Tag Archives: Kayaking

Circumnavigating Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel sunrise

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad and I used to joke that in Florida, the wind and current are always against you: the “Florida rules” of kayaking.

So when I planned a circumnavigation of Sanibel Island (13 nautical miles, give or take), I knew better than to apply “New York rules”. In favorable conditions you can complete a circumnavigation of Manhattan (26 miles) in 6 to 7 leisurely hours (averaging around 4 knots). So in theory, you could zip around Sanibel in four hours, plus stops.

Clockwise around Sanibel Island

But in Florida, you’re lucky if you can average much more than two to three knots, unless you’re doing a one-way run with wind and current consistently in your favor. Even then, Florida conditions have a way of confounding the best-made plans—as I was about to re-discover.

To get around Sanibel Island, I figured a conservative 7 hours, maybe 8, just to be on the safe side. I had picked a perfect day: Not only was the air temp in the 80s,  and water temp in the 70s, but the winds were predicted to be a modest 7 mph (6 knots). If I timed things correctly, I should be able to travel up-coast on the flood and down-coast on the ebb.

The first inkling that Florida planned otherwise came the day before my trip, when I was checking the tides to decide which direction to go (clockwise or counterclockwise) to catch the flood and the ebb as I’d planned.

What was this? The mid-day low tide was missing entirely (see tide chart below). That meant no matter what I did, I’d be paddling against the current for at least half the trip. Still, I figured if I launched by 10 AM with the predicted light breeze, I’d make it home by dark.

Where did the midday low tide go?

Just to be sure, though, I packed a headlamp… and a backup headlamp… and a GPS… and boat lights. Good thing, as it turned out!

That morning, there was a lively dumping surf on the beach; not big waves, but strong ones. So I was pleased to make a successful surf launch, and set off a few minutes after 10. The sun sparkled off the waves, the moderate breeze was behind me, and I was flying up the Gulf towards Captiva Island, propelled by the rising tide.

In what seemed like no time I reached the bridge separating Sanibel from Captiva. I briefly entertained the notion of continuing on toward the next inlet, but it would add miles to the trip, and if my calculations were correct, I’d be traveling against both the wind and the current soon. So I regretfully decided to turn in as originally planned. (Good thing!)

Idle speed, no wake…

As I passed under the bridge, the environment made the usual shift from “outside” to “inside”. Outside—on the Gulf coast—are rolling swells crashing onto long sandy beaches. Inside, the water is placid and peaceful, gently lapping the roots of mangroves.

I paddled past a cormorant blinking lazily on the sun atop an “idle speed” sign. Up ahead… was that a tiny island made up of gray boulders? No, it was a tightly packed flock of pelicans roosting together on a sand bar.

Passel of pelicans

A little further on, I tried to take a photo of some white birds in trees (either ibises or egrets, I couldn’t tell from the distance).  But characteristically, though they tolerated my approach without fear, the sight of the camera sent them flapping away.

I rounded the western point of Sanibel Island and began heading east down the coast. Up ahead I saw a fin lazily slicing through the water. Was that a shark? Dolphins typically arc up and down, disappearing for long moments, then reappearing with somewhere else. But this fin was moving in a level horizontal motion…

It wasn’t until I saw a fine spray and heard the characteristic gasp that I was confident the fin belonged to a dolphin.   I paddled up close and got a shot, then continued on my way.

Not a shark

True to my prediction, I was paddling against both the current and what seemed to be a light, but stronger-than-predicted, breeze. I was now moving quite a bit more slowly, and having to work harder at it. Seemingly endless mangrove swamps and keys unspooled to my right. My mind spun free, and for long stretches of time, all I thought about was the next stroke.

Slowly, a line of electrical poles appeared in front of me, linking Sanibel with the mainland. I remembered with a jolt when I’d seen them last: In the middle of the night during the Everglades Challenge. The first traces of the hallucinations that would dog both me and Vlad at night had just begun; I had begun hallucinating a giant George Washington bridge overhead. (Vlad was seeing pop-up decoy ducks on the waves).

Things looked very different in the bright light of early afternoon, but one thing that hadn’t changed was the frustrating slowness of my pace. I recalled how the Ding Darling preserve seemed to go on forever, the mangroves dark against the starry sky. Now they were dark green against bright blue, but it still seemed as though I was inching along.

