By Cecil Hoge
Of course, I have to admit my nautical experiences were nothing compared to those of Andrew Shewan, my great, great, great-uncle, who sailed clipper ships in the 1860s and 1870s repeatedly from Scotland and England, across the Atlantic, around South America, across the Pacific Ocean, to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Soochow, Ningbo, Indonesia, parts of India and elsewhere and back again. Andrew wrote a book called “The Great Days of Sail” and I tell some of his story on this website in another blog story called “Sailing Clipper Ships Around the World”.
The story of my trips around Long Island were considerably less ambitious, but they did have their human lessons and they did teach me much about humility.
Trip #1 – Summer 1997
When my insurance agent, Russ Tillman, told me about the idea of circumnavigating Long Island I was immediately intrigued. Russ, in addition to being an insurance agent, was a surfer and an all-around waterman. He had some friends who he was going to paddle along with for part of their journey. He was going to follow them in one of his kayaks for a part of the trip. His friends were going to paddle a 40′ Hawaiian outrigger canoe for what would be the fastest human-powered circumnavigation of Long Island. Russ told me that some of Long Island’s most daring men and women were to participate in this adventure. I asked Russ if I could get involved with the project in some way and Russ quickly reported back that they were in need of someone to transport the paddlers back and forth from the Hawaiian outrigger canoe to the 38′ support boat. Russ thought that my inflatable boats would make the perfect transport vehicles from outrigger canoe to the larger support boat. He was right about that.
So my qualifications for the voyage were simple: I owned inflatable boats.
The mission was awesome. Four teams of six paddlers each would paddle one 40’ Hawaiian outrigger canoe around Long Island – it was to be the fastest circumnavigation of Long Island by human power. Two power boats, a 38′ trawler and a 22′ Boston Whaler, would escort the canoe on its journey around the island and carry an extra six paddlers and supplies. My two inflatable boats would be the small support boats motoring a fresh team of paddlers from the larger support boats to the canoe every one and a half hours. Every 20 or 30 minutes, I would also motor supplies (Gatorade, water, energy bars, freeze-dried food) from the larger boats to the canoe.
After eight hours or so, the two first teams would be replaced by two second teams – the 22′ Boston Whaler would transport the four teams back and forth to the 38′ trawler. This replacement and replenishment the four teams would take place every eight hours throughout the circumnavigation until the trip was complete. Everything had been planned down to the last detail.
To prepare for this trip, I attended a planning session where all of the paddlers had gathered together to discuss their various training regimes and the logistics of the trip. I should have sensed something was wrong from that first meeting, but at the time I was so wowed by the physical fitness of the guys and gals who would be the paddlers that it did not occur to me question their purpose and the methods they used to train. They were a handsome group and one could sense that they had spent a lot of time thinking and planning for this trip.
The planning meeting was held, appropriately, in a Maritime Museum in Sayville. The participants had gathered in a large hall with long tables. Attending were the 24 paddlers, composed to 10 girls and 14 guys, a gentleman that I came to know as Captain Al, his daughter, who also happened to be one of the paddlers, another boat captain, Russ Tillman, myself and Vinny, my cousin.
Almost immediately, I felt like the small fry in the crowd because it seemed to me that everyone had vastly more experience than I. Russ, as I mentioned, was a surfer, a kayaker and a longtime waterman. Captain Al, who would be piloting the 38′ trawler that would accompany us, was a seaman of world renown and had piloted the his 38′ trawler across the Atlantic and back solo. His daughter was physically fit, very pretty and apparently a young sea lady of great expertise. The captain of the other large support boat, 22′ Boston Whaler, was an offshore fisherman, an experienced boater with much ocean and bay experience.
Most impressive of all were the other 23 paddlers, all in superbly good physical condition ( at least that was my first impression on meeting them), outfitted with the latest in sports energy drinks and health fitness bars. Some were longtime kayakers, some were weightlifters, some were surfers, some were lifeguards. They all talked excitedly of the trip ahead and of the various regimes they were using to get ready for the trip. It was an impressive list – lifting weights, doing push-ups, paddling kayaks in the nearby bays, taking vitamin pills, doing chin-ups, jogging 5 or 10 miles a day, this group was ready to hit the waves and they seemed superbly suited to the task ahead.
There were three points that I should have taken better notice of. These became important later on. One was the fact that several of these people were not actually kayakers or paddlers. They were in great physical condition, but they just had not used a paddle very much. Another point was that all the actual paddling they had done was in the nearby local bay. And the final point was the wonderfully detailed map which listed the times they would pass each spot on Long Island- inlets, lighthouses, towns, bays, Montauk Point, Plum Gut, they all were listed with specific time that they would be passed. A peculiar aspect of this map is that not only did it list the day and hour each landmark on Long Island would be passed, it also listed the minute.
Well, while I had no experience paddling a kayak around Long Island, I had some experience in running rivers in inflatable kayaks. And the one thing I learned about running rivers was that no matter how precisely and how well you planned a river trip, you never really knew when you might pass some location on a river because things happen on a river, things you do not expect and then you find that your best plans are worthless because Mother Mature has thrown you a curveball. Hell, I have been on river trips where we started with 9 people and lost 3 people that we did not find again for 3 days because they took a wrong fork on the river. So I knew the best plans of mice and men were subject to change.
So looking at that map with the day, the hour and the minute listed that you passed each location calculated right down until the day, the hour and the minute you completed the circumnavigation, well, that gave me some cause for concern. So I decided to ask these other folks whether they thought the timetable might be a little aggressive. It called for going around Long Island in 2 and a half days and it assumed that one of the nights the paddlers would paddle through the night. That seemed dubious and not a little dangerous to me.
So, sitting at this long table, I raised my hand and asked “What if the trip takes a little longer than planned?”
I must say I was surprised by the incredulous and downright angry faces that greeted me after I asked this question. I will say that I did notice that Captain Al nodded in agreement, so my opinion, was not totally alone, but it certainly was not in the majority. Almost immediately, a chosen member of the team stood up and explained to me and Captain Al that such a thing was simply not possible. They had done the timings on the bay. They had taken an average of three separate timings and had calculated the times correctly. Yes, it might be possible for the time to be off 5 or 10 minutes by the end of the trip, but anything more was out of the question. The schedule was rock solid. And so that is the way we left it.
On the appointed hour (4am) and day (Saturday, if I remember) I showed up at the appointed place, King’s Point, with my carefully chosen team. It consisted of my surfer cousin, Vinny, my mall rat nephew, Sam, and a 19 year-old French kid just 24 hours off the plane from Paris. To be fair to the French kid, I told him (his name was Xavier) that he might love this trip or hate it, but once he began it, he had to finish it. I think Xavier understood what I told him.
He said what sounded like “pot problem.” This didn’t mean he had a problem with pot. Actually it means “no problem.” French people like to say that when you propose to risk their lives for fun. It is spelled, “Pas de probleme.”
I didn’t try to explain much to my mall rat nephew Sam. His experience of wandering America’s malls day and night might not be pertinent. I told him we were going on a camping and boating trip. I figured that was enough info for him.
I knew we were on safe ground because of my surfer cousin named Vinny. He came into this world floating and he will leave it that way. Our plan was simple: Vinny would take Sam in the smaller 12′ inflatable sport boat with the 15 hp engine and I would take Xavier in the larger 14′ rib inflatable boat with the 30 hp engine.
So off we went. I had taken command of the necessary provisions: flashlights, Heinekens, sodas, bottles of water, tents, steaks, peanut butter & jelly, waterproof bags, rain jackets, rain pants, bathing suits, sun hats, life jackets, VHF radio, FM radio, tanks of gasoline… all the essentials.
