Swimming off Montauk

Area: Montauk


Feb 10, 2019
I know this is not a fishing report, but when I tried to post it in the Kayak Forum, it required "questions" and "comments," I have neither. This is a simply a cautionary tale.

Last night I did most things right. Those things made a big difference. But I went against my gut. That was wrong. There were signs. I ignored them. I rationalized. I paid the price.

Thursday night I’d been off Montauk Point fishing through what was technically a “small craft warning.” Though the wave height was less than two feet, because the winds had been predicted to exceed 25knots, the warning was issued. The new camera that’s been monitoring the progress of work at the Montauk Lighthouse afforded me a preview of what would await me after 75 minutes of driving; no whitecaps, no big waves. It was fishable. Days earlier I’d caught the first sizeable bass of the season in those same waters, a fat 42 incher. The Striper Cup (Kayak Division) realistically requires 10 fish over 40 inches to be competitive, and I had one in the books. I wanted #2. It got a little lumpy, maybe 3 feet or so, and I had to take a wave over the back coming in. I had to “surf” a little, but I landed safely. I had fished but caught nothing but bluefish. I still had that feeling though. There were big bass there. I just had to keep trying.

Friday night. A new night. The small craft warning didn’t go into effect until 4am. I’d be off the water by 11:00, and once again, a preview through the camera atop the lighthouse gave no indication of a surf that was any bigger than the night before. I drove the 75 minutes, mentally planning what I would do when I was out there. Visualizing success.

I wanted to get out a little early, and I did. Consequently, the tide was lower and the waves were naturally breaking a little more than when the water’s above the rocks. That was my thinking: It’s not any rougher than last night, It just seems that way. This was my first rationalization.

I continued to set up, and as I’ve come to do, I instinctually listened to the water as I worked. I lowered the kayak, checked my wiring hook-ups, and continued to listen. When bigger waves come in, it’s noticeable. If they’re the result of a big boat, they can come in a series. Often there is a “rhythm” of sorts to the waves and their sizes. Patterns emerge. The odd ones stand out. Maybe two big waves followed by three small ones, maybe a different wave pattern, but it’s there if you listen for it. Trying to land from an ocean surf is one of those situations where you want to try to figure out that rhythm. In the past, on foggy nights, it’s all I had to go on because I had no visual reference, just the GPS and my ears.

I began to accept that the launch and landing were going to be a challenge. I checked the NWS again for an update and the small craft warning had been pushed into Sunday. This will be my only chance to fish this weekend. I need to put in the work if I’m going to get the 40 inchers. That was my second rationalization. I convinced myself that I’d be missing something by not going. I’d gotten pretty good at landing, even in big surf. I got this.

Then the tone changed from merely apprehensive to ominous. For many years, I’ve carried with me a good luck charm in the form of a Moon Pie. I lost a dear friend to cancer years back. I would catch her bass and she would give me Moon Pies to take along as a snack. My kayak fishing set-up ritual involves tucking a Moon Pie in my cup holder before every trip. I truly believe that Linda is with me every time I’m on the water, looking out for me. Tonight, the Moon Pie was gone. My good luck charm had washed out during the previous night’s wet landing. That left me with a very unsettled feeling. Was I going to launch without Linda? Maybe this is Linda telling me that I don’t need her help anymore… that I should move on. I caught fish before I knew Linda. I should have listened to my gut. The third, and biggest, rationalization.

The launch gave me a pretty good indication of what I’d be in for when I needed to land. There were some 3 and 4-foot swells rolling in, and they were breaking pretty far from the beach. I simply resigned myself to staying focused on the task at hand and not psyching myself out too much about getting back in. It’s always a lot harder to land than to launch, especially at night, but the more you do it the better you’ll get.
After about two hours, I could begin to sense the changing of the tide. The wind had laid down, but the swells were building. Time to go. I headed back to the launch and I could see that the tide had risen considerably, as it had the previous night, and the rocks that I use as markers when I’m landing were now covered. I had a clear sight line to my truck, though, which was parked on the beach. I have a bright LED on the bow that reflected off my truck from about 100 yards away. Visibility in front of me was not going to be a problem. I also turned on my underwater LEDs, which shine down below the kayak, allowing me to see the rocks below the surface. As for the rhythm of the waves, I paused about 75 yards off to listen. What I heard was not good.

