was roughly 2 kt at that point). We stopped to have a look at the Riverdale Yacht Club, a beautiful structure on the eastern shore of the Hudson. Brian explained it had formerly been the Riverdale train station on the Metro-North line. (Apparently, there’s even a book about the Riverdale Yacht Club!)

Riverdale Yacht Club

We paddled on, and arrived at the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge  guarding the Harlem River just around sunset. We’d previously discussed taking a gander down the Harlem, so in we went. The current was with us, and growing stronger as we went forward.

We had our radios on, as a standard precautionary measure. Suddenly there was a crackle as a tugboat—the Kenny G—announced it wanted to bring a barge through the bridge.

We paddled closer to the southern shore of the Harlem, and I radioed back a message to the captain: “Securité, securité, two kayaks in the Harlem river, we know you’re there and we’re staying close to shore until you pass.”

The captain acknowledged, and we continued down the Harlem with an accelerating current.

Sure enough, the tug and barge soon passed, steaming by at 12-15 kt, or maybe even more.

We paddled on for a few more minutes, but decided that the accelerating current was just a bit too risky. So we crossed over to the north side and paddled back to the bridge, helped along by a healthy back-eddy.

We stopped at the mouth of Harlem, inside the bridge in a protected, mostly still patch of water, to have chocolate and rest. By then it was full dark, but with the lights of Manhattan all around, we could see fairly well. We turned on our deck lights and I donned a headlamp (Brian would do so later on).

When we exited the Harlem, I glanced back over my shoulder, and gasped. “Look, Brian!” I shouted. The clouds had cleared, and the supermoon was rising over the Bronx.

Supermoon rising over the Bronx

I took as many photos as I could, and then we continued south to the George Washington. Rather arbitrarily, we’d chosen the little red lighthouse as our turnaround point.

We arrived at the lighthouse right around 6:30, which was by our calculations right at slack. After several tries, I succeeded in getting a shot of the lighthouse flashing, though I couldn’t convince Brian to get in the picture.

Little Red Lighthouse (and little red kayak)

We paddled back in full darkness, glad of the extra visibility provided by our headlamps. True to prediction, the current increased slowly: 0.8 kt, 1.0 kt, 1.2 kt, 1.8 kt.

A conga line of tug-and-barges heading south on our left took us a bit by surprise, as we’d initially thought they were anchored (though there no danger as we were well out of their way). And the moon, by now high in the sky, was visible for most of the way.

We arrived back in Yonkers just past 8 PM, meaning we’d spent about 4.5 hours on the water. We’d paddled 18 statute miles (15.5 nautical miles) at an average pace of 4 mph, or 3.5 kt. –including the time we’d spent enjoying chocolate. The power of the king tides!

All in all… a very successful first winter paddle for Brian. Here’s to many more!

(Note: Regular readers of this blog may be forgiven for wondering who this mysterious “Brian” is. He was formerly one of Vlad’s grad students, and is now a post-doctoral researcher in his own right. He and I have paddled several times this year, though this is the first time I’ve been able to do a writeup. He, his wife Tyna, and I have become quite good friends.)

See slideshow below for more photos. Click on the arrows to move back or forward!

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Trip 16: Hudson River, Manhattan to Ossining

By Vladimir Brezina

Winter waves (same time of year, some years later)

Saturday, 8 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. just after 8 a.m. Sunny day, with some haze at first. Current still ebbing, so paddled across the river and north along the Palisades. Warm spring weather; later, air temperature in the 60s, even 70s away from the water.

First day not wearing drysuit, although water temperature (in the high 40s, perhaps around 50 in places) still marginal. First butterfly over the river. Some trees on the Palisades already putting out the first light green leaves, others still bare. Completely windless at first (although small craft advisory) but then wind progressively picking up from the south. By Irvington tail wind of about 15 knots, 1-ft following seas; smaller than otherwise with this wind as current now flooding strongly.

Lunch on the little promontory cut off by the railway just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then continued through the Tappan Zee. Wind and waves building. By Ossining wind up to 20 knots with higher gusts (and forecast to get stronger still as the promised front came in) following seas 2-2 ½ feet, covered in whitecaps. Very impressive glittering against the sun.

Good practice; some difficulty keeping boat from broaching. Need much more practice with automatic braces. Around 2 p.m., rode up to the Ossining boat ramp on large, steep following waves. As conditions likely to get worse, train back to New York.

