Published June 06. 2014 4:00AM
As we paddled through The Sluiceway at the east end of Plum Island the other day, the seas, which had been pancake-flat all across Long Island Sound, began building, and I watched with some trepidation as breaking waves crashed against a rocky shore.
“This doesn’t look like fun,” I called over my shoulder to Carl Astor, positioned in the stern of a tandem kayak. The good-natured banter we had been exchanging nonstop since departing from New London more than two hours earlier halted abruptly. It was time to concentrate.
“It always seems to kick up here,” Carl complained. We’ve made the 28-plus-mile kayak voyage from New London to Orient and back several times, and also paddled past Plum Gut more than a decade ago on the last leg of a 13-day, 303-mile, circuitous circumnavigation of Long Island.
Comparatively speaking, therefore, last week’s day-long outing was a piece of cake. Missing was our buddy Dan Bendor, who had been on the Long Island expedition as well as on part of a separate 300-plus-mile kayak journey from the Canadian border to the Statue of Liberty via Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. A psychiatrist in Waterford, Dan had patients the other day and couldn’t get away.
Carl is a rabbi, recently retired, and I knew we would hit it off when we first met on the water years ago and I asked about his congregation and the size of the synagogue.
“Sleeps 200,” he deadpanned.
No time for jokes, though, steering through The Sluiceway, a swirling cut between Plum Island’s East Point and Great Gull Island.
“Head a little more south,” I suggested, and Carl dutifully steered away from the rough water. As the bow paddler I was responsible for spotting rocks, shoals and other obstacles; Carl, who controlled the rudder with foot pedals, paddled and steered the 22-foot vessel.
My pulse quickened and spirits sank when I thought about what loomed only a mile or so ahead: the notorious Plum Gut, considered one of the most treacherous channels in the Northeast that in the right — or wrong — conditions can produce 6-foot, confused seas and swirling, 7-knot currents. If there were this much churn at The Sluiceway we could really be rocking and rolling in less than half an hour through The Gut en route to Long Island’s Orient Point.
Landing on Plum Island to avoid bouncing seas wasn’t a viable option — the 834-acre island, once an army base, has for the past 60 years been home to a federal animal disease laboratory and is off-limits. Authorities have always denied rumors that researchers studied anthrax on the island, which for me has always been a more effective deterrent than the no-trespassing signs posted along the shore and on nautical charts.
The research center is located on the north shore so from our vantage point to the south we saw only stretches of sand, an abandoned military building and the top of the Plum Island lighthouse. Gulls circled above empty beaches; terns dove for fish; cormorants perched on pilings.
While the island did not look inviting it didn’t appear ominous, either, particularly in bright sunshine. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has proposed shutting the lab and moving it to Kansas, and there are plans to convert Plum Island to a wildlife refuge. Donald Trump has also announced he would like to buy the island and develop it as a golf resort.
I’d opt for the wildlife refuge, as long as kayaks could pull ashore and if all the animal viruses were neutralized or safely removed. Even so …
Happily, the seas and my pulse calmed down once we zipped along Plum’s south shore, propelled by a flooding tide.
After rounding the island’s western tip we edged into the mile-wide Gut. We steered southwest to avoid getting sucked into the main rip, but then faced another obstacle: a ferry returning from Orient to New London had just pulled from its slip and swung in our direction.
“Let’s wait outside the channel,” I said, so we drifted for a few minutes while the giant vessel, loaded with cars and passengers, rumbled past.
Plum Gut is not a place to dawdle – a second ferry from New London approached, and a scattering of fishing boats meandered here and there – so we punched it, skirting a string of rocks marking a cable crossing just north of the ferry landing. Fifteen minutes later we surfed ashore on a deserted beach.
“Three hours, 14.3 miles,” Carl announced, checking a watch-global positioning system strapped to his wrist.
We pulled off spray skirts and life jackets, climbed on a flat rock overlooking the sound, and munched on sandwiches, nuts, fruit and energy bars.
All too soon it would be time to paddle back to Connecticut during the ebb.
If the gods had been against us, along with high winds, big waves and maybe a squall or two, it would have been a challenging – or downright wretched – return trip. But we had luck on our side, as well as a careful pre-voyage consultation of the weather forecast and tide chart.
In short, it was a glorious paddle, with a light tailwind and 6-inch seas all the way back to New London’s Ballard Beach off Pequot Avenue.
I reminded Carl the quip he made a few years earlier when we returned from Orient in slightly more daunting conditions.
About two-thirds way across the sound, with fatigue setting in, I briefly cheered up when I spotted Ledge Light at the mouth of the Thames River.
An hour or so later, when we finally hit the beach, exhausted, Carl casually mentioned that the first thing he planned to do when he arrived home was fetch me a bottle of Visine.
“Well, you told me that Ledge Light was a sight for sore eyes,” he said.