Two years ago, when I turned 60, I decided I would kayak around Shelter Island as a personal challenge. With very little training, I set out one morning in a plastic sit-on-top 12-foot boat I’d bought for my wife. Seven hours later I finished and a bucket list item was checked off.
Later that summer I discovered after the running of the first Great Peconic Race (GPR) in 2014 that circumnavigating the Island in a kayak wasn’t exactly an original idea. When I saw the times posted by paddlers, I realized I had a lot of work to do.
This spring I got a proper touring kayak and began to train for the third annual GPR to be held on September 10. Alone, or with more experienced guys, I regularly went out for 5-, 8-, 10- and 12-mile paddles. In late July, I went all the 19.5 miles around.
As we gathered at Wades Beach last Saturday for the GPR, race organizer Billy Baldwin announced a change. Due to wind conditions, the race would run counterclockwise. In the main event, stand-up-paddleboards (SUPs), being the slowest, would start first; kayaks, fast kayaks and outrigger canoes, 15 minutes later; and the surfskis, last. The shorter races would start after that. This year’s event attracted all sorts of paddle craft and more than 130 paddlers. There was a 3-mile untimed sprint, a 9-mile course and the full circuit.
Before getting in the water, my pre-race jitters were amplified by the presence of local news photographers as well as at least one network team. The surfskis, lined up at the shore on their foldable cradles, were pencil- thin and looked fast — really fast.
The SUPs set off and along with the other kayakers, I jostled for a good position in my 17-foot-7-inch craft behind the starting line. A chip embedded in a sticker on the bow would register my exact start and finish times.
A drone buzzed overhead, filming the action, folks on the beach were cheering and the race was on. To my left I could see Don D’Amato, a race organizer who I’d trained with, in his yellow Eddyline kayak, and Billy Baldwin in his outrigger canoe. I tried to remind myself that 19.5 miles is a long way and not to sprint no matter how far behind I got. Good luck with that.
As we neared South Ferry, bay constables and race monitors kept everybody clear of the ferries. Ahead, we began to see the SUPs. Already the fast kayaks, a sort of kayak-surfski hybrid, were distancing us. I wasn’t catching them.
As we rounded Mashomack Point, we were moving fast. The change in course had helped our time and the stretch from Mashomack to Ram’s Head would be even faster. Don shouted to me, “Now the fun starts.” Billy, to my right, advised staying off-shore to take advantage of the outgoing currents. “Those guys near the shore in front of us are hurting themselves,” he said.
Near Cedar Point, I was passed by the first of the surfskis. This guy was machinelike, powering past me in his sleek carbon-fiber knife of a boat.
Headed to Big Ram, the water was getting rough, big boat wakes were making things challenging and, since it was only 10:35, we’d be headed into the tide for another hour.
A fast kayak had gone a little too wide of shore and capsized. I slowed to make sure the paddler was O.K. when a race monitor on a Jet Ski came to her aid. The water was choppy, the wind was at our backs, so it took concentration to stay on course.
Slack tide coincided with the beginning of fatigue. As I passed SUPs and other kayaks or was passed by surfskis and outriggers near Dering Harbor, I could feel the burn. One rower in a shell said, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it, my legs feel like Jell-O.”
North Ferry to Wades Beach is about six miles. But it was the stretch run and I felt energized. Soon the incoming tide would push us around Camp Quinipet, toward Crab Creek and home.
Rounding Shell Beach I could hear shouts of encouragement from the shore as paddlers crossed the line. Exhausted but elated, I finished sixth among kayaks with a time of 4:05 — a personal best.