The intrepid and extremely physically fit paddlers had other ideas regarding provisions. Gallons of super Gatorade, high protein cookies, freeze-dried food, wet suits, high performance paddles, compasses… these guys and gals were ready to paddle. I would note that this was still before the time of wide use of cell phones, so they were not included as essential equipment. If the trip had been a few years later, you could bet they would have brought at least 24 cell phones.
Even without cell phones, the paddlers were tremendously energetic and full of enthusiasm. They slapped each other on the hands and shoulders, sipped Gatorade, munched energy bars and looked disparagingly at the supplies of beer, soda and food that I loaded into my two inflatable boats.
We got our boats in the water and our gear loaded and were off at 4:30 a.m., which, to my surprise, was exactly as scheduled. It was almost completely dark at the time. We motored out into the inland bay, following the 40′ kayak as closely as possible (I could barely make it out) and the 6 intrepid paddlers, 2 girls and 4 guys, paddled out of the bay, into and along the Sound without incident. Even in the murky light, they were an impressive sight. Paddling in unison, shouting to each other encouragement, I could see the canoe moving ahead at a terrific speed. You would think a Marine platoon was in charge of that canoe the way they shouted and grunted and pushed that giant outrigger canoe forward in early morning light.
It was not long, maybe 40 minutes, before we came up to Hell’s Gate which is located just as you pass under the Triboro Bridge. Captain Al signaled us to come over to the 38′ trawler and pick up the relief crew of six paddlers. We did so quickly, dropping off the new paddlers in the canoe and escorting the first team of paddlers back to the trawler.
The second group of paddlers (3 gals and 3 guys) were just as impressive as the first group. They paddled magnificently in unison right through Hell’s Gate and down the East River. The front paddler shouted when to stroke and when to change sides, so each paddler got to paddle for 10 minutes on one side and 10 minutes on the other side. The 40’ outrigger canoe cut through the water like a Hobie Cat under sail in a stiff breeze. They was cranking!
It was glorious. The sun started coming up around 5:15 as we came into the East River, passing under the Triboro Bridge through Hell’s Gate, passing the Domino sugar warehouse, passing Riker’s Island and the somber prison of that name ringed with metal fence. As we entered the main run through the East River, the light from the rising sun hit the glass windows of the tall steel and concrete buildings to the right, causing beautiful reflections. We passed Gracie Mansion near where I born (Doctor’s Hospital) and brought up (520 East 92nd). The view of the city was the same I had known all my life, yet somehow different, because it was from the water, low on the river and not from a bridge or a highway or a road.
We passed Roosevelt Island. We passed the UN. We went under the Williamsburg Bridge. We went under the Brooklyn Bridge. As we approached the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, we saw the Statue of Liberty back towards the Hudson River. We saw the original World Trade Center looming up at the end of Manhattan. We passed Brooklyn on the left where my grandfather once had his shipyard. We went under the Verrazano’s Narrows Bridge and out into the Atlantic Ocean – all was going well, it was a piece of cake. To my amazement we were passing each location on the map within minutes of the original schedule.
In New York Harbor we saw giant oil tankers and container ships being pulled and pushed by earnest chugging, seagoing tugs. We saw ferries rushing back and forth between Queens and Staten Island and Manhattan Island. We saw flotsam and jetsam… beer cans, oil drums, branches of trees, chunks of styrofoam, wooden logs… all floating in the water…all in front of Manhattan Island where the East River and Hudson River converge and make their way out to the Atlantic Ocean. We passed Coney Island and Rockaway Beach. We could see the tall buildings of the city back in the distance back from where we had come.
We were about three hours into the trip when Vinny and I completed our second transfer of paddlers back and forth, from the canoe to the 38′ trawler. This had to be done by stages, but it went, like everything so far, smooth as silk. I would pick up 3 paddlers from the canoe, ferry them over to the trawler and then load on the 3 new paddlers and then take them back to the canoe. Mine was the bigger inflatable boat with the bigger engine, so Xavier was in my boat and Sam was in Vinny’s boat. When the paddlers came in, Xavier would scoot over to allow room for the paddlers to get in and out. He would pass them Gatorade and energy bars and happily say, “Pas de probleme.”
After I finished my run, then Vinny and Sam began their ferrying duties, quickly and efficiently, transferring paddlers from canoe to boat and back again. Again, it worked smooth as silk.
We kept charging along the ocean a few hundred yards off the beach. And once again I was amazed. We were running on schedule almost to the minute. It was eerie, this kind of thing had never happened to me on a river trip. We kept cruising along with the 40′ outrigger canoe and Captain Al’s 38′ trawler. We made quite the parade, marching down the beach, a few hundred yards offshore. On the beach, people would see us pass by and wave.
It was about that time that I realized that we were running low on fuel. I motored up to Captain Al and told him we needed to head into Jones Inlet for fuel. He said the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Soon the second group of two teams of paddlers would be motoring out in the 22′ Boston Whaler. By the time they finished that transfer, he would meet us on the other side of Jones Inlet with the two new teams of paddlers.
So we headed into the inlet and soon found a fuel station just inside Great South Bay on the left. It was a nifty little fuel station with a kind of general store for marine supplies – in other words, gas, bait, sandwiches and beer…all the essentials. So we gassed up, picked up some fresh sandwiches and some extra beer, just in case, we might need some more that evening when we set up camp. We were fueled, supplied and headed out to sea in less than 30 minutes.
When we got out back into the ocean, a few things had changed. For one thing a thick fog had rolled in and it was hard to see more than a few hundred feet. I hugged the shoreline, not wanting to find myself on a one-way trip to England. In order to avoid landing on the beach, I had to listen for the breaking surf. In order to avoid going to England, I also had also still hear the ocean waves breaking – that meant I was still near the mainland. It was kind of tricky out there for a while and I was surprised how fast conditions could change on the ocean.
We caught up with the canoe and 2 larger support boats about twenty minutes later when it was still pretty foggy, but in another 20 minutes, the fogged burned off and we were in beautiful clear sunshine. As soon as we could see them clearly, we motored over and introduced ourselves. Watching them from distance, you could see that were not maintaining the quite same speed as the first two teams of paddlers. Even if they were not quite up to the high standards of the first two teams, they were doing really well.
Almost immediately the 22′ Boston Whaler headed back towards the inlet with the first two teams of paddlers. We waved to them as they turned back towards Jones Inlet and sped away. That left Captain Al in 38′ trawler with one team of paddlers in his boat, me in the bigger rib inflatable with Xavier, Vinny in the smaller inflatable sport boat with Sam and other 6 new paddlers in the 40′ canoe.
I was one happy inflatable boat captain. I would ask Xavier how things were going for him and he would smile looking over the endless scenery of sandy beaches and breaking waves on the left and ocean blue on the right. “Pas de problem,” he would say.
The sun was blazing down on us and we would periodically slap suntan lotion on. Every hour and half we transferred one team of paddlers from big boat to the canoe. I did notice that the wind had picked up a little, but that was fairly typical on a summer afternoon. The wind was coming from Southwest so it was actually helping the paddlers propel the canoe east. Around 2 o’clock, whitecaps began to appear.
Still, we were making wonderful progress. It was wonderful to see how the beachscape changed the further we got along the oceanside of Long Island. There were less houses, more natural dunes and empty beaches.