And there was something else: The wind was picking up. There were small whitecaps everywhere, and the placid water had become choppy. When I caught sight of a flag on a boat, it was usually straight out and flapping crisply. The predicted 6 knot wind had become more like 16 knots.

It was coming from the south, which meant I could shelter from it by staying close to the mangroves—except where there were shoals. As I drew closer to the embayment right before Tarpon Bay, I realized I had to make a choice: Either cut straight across the embayment (and deal with the full force of the wind), or go a couple miles out of my way to keep out of the wind.

Lighthouse in late afternoon

I decided to cut across.

After a few minutes, maybe half an hour, a boat pulled up to me. “Are you okay?” the captain asked. “It’s pretty windy out!”

I explained that I was fine. (Note to concerned boaters: if a paddler is making steady progress with regular strokes,  not attempting to attract your attention, the chances are extremely good that she is fine. Even if she’s alone. Even if she’s a woman!)

Still, it was good of him to check—and he was right, the wind had picked up. Nearly every swell sported a wind-against-current whitecap. It was definitely bouncy!

Slowly, slowly, I pulled across the embayment, and once again approached land. Thankful for the shelter, I set my sights on the next milestone: The Sanibel causeway. Once again, my mind flashed back to the last time I’d seen it from the water: In the middle of the night, surrounded by bioluminescence. Four years ago.

It seemed like another lifetime.

I passed under the bridge without incident, and began pulling towards the lighthouse. The sun was low in the sky by this time, but I was still fairly confident I’d make it home by dark. How far could it be? An hour, tops?

I stopped to take pictures of the lighthouse, where people and pelicans clustered in a happy riot. Then I rounded the tip of the island, skirting the predictable chop at the point.

Home stretch!  It would be a straight shot up the beach from here. The only challenge would be locating which, among the seemingly identical condos, was the place I was staying.

The wind had died down slightly, and the current was at last with me once more, but I was still riding swell after swell. Trees, houses, and white sandy beach unspooled to my right. And the sun sank slowly in the sky.

I stopped to take a photo as it sank behind Knapps Point. Lovely, but it meant that for sure,  I’d be paddling home in the dark.

Sanibel sunset

I put on the headlamp and kept going, as the sky faded into purplish dusk. Before long  stars began to appear. The moon was waning,  last quarter, so I knew better than to expect the help of moonlight.

Slowly the buildings blurred into the night sky. Where was the condo? Even with the headlamp, the silhouettes of the condos seemed frustratingly similar. Which one was mine?

Finally I picked a location that I thought looked good, and did a surf landing.

I dragged the boat up the beach and looked around. There was a sign: Hurricane House.  I remembered the location: just a bit short of where I was staying.

Could I walk there, pulling  the boat along in the water behind me using the tow rope, as I’d done in the past?


The surf was too strong; the first incoming wave swamped the boat. Damn it! Now I had to drag the boat back up the beach and empty it.

After doing that,  I launched again and paddled further up the beach. I glimpsed down at my deck, and realized that the wave that had swamped the boat had also washed away my chart. Double-damn it! (Note to self: When making surf landings in the dark, stow chart inside deck bag.)

Oh well. I could always order another one. I kept paddling, into the deepening night.

After about fifteen minutes, I pulled into shore again. Once again, I dragged the boat up the beach. Once again, I looked around.

This time I saw the silhouette of someone—a woman—on the balcony. I asked her for the street address, which she gave me. Figures! This time I’d overshot.

By now it was pitch dark. I got back into the boat and paddled back in the direction from which I’d come. Suddenly the silhouettes to my left began looking familiar: Two palm trees… a big space… and a cluster of palm trees.

This was it! Third time’s a charm. Sure enough, that was the silhouette of my condo.

I checked my watch after dragging the boat up the beach. 7:45 PM. It had taken me nearly 10 hours to travel a dozen nautical miles (including about 45 minutes of going back and forth in the dark).

I could feel the sunburn on my cheeks, and my hands were blistered.  And of course, I’d lost a chart.

But I was home. And it had been a splendid paddle, “Florida rules” and all!

Zlarin: Rainbow

Rainbow sidewalk stencil on the island of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Croatians can be whimsical.

As I was walking along a pier on Zlarin, a small Croatian island in the Adriatic, I noticed a rainbow stenciled on the sidewalk. Who put it there? And why? There are no answers.

But it made me smile.

Zlarin: Anchors at Sunset

The double anchors of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Last September I paddled the Croatian Adriatic coast with Peak and Paddle Croatia. It was enchanting.

