Paddling Fool

On the dark waters of Brooklyn, only a nut goes out at night

Oct 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

I WAS HOME ALONE some years back on a gray and misty Halloween. My girlfriend had gone to Manhattan, leaving me to face the sticky-fingered procession of ghosts and goblins ringing our doorbell. Fifteen lollipops later, I desperately needed to get away, so I bolted to my kayak club, on the western edge of Brooklyn's Jamaica Bay, for an early-evening paddle.

Jamaica Bay consists of nearly 10,000 acres of brackish water crisscrossed by shipping lanes, and this time of year I usually stayed off it past 4 p.m. Wise policy. I was about five miles out, feeling smug and at peace, when a ghoulish fog descended. In about five minutes I was lost—with no food, water, compass, or foul-weather gear.

Two hours of fruitless meandering later, the sound of traffic drew me to a garbage-strewn beach. I emerged dripping from the shadows, paddle in hand, and slouched toward the road like an escaped kayaking felon. I should have flagged down a car, but as I hopped in place under a streetlight's spooky glow, I hesitated. Assuming some naive or bizarre soul would even stop to pick me up, would I want to get in? Besides the risk of meeting Hannibal Lecter, it would mean leaving my expensive racing kayak unprotected in a neighborhood of high funk.

Several cars sped by before I spied the flashing red light atop the World Trade Center. Ha! I knew that if I paddled toward the beacon on top, I would hit my home channel. So I jumped back in the boat and started hammering.

Unfortunately, at water level the light vanished, and I ran smack into a labyrinth of islands. Wending my way through the narrow channels like a nearsighted lab rat, I ran aground.

As I pulled my boat through knee-deep mud, a hard rain began to fall. The temperature was 44 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was in shorts and a T-shirt. I blundered onto a hummock and started running in place to warm up. I ran all night, in ankle-deep water. When the rain finally stopped, just after dawn, I sat down and nodded off, head between my knees like a Bowery bum.

I eventually pulled up to the dock at 8:30 a.m., 15 hours after I set out. Standing there were my parents, the commodore of my kayaking club, a few law-enforcement types, and my girlfriend. Do you recall the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper come back from the dead and everybody's happy? Well, I didn't get much "happy."

The commodore said it best: "It's not easy to break that many rules on one paddle. Nice going, dipshit."

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