Saturday, October 29, 2016

Lessons from Cold, Wet Camping

Some lessons learned from a little Columbus Day weekend overnight adventure that turned a lot rainier than expected.

I decided to take my sailing kayak a few miles down the Assonet River to the Taunton and camp overnight by a creek I know--my first time out all year.  I thought I'd rough it just a bit, in the interest of being more "outdoors" (and save the fuss of set up), by leaving the tent at home.  When I heard it might shower in the night, I added a small tarp to the load. 

My sailing rig was useless in the light headwind, and was in the way on the port coaming, forcing me to paddle only on the starboard side.

The rest is predictable: the rain began falling in early evening and didn't stop for the next eighteen hours.  The tarp kept my sleeping bag dry--as long as I didn't move, since the tarp barely covered my sleeping area.  One reason I had been comfortable leaving the (screened) tent behind was that I expected few mosquitoes since it had been such a dry year.  (I had a piece of net that would serve should I be wrong.)  What I hadn't counted on was the quantity of insect life attracted to my light as I tried to read in the night.  In the end, I went to sleep much earlier as a result.  The drumming rain and need to keep the sleeping bag from pooching out from under cover made the night Very Long.  The lack of any discernible sunrise made it even longer. 

I finally sprang into my clothes in the drizzle and set about getting hot breakfast and coffee--but found both my butane lighters refused to light.  When I managed to get fitful flames out of them hours later, the pressurized white gas stove wouldn't light.  (The stove, at least, had been under my overturned saucepan, but it had fallen off in the night.)  Only in late morning did I get the thing going.

After hot coffee and oatmeal, I packed up and loaded the boat, only changing into dry clothes just before leaving. 

I paddled against an increasing headwind, but finally got to unfurl the sail for perhaps a mile's welcome run right at the end. 

Despite my change of clothes, I was wet and shivering when I landed, and the shivering was bad enough to slow the loading. 

What did I learn, or relearn?

First, having all my clothing and bedding, etc in dry bags was smart.  My main worry had been spray or capsizing, but it was smart either way.  Everything was dry as dry could be. 

Second, tents make life more comfortable on long fall nights--even in the absence of rain.  I could have left off the fly to see the stars (had there been any), and still read by my headlamp without large insects buzzing in my face.  To be sure, the area where I put up my tarp was too small to have accommodated a tent, and I arrived too late to be willing to bushwack through the briars to find a better.  But I probably could have gotten away with pitching it on the high salt marsh, since tides were at neap.  And I had to dress in the rain--my little tarp was not high enough to sit or stand under until I moved it too a new location in the morning. 

Third, although fiberfill sleeping bags are heavier and bulkier than down, they remain warm (if clammy) even when wet--as it was in places--while down becomes a thin, lumpy mess.  (I would have brought a light fleece bag if it had been warmer; that would have been a disaster.)  When I buy a new one, it will have a nylon lining rather than flannel: the cold initial feel of nylon is more than compensated by the ease in getting in and out, and by nylon's not absorbing water.  The big bag took up a lot of space in the big dry bag, but it was well worth it.

Fourth, lighters and stove must be well-covered overnight.  Bring kitchen matches for backup just in case.  A solid fuel stove (I keep one on the big boat for emergencies) is compact and wouldn't be a bad backup. 

Fifth, a headlamp is the most useful light I have ever owned.  Put that thing on your head in low light and you can forget about it: anywhere you look, you can see--it's that simple.  (Keep that thing dry, dry, dry!)  It was so dim in the morning that I continued using it.  By contrast, a lantern is perhaps the least useful form of light for anything but stationary area lighting or to mark your location (say, an anchorage) for others: having light shining in your eyes is simply stupid: it partly cancels itself out by ruining your night vision.

Sixth, my old Tilley hat, inherited from my uncle, was a very smart impulse-grab on the way out the door.  This canvas hat stiffens when wet and keeps rain off my glasses, out of my open jacket, and off my vulnerable headlamp. Always, always have a hat good against sun and rain. 

Seventh: I always carry my cell phone on trips--even miles off the coast I have good cell reception, probably partly because there is nothing blocking signals.  I always buy a gasketted water-tight box for carrying it--and then test to make sure it is truly water-proof.  (It's important to realize that salt water destroys electronics in very short order.)  However Teacher Appreciation Day recently brought teachers at my school little zip-lock + velcro soft phone cases.  Lo and behold it really is waterproof--and I can operate the phone (with some difficulty) without opening the case.  This would be especially welcome if I had to call for help when actually in the water!  This is a Very Good Thing.  (Amazing to think of the sailing and camping I did in my youth--with no possibility of communication.  My, the difference forty years makes!)

