Photo: Allen Jarmolinski

Women’s Expedition Evolution

I have a passion. Before I recover mentally or physically from a SUP expedition, I start to ask, "What stretch of coastline, or watery expanse will I tackle next?" Then I'm back to the maps, and charts and tide tables.

It all started with a conversation with fellow BIC Ambassador Mike Simpson. He had recently completed a 200-mile trip and the idea intrigued me. He told me there weren't many women out there doing it. It was a challenge I accepted.

Paddling is always more fun with friends, and that’s where Rachel McCarty comes in. Rachel and I met at an Eastern Mountain Sports School ACA SUP certification class. We started meeting up weekly to surf (both prone and SUP). Waterwomen are scarce in the waters of New England and it was great to have another one to share a lineup with. When our weekly surf ritual didn’t line up with the waves, I asked Rachel if she would be interested in trying her first downwinder. She was game.

We picked a five-mile stretch of Narragansett Bay and set off. The 18 mph wind and occasional three-to-four foot seas rocked and rolled us as we paddled from shore across the side chop and into the bay. Soon, laughter almost knocked us from our boards. By the time we landed on the beach, downwinders were added to our weekly paddling rotation.

Photo: Allen Jarmolinski

Soon we were imagining our first foray into expedition paddling, a 20-mile circumnavigation of Conanicut Island. It would prove to be a perfect start to our deep dive into this addiction.

We consulted with our friend Jim Bernard, a kayak and SUP instructor who kayaked around the island many times before. He gave us great advice, suggesting our launch spot and helping us plan a route to coincide with the tides.

If we had ordered the trip off a menu we couldn't have received a better day. It was October, but the air was an unseasonably warm 70 degrees and the water had barely cooled off. Nutrition was one of the biggest issues; lack of coffee, specifically, was my personal downfall. But all went well. Eight hours later, we loaded the boards back and stared across the channel at Aquidneck Island. It would be next.

Photo: William Gayle

We were running late. My thermos of coffee sat leaking in the backseat as we powered through the dark to the launch. Even though we were behind schedule, we still had over an hour of paddling in the dark ahead of us, as we rode the tide and wind south on the Sakonnet River to Sachuest Point. It would be the easiest leg, an 11-mile downwinder. We joked about cold toes and figured that once the sun came up our bodies would soak up the warmth. But when we rounded picturesque Sachuest, the sun breaking through the clouds, we paddled into the seventh circle of hell.

Faced with four miles of open water marred with cross chop and constant gales, we dropped to our knees. Call it knee paddling or call it cheating. I call it survival. We slogged on for two hours, with no time to take a break. It was either go forward or slip sideways out to sea. Luckily we paid attention to nutrition this time around. Our lessons learned from Conanicut had paid off when the original weather forecast had not.

The next 10 miles were more of the same. I couldn't feel my feet and I balanced atop two ice blocks. It would be several miles before I saw the most welcome sight: Bernard paddling toward me with a thermos full of coffee.

At mile 27, I sat down on my board and drank the first sip of coffee I had had in 11 hours. It got me back on my feet, and we paddled the last three miles in the dark.

On shore we talked about the lessons we would take away from this trip; like having a thermos that didn't leak and how to keep our feet warm on long cold days. As we were sitting in the car, with mild cases of hypothermia, I realized all we could think about it was, "When do we get to do this again?"—Casi Rynkowski

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