A Kayaker's View of the Parade of Sail (Plus a Rescue at Sea)

Spyros Barres is seen watching the Coast Guard barque Eagle sail up the Thames River Saturday as part of the Parade of Sail during OpSail 2012 CT. Steve Fagin

Bobbing around in Long Island Sound in the lee of Bartlett Reef of Waterford's Magonk Point Saturday morning, waiting for the vessels in OpSail2012 Connecticut's Parade of Sail to assemble, we kayakers squinted southwest toward a misty horizon.

“I think I see the Eagle out there,” Phil Warner announced, referring to the star of the show, the celebrated Coast Guard barque. In the distance loomed a barely visible image that could have been the mast of a tall ship or a church steeple, for all we could see.

Our plan had been to launch from New London near the mouth of the Thames River and paddle west to Niantic, where the OpSail fleet had been scheduled to sail east to New London. Then we would try to keep up with the sailboats when we paddled back, a total distance of about 10 miles.

But because the OpSail ships were so far offshore and rendered nearly invisible due to hazy conditions, we holed up not far from Millstone Point and decided to wait for them to get underway.

The tide was flooding east against a light westerly breeze, creating some chop, but not enough to raise serious concerns for experienced paddlers. Finally, we decided to head back to New London and position ourselves not far from where we started in order to gain the best viewing point.

Phil and Ian Frenkel were paddling single boats; Spyros Barres and I were paddling my tandem. As we approached New London we encountered Carl Astor in his single kayak and Dan and Karla Bendor in their tandem. They turned around and all of us returned to the mouth of the Thames.

A quick history: Dan, Carl and I have paddled extensively together, including a 300-plus mile circumnavigation of Long Island; Ian and I race frequently and are preparing to defend our title next week as tandem champs in the 20-mile Blackburn Challenge race around Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass; Spyros ("Spy") and I have been on numerous adventures on land and sea, including a kayak paddle to Block Island followed immediately by a 9-mile running race — he also was with me 12 years ago when we paddled out to watch ships during the first OpSail event; I have for years raced kayaks with and against Phil, one of the most skilled paddlers in New England.

Anyway, it was natural that all of us would assemble Saturday for what we hoped would be an epic event.

Truth be told, the event was something of a letdown, in part because of the haze and in part because the largest of the two-dozen odd ships were so spread out it hardly seemed like the majestic Parade of Ships that been promised. I'm sure the throngs that waited hours at Harkness State Park in Waterford, Ocean Beach Park in New London and Avery Point in Groton, only to see a fleeting glimpse, would agree. But I quibble.

It was wonderful being out on the water with friends on a warm day in July. What could be better?

The day almost was marred by disaster.

Our group had rafted up together off Ocean Beach when Phil spotted an overturned kayak about 100 yards east.

"Someone's in the water," he cried, and was off in a flash. The rest of us followed.

As it turned out a father and his young son had capsized, but they had the extraordinary good fortune to have done so within sight of a man who teaches kayak rescue.

In less than a minute Phil was alongside their overturned boat and instructed them to hold on to his kayak. Though the father and son were wearing life jackets they weren't properly fitted or adjusted, and threatened to come off if Phil hadn't intervened. The boy was shivering and near panic, but Phil calmed him down.

Next, he hauled their boat across his bow, emptied it, flipped it upright, and instructed them how to get back in. I helped steady their kayak.

"Some friends let us borrow their boat," the father said somewhat sheepishly. "We've never kayaked before."

Ever the diplomat, Phil observed, "You may want to head back in now." There was a fair amount of traffic — sailboats, Jet Skis, power boats big and small — and with wind picking up the seas were becoming more confused. It was not a good time for a novice to be on the water.

Phil watched them to make sure they headed for shore.

"I think they've had enough fun for one day," I said.

"They don't realize how close they came to becoming a statistic," Phil said.

In half an hour or so, the last vessel in the Parade, the 250-foot, three-masted square rig tall ship Cisne Branco from Brazil, sailed by, and I snapped a few photos. The breeze picked up.

"Getting sloppy out here," I said. "Good time to head in."

Phil, Carl and Ian played around for a few minutes, surfing boat wakes, but soon we all steered for shore.

Parade or no parade, it's always great to be in a kayak, Dan observed.

It's also great to have someone like Phil handy, just in case.

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