Eighth: I was well-equipped with warm clothes, but chose poorly when I changed into them in the morning.  I had a old, nylon jacket that is now barely water-resistant.  I put this on over a fleece jacket.  I love fleece, but it soaks up water like a sponge, and it was wet through by wind-driven rain before I got back to the boat ramp.  Meanwhile, my favorite wool sweater was sitting at the bottom of the dry bag.  Wool doesn't absorb much water, and is the far better insulator when wet.  I was also in shorts, mainly because I needed to be able to wade almost knee-deep to get in and out of the kayak.  (Due to an unfortunate deep-mud landing in the marsh, I was a good deal deeper than knee-deep at one point.)  But trousers loose enough to be pulled up would often be useful, and lots warmer.  I have an inexpensive rain shell on order, as well as water-resistant, lined trousers. 

Paddling hard against a headwind both going and returning left my hand blistered.  Next time, bandaids will protect my fingers in warm weather, or my neoprene gloves in cool. 

The short and sweet--
1.  Keep clothing and anything vulnerable in dry bags.  Rain, spray or capsize can ruin a trip and even endanger life. 
2. Bring a decent tent, no matter the weather expected.  Especially when nights are long.
3. A fiberfill sleeping bag is heavy and bulky, but can keep you pretty warm even if it gets wet. 
4. Keep your stove, lighters and matches dry, and consider a backup plan.
5. A headlamp is a must, especially for late arrivals and long nights.  Protect it!
6. Always have a hat.  In warm weather I carry a well-ventilated hat against sun, but a rain hat is also important.
7. Carry your phone in a waterproof case.  If there is any danger (of capsize, say), make sure it is attached to you.  My hard phone case clips on to my life jacket if things get dicey.  My soft case has a neck lanyard.
8. Have several changes of clothes, keep them dry, and make sure some will function well even wet.  Hands need to be kept warm to function! 

Right now Serendipity is getting fresh coats of paint, and the tent a little maintenance.  Next up? maybe a late fall kayaking trip, or maybe a winter float down the Taunton in my handy little pram, Bebe. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fairhaven to Martha's Vineyard




My only sailing trip this season was occasioned by a family friend with a teenage son.  Eric is a small-boat racing sailor, but wanted to see the more relaxed, recreational side of sailing.  I, for my part, do not usually “go sailing,” but sail to places—usually over a period of days.  He wanted a day trip to an island; his mother Rebecca had inherited a share in a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard where they would be spending a traditional August week anyway: why not sail to Martha’s Vineyard with Jeff?

This plan was congenial to me: I had sailed to the Vineyard several times over the years, but hadn’t been there lately; it was a trip that fit nicely into a day; and it provided a nice challenge in passing through the Elizabeth Islands at Woods Hole.  I would have the pleasure of introducing Eric to some new skills. 

  Terns--I think--in a feeding frenzy.

First Mate.

West Island is a nice little destination
 in itself; mostly wild salt marsh and meadow.

Eric reads his delightful book while lying on his side, ear full of antibiotic. 

Is this a waterspout?  What else could explain a persistent, coherent fog bank
in the middle of Buzzards Bay on a bright, sunny day?

A gaff rig is rare these days, but we saw several that day.
(Instead of a simple, triangular sail, the gaff sail is four-sided, with
the top cornerheld up at an angle away from the mast by a stick called the gaff.)

 Eric plots us a course through Woods Hole, then takes his trick at the helm.

 The tilt of this buoy and the wake it leaves in the water show the force of the current.

A beautiful gaff-rigged schooner in Vineyard Sound--under power, alas.  (You can see gaffs
holding out the heads of the fore- and mainsails.)

We got underway from the ramp on Sconticut Neck, Fairhaven at noon without much more embarassment than usual, and made modest progress down Buzzards Bay in the light southwesterly breeze.  We sailed close-hauled but never had to tack to make Woods Hole.  Eric quickly caught on to the ways of an unfamiliar boat and rig.  –Only his uncompleted summer reading and the need to treat himself for an ear infection kept him from sailing more.  (He was unimpressed by the book he had to read, deciding it was almost as good as the ear infection.)  

Our only excitement in Buzzards Bay was a sort of cohesive fog bank; but it was a bright, sunny day.  Some kind of waterspout, perhaps?  I'd never seen anything like it.  It persisted for at least ten minutes after I first noticed it, but dissapated before we could get close.

