Boston Harbor Outer Islands

Kayak Trips

Boston Harbor Outer Islands -- 10 Nautical Miles

Sunday August 7, 1994

People : Nick Schade, Ruth Sespaniak, Drew Friery, Lisa Palacios, Ian Clark, Bill

Put-in / Take-out : Windmill Point on Hull

The day dawns bright and downright cold on this midsummer Sunday. The temperature is in the 50's. I realize what this means as I walk my dog wearing my Teva sandals and nearly lose a toe.

I am up early. I am driving Donna to work at the hospital for 7:00 AM and meeting Ruth and Bill at the hospital so they can shuttle me to the put-in. I really must get my car back on the road. The three of us arrive at the put-in with Drew and Lisa in a car ahead of us, and Nick pulling up behind. We arrive within 15 minutes of the 7:45 meeting time. Ian has been waiting for 10 minutes. This is one of the best choreographed meetings on record.

We pull out of Windmill point about 30 minutes later, everyone is fiddling and diddling with their equipment to be ready to go, myself included. Ian asks me "Why the early start time?" I briefly mention my off-the-road car, and he understands. "But I'm not an early person. I prefer a more civilized start time, say 10 AM." That must be why the Brits lost the war (just kidding, Ian).

Our long range plan is to meander out to the Graves so we can climb the lighthouse and get the spectacular view of Boston. Our short range plan is to zip across the channel at Nantasket Roads to Georges Island. This gives us a short crossing of a busy channel, and lines us up with Great Brewster spit which is a narrow spit of land extending out from Great Brewster Island about one mile. The spit is exposed at low tide, and under a few feet of water at high, making it an ideal spot for kayakers because no large boats (and most medium sized and even small boats) avoid the place like the plague.

As we approach Georges Island, I decide it's time to show Ruth the Pawlatta roll that I've been working on. Ruth can roll, but she has trouble with the screw roll because it's difficult for her to reach far enough to get the non-business end of the paddle over the bottom of her boat. Anyone who has never rolled a kayak before is confused by this, but take my word for it, it makes sense to get your paddle 'over' the 'bottom' of your boat when you're upside down. Anyway, the Pawlatta roll uses an extended paddle position that has you grasping the non-business end of the paddle, thus taking care of the problem of getting it over the bottom of the boat. It just stays in your hand.

So I execute an "on-side" Pawlatta (on-side for me means that my right hand is the power hand during the roll) and cool myself a little while showing off my new found skill. Ruth is recovering from a shoulder injury so she can't try it right now, but I am confident that she will find it a simpler and more satisfying roll.

Rolling my boat is a pleasure. I have a Guillemot kevlar kayak. Guillemot is the name that Nick Schade, one of our compatriots on this trip, chose for his hand-built kayaks. This boat is a dream. It's sleek and long making it easy to roll, and easy to turn. It's also incredibly light as its made of kevlar. People talk about tracking when they are looking at sea kayaks, and Nick has some comments about this that he has shared with me. Basically, if it is easy to turn a kayak, then small adjustments are all that are needed to correct your course. Once you are accustomed to a kayak that turns easily, you can track a straight line just fine.

We come around the west side of Georges Island and Ian tells me about an ice cream stand that he has heard about on the island. Apparantly there is a ferry that will ship people out here to enjoy the day on one of Boston Harbor's historic islands. I would just as soon go out to the Brewster Islands (Little, Great, Middle, and Outer Brewster) where no one but seagulls go, but I guess it's more work than most people want to do to get to them. Their loss.

As we come around the north side of Georges, we see seagulls perched seemingly in the middle of the ocean. This is the west end of Great Brewster Spit. We head the kayaks in this direction, executing our plan to follow the spit and avoid the big boats.

When we get near the spit, we are delighted to find that the incoming tide and wind is creating breaking waves over the spit. Well, Nick, Bill, Drew, Ian and I are delighted at this. Ruth and Lisa hang back and watch while we have a ball. Ruth I think is resting her shoulder, and Lisa has never done a trip as long as today's and wants to conserve her strength. The rest of us are looking for the ultimate surfing wave.

Surfing the spit is interesting because you can ride a wave in, it will break and curl over the spit sucking the water off the shallow spit right to the sandy bottom, then push you over the spit and into the calm water on the other side. Or sometimes waves crash in from both sides of the spit, hit in a big plume of water, and send a shock wave in one direction or the other along the spit creating a big confusing mass of water. One such colliding shock wave catches me completely by surprise and hauls me ten feet to the left in a matter of seconds. By doing what Nick taught me down in Scituate Harbor, lean into the wave, I am able to stay afloat turning an embarrasing and possible painful experience into a carnival ride. That's the thing about taking risks. Many times the fun is in telling the story after the event. During a maneuver one is just hanging on and trying to survive. Surfing the waves is fun because when it is all over and you think back to it, you think "wow, I survived that really harrowing experience, and got a neat ride out of it too!" And these remembered experiences are building up as they are happening, so you want to go back for more memories.