But soon I noticed something else. The original two teams were all in fantastic shape. The two replacement teams were not. One the best paddlers of the second set of teams was Captain Al’s daughter. She was to prove to be a true pro paddler. Unfortunately, the other paddlers in the canoe with her were neither in good shape or good paddlers. This meant she had to push them, not the other way around.
Around 3:30 p.m., the wind picked up to 8 to 10 miles an hour and switched mysteriously to a northwesterly direction. In case your are not familiar with Long Island, the prevailing winds in the summer are Southwest and that would push the paddlers just where they wanted to go – east. However, the wind decided to change its mind that day and now it was coming almost directly against us, pushing the paddlers back as they paddled forward. That was not all, the ocean had gone from flat to 2′ to 3′ swells and whitecaps were beginning to break against us. Not only was the going slower, but new teams were finding paddling much more difficult.
About this time the Boston Whaler reappeared, now back from delivering the two teams of paddlers. The Boston Whaler was bringing news with them – a weather update. Thunderstorms were predicted later that evening. High winds, heavy rain and fierce squalls were expected to roll in around 9pm. In short, we had to get a move on. Because of the weather report and because Russ had seen that the conditions were going downhill, he decided to postpone his paddling along with the canoe. So much for fair weather paddlers.
Changing and replacing paddlers was getting more difficult because the waves were getting higher and we had to be careful when pulling up to the trawler or canoe that it did not crash into our inflatable boats. Our boats, the trawler and the canoe were bobbing up and down in the sea. So it took more time and care to change the paddling teams.
Everything was fine with Xavier who kept saying “Pas de probleme” and laughing quietly when a paddler fell in. The French really love water sports. Sam the mall rat was having a good time, too, despite all the bobbing up and down. I even heard him say “Wow” a few times when Vinny’s passed close by.
Vinny was in his element, scooting back and forth picking up and dropping off paddlers, shuttling supplies of super-dooper Gatorade and high-powered freeze-dried food back and forth to paddlers in need. In between he surfed my 12′ inflatable boat on the whitecaps. He was really getting into it.
Around 4:30 p.m. it became clear that we were running seriously behind schedule. Not just a few minutes, but hours. In fact, this was the time the map called for us to be coming into Moriches Inlet. And that would have been really good because that was when the tide was scheduled to come into the Great South Bay. If we came into the inlet much later, we were likely to run into an outgoing tide.
As it was, the more the paddlers tried to paddle against the wind and waves, the more tired they became and the less progress they made. Still, we had made progress and now were only a mile or two from Moriches Inlet. If we could just keep up the pace, we surely would arrive before 7 p.m.
But the conditions were going South fast. The waves were now 3 or 4 feet and the wind 10 to 15 miles from the Northwest. Progress was slow and tedious, despite the best efforts of the exhausted paddlers.
I motored over to the 38’ sea trawler and suggested to the captain that we beach the canoe for the night and start again the next morning. Captain Al didn’t want to hear that suggestion. It was at that moment that he decided to reveal that his daughter was diabetic. If she didn’t get insulin within three or fours hours she might die. There was no time to beach the canoe, get his daughter to the mainland, get insulin and come back to pick up the hapless paddlers.
Time went faster and we went slower. By 8 o’clock, we were at the mouth of Moriches Inlet and not making any further progress. Things were really starting to get difficult. The wind was a steady 20 mph+ and the waves were 5 to 6 feet. Changing teams was getting impossible. Imagine one boat dropping 5 or 6 feet and another boat rising 5 or 6 feet and an intrepid paddler trying to step from the canoe, which was dropping, to my inflatable boat, which was rising. Imagine the same thing happening when I took paddlers over to the 38′ trawler and remember that the trawler weighed good deal more than my inflatable boat.
After a brief conference with Captain Al, we decided to tie the Hawaiian canoe to the 22’ Boston Whaler and tie my inflatable rib to the 38’ trawler. Everybody who could get in got on the trawler. Two hapless paddlers were left, anchored with the Boston Whaler and its captain out in the ocean about a half mile off Moriches Inlet. They had to ride it out in middle of the ocean all night long with higher and higher waves rising and falling all around them. They were not happy campers.
In the inlet the waves were now 8 to 10 feet. This was because the tide was now rushing out Moriches and the Great South Bay, throwing up the waves as the current went out. The trough between the top and bottom of the waves was 12 to 14 feet. Darkness was setting in as we discovered that the line with which we had tied my inflatable boat to the trawler was a bit short, even though it was about 25 feet long. The trawler would motor forward and pull sharply on the rope just as my boat was rising up on an eight foot wave. Then my boat would head like a damaged surface torpedo for the stern of the 38’ trawler.
This produced an interesting effect. My boat would be sling-shotted forward and crash into the stern of the trawler. Each time my boat crashed into the trawler my hull lost some fiberglass and each time we would lengthen the line to prevent my rigid hull torpedo from hitting the trawler. On one of those impacts, the front air chamber of my inflatable rib was punctured and if the other two air compartments had not been inflated and the fiberglass rib section had not completely enclosed the boat, my boat would have sunk to the bottom of the sea.
We had now been on the water for over seventeen hours and were all huddled in the back of the 38′ trawler. Sam’s teeth were chattering, his skin was blue and he looked like he was about to puke. Even “Pas de probleme” Xavier was feeling the stress. He was quite wet from bobbing around in my inflatable boat. Sitting on the deck of the trawler, getting drenched periodically by incoming waves, Xavier realized that the waterproof French jacket he had brought along for the trip was not very waterproof.
Vinny was still out in my other inflatable, trying to save the two paddlers and the Boston Whaler captain who were haplessly bobbing up and down in the sea. He kept running back and forth between the Boston Whaler and the trawler, passing messages and trying to develop a consensus on what to do. He did manage to get one of the paddlers off of the Hawaiian canoe and onto the Boston Whaler. In the meantime, Captain Al was trying to get the Coast Guard on the VHF radio in order to persuade them to rescue us. By that time, it was 9 pm at night, getting real dark, the wind was running 20 to 25 miles per hour and seas were ten to twelve feet and angry dark clouds were gathering overhead.
That was when the Coast Guard decided to inform us that they no longer performed rescues in Moriches Inlet. Apparently, the insurance premiums were too high. They did volunteer escort us in through inlet and watch is drown if that is what happened. Captain Al looked at the VHF radio, at the nearby Coast Guard cutter that was observing us and looked at his diabetic daughter, now huddled in the back of his boat along with 10 very unhappy paddlers, Sam, Xavier and myself. Captain Al was not a happy camper.
Moriches Inlet happens to be Long Island’s most treacherous inlet. Captain Al thought everything over and then he told the Coast Guard he intended to go through anyway and asked if they would at least follow him through the channel. They agreed to follow us as long as we understood they would not rescue us if we sank. We motored through the inlet.
This turned out to be the easiest part of the trip. In under ten minutes we were through the inlet. It was even rougher than the open Atlantic because the tide was now really rushing out, throwing up the waves even higher in the actual inlet. But the great captain headed left, right and forward, gunning the throttle, pulling back on the throttle, navigating his boat left, right and forward, riding into and over each wave as each wave tried to swallow the 38’ sea trawler. Within minutes we were in the calm waters of Moriches and Great South Bay.
Captain Al dropped Xavier, Sam and me on the shore, on the right side of the inlet, along with my half-deflated inflatable loaded with all our supplies. Immediately afterwards, the captain headed into the darkness to get his daughter insulin and the paddlers back to land. Captain Al did not smile or even wave goodbye. You could see he was kind of frustrated to have been bamboozled into being the major support boat.