Note: To non-kayakers, this may seem like a matter-of-fact trip report. But hidden in those last few sentences—both by Vlad’s laconic delivery and his choice of nautical terms—is some real excitement. “Some difficulty keeping boat from broaching” translates to “I was about to capsize multiple times”. Vlad was using the sailing definition of broaching, which is, “”to slew around on a wave front…so as to present the ship’s side to oncoming large waves [and]… capsize and enter a “death roll”. Not exactly what you want to have happen when you’re alone on 40-degree water in a gathering storm!

And “need much more practice with automatic braces” says, in effect, “My skill level was not up to keeping the boat upright”. “Bracing” is a way that kayakers hold the paddle to prevent capsize in, among other things, high waves; as the kayaker becomes more skilled, he or she gets better at bracing automatically, to keep the boat upright.

The giveaway here is the word “much”—Vlad clearly felt the conditions were at or beyond his skill level. So, in effect, Vlad is saying here that he ran into what was for him at the time (and likely for most paddlers at any time) conditions beyond what he could paddle. He doesn’t say, but it appears from his last sentence that he’d intended to go farther than Ossining, but pulled out due to conditions (a show of good judgment I’m always happy to see).

Finally, spring is the most dangerous time for paddlers; the combination of cold water and temptingly warm air leads to underdressing, which can be fatal in the event of a capsize. And in the Hudson, there’s often snowmelt, which increases the current (though that didn’t apply here, as the current was flooding, or heading upriver).

I suspect Vlad subsequently realized he had been underdressed for the conditions; in any event, by the time we paddled together, he would not have gone out without a drysuit on a warm day in spring, as made clear in this story. Needless to say, his automatic bracing—and other paddling techniques–had also improved considerably by then!

Gallery

Sea Hare

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Text and photo by Johna Till Johnson Photo edit concept by Dan Kalman Westport River, East Branch, Westport, Massachusetts It was a sunny weekend in early autumn. The trees were just beginning to come ablaze, lit by the late morning … Continue reading

Goodbye and Godspeed, Dear Friend

By Johna Till Johnson

Tom on father/daughter day, 2016

Earlier this week, a man who had become very dear to me and to Vlad slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Tom Marsilje, a cancer scientist, patient, and patient advocate, left this world on Tuesday November 14. I can’t write a better obituary than the one that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for which he wrote a regular column.

As with Vlad, Tom’s loss is more than personal. He was a beacon of hope and optimism for all of us dealing with cancer, in no small part because he lived every possible role in that experience.

As a graduate student, he became caregiver and patient advocate for his mother, helping to get her into one of the earliest immunotherapy clinical trials (in 1999) and quadrupling her life- and health-span in the process. He went on to co-develop a breakthrough drug for lung cancer. And from the time of his diagnosis in 2012 to his death this week, he experienced the disease “from the inside”–all the while serving as a guiding light for those of us in the same situation.

The loss of that light, as much as of Tom the person, was a real blow to all of us in that world.

And because cancer will strike nearly 1 in 2 of us, and touch the lives of nearly all of us, I’m including here a Facebook post I wrote for my friends in the cancer community (and yes, I hate that there is such a thing, as much as I love the fact that through it I’ve met some of the smartest, bravest, nicest people on the planet).

Tom’s approach is not a bad way to live for any of us, cancer or no.  Life, after all, is a terminal condition.

Some thoughts on Tom, and the impact of his death on me and on us. Some background: Tom and I were friends in real life, as well as on Facebook. We visited in NY and CA. He knew and respected Vlad, and vice versa.

He coordinated closely with Vlad (neuroscientist) and Dan (Vlad’s best friend from grad school, and an immunotherapy researcher at Emory). We would literally strategize together (the four of us) about the most promising treatments. Vlad was the most skeptical (he knew the odds, and also the science).

So to me, Tom wasn’t a superhero, he was a really smart scientist with early insight into how science was turning into cures.

As we all know, he also had that incredibly contagious combination of optimism and humility. Anyone who interacted with him walked away feeling, “Heck, if it can work for Tom, it can work for me!” (or my loved one).

So.

The fact that it did NOT work for Tom is a gut-punch to many folks. I mean, if super-hero-cape-wearing-scientist died ANYWAY, what are the chances for us ordinary folks?

