The tide had just begun to flood as we four kayakers scooted past Wilderness Point on the south shore of Fishers Island the other day, and I began angling my boat toward a sandy beach for a short rest before tackling the most challenging section of our 18.5-mile island circumnavigation: the infamous Race.
This reef, the site of countless shipwrecks, can produce huge, confused seas in a swirling, chaotic mess of slop and chop in the right (or wrong) conditions.
We had already covered more than 12 miles without a break from our starting point at Esker Point Beach in Noank, and I looked forward to climbing out of the cramped cockpit, stretching my legs, gobbling a sandwich and steeling my nerves.
The irrepressible and indefatigable Phil Warner, though, paddling to my port, had another plan.
"Let's paddle around Race Rock!" he called.
This detour would add only a few hundred yards, but it would also put us farther out into rapidly intensifying currents. Not waiting for a reply, Phil, who lives in Hampden, Mass., aimed toward the stone lighthouse perched on a rocky island just off the western tip of Fishers, followed by Robin Francis of Wallingford, one of Connecticut's top women paddlers, and Ian Frenkel of Old Saybrook, for whom too much paddling is never enough. All of us have raced with and against one another for years.
"Six-point-eight!" Phil shouted, staring at a deck-mounted GPS that recorded not just our position but also our speed. That meant the tide was pushing us along at a pretty good clip — and also that it would be steadily slowing us down as soon as we steered toward home.
We weaved and bobbed past dozens of fishing boats anchored just outside The Race, circled the lighthouse and then pivoted toward the Connecticut shore.
"Here it comes!" Phil said excitedly, watching the waves grow a couple of feet higher. He is among those crazed kayakers who seek out rough water for surfing and practicing high braces.
I would have been just as happy to paddle in calm seas, but at this point we had no choice: The last leg back to Esker Point, cutting between North and South Dumpling, would be a bumpy ride.
"You doing all right?" Phil called over to me.
"Great," I replied. "Better than last time."
Although I've paddled around Fishers dozens of times over the years, last summer I flipped in rough water on the Atlantic Ocean side, and Phil had to help me get back in the boat. I was determined to redeem myself. I also had enough sense to switch to a more stable, but slower, boat for this outing.
A few minutes later the drone of a powerboat engine reverberated behind me.
I shot a look over my shoulder and saw the runabout bearing down on us. Fifty yards away, it slowed and then pulled alongside.
It was my old buddy Jim Roy of Mystic, out fishing with his son, Jeff.
We chatted for a minute, and then they shot off toward Noank. Their trip back would take about 10 minutes; with aggressive paddling it would take us another hour.
The seas kicked up a bit more near the spindle off Groton Long Point, as they always do, but once we ducked into the lee of Palmer Cove the wind and tide worked in unison to propel us back to the launch site at Esker.
"A perfect paddle!" Phil exulted.
I agreed. "An ocean paddle is like a plane landing. Any one you can walk away from is a good one."
Never satisfied, Ian practiced Eskimo rolls and high braces before pulling his boat ashore.
Phil checked his watch. It had taken us about four hours – not exactly a leisurely pace, but certainly not pushing it.
"You know, Dave Grainger says he has the unofficial record for kayaking around Fishers: 2:56," Phil said, referring to a paddler from Plainville who has won many of the top races in the region. "I'm pretty sure we can beat it."
And so, in a few weeks, weather permitting, the four of us plan to return to Fishers. Robin and I will paddle a tandem kayak as the support boat, and Phil and Ian will paddle fast singles in hopes of breaking the mark.
I'll keep you posted.