 We negotiated the rock- and reef-strewn passage of Woods Hole at just around the 3pm "max flood."  Eric was suitably impressed by the Hole's currents and standing waves: “we’re going sideways!” he noted at one point as he struggled to keep us in the channel. 

The current in Vineyard Sound helped us on our way almost too much: approaching the mouth of Vineyard Haven at 4pm the wind died, and the current threatened to sweep us past the harbor altogether and even send us out into Nantucket Sound.  I carry no engine, and only a little furious paddling got us out of the strongest part of the current.  With the return of a light breeze, we fought an ebb tide up the harbor, trying to avoid both the current of the Sound and the ebb as we tacked gradually in.  We dropped anchor at 5:30 in one of the southern New England anchorages most hospitable to small boat sailors: a little bight at the west end of the harbor breakwater, within a few minutes’ paddle of shore, and a few minutes’ walk of downtown Tisbury. 

The only tender I have that could manage two people is a little inflatable kayak, and after making all snug and inflating the boat, we went ashore to await Eric’s mother, who would carry us—duffel, deflated kayak and all—back to the cottage at The Farm. 

After showers and a pasta dinner, I read for awhile, listening to Eric accompany his singing on guitar but not wanting to comment and make him self-conscious.  I climbed into the luxury of clean sheets in a real bed with standing headroom just before midnight, and watched flashes of lightning so distant as to be totally dissociated from the near-continuous grumble of the thunder.

The cottage is a comfortable house full of decades of family history.

 View of the Sound from the back yard.

The path to the beach.

Getting up just after eight, I discovered a house still in slumber.  Not wanting to disturb anyone, I padded about taking photos inside the house.  The house is full of history; walls and shelves are lined with pictures and objects old and new, from the pretty model of a schooner by the mantel—so nicely rigged that an error I found was likely my error—to the beach stones, shells and other keepsakes that stood on the tiered bricks of the lower chimney.  I took photos not of particular objects, but of whole walls. 

Then I went outside to the meadow (mowed every few years to keep a view of the Sound) and down the path, among black oaks, holly, sweet pepper bush and cinnamon ferns, over a little stream on a wooden bridge, to the beach. 

It is not a beach to lie on, though there were a trio of beach chairs nearby, but a rocky one to stroll and explore and build little towers of rounded stones on.  The dock I had thought to tie up to was actually a high swimming dock, and in fact the situation was too exposed for anchoring safely or comfortably, and too rocky to land a tender on. 

By about ten I was back up to the cottage and ready for a little something.  “You’re a coffee drinker.”  Rebecca said, displaying a collection of related technology.  I eschewed the big high-class drip machine in favor of an elegant glass French press.  In less than ten minutes I had poured my first cup, and sat down for coffee, cold cereal and lots of conversation. 

Early in the afternoon, Rebecca took us out for nice sandwiches, and then we walked a bit in search of flip-flops and sunglasses for Eric.  Then it was back to the cottage to finish packing, and then wander the beach one more time with Rebecca, looking for just the right smooth stones as keepsakes. 

 Eric and Rebecca help me check up on my little boat;
Beatrice Ann is riding nicely, but a little low.  Rainwater?

By late afternoon, the wind has risen and the sea is up, and I'm happy to be in a protected anchorage.

Rebecca delivered me back to Owens Park Way at about 6:30pm—in plenty of time, I decided, to give in to the lure of A Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.  An author was about to read from her new novel, Step Dog (which she did with an Irish accent because, well, the book should be read that way), while I quietly examined the Nature section (I already owned most of the best of those), the Staff Picks, and the Newly in Paperback.  I was tempted by Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom, but hadn’t the money.  I finally settled on an old book that promised laughs: Farley Mowat’s The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float.

Ice cream, I decided, would hit the spot, and be just reward for my careful spending.  The sign across the street, “Today’s Flavor: Peach Ice Cream,” decided me.  In a few minutes I sat beside my stuff on the dock and unrolled the deflated kayak while a dish of peach ice cream slowly approached that soft, slightly melty state that is perfection.  (The sight of the kayak inspired a parent inquiry: “I’m thinking of getting kayaks for the kids…”  “Get cheap ones, I said gruffly.)  The kayak inflated pretty quickly, and, ice cream dispatched, I towed my stuff around the beach, passing the family of a few minutes before, and then paddled the short distance to Beatrice Ann in the gathering dark. 

As I’d suspected, I had a good deal of bailing to do when I got there: the thunderstorm of the night before came with heavy rain.  But bucket and pump made short work if it, and left the cockpit clean.  (There was also a quart or so of water in the cabin, thanks to my half-assed roof addition.)

 The cockpit is bailed.  The moon is out.

