A bouncy paddle around Fishers Island
Swept toward a gnarly, swirling cauldron at Wicopesset Passage during maximum flood last Sunday, I felt as if the entire Atlantic Ocean were squeezing through the tight channel into Fishers Island Sound.
Hastily contemplating my options, I considered steering my kayak east in hopes of avoiding the island’s rocky shore, but this would feed me into churning tidal rapids. To the west, though, waves crashed nonstop over a jumble of partially submerged boulders.
Of course, I could simply have turned around and headed back to Esker Point, but the hairy section was only about 50 yards wide …
Shooting a glance starboard, I could see that my son, Tom, and our friend Phil Warner had chosen the rock-strewn route, so I decided to head in that direction — too late. The current gripped my 17½-foot kayak as if it were a bathtub toy and yanked me east into the froth.
With a low brace to keep from capsizing, I realized my only hope was to paddle like crazy against the boiling, incoming tide.
“Don’t stop!” I heard Tom shout.
Flailing away like a windmill, I plunged into deep troughs and bounced over cresting, three-foot waves while struggling to stay upright. The forecast had called for calm conditions, but evidently Wicopesset Passage hadn’t gotten the memo.
At last I emerged from the boiling rip and took a deep breath.
“Well, that was fun,” I said, rejoining Tom and Phil in more sedate water along the south coast of Fishers Island.
Whenever I set out in a kayak, my goal isn’t a white-knuckle adventure. Some friends and family may dispute this claim, but given the choice, I’m happy with smooth seas, light winds and clear skies.
Trouble is, some of the exquisite places I like to explore, such as the south side of Fishers, can turn ugly in a heartbeat, so you have to prepare for the worst. For Sunday’s 18-mile circumnavigation of the island, we packed food and water, extra paddles, bilge pumps, marine radios and other emergency gear. Each of us has made this voyage numerous times in various conditions, as well as extensive open-water expeditions to isolated outposts.
Fishers Island Sound is anything but remote on a sunny, weekend morning in August. We dodged flotillas of fishing boats, ferries, sailboats and even a cigarette boat zipping by at about 50 mph.
“It’s like trying to cross I-95,” Tom said, peering anxiously over his shoulder.
We had launched from Esker Point in Noank, then paddled out of Palmer Cove into Fishers Island Sound, steering southeast. An incoming tide offset a southwest breeze, creating light chop in shoals off Ram Island just east of the Mystic River mouth, and at East Clump, which we reached after crossing into New York waters.
Following our pulse-quickening passage through Wicopesset at the island’s eastern tip, we cruised past the 20-room, turreted Beautyrest mansion, followed by a pile of rocks ominously named Wreck Island.
Soon we approached a dazzling, white-sand beach, framed by a country club pavilion and golf course.
“Recognize this place?” I called over to Phil.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied.
A few years ago, he and I had been paddling counterclockwise around Fishers when I flipped over in rough seas. After Phil helped me climb back aboard, I decided that continuing through Wicopesset wasn’t such a good idea, so we surfed our kayaks to that same beach, taking care not to strike any swimmers.
Dripping wet, we then carried our unwieldy vessels past bemused members of the exclusive Fishers Island Club, who were sipping bloody Marys and nibbling croissants at outdoor café.
“Don’t mind us … Excuse me, excuse me … Just passing through,” I announced as we weaved among patio tables.
Phil and I then continued our portage past tennis courts; scampered across the Seth Raynor-designed golf course, rated among the top 10 in America by Golf Digest; reached a private pier on the north shore; executed a Navy Seals-style stealth launch into Fishers Island Sound; and paddled in relatively placid waters back to Esker Point.
Anyway, no such detour last Sunday.
Gentle, two-foot ocean swells made for a pleasant paddle. Terns dove, gulls cried and swirling schools of baitfish shot to the surface, pursued by ravenous bluefish. I took care to avoid dipping my hands below the surface — you could lose a finger to blues in a feeding frenzy.
We surfed ashore for a break just west of Isabella Beach, about 10 miles into our journey — not so much to rest, but mostly to wait until the end of the flood tide before taking on The Race.
Under certain conditions, there are few places in the Northeast more harrowing than this channel between Valiant Rock and Race Rock Lighthouse that connects Long Island Sound to the Atlantic Ocean. When tides rip through here against strong winds, seas can kick up above six feet.
Happily, we timed our passage perfectly, the breeze dropped, and The Race let us pass with barely a ripple.
“I’m not disappointed,” I said.
Moments later, we rounded Race Point and re-entered Fishers Island Sound. Familiar landmarks appeared on the Connecticut shore: the Branford House mansion at Avery Point, Bluff Point State Coastal Reserve in Groton, the Noank Baptist Church steeple.
“Home stretch! Plus fair wind and a following sea!” I exclaimed.
We cut between North and South Dumplings and, less than an hour later, neared Esker. One final challenge: Dodging kids jumping off the Groton Long Point Road bridge into Palmer Cove as we passed below.
Tom went through first and looked up.
“You’re all clear,” he called, after verifying that the last of the boys had leaped.
A moment later, terra firma.
It had been, we agreed, a worthy paddle.
“Especially since we got Wicopesset out of the way early,” I said.