I will not burden you with the sad story of our attempt to set up camp. Assembling a large 3-man tent in the dark with a 30 mph wind blowing sand and driving rain in your face is no fun. Yes, almost as soon as I started to assemble the tent, the thunderstorms began to break out in earnest. Visibility did improve somewhat when lightning bolts started to flash all around, but my sense of urgency did also increase as I attempted to put together the metal rod parts of the tent while the lightning bolts blasted down from on high and raindrops the size of lollipops hit us in the face and head. Yes, the weather bureau was right for change and indeed thunderstorms were in force for the next 6 hours.
A good thing is that Vinny showed up just before it started to rain, happy as clam from trying to help the two lone paddler’s in 40′ canoe and the Boston Whaler captain. Vinny finally figured out that there was nothing more that he could do, so he left them bobbing up and down in the ocean and came to see how we were doing. He took a smaller two-man tent I had brought along and he and Sam assembled it, despite lightning bolts and huge droplets of driving rain, in few minutes and spent a relatively dry night in their tent.
“Pas de problems” was not in so good a mood, “I am wet and cold and I cannot sleep in this puddle.”
Hey, I had been upfront with Xavier, what was he thinking this trip was going be, Brie and red wine on the beach as the sun set?
The next day I got up early. It was still cloudy and cold. About half an hour later, the sun came out and almost instantly it got blisteringly hot. I looked back at the tent I had assembled the evening before – where Xavier was still sleeping. We had, in the confusion of rain, wind, and lightning, assembled the tent upside down. The resulting structure was about ⅓ the size of the correctly assembled tent. Not to mention that the floor turned out to be a lot less waterproof than the top, which perhaps, explains Xavier’s comment about sleeping in a puddle.
That was the low point of the trip. A few minutes later, Russ showed up with some of the more hardy members of the original expedition in a comfortable looking 28’ cruiser. Russ said that it had been decided that the Great Circumnavigation of Long Island by Human Power had been called off. I couldn’t believe it, a little setback like some wind and thunderstorm and being a few hours off schedule and Long Island most intrepid adventurers were quitting. Say it ain’t so! But it was.
Russ offered to tow us back to the mainland. I said thanks, but no. I had come to go around Long Island and I intended to finish the job. After all, I had plenty of supplies…food, beer, tents, clothes, everything we needed to complete the trip.
Well, the rest of the story is fairly simple. I repaired the front air compartment of my inflatable rib. It did not look great with a patch of another color, but it did hold air. Russ wished me luck and said he was sorry that he couldn’t come along. We took the inland route. We motored through Moriches Bay and through the wide and long stretches of the Great South Bay.
There was one incident of note and that was when our motley parade of two inflatable boats was passed by some super 50′ go fast boat. It was a Cigarette or some such speedboat and it was going at terrific speed. At the head of this craft sitting in a captain chair was a tanned gentleman wearing a large gold chain, a bathing suit and sunglasses, next to him was standing, with one arm on the captain, was the captain’s mate, a well endowed tanned beauty in micro bikini, her dark hair flowing in the wind, a glorious smile plastered on her face. The captain and his mate did not bother to recognize us or to slow down even though they were only 30 feet away from us and going an easy 45 mph. You could tell from the look on their smug faces that they were not impressed with our two somewhat banged up and disheveled inflatable boats, carrying, as they were, a mess of supplies.
The captain and his mate sped by sending 3 foot rollers in our direction and just before they disappeared I heard this large and a sudden roar followed by an abrupt clanking sound. And to my surprise I saw a 50 foot plume of mud spew out the stern of the magnificent go fast craft. Within seconds, the great speedboat sputtered to stop and the engine became silent.
I must tell you at this time we had been motoring at 5 mph, which, by the way, was the stated legal speed. That was clearly enumerated on a sign not 20′ feet away. So when, we saw the great go fast boat come to a halt, we did not speed up, we did not slow down. No, we continued blissfully on passing within 20 feet of the magnificent speedboat. There we could see the scene had changed somewhat, the first mate, with beautiful dark and flowing hair, was screaming at the captain, “What is happening?”
I will tell what was happening. Absolutely nothing. The captain was looking at his craft, peering over the side transom, trying to get a better view of what was happening, trying to figure just what had happened. We just kept motoring along until we were abreast of him. The captain seemed to be trying to get our attention. I knew that could not be true. Why would such a glorioso guy want out attention? We waved politely and motored slowly on. When we looked back, we saw the girl screaming and waving her arms at us, also trying to get our attention. We motored on slowly in great dignity.
I am not sure what that experience cost the gentleman. My guess was a new motor for $50,000 or so, a call to SeaTow and long wait. There would not be no hanky panky that night. You could tell the bodacious girl was losing it, jumping up and down, waving her arms, screaming at the top of her lungs. Yes, loving her man was no longer on her mind.
We made our way through the narrow water channel that went from Bellport Bay through Quogue to Shinnecock Bay. Eventually, we found the entrance to the Shinnecock Canal. There was a big line of boats waiting to go through, but I noticed a restaurant on the right and two open slips. We found our way in and had a pleasant lunch, a few beers and had a lively discussion about the unfortunate captain and his mate and our other adventures so far. When we came out of the restaurant, the line of boats was gone.
The rest of the afternoon was a piece of cake. We motored at full speed across the open distances of Great and Little Peconic Bays. We came to the narrower waterways between Shelter Island, Gardiner’s Island and Sag Harbor. We went on to Cedar Point where we made landfall and set up camp for the evening. There we set up the 3 man tent in the warm sunlight at our leisure. I turned on the FM radio, opened the beers, pulled out the steaks, lit a fire and we had meal that tasted like it was the best and last meal on earth.
When Xavier looked over he was surprised to see my tent in its full majesty.
“I do not recognize it,” he said. The still warm air cooperated to comfortably dry out the tent. That evening after sitting by the fire under stars, listening to the radio, sipping beers and relaxing, we went to bed and got a solid eight hours of sleep.
The next morning we loaded up the boats, headed off to Greenport to get gas and then went through Plum Gut into Long Island Sound.
It was a another beautiful day. There was a nice breeze and the sun was warm. We motored on the whole day, happily taking turns steering the boats. We passed the great sand bluffs of the north shore. We passed Mattituck Inlet, we passed Mt. Sinai. Eventually, we came to the inlet leading into Port Jefferson Harbor. This was home for me and my two inflatables. We motored through the channel, passing summer yachts, speedboats, sailboats, dinghies, jetskis, fishing skiffs… all oblivious as to who we were and where we had been.
There was a group waiting to greet us. Sam’s father and mother, worried and proud. Vinny’s wife, nervous and intensely happy. My wife and son, serene now that I was home. We had hotdogs and Coke and Budweiser and coleslaw. It was the Fifth of July, and we had almost circumnavigated Long Island.
The Next 9 Trips
You might think that the trip just described above would steer me clear of any further adventures around the waterways of Long Island, but you would be wrong. It does seem that absence does make the heart grow fonder and perhaps some selective forgetfulness is also helpful. Whatever the reason, a couple of years later, Russ (yes, the same insurance salesman/surfer/waterman/fair weather kayaker dude) told me about another planned trip to go around Long Island. I was even more intrigued.
In this case, a guy named Rick Shalvoy, was planning to row around Long Island. Rick was Smith Point Lifeguard and he was rowing around Long Island to raise money for breast cancer research. That seemed like a good cause, but what sold me on the idea was the fact that Rick had already rowed the year before around Long Island and that fact that Rick was not trying to make speed an important criteria. No, the year before Rick took 7 days to row around Long Island and this time he might take 8 days. That seemed to take a lot of the stress out of the expedition.
