I woke the morning of Sept. 5 to see the expected downpour. Although I had planned to be paddling today, the weather would keep me landlocked. Although I did not yet know it, my journey of self discovery had already begun. Patience. By that evening Karen and I had taken my Jeep loaded with two kayaks, dry clothes for 14 days at sea, an assortment of marine electronics and a month's supply of apples, homemade powerbars and canned beans to Montauk.
Montauk is basically an isolated fishing and surfing outpost jutting over 100 miles into the Atlantic ocean, due east of New York City. Montauk is the type of place they make movies about. In fact, Quint, the gristly shark hunter from Jaws is reputed to be based on the real life Montauk shark hunter Frank Mundus. While some of Montauk has become quite trendy and sheik, much of it seems to be in 1970's a time warp. As I stood surveying the sea conditions from the second floor deck of the motel / bar that was my home for the evening, it felt as if it were 1972.
Although it appeared the weather was clearing, I thought I would check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. Since my iPad had no service, I was forced to pick up the vintage AT&T issued desk style phone and call to see this place had wireless internet. They did and the weather looked good for the morning. Good, that is, except for the fact that was creating monster surf and dangerous rip currents as far North as Montauk, NY. Funny, I was planning to take my very small boat into those very big waves the next morning. The next call I made was to my safety boat. The news was not good. After careful consideration, the captain and I decided that it was too risky for him to follow me in that surf. Undaunted, I thought it might be a good time to go to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. What I didn't know then was just how long.
The alarm went off at 4:30am. I was already awake. Karen and I collected our things and set off in the Jeep for the Montauk lighthouse. The lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington himself in 1792. Oddly, it was my relative Ezra L'HommeDieu that surveyed the site for Washington. The two of them actually stood together here over 200 years ago. This part of the reason I chose Montauk for start for my epic adventure. Not only is it the beginning and the end of Long Island but, this place, this island, has been home to my ancestors since about 1652. I figured if I was gonna be claimed by the sea, this was as good a place as any.
When we arrived at Montauk, Karen and I could hear the violent surf as it crashed on the cliffs below. I put the Jeep in four-wheel-low and proceeded down the narrow sand road which lead to the beach on the “protected” side of the point. While it usually calm on this side, today the waves were crashing in. I had put in from this beach many times before as part of a yearly 18 mile kayak expedition to Block Island, RI. That trip was also a fundraiser for an organization called “Paddle for Humanity” (P4H.org). This year, however, all of my physical and fundraising energy was going into this trip. This was going to be my crowning kayaking achievement. A 270+ mile circumnavigation of Long Island and I was doing it to benefit the American Diabetes Association. Why the American Diabetes Association?
Go back about 12 years and I was quite literally a different person. I was about double my current size weighing in at over 400 pounds. I was sick and tired all of the time. I had all I could do to finish a day of work. Then, a visit to my doctor's office changed my life forever. I was there for yet another respiratory infection. One of the hidden problems with being that heavy is that you get sick a lot. On this particular visit I was just expecting to get some antibiotics instead, I got an injection of reality. “You’re pre-diabetic.” my doctor said. You might not think that's a big deal but, it hit me right between the eyes. In my mind, “pre-diabetic” was another way of saying “diabetic.” It was the first time I realized that my weight . . . no, my lifestyle was killing me.
By then I had already been a physical therapist for over a decade. I had seen what diabetes does to people. It takes their sight, it takes their legs, it gives them pain. It literally takes your life long before it kills you. The thought of being blind, legless and dependent on other people scared the crap out of me. If you think “pre-diabetes” is no big deal, think again. All of a sudden I felt so mortal, so vulnerable, so responsible, so guilty. How did I allow this to happen? I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge.
All at once the ghosts of my past were swirling around me and the ghosts of my future didn't look too friendly. Then, it occurred to me that I could change this. Just like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I could change the course of my future by changing my present.
While the whole story of my weight loss is an epic journey in itself, this story is about the epic journey ahead of me. An epic journey I chose to do as a celebration of 10 years of weight loss success. A journey I chose so that I may inspire others to make their own journey. An epic adventure to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and finally, as a personal quest to explore the boundaries of my own comfort zone. For it is there, at that edge, that real personal growth happens.
As I was about to find out, there was no orientation to this school. No “easing in.” It was the first day, and the massive waves had a full lesson plan. Karen and I set up my 17' 7” foot long, 51 pound kayak with food, water, electronics and safety gear. I got in, kissed her good bye and headed out to sea. I was about to be schooled.
The first two waves were easy. Up and over. As I watched the third wave mount and then crest in front of me, I knew this one would be different. Instead of going over a cresting wave, kayaks tend to go through them. As the water washed over the deck and over me, I lost my hat and all my carefully secured gear was now trailing along the side of the boat held only by safety lines. I frantically tried to re-secure my gear before the next wave. Every moment spent not paddling is complete chaos. No control. No stability. Arrange, paddle, arrange, paddle. That was the pattern. I finally got everything secured but could only read my GPS if I stretched my body into a precarious and unstable position. With no GPS guidance, the navigational plan became “keep Long Island on the right.”