The ice cream set me up right, so I was not in the mood to heat up stew.  --also, I’d forgotten to mooch the rolls that would have gone so well with it.  The only important evening business, then, was finding the sweet spot in the Vineyard Sound and Woods Hole currents that would allow me to get safely back into Buzzards Bay with the forecast winds. 

Vineyard Sound would oppose my course in flood until 10:28, while Woods Hole would already be in ebb (going my way) and reaching a "max ebb" of 3kt at 11:07.  Wind would be out of the northwest at 5-19kt, becoming west in the afternoon.  I would depart, I decided, at about nine a.m., breasting the Sound current as it weakened, and hoping to have enough wind to negotiate the favorable, if chaotic, current of Woods Hole.

 Then, after a little freshening up, I made up my bed, read my new book awhile, and settled down to sleep. 

Only I didn’t sleep that night—no more than a few hours total.  Although the water was nearly flat calm, the slightest boat wake would send the mizzen mast into a rhythmic squeaking that made sleep impossible.  Finally, the wakes ended, but by then it was too difficult to drift off.  (Ironically, I had completely forgotten the little wooden wedges left from an earlier experience that would have effectively silenced that mast.  I lay awake needlessly, since the wedges were within my reach.) 

It was nearly eight o’clock when I gave up lying there.  Morning routines took over: dress, ready the breakfast things, fire up the stove, and brush my teeth while the water came to a boil.  Breakfast dishes clean and halfway through my massive cup of wonderful coffee, I got the anchor off the bottom at nine-twenty and headed out of Vineyard Haven.

 Gaff-rigged catboat.

 Everything but the kitchen sink.  (Oh--he surely has one of those, too.)

 Fast ferry.  It is a catamaran, so leaves very little wake, even up close.

 Tug pulling a barge in the Sound.

The ferry entering Woods Hole looks as though it will drive right onto the beach.
(Really the helmsman is following the zig-zag channel.)

Great Harbor, Woods Hole: home of the famous Marine Biological Laboratory
 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


 There is very little wind; all this commotion in Woods Hole is caused by current.

 Stern trawler in Buzzards Bay.

I hugged the west side of the harbor on departure--even at the cost of some wind shadow--having had several bad experiences with the currents near the mouth.  (Twice I’ve been nearly abandoned by a breeze and actually sailed backwards in the current!)  But the current in the Sound turned obediently my way before I had gone far, and I turned my attention to the challenge of hitting Woods Hole near the eastern edge of the channel, knowing that its strong current would try to yank me westward, and wanting all the room I could get.  I entered close-hauled on the starboard tack, expecting I’d have to tack a few times in the Strait.  There were some dicey moments as I fought for control uncomfortably close to rocks and reef, but in the end I accomplished the whole passage on a single tack: instead of needing to turn to follow the Strait, I simply kept the bow pointed northeast and let the current sluice me sideways through the Hole.  The most dangerous factor was the light winds: in the grip of the current, I barely had steerageway at times. 

An unexpected wind shift into the south-southwest meant I could cross Buzzards Bay to Sconticut Neck on a single tack.  A strengthening, gusty wind had me spilling air to keep the boat on her feet, and I wished Eric back on board; he would have enjoyed hiking out, creaming along at six knots plus on a close reach.  

After leaving West Island to windward, I found Nasketucket Bay to be a different world returning than it had been leaving.  Outward bound, I somehow managed not to notice the series of huge rocks that narrowed the way from the east, and the reefs that crowded from the west.  The tide was, if anything, a bit higher than when we left, so that was no excuse.  In the end, neither rocks nor reefs presented any problems until I found myself tacking back and forth near shore trying to distinguish the public ramp from the private facilities that jostle it for space. 

Finding the ramp at last, I waited for a motor boater to haul out, and then made an almost-credible docking at 2:30pm, with the help of a kind stranger.  Beatrice Ann was out of the water by a little after 3pm, and home soon after 5.  

This trip had the best of several worlds: good sailing, a lovely destination, a soft bed, and congenial company.  I hope to do it again next year!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Kayak Overnight



 The white line shows my rough track.


I've never traveled overnight by kayak.  Last winter I planned an overnight using my two-man kayak, Serendipity--even going as far as loading gear into the drybag--but circumstances prevented.  I still wanted to go kayak camping, and it occurred to me that, with the lighter gear requirements of summer camping, I might be able to cram enough stuff into my single-seater, Musketaquid.  Over a few days, I fiddled with gear, making it fit and still get the balance right.

Yesterday the opportunity came for a little test run: the rest of the family was out of town, I had no appointments, and tide and weather looked manageable. 