Nick forges a good memory when he eases off his brace a little to avoid hitting Bill and goes over. I am watching this from a few yards away in calm water, and when I see it I exclaim "there goes Nick!" But I'm not very concerned because Nick is an excellent kayaker. Sure enough he rolls up almost immediately and moves out of harms way. Luckily there is enough water where he is that he doesn't scrape his head along the bottom.

We work our way up the spit almost all the way to Great Brewster this way, then go along the western shore of Great Brewster aiming our noses at the lighthouse at the Graves. I suppose the Graves got its name by swallowing many a craft on its rocks. It's an appropriate name given the distance that it sticks out into the ocean and the ferocity of the waves crashing on the rocks that make it up.

As we pass Great Brewster on our right, Nick and Ian point out some much bigger surf off the northeast corner of the island. Ruth, Lisa and I are leading the way, but those two peel off yelling over their shoulders "Hey Dave, I think we're going this way!" I am actually a little disappointed by this, because I want to make the Graves today, and I am worried a little about Lisa, this being her longest trip ever and all. But when I join them at the surf I see that it really is some large, not-to-be-missed stuff. There are some four to five foot waves breaking against a rock cliff on the island. Fortunately some of the waves pass by the island without crashing into the rocks, and its here that we play. I take only a couple of rides as I am anxious to push on, and I am still inexperienced in surf and a little put off by the size of these waves.

I tell a couple of people that I am going to start across with Ruth and Lisa, then I paddle to where they are waiting and we push on. I tell Lisa to expect a 2 mile crossing that will take us not more than one hour. I am accounting for the wind and waves in our faces. Also long open crossings can sap one's energy just because there are no reference points with which to gauge one's progress. This being Lisa's first such long crossing, I want to assure her that it is perfectly normal to get a little bored and feel drained by the lack of progress.

The crossing does take the better part of an hour, me talking Lisa through the whole way makes it go by rather quickly. I wonder what Ian thinks of the crossing? He likes to go short distances to big surf to maximize excitement and minimize effort. A crossing like this is exactly the opposite type of paddling. I ask him about this at the lighthouse and he says "Well, this is the Boston Harbor island that is the furthest from shore, so we have to come out here!" I like that attitude.

The Graves is a fun destination for a trip like this. Waves come rolling in from the wide ocean, reach the rocks, and crash into the air in a drama that has been repeated over thousands of years. There is a circle of rocks that protect the lighthouse by damping the effects of these waves inside the circle. You can sit in your kayak watching the maelstrom going on outside and feel perfectly safe. I am doing this while I sidle up to Ruth who seems to be doing the same thing. Then she picks her moment and goes charging through a break in the rocks just after a crashing wave. I would not have gone through the small openning for fear of getting smashed against the rocks, but having seen her do it, it doesn't seem so bad. So I pick my moment and go blasting through myself. I mention my fears to Ruth and tell her that she egged me on, and this makes her day. I guess she thinks I am a fearless kayaking fool who will do anything. She forgets that she has years of kayaking experience over me, much of it in pretty hairy stuff in Maine.

I circle around the lighthouse coming back to the ladder where Drew is already out of his kayak and tying it up to a pole. I come up to Lisa and ask her if she is going to get out and climb the lighthouse too. She says yes so we move over to the ladder. The only way I can see to get out of the kayak in these conditions is to just flip over and fall out. I do this, happy that I'm wearing a wetsuit, and move my kayak over to tie up to Drew's. Lisa does the same and we prepare to climb the lighthouse. I have binoculars that I want to carry up, as well as a brand new hand-bearing compass that I want to use to see if I can get a fix on the Provincetown tower. I have thought that I could see it from Boston Harbor, but I'm not sure. We are the only three who are going up, I guess everyone else is too comfortable sitting in their kayaks and don't want to wet exit.

It's climbing the ladder under Lisa where I discover that she is deathly afraid of heights. The ladder goes up the outside of the lighthouse for perhaps 20 to 30 feet, and this does not make her happy. However, as in everything else I've seen her do, she guts it out and arrives on the metal landing at the top of the ladder. The remainder of the climb is inside the lighthouse on stairs, so it is no problem. The view from the top is spectacular. On one side is the buildings of Boston and the hills to the north. Looking around you see the other Harbor Islands and off to the Quincy Shipyard in the distance. Further around the dim south shore coastline, then out to the wide open ocean. Another good reason to make a trip out here.

We look down and see the other four kayakers in our group sitting in a line and chatting. Ian has given me his camera, so I snap a shot. From here it looks as though they are floating in air as the water is crystal clear and we can see to the bottom like the water is not even there. Who says the harbor is dirty? It looks just lovely to me.

While we are enjoying this, a large Coast Guard ship cruises by not far to the north. Can they see us? Do they care that we are up here? There are no signs saying we shouldn't be here, but there are so many goofy rules in this great land of ours that no one ever really knows if they are breaking one of them or not. We move around the lighthouse to avoid being seen by them, but nothing comes of it.