The next wave seemed to be higher than the kayak was long. That made it about twenty feet. Twenty feet or not all I knew is that I needed to paddle hard. I climbed the wave like a mountain and crashed down the other side. No turning back now, too dangerous. The only option was to paddle past Montauk point and hope the waves calmed down outside of the influence of the outgoing tide. They did, a little. They were still pretty bad.
As I turned West, I was greeted by the appearance of a dorsal fin cutting through the water. Montauk is famous for sharks. This year, as it would happen, there have been more great white shark sightings in the waters from New Jersey to New England than any other year since they have been keeping track of that sort of thing. I had no idea if this was a great white or a dolphin and I didn't care. All I wanted to do is pass it without encountering the big animal to which it was attached. Luckily this is exactly how it was to play out. I passed the fin and the fin moved on apparently oblivious to me. For the next three hours all I did was continuously paddle, try to stay upright and guess my location. It was the worst of conditions but I was fine. That is, of course, until the seasickness. Did I mention that I get sea sick?
Part of exploring the edges of your comfort zone is to venture into areas that you know are going to make you sick or scared or, in this case, both. The South side of Montauk are sheer cliffs and the narrow coastline is littered with boulders the size of mid-sized cars. Landing there in this surf would be suicide. The sound of the surf hitting those boulders sounded to me like the sound of bones crushing and it was deafeningly loud. Between that and the dorsal fin, I was scared. Now it was time for sick. After three solid hours of going up and down and up and down, my stomach rebelled. This went on for about an hour. Now, bleary eyed and shaking it was time for a new plan. Clearly, paddling on like this for another six hours would not be an option. I started to survey the beach for a “safe” place to land.
As I looked toward the beach, I was trying to find a place where the surf lessened. Generally, you can find a place where the bottom contour causes enough turbulence as to attenuate the waves making them less violent. I thought I saw such a place. I turned the boat North, hoped for the best and paddled into the breaking waves.
I had practiced a surf entry as part of my training. Under any circumstances, a surf entry in a boat this long would be a challenge but, today making a graceful landing would be a miracle. Luckily I wasn't trying for graceful. I just wanted to rest. As I got close to the back side of the breakers, I held my ground and waited. I was waiting for a small set. Surfers do just the opposite but today, I was not looking for a thrill ride. I picked a set and paddled my butt off. As the wave caught the almost 18' long hull of my boat, I felt good. I had this. That was until the next wave came. It must have been huge. It flipped me like a flapjack.
Next thing I remember I was holding my breath for what seemed like an eternity. I finally extracted myself from the boat and made an effort to get to the beach. The rip current had other plans for me. Out to sea again. That ocean that I loved so much was trying to swallow me whole. I did the only thing I could do. I relaxed, waited for the current to lessen and then made another run at the beach. This time I made it. Unfortunately, the boat was still struggling. Back into the surf I went. I retrieved the boat and did an equipment inventory. Apples and powerbars were all over the beach and my GPS was gone. Crap. After about a half hour of walking the beach, I found it. All of a sudden I realized that I was having a good day. I was alive, safe, my boat was seaworthy and I was no longer lost. I called Karen, reported my position as per the GPS and promptly fell sound asleep.
I woke up shivering. I was cold and wet. Not feeling my best. Luckily, Karen was smart enough to plug the Latitude and Longitude into the Jeep's GPS. She found me on a deserted little patch of beach in Amagansett. I was so happy to see her. We put the heat on in the truck and talked about the plan.
The problem was that I had no plan. Well, I had no reasonable plan. The only option, I thought, was to put back into the ocean and go another six hours or more in that rough sea. The main issue was paddling back out through that surf. It wasn't happening. I needed a plan “B.” Giving up was not an option and Karen knew it. Even though she was thinking it, wishing for it, she didn't even bring it up. She was there to support me and that is exactly what she did.
“OK,” I said, “What's the most important thing here? To get from Montauk to the next planned stop. That's it. If we drive directly North, we can put into Peconic Bay and I can paddle through the Shinnecock Canal. I should be there by dinner.” Then Karen said, “Isn't that a long way? Don't you have to wind around East Hampton and Shelter Island?” She was right it was more mileage but no dangerous surf. It would make for a long day but at least I would make it to the next stop. It was a good plan. So off we went.
We found a place to put in and I set off West again. With the tides with me, I made Shinnecock canal by 6:00PM. The locks were open and the tide was with me. I made the bay by 6:30PM. Twelve hours at sea and I made it. A very long day. I was so tired, I could barely eat. I was actually sick from exhaustion. Karen could not imagine how day two would even be possible. As she worried about my situation, I fell asleep. Of course there would be a day two. Quitting was not an option. I planned the first day to be the worst day. It exceed my expectations.