125 Miles of Pirate Paddling and Guerilla Camping
By Carol Choi, member of New York Outrigger
I first learned by email that I had agreed to paddle-camp 125-miles from Manhattan to Montauk. I don’t remember agreeing to it, and I ultimately didn’t paddle the entire distance. But there are 4 people and a canoe who did. This is their story.
The story first began when Jeremy Grosvenor, NYO-affiliate and East End waterman, came to the realization that we needed a canoe for surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk on the far eastern end of Long Island, New York. It went to the next level when we were canoe surfing Makaha Beach on Oahu with our good friends Beth and Chris Kauwe of Poipu, Kauai. Chris offered to send their beloved Kahiki (this was the canoe in which they were married!) to a new home in a far distant land. Kahiki was to be shipped from Kauai to New York City, and from there we would all journey with her the entire length of Long Island to Montauk. The idea was far-fetched, but it was a beautiful dream and recognition of shared values and deep friendship across geographic and cultural divides.
We didn’t really plan out the trip. We didn’t know how many days it might take or where we would sleep. But we were open to whatever the adventure might bring. And we knew we wanted to start from NYO’s boathouse on the Hudson River and end 125 miles later at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk.
And so at dawn on Wednesday June 27, 2012, the last leg of Kahiki’s long journey began. That morning, the air was brisk and the winds were blowing strong from the west northwest. It was a good time to go. Along with Beth, Chris and Jeremy, we had with us a new friend, Wayne “Havelu” Alonzo, also of Kauai. It was good to meet Havelu and have him aboard.
On the night before departure, they constructed a sailing apparatus (mast, beam, etc.) out of a variety of mismatched PVC pipes, poles, a broomstick, rope and rubber. They also rigged a tram across the iakus on which to load the gear. More gear was kept in sealed buckets under the seats. They offered to carry me on the tram too but, as Jeremy said, that idea would win us the refugee award. Instead I accompanied them down the Hudson on OC1 and promised to find them again in two days wherever they were.
During those first two days they were able to phone back intermittently. They made time with strong following winds, covering ~45 miles in just the first day. Their first stop after shooting out of New York Harbor with the ebb tide through the Narrows was famed Coney Island where they were greeted with a typical “New York Welcome.” After negotiating with the authorities for stopping with a canoe on the beach, they sampled the hot dogs and sailed onwards on the Atlantic around Breezy Point to Rockaway and Long Beach, finally settling at Jones Beach for the night.
The second day saw them take the trip bayside for a change of scenery. Much of Long Island is bordered by a series of long narrow islands, essentially populated dunes, with channels to enter and exit into the Atlantic Ocean. The bays inside of the dunes are beautiful, marshy, and full of unexpected animal life. They sailed ~25 miles through the bays, catching blue fish and finding wild dandelion to make stew. The second night they slept in a small shelter at Ho Hum Beach where the raccoons demonstrated their ingenuity and determination to share that shelter with them. Early morning rain, lightning and thunder brought in a new day.
On the third day, they made an excursion up river to commune with members of the Unkechaug Nation at Poospatuck Indian Reservation. At the same time, I loaded up the OC1 and drove out to paddle across the bay and meet them at our rendezvous point at Moriches Inlet. Putting in, the fishermen told me not to go, that it was crazy to go alone to the inlet with the ripping currents. They didn’t comprehend what we were up to. We met and sailed/paddled on together completing another ~25 miles through West Hamptons to make camp in Shinnecock Bay. It was cold at night and we were afraid we would be asked to move camp but the eyes of the blue fish kept watch over us.
On the fourth day, we had to make the final decision of whether to return to the ocean in order to get to our destination in Montauk or to change plans and stay in the bay with an end at Sag Harbor. The bayside journey would have been pleasant and easy. The ocean on the other hand looked manageable, but the beach breaks would make all entries and exits with a fully loaded canoe dicey. Plus, the channel into the ocean was rough. While we discussed all the options and risks, the collective feeling was that the journey could only end at Ditch Plains Beach. And so, we fully secured all the gear and headed toward the sea.
Shinnecock Inlet that day had 8 to 10 foot face waves, channel water ripping and churning with fishing boats struggling to get through. It took a serious amount of trust to believe that the mounting waves would not jack-knife on us, though swamping was still an issue. I watched ahead as Kahiki disappeared between the crests of the waves and then soared over the tops, Jeremy navigating as cool as a cucumber. Sitting low on the OC1, it felt like I kept looking up and up and up at the tops of each of the waves that kept coming, paddling hard and finally airborne over a big one and wondering if I would land back on my canoe. Fortunately, I did. There was no time to be afraid or hesitate, you just love it and go with it. We all made it to the other side, happy to be able to bail water together and confirming that was the single most heart-pumping part of the trip. And what a reward for making it. That day we encountered an ancient of the sea, a giant leatherback turtle, plus a pod of dolphins playing just outside of Sagg Main Beach. That final night, we camped at White Sands Beach and made a bonfire to keep warm. Havelu showed us how to cover the dying fire with sand and make a bed that stays warm for the night.
The next morning, the final ten miles to Ditch Plains Beach was a slog; hot and windless and against the current. It helped us to appreciate our good fortune over the first 115 miles, having had the winds and the miracle of timing and currents pushing us constantly towards Montauk calling. Like a trumpeter heralding their arrival, I went ahead to Ditch Plains and checked out the surf conditions. Poles was OK, but Kamikaze had good waves and Ditch was crowded with jubilant surfers who were happy to make room for “the girl on the outrigger” to take a long ride. On the arrival of the OC4, friends came out to greet them. Chris took responsibility for the task of steering Kahiki through the series of beach breaks to bring her and her crew to the final destination, timing the exit perfectly, no drama, clean landing.
We celebrated with hugs and hot coffees and laughs of joy and relief. We then quickly unloaded, took down the sail and mast, re-rigged and headed straight out again with Kahiki to surf Kamikaze. This was her destiny. We caught many long perfect rides, Chris demonstrating how to get the wave wired and at the same time educate the surfers about the canoe in their midst. It was an unbelievable ending to an experience of New York that few people will ever know, and a confirmation of the magic of Montauk and friendship.
In summary, Beth, Chris, Havelu and Jeremy completed 5 days of pirate paddling and sailing from Manhattan to Montauk, 4 nights of guerrilla camping on the beaches, covering ~125 miles with zero hulis or swampings. I joined for about half of the trip. Nobody bothered us at all in the camps, we were discrete.
Afterwards, returning to the city by train, we felt disconcerted and lost to see the experiences of those five days unwind in just three fleeting hours. We wondered if the rest of the visit in NY would be an inevitable let down. Then Havelu quietly mentioned with awe that this was his first time on a train ever; he’d never ridden a train since there were none on Kauai. And we burst out laughing because all of life is a marvelous trip and more thrilling adventures are always around the corner.