The perfect paddle: Kayaking around Fishers Island

Having kayaked over the years on virtually all major rivers and in sections of every state in the Northeast I’ve elevated several waterways to five-star status, including The St. John River, Rangeley Lakes and Muscongus Bay in Maine; Lake Champlain between Vermont and New York; Cape Ann and Cape Cod in Massachusetts; New Hampshire’s Androscoggin and Saco rivers; Block Island Sound and Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

Though the tantalizing appeal of these destinations have occasionally drawn me like the mythological Sirens that lured Odysseus, I’ve come to realize that when it comes down to elegance, beauty and adventure, there’s no place like home.

The lakes, rivers and shoreline in and around southeastern Connecticut offer a plethora of paddling opportunities, and among all the possible itineraries one voyage remains paramount — so much so that when friends and I discuss this trip we need only describe it in one abbreviated term.

Therefore when I called my buddy Phil Warner the other day and simply said, “I’m thinking about doing a ‘circumnav’,” I didn’t have to explain that I meant an 18-mile circumnavigation of Fishers Island, located in New York waters just a few miles south of the Connecticut coast.

Ten minutes later, after rearranging his work schedule and consulting an Eldridge tide chart, Phil called back.

“Low tide Friday is at 4:48 a.m., which means if we start about 8 we can get through The Race at the end of the ebb,” he said. Unfortunately, that meant Phil and I would be fighting the flood for the last 5 miles or so, but you can’t have everything. The forecast also called for showers about noon — added incentive to get on and off the water early.

We would depart, as always, from Esker Point in Noank, where there is easy public access, ample free parking, a rest room and shower. The route would take us southeast around the eastern end of Fishers, then west along the south shore, around the western end and back to Esker Point.

Phil and I have completed this voyage dozens of times in varying conditions: dead calm, gusty winds, flat seas, huge sea swells, clear skies and pea soup fog — sometimes all in the same day.

What makes a “circumnav” the perfect kayak trip?

First of all, it doesn’t take all day but is long enough to be “worthy.” You can blast through it in under three hours if you paddle like a demon, as Phil once did a few years ago, or stop along the way at Isabella Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side as well as at Hungry Point on the Fishers Island Sound side facing Connecticut, and stretch the excursion to four or five hours. Even on summer weekends these magnificent beaches are largely deserted.

The views also are exceptional: the charm of Noank village and Stonington Borough contrasts with the Gatsbyesque grandeur of the Branford House mansion at Avery Point in Groton and Beautyrest mansion at Fisher’s Island’s East Point.

This time of year you’re likely to encounter only a handful of fishing boats. Later in the season you’ll share the water with sailboats, ferries and motor yachts. I’ve seen submarines, tall ships and cruise vessels on several occasions.

Small islands scattered throughout the sound — Mouse, Ram, South Dumpling, North Dumpling and Flat Hammock – don’t pose significant navigational hazards for kayaks, nor do various outcroppings — East, Middle and West clumps, Seaflower Reef, and Seal, Whale, Whaleback, Planet and Pulpit rocks.

You do have to be mindful of the ominously named Wreck Island and a few shoals off Barleyfield Cove on the south side of Fishers, but by far the biggest challenges are getting through Wicopesset Passage at the island’s eastern tip and the notorious Race at the western end. When the tide is running against the wind these stretches can kick up 6-foot, confused seas capable of bashing big powerboats against the rocks, let alone small kayaks.

Last year my friend Ian Frenkel and I wound up “bongo-sliding” sideways through The Race, narrowly avoiding a capsize only by executing a frantic bracing maneuver; a few years before that, while paddling with Phil, I did flip over approaching Wicopessett, and managed to get back in my boat with his assistance.

I remained sufficiently unnerved then to suggest a half-mile portage across the island instead of returning to the treacherous passage, so Phil and I beached our boats at the exclusive Fishers Island Club, carried them past bemused patrons sipping bloody Marys, scurried across a golf course and hastily performed a stealth launch worthy of Navy SEALS at a private pier in East Harbor on the sound.

Happily, Phil and I didn’t have to resort to these tactics Friday when we set out shortly after 8 a.m., paddling the gorgeous, speedy Guillemot wood strip tandem he built from a kit designed by Nick Schade of Groton. Most single sea kayaks are 16-18 feet long; Phil’s is more of a stretch limo, measuring a whopping 25½ feet.

For the first 5 miles we bucked a stiff southeast headwind, which became a tailwind after we squirted through Wicopesset into the open waters of the Atlantic.

Paddling in the stern, Phil maintained a running commentary as we bounced around in growing swells that thundered and crashed against the shore a quarter-mile away.

“Uh-oh. Here comes a big one — get ready. … Wow, that one had to be 6 feet!”

I was not exactly enjoying myself at this point, getting sloshed in the face every time a wave broke above the bow, but by the time we approached The Race at the 12-mile mark, the seas had calmed considerably.

Phil and I punched through a few yards of churning froth — slack tide, piece of cake. But then, after rounding the western tip and passing Silver Eel Cove, that blankety-blank, 15 mph southeast wind blasted us head-on. The flood tide also began begun pulling against us.

“Next hour or so isn’t going to be fun,” Phil said. Buffeted by wind gusts and bounced by whitecaps, we decided to forego a rest break.

Finally, after about 3½ hours of steady paddling, we plowed past Clubhouse Point, slipped into Palmer Cove and pushed the pace to Esker under darkening skies.

“Gotta beat that rain,” I said.

Within minutes of beaching, the first drops spattered down; by the time we hoisted Phil’s kayak onto the roof of his car, it turned into a downpour.

“Great timing,” I said.

For our next circumnav, we’ll have to figure out a way not just to stay ahead of the rain, but also to take advantage of a fair wind and following sea the whole way — good luck with that.

 

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