Anyway, shortly after Russ mentioning this trip, I again volunteered to be the support boat. It seemed to me that I had acquired some experience from my previous trip and I would be in a position not to make the same mistakes. Not only that, the whole concept seemed much more practical. Rick would row, I would motor, providing Rick with supplies of water and some occasional food and Russ would accompany us for part of the time when we’re passing Moriches Inlet. In addition to my boat, there was to be another boat, a 32′ Boston Whaler accompanying us. And again I would be the small support boat running back and forth between the large support boat and Rick’s boat.
Since I ended up making this journey 9 separate times with Rick, I will not try to tell you the story of each and every trip. There were some very challenging and exciting moments in between long stretches of quiet plodding (Rick could row his boat around 5 mph on a good day with the wind at his back) and easy motoring. So I will try to give you some the highlights of these trips rather recount every trip.
The First Trip with Rick –
On this trip, Rick was starting out in Montauk. Since I was located in Port Jefferson Harbor and the run from Montauk Point to Orient Point to Port Jefferson was a fairly easy part of the journey and because Rick had two boats to support him on that portion of the run, I did not start until Rick got to Port Jefferson. So before Rick arrived I loaded my boat up with all sorts of stuff – sleeping bags, cases of water, beer, food, VHF radio, FM radio, cell phone (yes that time was upon us), changes of clothes, waterproof bags, flashlights, suntan lotion, CD player. Yes, it probably was true that I had more stuff than I needed, but I figured if you are at sea, you never know what you might run out of. Having all this stuff probably meant that I ready for just about anything Mother Nature could throw at me. It also meant that I had one pretty loaded up inflatable boat. On this trip I taking a 12′ 6″ inflatable transom boat with a 15 hp motor. I thought it was more than enough for this trip. I was wrong.
So on the appointed day I motored out of Port Jefferson Bay through the Port Jefferson inlet into Long Island Sound. I was to meet Rick at 12. Rick. It turned out Rick was running late and he showed up just about the time George Lindsay showed up. George was a friend of Rick’s, a teacher at Stony Brook School and a longtime rower. He came out rowing a 14′ rowing shell with a big sliding seat rowing frame. Rick came up moments later, followed by the 32′ Boston Whaler.
Almost immediately, we proceeded down the coast of the North Shore. Within half a mile we rounded Oldfield Point. In the bay before Oldfield Point the water was calm and tranquil, but as soon we rounded the point we were confronted with a stiff Southwest wind and whitecaps. I had a rain suit carefully packed away but it never occurred to me to put it on. It was a perfectly beautiful day, but when passed Oldfield Point the waves began to slap incessantly against us, drenching me with every wave. By the time I realized what was going on, about 3 minutes after we rounded the point, I was already soaking wet to the skin.
Rick was not having a problem with getting wet since he was rowing a specially designed 19′ Lifeguard boat. It had high sides and an open back. Almost no water came in and what did, immediately drained out the back. The wind and waves caused other problems for Rick because they were blowing hard and slapping against him. While Rick was rowing from the inlet to the point at 4 or 5 miles per hour, that slowed down to 2 or 3 mph when he hit the wind and waves on the other side of the point.
The problem was far greater for George Lindsey. He rowed magnificently from the Port Jefferson Inlet to Oldfield Point, oars in unison and going even faster than Rick because the sleek profile of his rowing scull. That advantage evaporated on the other side of Oldfield Point because the rowing scull figuration meant the oars in flat water rode gracefully just above the water, but when George came around the point, the 1′ to 2′ chop that he was greeted with meant his oars could not come back over water because the waves were hitting the oars. Almost immediately, George was in big trouble and soaking wet.
George and I had a little conference after it became clear that George was falling further and further behind Rick. I suggested that I tow George’s rowing scull. It turned out not to be as simple as that. Apparently the rowing frame was not secured to the scull so that meant, I had to put the rowing frame with its multiple sharp points in my inflatable boat. All this happened in the first 30 minutes of the trip. I could only imagine what else might happen over the next 7 or 8 days.
Anyway, we kept on going and Rick developed a technique that allowed him to make forward progress. Instead of rowing directly into the wind and waves, Rick rowed towards the shore and to the lee of the land – this is where the land acts as a buffer against the wind. In other words, Rick rowed until he was close enough to land so there was not much wind and then he rowed closely along the shore to the next point. This worked, but it proved to be very tedious and time-consuming. My boat was now really crowded with George Lindsey and his rowing rig, not the mention the rowing scull I had to keep an eye on behind me. In the meantime, every time we hit a wave, every 15 seconds or so, a wave of water would hit us, making us wetter with each wave. And that was hard to do since we were both soaking wet. It was about that time that I recognized that a 15 hp motor was insufficient for task at hand.
Rick’s situation was even more difficult because he had to row hard against the wind until he got to a protected area and then he would come up on another point and as soon he passed that point, he would be confronted by another great blast of wind and waves. There were times that I swear that Rick was actually going backward even though I could see him straining every muscle in his back and shoulders as he pulled on the oars. I should say that for me while it was just an hour or so into the trip, this already was the second day for Rick and he had already rowed 4 hours from Mattituck before arriving off Port Jefferson, so Rick was already one tired puppy.
But Rick was not a quitter and he knew he had to get from the North Shore on the Sound to the East River to the Hudson River to get to the ocean where the prevailing wind should be Southwest and pushing him in the right direction – east. Unfortunately, at the moment the wind was also from Southwest and pushing against us because at this time we were headed west.
Suffice it to say, it was a long hard struggle as we inched our way down the North Shore of Long Island Sound from one large point to the next. From Port Jefferson it was about 10 miles to Northport and Huntington harbors, then to Loyd’s Neck, Cold Spring Harbor, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove. It is hard to understand the North Shore of Long Island is a series of large points jutting out a mile or two into the water. This meant that every time we came around a point, we were hit in the face with a stiff wind and waves with whitecaps. Then as we worked our way past that point and toward another point, it would become calmer as we got closer to the land of the new point.
Even though it turned out only to be half day, it was a struggle for me. Along the way I did learn something about George Lindsey, who not only was a teacher at Stony Brook School, but also a sailing instructor for the school. It turned out that one of the reasons that he was interested in rowing along with Rick, was that the year before he and his son had also attempted go around Long Island. And while they had not attempted to go around the outside of the South Shore, they did go through the inland bays, rowing across Rockaway Bay, the Great South Bay and Shinnecock Bay and then passing through, like we did on our first trip through the Shinnecock Inlet to Peconic. George said the experience with son had been wonderful, although extremely difficult at times.
Anyway, the first day of the first trip with Rick was only about 6 hours and all of those 6 hours, every time we came around a point, we were confronted with a stiff 15 to 20 mph wind and drenching waves. And while for that day there was not much for to do other than to shuttle bottles of water from the 32′ Boston Whaler to Rick’s 19′ lifeguard boat. Because the lifeguard boat was specially designed, sleeker and far faster than the traditional big bucket lifeguard boats you might have, Rick was able to ride against the stiff wind and over the 1′ to 2′ waves. Finally, when we arrived at Glen Cove Bay, we called it a day and the Boston Whaler towed Rick’s boat into the harbor for the night.