I sight the thing in the distance that I think might be the Provincetown tower. It is at a heading of 160 degrees from the lighthouse. Later I will check my chart to see what this thing is.

Lisa has much less trouble getting down the tower than she had getting up. We get some help clamboring back into our kayaks, and begin the long journey back to the Brewsters.

The return trip takes much less time. The wind and waves haven't changed direction, so they are giving us a lot of help. Nick and Bill steam ahead of the rest of us toward the closest of the Brewters, Outer Brewster. When we are near the island, they seemingly disappear into the island. As we get closer, we see a small, rocky cove is built into the northern side of the island making an excellent place to land that is out of the waves. At this point, after kayaking for five hours (its about 1:00 PM now) we are all very hungry.

We lunch on a cliff overlooking the cove where our boats are pulled ashore. There are a couple of boats with divers anchored not far from us. It looks like a good place to dive, but I prefer to stay on the surface, at least for now.

Ruth, Bill and I clambor up to the highest point on the island after lunch, and we are treated to a panoramic view of Boston and the harbor similar to the one from the lighthouse. Although from here we can see the surrounding islands much better. They are quaint, green, appealing, and completely uninhabited jewels scattered within easy commuting distance of the metropolis. Fortunately for the islands, the birds, and we kayakers, they are virtually uninhabitable to humans. Score one for the islands.

We pack up and head out, back toward Little Brewster Island where another lighthouse rests. On the way, we find a couple of more little coves with crashing waves to play around in. Little Brewster has a house on it where I have previously seen a dog. I mention this to Drew, who was with me when I last encountered this dog, and shortly after there is the dog! He is not overly interested in us, as I'm sure he sees all kinds of things living out here in the harbor. It's a dog's life.

Now we begin the crossing back to Hull. This time I leap ahead of the crowd to burn off some of the energy that I have left to me. Bill follows close behind. Here we run into more boat traffic, being later in the day. That is undesirable, but we also run into 4 to 5 foot rolling swells which gently pick us up and put us back down on the other side. I love this kind of conditions. At the bottom of the trough, you look around and see walls of green on every side. Above is nothing but blue sky. everything else is obliterated from view. It's like being in your own little world. Then the next wave lifts you out and you see all around as though you've climbed a small hill. It's a lot of fun.

Bill and I arrive near the north coast of Hull to wait for the rest of the crowd. While waiting, I practice my rolling a little. At the beginning of the year I could not do any kind of eskimo roll. With the help of all these friends, I can now do an onside screw roll, and the Pawlatta roll on either side. I'm working on my offside screw roll. Rolling is a lot of fun, and I recommend learning it just for the fun of it. I know many sea kayakers say they have kayaked for years without learning to roll and that's fine. I don't think that they are endangering themselves. But I do think they are missing a lot of fun. You just have to get over your initial fear of hanging upside down in an unbreathable medium and getting that medium up your nose. After that, it's not so bad.

We follow the north coast back to Windmill Point arriving at about 3:30 P.M. Being 3 hours after high tide, the current is running out with a vengeance. We could have a lot of fun with this, particularly because the wind is against the current piling up big waves, but for all the boats fighting their way between Windmill Point and Peddocks Island. Despite that, we play a little at the edge of the big waves, and get some fun rides. The conditions here are kind of funny in that a big wave will come rushing up behind you, against the current, then dissipate into nothing as the current is running fast enough to damp out the wave. It is very difficult to paddle against the current, even with the wind and waves at our backs. The only person to make it to the other side of the point is Bill, who could be the most determined personality in the group.

At one point in our playing around, Drew goes out to catch some particularly large waves. Somehow, Lisa follows him out, getting stuck in some of the biggest waves we've seen all day. Lisa doesn't have much experience in waves, and looks like she'd rather be anyplace else, but she hangs on and braces to stay upright. I am impressed by this. I wouldn't want to be out there. She gets out of the waves and comes back near the shore breathing a large sigh of relief. She handled herself beautifully.

The trip is over, but it is clear that no one wants it to be. We sit in the kayaks there at the edge of the rushing water, talking and doing some more rolling practice. I come as near as I have yet to doing an offside screw roll, which makes me feel like I can lick this soon. I certainly have all the help I could ask for in this group of people. I feel particularly close to all my kayaking buddies, especially after a trip like this. I feel very safe kayaking with them, and I feel privileged to be a part of the group. We are not an organized club, but with most of us on e-mail, and the Guillemot Kayak t-shirts that Nick had made up and we all bought, we sure do come across as an organized club. I think this group of people doesn't like organization so much, and would hesitate to be called a club. But we are all linked by a love of kayaking and the good fellowship that goes along with our trips. I trust I will be kayaking with these people into my dotage, and perhaps beyond.

Dave Lind

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