I put the kayak in the Assonet River in early evening at the top of the flood.  An evening departure risked not finding a campsite in daylight, but parts of Assonet Bay turn almost into mudflats at low tide, and I didn't want to fight current, so I needed to wait until high slack tide.  I paddled under the highway, across the Bay and down the short river (the gentlest breeze against my face) to its confluence with the mighty Taunton, then up a little salt marsh creek as the sun set; total distance three miles.

There are few places one can camp ashore, which is one reason I almost always sleep aboard when sailing.  But Google Earth showed this particular bit of river bank to be uninhabited, with no buildings close by. 
Entering the creek, I annoy a pair of majestic ospreys.  In the past, I've seen ospreys only around nest platforms,  but this pair seemed to have found their own nest site. 

I worried that there might be no accessible shore to land on, but a short distance up the creek a bank appeared right up against the high mash, allowing me to go ashore as if on a dock.  Climbing through the bullbriar in the twilight, a nice grassy spot appeared.  But I moved on when I realized the standing dead tree beside it was poised to fall.  I at last found a camp site that was open, level, and easy to clean up.  By the time I had all the gear at the campsite it was quite dark, and I put up the tent by the light of my little headlamp.  By 9pm I had my stuff organized, mattress inflated, and had poured myself a glass of cabernet.  (Whether sleeping in a boat or camping ashore, the evening isn't complete without red wine.)

Checking my bird book, I confirmed the identity of the ospreys, and also learned that they are unique among raptors by diving headfirst into the water and catching fish with their feet.  Shortly after, a great splashing sound from the creek was perhaps a fishing osprey.

My light fleece bag turned out to be unequal to the nighttime temperatures, and I was rather cold. 

I was up next morning at 5:10, bolt upright and filled with foreboding: I had left the kayak on the high marsh beside the creek, and tides were getting more extreme as the moon neared full.  Would my kayak float off?  The boat was indeed almost afloat when I got to it, but still firmly stuck in the grass.  I broke camp, about as quickly as I was able, only stopping to make coffee: this time I didn't want to fight the current going back upriver in the middle of the ebb. 

Nevertheless, I made time to explore a bit in daylight, and to paddle the rest of the way up the creek.  Coming back down the creek, I watched the Phragmites freshwater marsh give way to a narrow band of cattails, then Spartina saltmarsh.

I was out of the creek and on my way a little after 7am, hoping the current wouldn't be too strong.  In the narrow part of the Assonet River the current was running at about one knot against me--a little annoying, but not insurmountable.  (I broke from working against it to try to capture a half-dozen swallow-like birds playing around a dock, but was too slow with my camera.  They reminded me of chimney swifts, but with more deeply-forked tails; bank swallows and tree swallows are possibilities.)  Another worry was the current under the highway, but I slipped through in the shallows without an issue, landing back at my car before 9am.

I was quite satisfied with the trip.  I may try to do our regular Boston Harbor Islands camp out by kayak.  It was pleasant to have little enough stuff that it wasn't a major production to pack and carry gear, and make and break camp.


Ready to push off. 



Barely a ripple on Assonet River.



 Beautiful and complex sky over the river.






Tall saltmarsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, is in full bloom.



Taunton River, then zoomed in on the distant Braga Bridge.


Approaching salt marsh and creek as sun sets.

All this stuff came out of a twelve-foot kayak.

This dead tree was so rotten I couldn't figure out why it was still standing.
I camped elsewhere: a dead tree fell very close to me during a blizzard not long ago.  
The tapping and call of downy woodpeckers showed that dead trees were common.



The marsh at dawn.  I was glad I decided not to camp on the marsh itself 
when I saw how far the tide rose in the morning.  A marsh bird made a whirring call.
 


 My campsite turned out to be at the foot of 
two red oaks and a red maple.
 


The mouth of the stream from the hilltop above camp.




A broad path shows that others have been here, but trees
fallen across the trail argue that it has seen no vehicles recently.


For me, black birch is one tree that says "wild New England."

Bullbriar, with its wicked thorns, was everywhere, complicating walking
in the dark and the search for a campsite.  I lost a bit of blood this trip.


The area had not one but two kinds of blueberries:
a highbush form, and a lowbush.


This delicate little plant is a relative of Solomon's seal.

The short cordgrass of the high marsh, Spartina patens, is just flowering
--a little behind its sister species.


Looking upstream and down as boat is loaded.


Farewell to the marsh.


Head of navigation; stream so narrow it's hard to turn around.

Headed back downstream.

Headed back into the Taunton, then for home.