Behind me in the distance I could heard the wave break. I could also hear it rushing toward me from the darkness. I have bright LEDs that shine off the back of my kayak too, but turning them on would have added little to the situation, as I knew what was going to happen next. When the wave was about 20 feet away, the white water came into the beam of my headlamp and I braced for impact. I’m not sure that there was anything I could have done. It hit me broadside like a freight train, knocking the kayak out from under me and quickly sweeping it away into the darkness.
My perspective changed dramatically when I was emerging from the wave in the darkness looking to shore. I was at eye level with the waves and watching my kayak, LEDs still lit, fade away into the froth of the next wave. I was calm. I could see a family that had lit a fire on the beach and were gathered around it. I knew they couldn’t see me or hear me, and I don’t need help yet. I was still clutching the paddle, and the paddle seemed to be pulling me toward shore. I realized in that moment – all too briefly – that it was my connection to the kayak. My paddle was leashed to the kayak. I might be able to pull it to me… I hadn’t finished the thought when the paddle leash snapped, rendering it a moot point. I threw the paddle aside and began swimming toward shore.

Traditional wisdom has it that you “stay with the boat.” This was my first instinct. But the kayak was headed northwest, and I needed to go west. I followed conventional wisdom; If I’m out here for any longer, it will be outgoing tide. It could be a long night. I aimed for the kayak, and after some feverish swimming I met it in the surf. It was upside-down, but very much afloat. I tried to pull myself atop the overturned hull, but with each wave, I would slide off. I decided to try to right the kayak and enter it that way. As I reached across to the other side of the kayak to flip it over, my foot touched the top of a rock. I was close to shore. I held on to the kayak with my right arm and used it, paddling with my left arm, to reach shallower waters. Once I had a footing, I was able to reach the shore.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been dumped in the surf. It was not the first time that I ended up “in over my head” in pursuit of big stripers. To date, I’ve been very fortunate. But there are some important take-aways from the experience, and I’d like to take ownership of those.

First. It’s not a great idea to paddle alone. Other than checking the tides and weather, if there was one piece of advice that could prevent small problems on the water from becoming big ones, it would be “Don’t paddle alone.” The risks are still there, but you have someone else who can call for help when you can’t. It’s unreasonable to expect that person to be the one who saves you. It’s seldom possible and most often does little more than jeopardize another paddler, turning one rescue into two. That said, I decided a long time ago that I enjoy fishing alone. I have never expected others to accompany me when I kayak fish – especially off Montauk Point. I plan accordingly.

Second, I should have listened to that voice in my head that I ignored through my rationalization. I knew what the right thing to do was. I made a different choice. That was wrong. But some of the things that I do as a matter of routine paid dividends that night. I wear a dry suit. Mine is a two piece (dry top + dry pants/waders), but I always wear a belt around the waist to help seal the two. It worked. I always wear a vest. It worked. I stow my rods horizontally. That saved them from being smashed in the surf. I leash my drive. That saved me having to buy a new drive. All my electronics are waterproof and sealed. That saved them. I always bring a dry change of clothes. That saved me a wet ride home.
As I sat there on the bumper of my truck I could make out where my pole light came to rest, its beam still glowing beneath the rolling waves about 50 yards out. Somewhere out there is my net too. My paddle washed up on shore as I was about to leave. I was happy for that.

It wasn’t a bad night, just a hard one. The lessons were ones I’d already known. I just needed a little tap on the shoulder to remind me to listen to that voice inside when it speaks. I’ll be a better listener next time.20220618_160802.jpg


Well-Known Angler
Dec 20, 2018
Damn KF
Very glad you made it back to tell the story👍
Take a break tonight and meet us at Molnars
The band starts @ 7😎


Staff member
Dec 24, 2018
Damn, glad you made it through.
More life experience learned, put it to good use.


Well-Known Angler
Mar 7, 2019
Glad you are here to tell us! I hope ALL read this. The ocean has no friends.

I was in a bad boat accident many years ago and a very scary jetty wash over. Level headed thinking (and some luck) is why I can type today, but boy am I cautious today!
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