The ride into Glen Cove Bay convinced me of two things – just how large Long Island’s bays were and how ineffective 15 hp motor was towing a rowing scull and carrying me, a rowing frame and rower. That night I slept on board my little 12′ 6″ inflatable boat in a sleeping bag. The presence of multiple mosquitos and the steamy hot evening convinced me that, if I had a chance, on future evenings I would seek shelter at a nearby motel. And that is what I did on several of nights of this and future trips with Rick.
The rest of that trip went fairly seamlessly. George Lindsey decided maybe it was not such a good idea to bring his rowing frame scull along for the rest of the trip, waved goodbye and I was able to have more room in the boat go with a lighter load. The jaunt from Glen Cove to the city was miraculously easy with little winds and the tide just right as we entered Hell’s Gate and the East River. Because the current with us through the river, Rick was able to row exceptionally fast and we made it through the city, past the Statue of Liberty, under the Varrazano Bridge and out into the Atlantic in less than 6 hours.
Once in the ocean, the prevailing Southwest wind pushed us down the coast and everything went without incident. An impressive and new part of the trip was the fact that because Rick Shalvoy was lifeguard, other lifeguards along Long Island had gathered crowds to clap, cheer and watch as we passed by. Rick’s plan to row around Long Island and raise money for breast cancer research was quite well-known. Because it was being covered by Newsday and On Channel 12, the local Long Island station, our present progress was being followed daily. And while the cheers and applause were not for me, it was definitely a thrill to see the crowds on the beaches cheer Rick.
This first trip Rick passed uneventfully, even though it was long and tiring. I can only imagine from the point of view of sitting in a small inflatable boat bobbing up and down for hours at a time in the ocean or the sound what it might be like for Rick. You might think sitting on an inflatable boat is simple and easy, but if you are going up and down hitting waves or even stopped and drifting it could both be tiring and boring. There were long hours where I just waited for Rick to signal me to let me know when to bring water, Gatorade and energy bars. I cannot imagine what these same days were actually like for Rick where he physically rowed the same distances that I motored for 8 to 10 hours.
Rick was a lifeguard of the old school. When he discussed the subject of avoiding a sunburn, Rock told me the best solution to a sunburn was a good base. And Rick had a good base. In fact, his skin looked like brown leather. He did periodically apply sunscreen, but he refused to wear a shirt since he thought this got in the way of rowing. Rick did generally wear a large sun hat and I sure this helped save his face from getting a third degree burn. Nevertheless, watching Rick rowing with his back to the sun, one could imagine his skin blistering up. As far as I could tell, his skin never did blister up, but it did become more red and more leathery, day by day, as each trip progressed.
On the first trip a pattern of daily events emerged that was to be repeated on all 9 trips that I accompanied him. We would start out in the morning from some harbor where we had pulled in for the night. Rick would usually spend the night in a motor home that was provided for him to use (friends drove it from location to location). I and anybody else who were driving support boats would find some place to spend the night. That usually meant me taking a taxi from a dock somewhere to a hotel or motel somewhere on Long Island. And while sometimes, if there was no alternative, I would sleep on my little boat, more often I would spend the evening as good a hotel as I could find and have as nice a meal as I could find. The next morning I would take a cab back to whatever dock I was tied up to and we would start again.
Each trip took 7 or 8 days to complete because Long Island is not only long (120 miles), it is also quite wide (45 miles in some places). So the trip around Long Island was an easy 300 miles and far more if you counted the running back and forth between different harbors. As I did this trip each year, each year I would find myself impressed by the many different and quite large waterways surrounding Long Island. The inlets on the south shore of Long Island were particularly impressive because they could have 8 or 10 mile an hour currents raging through them.
On the first several trips we had some large support boats to accompany us. It turned out that the combination of large support boat and inflatable sport boat to ferry supplies back and forth was both useful and practical. The large support boats were capable of motoring Rick and his boat back at the end of each day because they had large powerful motors. My little transom boat was quite perfect to deliver the drinks and food Rick needed. Because the sides of the larger boats were quite high it was not practical for Rick to either reach up to the larger boats or get into the larger boats. With my boat around I could hand him his drink and energy bars easily and at the same time Rick could get into my boat and stretch out when he was truly exhausted (usually in the late afternoon of each day).
If needed, I could tie up to his boat and he could get into my inflatable boat and stretch and take a short nap for 20 or 30 minutes. Strangely enough, even though his boat was larger, there was no place to comfortably stretch and take a nap. All of the trips we took had a kind of routine. Get up and meet at the last port of call. I would come from a local hotel or, in the cases where there were no motels available, directly from my boat. Rick would come from the trailer home that had been following him around. We would start out, usually me in my boat and Rick in a larger support boat with Rick’s rowing lifeboat in tow behind.
We would then motor out to the starting point of the last day and begin that day’s journey. I would motor back and forth between Rick’s boat and the support boat, ferrying Gatorade and other drinks and snack and energy bars. For my own sustenance, I stuck with bottled water, with and without bubbles, a few pre-made sandwiches, bottles of Ensure, and thereafter, what I called “squirrel food”. This was nuts and raisins and trail mix. I found this the easiest food to keep dry, bring along and keep me going.
Over the years that I was Rick’s support boat, he raised over one hundred thousand dollars for the cause of breast cancer research. On later trips Rick found it harder and harder to line up larger support boats and on many of those trips I was the only support boat. Very early on, I realized that my 12′ 6″ inflatable boat was not roomy enough for all the gear, gas and supplies I had to. Along with that realization came the understanding that 15 hp motor just did not cut it in many situations. So, very quickly I upgraded to a 14′ inflatable boat with a 30 hp engine.
The larger boat and the larger engine did make it possible to be Rick’s one and only support boat although neither of us preferred it that way. Unfortunately, it was not always possible to find someone to take 7 or 8 days off and run around Long Island. I can only say that I was always grateful to have larger boat along when that was practical.
Over the nine trips I made we had many interesting experiences. I can remember one day we started out from inside Jones Inlet, just me and Rick, with no support boat. The day was a fine one, with beautiful blue skies and only a few cirrus clouds. I could tell that there was a stiff wind, coming from the Southwest, but other than that nothing prepared us for the sight that greeted us when came around into Jones Inlet itself.
Jones Inlet is fairly wide and fairly deep, unlike Moriches Inlet. When we came around the corner and into Jones Inlet we saw something that I did not think was possible. There were sets of 6′ to 8′ waves rolling into the inlet and breaking….everywhere…across the full width of the inlet. In the several years I had done this trip before, I had never seen ocean waves breaking the inlet, not to mention, breaking across the total width of the inlet. It took me a few hours to figure how this was even possible. Later that day I concluded that the relatively low tide, combined with the strong outgoing tide, made it shallow enough to throw up the waves in the channel and have them break. Previous to this, it had been my theory that waves could only break either on the shore or on a sandbar where it was shallow enough to break. But, in this case, waves were breaking across the whole of the inlet and as far as I could see into the ocean.
We had to make a decision – basically – to go or not go. Well, Rick was a lifeguard with vast experience in and around the ocean. He wanted go through. I was not so sure because I knew I was towing a 19′ rowing boat and would have to motor through the surf with Rick’s boat on a towline behind me. I put on my life jacket, clipped the clips, zipped the zip, lengthened the towline to Rick’s boat to about 75 feet and we charged into the inlet. I soon figured out that I could wait for a wave to break and then gun the engine. This worked well except for one fact. Rick’s boat. I would wait for the appropriate moment and then gun the motor and we would race ahead until the moment the towline tightened and then my boat would slow abruptly and the prop would whine loudly as it cavitated in the froth of the oncoming wave. I would then have to wait for the prop to get some traction in the water and gun it again.