For the first part of the trip, we stayed on the island Zlarin.  It’s a small island (winter population of 284), but has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and is famous for its coral divers.

This double-anchor monument was erected in 1977 to honor Zlarin sailors and emigrants. (Interestingly enough, that group includes Anthony Maglica, the founder of Maglite, who was born in New York City of Croatian parents, but returned to their hometown of Zlarin during World War II.)

I took the photo from the kayak at sunset, after one of our first trips. Stories are to come!

Pool Paddling Practice: 1

Coach Don about to roll

By Johna Till Johnson

“What do kayakers do in the wintertime?”

That’s easy. We kayak! That’s what drysuits are for.

But even the staunchest of paddlers can’t do much when the water goes solid. So when Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports announced pool practice sessions in Dobbs Ferry starting Jan 7, I was (literally!) the first to sign up.

It’s delightful to work on basic technique in water warm enough for a T shirt and swim trunks. And being around fellow paddlers in a group is something I’ve missed. Both are reasons I signed up for the Sweetwater Kayak Symposium in Florida in February.

But that’s still a month away. So in the meantime there is this:

Ready to launch

Calm, warm, and brightly lit, the water beckons!

Coach Julie and student

Coach Julie and a student prepare in matching boats…

Coach Don laughing

Getting wet is fun when it’s warm…

Coach Julie keeps an eye on the action…

Coaches Julie McCoy and Don Urmstrom did an outstanding job watching us practice and play. Surprisingly, in under two hours we were all tired and even a bit stiff—working on technique is demanding!

But I am looking forward to the next few sessions—and if you’re a NYC-area paddler looking to brush up on technique during a cold month, I’d love to see you there!

Tappan Zee Redux!

Unfinished span of the new Tappan Zee

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo composition by Brian Fulton-Howard

Four years ago this month, I wrote about the “New bridge over the Hudson” that was to replace the Tappan Zee. At the time, it was hard to believe the bridge would really be built; the project had been in discussions since 1999. At  $3.9 billion, the new construction would represent one of the largest infrastructure investments in New York this century. And it would be the first new bridge to be constructed since the Verrazano-Narrows in 1964.

A daunting prospect; skepticism was warranted.

Guess what? It’s here! And astonishingly, it was completed on time and on budget, as governor Andrew Cuomo was quick to point out.  The grand opening of the new bridge was last summer (though one span remains to be completed in 2018).

Right after it opened, on a bright summer day, Brian and I paddled up to see it. As we bounced over the slight waves, the twin peaks of the bridge’s profile (a cable-stayed design) slowly emerged from a dusting of clouds.

It looked strangely familiar…

The profile of the bridge emerges…

… Of course!  It was remarkably similar to the original artist’s rendering, below:

Artist’s rendering (New York Times)

I think the actual bridge is even prettier than the original conception, but it’s hard to say, as it’s still surrounded by the original Tappan Zee, which won’t be torn down until sometime this year.

As Brian and I paddled closer to the bridge, we were struck by the sight of the unfinished span that appeared in cross-section in the middle of the combined infrastructure.

It’s not every day you get to literally see the guts of a bridge as it’s being built, so we struggled to stay stable in the strong flood current as I took shot after shot. Brian finally figured out the exact location from which the unfinished span was framed perfectly (see photo above).


You’ll notice I’ve referred throughout to “the new Tappan Zee” and “the bridge”. The official name of the bridge, as of late last year, is the “Mario Cuomo bridge”, named after the three-term governor (and the current governor’s father). However, there’s a petition circulating to keep the original name.

As the petitioners explain, it’s nothing against Mario Cuomo, who “may be deserving of having something named after him.” (Don’t you love that “may be”?)

The problem is simply esthetic, petitioners assert. It sounds cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Tappan Zee,” the petition reads. “It does not sound cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Cuomo.”

I have to give them the point—”the Tappan Zee” sounds way cooler.  I doubt the petition will succeed, but I’m not sure the official name will stick, either. New Yorkers can be stubborn, and  even Google Maps still refers (confusingly to out-of-towners) to the Triboro Bridge rather than its official name of  RFK Bridge.

In any event, with my Tiderace now living happily at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, I look forward to many more trips to the, ahem, Tappan Zee.

Meantime, here’s a photo of Brian in the sunshine, just to remind everyone that summer will indeed return!

Brian in the sunshine (view looking north)




Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?

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!