Bigger waves? More wind? Yes, please
Light winds, calm seas and relatively mild temperatures — perfect conditions for venturing out on Block Island Sound, unless you were enrolled in Gerry Polinsky’s annual Polar Paddle Practicum class, which encourages kayakers to “push their comfort zones” while honing rough-water skills.
Gerry, a top-rated guide, instructor and expedition leader, stared morosely at flat water off Stonington Point the other morning, and apologized that there likely wouldn’t be anything “polar” about this year’s excursion.
However, he and Nick Schade, another expert paddler, earlier studied the tides, weather forecast and charts, and predicted a challenging tidal race would form in the afternoon off Watch Hill. Over the centuries, dozens of ships have wrecked on rocks and reefs here — bad news for mariners, but a beacon of hope for Gerry and his merry band of thrill-seekers.
So, after donning lifejackets, helmets and drysuits — the water temperature hovered in the 40s — our 10-boat flotilla launched into Stonington Harbor, paddled past a breakwater and steered toward the class’s first destination, the western tip of Napatree Point.
We were in good hands. Gerry, who founded his Ivoryton-based adventure company, SeaSherpaKayak, in 2009, is a British Canoe Union five star advanced sea leader; American Canoe Association level five advanced open water instructor; National Outdoor Leadership School-trained winter outdoor winter educator; and registered Maine guide.
An eclectic group signed up for this year’s class: Felix Geyfman, a native of Kiev, Ukraine, who had been a conscripted soldier in the Russian army before “they kicked me out,” emigrated to the United States, and now works as an electrical engineer in New York City; Mark Sprinkle, a kayak adventurer from Freeport, Maine, and founding member of the Cambridge Bach Ensemble, whose Blue Heron Renaissance and medieval vocal ensemble was the first group from outside Europe to receive a Gramophone Classical Music Award; and Faye Bodley-Dangelo, managing editor of the Harvard Theological Review and Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
Other participants included Beklen Kerimoglu, a Turkish-born anesthesiologist at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital; Beatrice Weinburger, a certified early childhood environmental educator; Sally Peters, a retired water-quality inspector; and Joey Schott, a boatbuilder from Richmond, Va., who constructs high-performance kayaks designed by Nick.
Nick owns Guillemot Kayaks in Groton, whose elegant, wooden Night Heron kayak is in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Gerry had enlisted Nick, Mark and Joey as assistant instructors; all of them took turns trying to undo decades of poor paddling habits I had developed as a self-taught kayaker. By following their advice, I was able to change direction more efficiently with a twist of the torso rather than a back-paddle.
By the time we reached Napatree, the seas and wind picked up, so Gerry suggested everyone have fun by surfing the waves. He then paddled to one side and shouted advice.
“Sit your butts farther back,” he called at one point, adding that your body shouldn’t “look like a couple of possums rassling in a pillowcase.”
None of us was sure exactly what that meant, but we laughed and focused on staying upright. Gerry evidently inherited the colorful-language gene from his mother, Janet Polinsky, a former state representative from Waterford who was always good for a canny quote.
When she passed away in 2016, Gerry wrote an obituary noting that after his mother’s retirement from office, she became “an enthusiastic agoraphobe, busying herself with power napping, sampling the entire Häagen-Dazs collection, watching MMA and conveniently allowing her hearing aid batteries to run out before venturing into any necessary public events.”
Like Watch Hill, the tip of Napatree is riddled with navigational hazards. Using my newly acquired turning technique, I steered well clear of old pier pilings and nasty rocks known as The Molars.
After playing in the waves for about half an hour, we pulled ashore for a lunch break, and then headed toward Watch Hill, about a mile and a half east.
By this time, the breeze had reached about 10 mph, which bucked up against a flooding tide. Just off Watch Hill Lighthouse, I could see that Nick and Gerry had made an accurate prediction: A long tidal race with big, bouncy waves surged toward the rocky shore.
Here’s how Nick described it: “It’s like the sound is a big bathtub, and we just pulled the plug.”
The rest of the class made a beeline for this chaotic churn, including Sally, who declined to give her age but admitted she has celebrated her 65th birthday for the 12th time. Besides rough-water paddling, her other favorite pastime is riding a fat-tire bike through snow.
Beklen took up kayaking after emigrating from Turkey 20 years ago and moving to New York, where she met a group of paddlers.
“I was bit by the bug right away,” she said, soon taking to surfing big waves and practicing rolls.
I hesitated at first to plow into the waves off Watch Hill. Although I’ve kayaked in big seas before, on paddles to Block Island, Orient Point, around Fishers Island, and on a circumnavigation of Long Island, my heart always rises to my throat when things get gnarly.
Nick, paddling next to me, urged me not to worry, and simply “ride the train.”
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he asked. “If you go over, we’ll have you back in your boat in less than a minute.”
“I know — it’s not that,” I replied, “It’s my foolish pride.”
Finally, with Nick as my wing man, I threw caution to the wind and steered into the slop.
“Just keep paddling!” he called, explaining that momentum is an important component of stability.
The bow of my boat buried beneath the frigid froth, but the kayak stayed upright. I then bounced crazily through a series of curling waves for 30 seconds or so before finally spitting out in calmer water.
“Thanks, Nick!” I exclaimed, after taking a breath.
“That was worth it,” he replied.
We then joined the rest of the crew, all smiling, and paddled back to Stonington.
I was elated to have ridden through the tidal race, but just as happy to be returning to terra firma.
Bigger waves next time? Bring ’em on.
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