By repeating the above process again and again we were able to get through the channel and out into the ocean. It was then that I made my second discovery. As far as the eye could see there were waves breaking. Fortunately, the were not all breaking in a great line, but breaking in different locations. Again, this came as a direct contradiction to the many years I had spent swimming and surfing in the ocean. I always believed that waves always just broke on the shore or on a nearby sandbar and if one could get beyond the break and the sandbars, then it would be relatively calm. Wrong.
But that was not what I was finding on this day. As far as I could see out to sea, there were breaking waves. Simply put this meant that there was no escape from the breaking waves and these waves were big. The swells were coming nice and regular…all 8 to 10 footers. This called for a new plan. Rick and I had some conversation about what to do. Going back did not seem like much of an option, considering we had just spent the better part of hour getting out through the waves. So we pulled up Rick’s boat, he hopped in, not so easy in 8 to 10 foot waves rising and falling, while I watched out for breaking waves.
A mention of the differences of our two craft is probably worth mentioning. My 14′ inflatable sport boat with 30 hp engine could easily out maneuver most of the breakers because out in the ocean they were not breaking across the whole width of the ocean, but rather in spots two or three hundred feet apart. This meant that I could run to the side of the wave to a place it was not breaking or I could turn and run ahead of the wave until the break of the wave fizzled out or I could turn and charge directly into the wave if I thought I had enough time to go over it before it broke. It was a simple judgement call, but one that I was called on to make every four or five minutes for the rest of the day.
Rick’s situation was a little different. He could not outrun a wave, his max speed being 5 mph on flat water and this was not flat water. What he could do is turn into the wave and try to ride over it or turn with the wave and try to catch it. And again, each time, every few minutes, Rick would have to decide which way to go. Rick also had to make some forward progress, so in between breaking waves he had to row along the shore. Fortunately, there was a good stiff breeze from the Southwest and it was driving him in the right direction. So Rick tried to dodge waves and work his down the beach and that is what he did most of the day. Most fortunately, Rick never flipped his boat while catching wave or going directly into a breaking wave. If he did, it would have been game over because it would be very difficult for Rick and me to upright it.
Now comes one of the most embarrassing moments of that trip, and of all the trips I took with Rick, because this was to be the day that I lost Rick in the ocean. How do you lose someone in the ocean? That’s good question and it deserves an answer. As the day wore, the wind and the waves picked up even more. The Southwesterly breeze became a steady 20 mph and the swells picked up to 12′ to 14′. Strangely enough I was not concerned by this because I felt very safe in my boat and Rick was handling the wind and waves just fine. In fact, the wind was propelling him along at a really good pace.
When you are in ocean waves that are 12 to 14 feet high a strange phenomenon happens when two boats go alongside of each other. I could be 30 or 40 feet from Rick and we could be going alongside of each other and we could not be visible to each other. Why is that? Because if you are in the bottom of a swell and Rick was in the bottom of another swell, you are literally unable to see each because there is a 14′ wave between you. Think of it as a mountain in motion between the two of you.
I am not quite sure how it happened, but at some point I lost sight of Rick and I became convinced that he was behind me. I scanned the waves both the to the West of me (ahead) and to the East of me (behind) and all I saw was rising and falling waves, some breaking, some not. I scanned the waves for what seemed like 10 minutes and no Rick. So, I made a decision – Rick must be behind me, he couldn’t row as fast as I could motor and so I deduced he was behind me and I motored West. That turned to be a wrong move because Rick had already passed me and was having a fine time going East.
I motored back a half mile and then a whole mile and no Rick. I motored forward for what seemed like a mile and a half and still no Rick. Now I was beginning to panic. I could see the headlines in the next day’s Newsday – “Man in support loses man in life guard boat trying to raise money for breast cancer research. Coast Guard still searching.”
Well, I did not want to lose Rick. I called the next lifeguard station which turned out to be Smith Point. Rick was well-known to all the local lifeguard stations, so they immediately said that they would send some lifeguards on jetskis to help in the search and that is what they did. When a couple Smith Point’s finest showed in the rising and falling 12 and 14 foot waves, they said they would motor down the beach a while and see if they could find Rick and call the Coast Guard to send out a chopper. They left me with some pertinent words of advice – watch out for rogue waves.
For the next hour or so I kept an eye out for Rick and rogue waves and finally a chopper showed up circling me. I had no way communicating with them but I tried to make hand signals for them to search and off they went to the East. About 20 minutes later the chopper came back and started make circles over me and then head a little ways and then come, make a circle and then East again. I realized that they were pointing me forward and so I cranked up my motor headed off at full speed. Two miles later I was happy to find Rick. Rick was kind of curious as to why I seemed to concerned. I explained the whole story. He looked at me incredulously and said there was nothing to worry about, he making great time. All is well that ends well.
On the third trip I went out with Rick, it happened we stopped one evening in South Street Port in the city on an early August day. As usual Rick had the motor home parked nearby on city streets and being totally wiped out, immediately headed there to crash. I, thinking that somewhat better accommodations might be available somewhere else, booked myself into a downtown Marriot Hotel. It happened my brother decided to meet up with me. So I checked into the Marriot, changed clothes and headed out to have dinner at a nearby Morton’s. My brother and I enjoyed a fine dinner of steaks, red wine and cognac.
After dinner, I decided to head see if I could find a place to get and extra change of clothes. Since we were quite close to the World Trade Center, I took a walk down into the city under the World Trade Center, found a store still open, got my extra change of clothes and picked up some croissants for the next day’s breakfast. I remember walking back to hotel through that underground city thinking how truly large it was. It was still busy even though it was around 10:30 at night.
The next day I motored out with Rick and thought nothing of my brief visit to the city. On lttile more than one month later, I happened to get up late and I turned on CNBC to get my morning dose of business news and there I saw a strange and horrifying sight. It was a large airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. Then, only a few minutes later, CNBC showed another large airliner crashing into the other World Trade Center building. And then CNBC showed the first World Trade Center with people still holding to the outside of building collapsing. Then the second World Trade Center building came down and, yes, the year was 2001.
And while I did not think of it at the time, I came to learn that the Marriot Hotel building that I stayed at and the building that Morton’s was in also came down. Because in the first days after the events of 2001, time seemed to stop and almost everything we had taken for granted came into question, I did not even remember I had been there one month before. It was only a few months later, after reality of it all had sunk in that I realized that I had been there just one month before it all came down. To this day, I remember walking around in the underground city under the World Trade Center, looking at the wide spaces there, the shops and restaurants, thinking there must be a lot of people coming through here during the day.
There have been a number of other episodes on these trips that I felt concerned about what might happen. One day we were approaching Montauk Point as the sun was getting low. Fortunately, we had just met up with a SeaTow captain who had agreed to escort around the point into Montauk Harbor. He had come up a few minutes before to report that the point was “Gnarly”. And he was right. The waves were quite high that day – 6′ to 8′. When we about a mile from the actual point of Montauk Point a thunderstorm started sending lightning bolts all around us and pelting us with wind and driving rain. At that point it was decided that we should call it night. Rick tied his boat up to the SeaTow boat, got in and we headed for the point. In minutes the sky became black and the sun disappeared. I found myself in high surf, with rain and lightning bolts pelting down, trying to follow the lights on the SeaTow boat. It was not easy since he was going as fast as he could and my motor could just barely keep up. We came around the point and just a few minutes later the thunderstorm mysteriously lifted and had a fairly tranquil trip into Montauk Harbor.