I didn’t have quite that reaction, because I knew him better, and knew the science pretty well.

Here’s the thing.

Tom’s approach was spot on, and it continues to be spot on:

Step 1. Stay alive, and as healthy as you can possibly be, for as long as you can. That means: Build an exercise, nutrition, and treatment routine that works FOR YOU. That could be 5 minutes a day of yoga and a steady diet of Bic Macs to keep the weight on. You don’t have to run triathlons. Do whatever works for you.

Step 2. Take joy in every day, and every moment. Your “joy intake” is as important as what you eat, drink, and do. That new puppy might possibly have the same ability to inhibit tumor growth as the latest radiation therapy.

Step 3. Stay on top of the research. Keep leveraging your network. We are here, and we’re NOT going to stop researching for you. There is going to be an exponential explosion of new treatments over the next 5 years.

I know this. Tom knew this. Vlad knew this.

Some treatments will work amazingly.

Some will keep you alive until the next treatment.

And some will fail.

The stronger you are, the more runway you have, and the more treatments you can try.

And the more knowledge you have, the better able you are to point that runway in the right direction. That’s what Tom did.

And it DID NOT fail him!!

The science failed him, as it failed Vlad, and will continue to fail people we love (maybe even us). Until it doesn’t any more.

That’s how science works. It fails, until it doesn’t any more.

And we are so, close to the science not failing any more.

As awful as it is to say this, if you’re reading this now, you’re already ahead of Tom, because you’re 24 hours closer to that day (very soon now) when the science won’t fail us.

Why am I writing this? Because I know how devastating it is when your magic talisman for the future is lost.

I’ve been dreading Tom’s death less for the loss of the unique and beautiful soul that he is, and more for the fact that I’m afraid it will emotionally devastate so many people that I love, because they will lose hope.

And it does devastate people. I can’t fix that.

The only thing I can say is… following the three steps above is what Tom did, and what he’d want all of us to do.

And what, in my considered opinion as a scientist and engineer, is what is most likely to result in the CURE of everyone dealing with this awful disease.

And a permanent cure is NOT an unrealistic hope for people dealing with this disease. A long shot, yes. But It’s out there, and very, very close.

I know Tom is fighting for all of us, still.

Trip 15: Hudson River, Manhattan-Piermont-Ellis Island

By Vladimir Brezina

The (old) Tappan Zee bridge

Saturday, 1 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. around 6:30 a.m. Half-hour after sunrise; sun lighting up Palisades. Sunny all day, with some high clouds. Air and water warming up now, but both still cold enough for drysuit. Paddled north with flood current, crossing over to west side of the river, past Alpine, Italian Gardens, up to Piermont Pier.

Turned around with the current and paddled back south along the Palisades. Wind now picking up from the south. Lunch, around 11:30 a.m., just south of Englewood. Then continued south along the New Jersey shore. South wind 10-15 knots, whitecaps in main channel.

Opposite the last few miles of Manhattan, great view, but many delays for ferries.  At least four or five ferry landing points; NY Waterways ferries and Ellis Island/Liberty boats very active, though still few other boats. Ellis Island around 2 p.m. Still significant wind from the south.

Met two kayakers from the Boathouse, going to the Statue. Current, at least around the back of Ellis Island, already turning against me, so went with the wind back along the New Jersey Shore to the level of the Holland Tunnel ventilator. Then crossed over to the Manhattan side. Waves in the main channel fun: already longer, 2-3 ft, some breaking.

Whole scene in this section of the river always exhilarating, full of energy: great views of the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and opening south into the harbor; waves and wind; boats of all kinds criss-crossing the river.

Took out at the public dock on Pier 24. Paddling time around 8 hours; 36 nm.

(Note: Once again, this is an unusual route, one that most Manhattan-area kayakers would not have thought of paddling. Usually on the Hudson one either goes North (towards the Tappan Zee, now Mario Cuomo) or South (toward the Statue of Liberty). Doing both on the same trip is distinctively “Vlad”. 

Also, once again he is making excellent time. Covering 36 nm in 8 hours is an average of 4.5 knots, or 5.2 miles per hour—significantly more than a typical paddler. A good bit of this is his conscious decision to paddle with the current, which can be up to 2 knots in the Hudson.)