One day we were on Long Island Sound, somewhere past Mattituck Inlet, headed toward Mt. Sinai. It was perfectly calm flat day with almost no clouds. There was one cloud way in the distance that seemed to be almost in Connecticut. I took little notice of it for about 15 minutes and then when I looked up I noticed the cloud was now much closer. At that distance it looked like a fairly standard cumulus cloud, not dark or forbidding, just large. I did notice that it seemed to have a purpose and a direction, namely, our direction. I called over Rick and asked him to take a look. He stopped rowing, tuned around and promptly said it would pass us by.
Three minutes later I pulled over to Rick and told not to bother about turning around, just tie up and get in my boat. Rick was really quite irritated, but he turned around to check it out himself. He did not take much convincing. By this time the cloud was big and black and only about a half mile away. Rick got in my boat just as the first drops of rain were beginning to fall. The cloud no longer looked like a cloud. It looked like a black wall that was enveloping us. And that is exactly what it was.
By the time it was over us, it was like someone had blotted out the sun and replaced it with a black tempest. I had sun canopy supported by aluminum poles. I did have a lightning rod of sorts. It consisted to a piece of thick copper wire wrapped around one of the aluminum poles and going into the water. I do know if it was an effective lightning rod, I only know we were not electrocuted. The wind blew at 40 or 50 miles per hour and pushed and pulled my frail canopy to the left and right. Rick and I huddled on the floor my boat which was not easy since there was only about 35″ x 40″ space to sit on the floor. No matter. The rain and wind did their worst. The lightning bolts landed all around us and the sound of thunder almost made us deaf, but in 15 minutes it was all past. The tempest was temporary.
To this day I wonder what would have happened if that storm lasted an hour instead of 15 minutes. I also wonder what if it was an actual tornado instead of a kind of super squall. The whole experience made me feel very small and very lucky. I am guessing Rick felt the same.
On another day, we were approaching East Hampton, Rick turned a little green, said he was not feeling well. Two minutes later he said, “I think I will go in here.”
Here was a Amagansett Beach Life Guard Station. That left me in the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Shinnecock Inlet and Montauk Point. I had to decide – Do I go for the inlet or do I go around Montauk Point and head into Montauk Harbor? It was a good 20 miles either way. Since I knew the next day Rick would want to leave from the same point he put in and Shinnecock Inlet was slightly closer, I headed back towards Hampton Bays. It is very depressing motoring back where you just came from. It was more depressing motoring back as the weather and the waves quickly got worse. And that is exactly what they did. The day had started calm and beautiful. When Rick abandoned me it was still pretty calm and tranquil, but as soon I started to head back, the waves and wind picked up and, of course, they picked up directly against me.
Sometimes, I would get to feeling that the ocean and the weather had a personal vendetta against me. I know that does not make logical sense, but when the waves go from 2 or 3 feet to 6 to 8 feet and the nice morning breeze morphs into 20 mile an hour wind against you, you can really believe old Mother Nature has it in for you. And that is exactly what it felt like that day. That feeling was further reinforced when I discovered that I was in a no-win speed situation. If I went full speed, I bounced from wave crest to wave crest and felt like I was trying to ride angry 3000 pound bull. If I went at half speed, I got drenched every 2 minutes as I hit each incoming wave. If went slow, I was reasonably dry and comfortable with the sure knowledge that I would never arrive before darkness set in.
In the end I settled on a kind 1/3 speed, fast enough not to get completely wet and still make steady progress. It was a long afternoon and by the time I pulled into the Shinnecock Inlet, it was a true whitewater river with 8′ waves breaking across the whole inlet. Fortunately, I had seen this phenomenon before and I knew what to do. I would wait for wave to break in front of me and then gun it over the broken wave slowing down just before I got to the next wave ahead of me. And then I’d repeat the process. It took about 10 minutes to get through the inlet that way, but it worked.
There were some general perceptions about these trips that emerged. One was how large, intricate and varied the waterways of Long Island were. The inlets on the ocean were completely different from the inlets on the Sound. On the ocean the inlets could be like whitewater rivers and the waves in front of the inlets could be far higher than inside the inlet. On the Sound, the inlets were calmer, easier to navigate. The only exception to that being Plum Gut as you went from Gardiner’s Bay into Long Island Sound. That could have 3′ to 4′ standing waves and a good 6 to 8 mile current.
The other perception of going around Long Island was how large, intricate and varied were the houses and buildings that adorned the various coastal areas of Long Island. They could be huge estates or small cottages, tall buildings (in the case of Brooklyn, Coney Island, Rockaway and Long Beach), huge sandy beach parks (on both the South Shore and the North Shore). They could be forlorn and broken down buildings like the abandoned hospital in the middle of the East River where Typhoid Mary once stayed.
The biggest and most impressive were the huge houses and estates that ringed the coast of Long Island almost everywhere. As mentioned some were modest and perhaps almost affordable, but most were the possessions of billionaires, not millionaires. The biggest and best example of that being the Ira Rennert house, a 72,000 square foot palazzo that is plopped down on 63 acres of prime beachfront property In Sagaponack.
When I think of these Lilliputian trips around Long Island and think of my great, great, great-uncle’s trips literally around the world, I realize, of course, there is no comparison. My relative Andrew Shewan was literally risking his life and the lives of his crew on those trips. I think of him speeding across the Pacific at 18 to 20 mph, which is how fast the Clipper Ships sailed, generally alone in the world’s biggest ocean, with 18 or 20 men against the sea, seeing nothing and no one for days on end, fighting, struggling to get across the world, avoiding Malay pirates, typhoons, frigid weather, ice, torrid weather, heat, cold, in 40 or 50 foot waves, in gale winds or becalmed on a hot, unmoving sea, and everything in between, with no way to communicate with anybody, no cell phones, no telegraph nearby.
Yes, my trips around Long Island were truly Lilliputian compared to his. That is not to say that there were no moments of concern, no causes for excitement, no adventures to be had, for truly there were and those trips taught me many things and I am forever grateful to have completed them.
The thing that I remember most about those trips was the end of each trip. I know I did not do the rowing that Rick did. When you think of the effort Rick Shalvoy put in to row the 300 miles or so around Long Island each time, 7 to 10 hours a day, 7 to 8 days a trip, it was truly incredible. I can tell you that just twisting a throttle, sitting on swivel seat on a small inflatable in the middle of the ocean or sound, for the same amount of time was totaling exhausting, so I can only guess how Rick felt. And strangely, even though I was exhausted by each trip, what I felt most of all was a true sense of accomplishment. I will always remember and cherish that feeling.
I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come across
a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you,
you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is
something that not enough people are speaking intelligently
about. I am very happy I stumbled across this during my hunt for something concerning this.
I enjoyed this post. I plan on circumnavigating LI by kayak this coming summer, and this has been a great research resource!
Thank you for your kind words about my blog story. Should you have further questions about kayaking around Long Island, just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. All the best, Cecil
Quite an amazing story you wrote here. I too am now inspired to someday complete a circumnavigation — by kayak. You’re recollections of your trips laid out here are more of a resource than you may have ever intended when you wrote it.
As a life long waterman, occasional rower and long time sea kayaker, I was really drawn in by your vivid description of water conditions. Most people who never go out of bays and protected waterways have no idea how quickly changing and downright brutal it can be on open water.
Thank you for your kind words. I would interested in knowing about extended kayaks trips you may plan.
Hey Cecil, thanks for the super fast response. Next up is a planned attempt to paddle the length of the Chesapeake Bay. Solo. Unsupported. Spring 2023.
~ Doc James