The Sun is rising behind me as I’m heading down Route 24 South to Rhode Island. It’s cold this morning. The whole month of May has been cold here in New England. Still, I have my iced coffee sitting in the car with me. I always had something against hot coffee, not sure why. I cross over the Newport Bridge, which overlooks my hunting grounds for the day. It’s 7am and there is already a steadily strengthening southern wind coming directly off the ocean. I can feel my kayak slightly jostling on my roof from the wind.
I pulled up to the tiny cove where it all starts and where it all ends: Fort Wetherill. The area is covered in glacial gouges from the ice age where ice ripped rock from the ocean, creating underwater cliffs and fabled rock reefs capable of sinking ships. It is here where some of the toughest athletes, divers and hunters meet: The Tri-State Spearfishing Open. It’s the first tournament of the year. There are four tournaments to crown the North Atlantic Champion, which is a coveted and highly sought accolade. This spearfishing tournament is freedive only; No Scuba tanks allowed only breathe hold.
I am usually one of the first ones there. I prefer to have plenty of time to carefully take out my gear, get my kayak in place and relax and get my “head in the game.” I registered, took my Ocean Kayak Big Game II off my roof and walked to the launch site. The Sun is out now. The wind is still slowly getting stronger and stronger. I checked the marine forecast the night before – said it was going to be a little stormy the next day. I decided to pick the stable Big Game II rather than the speedy Ultra 4.7. As a dive platform, stability is the most important thing, competition or not. Fifteen minutes until the whistle blows. All divers from call across New England are in attendance. Kayaks are lined up side-to-side across the small cove. The once loud and boisterous jokes have hushed with the southern wind. With paddles in hand, the loud call bellows and the game is on.
Seeming all at once, paddles slap the water and my muscles tighten as an all-out sprint has begun. I am in the forward position of the group. There is only my good friend Alex, who has taken the lead. I call him the “Powerboat.” He sprints from place to place in his kayak. I always try to keep pace, but never can. I fall about one kayak length behind him as we pass around the corner. My ears suddenly whistle as a blast of cold air smacks me in the face, nearly taking my hat off my head. Alex’s dive flag pole snaps in the wind and flies behind him. He stops paddling and goes in full reverse to retrieve the flag. Divers begin breaking off from the initial pack, scattering like confetti in the breeze. Ocean swells are at least three to four feet high. Waves are crashing over my bow as I stab the waves with my paddle and power over it. I decided that I need to get as far away from the other divers as possible, but maintaining a safe position and getting to a sheltered place out of the wind. This should heighten my chances of finding fish in the now wind churned and murky water. I battled the wind and waves for about a mile and a quarter, finally reaching my dive site.
I finally find some clear and calm water – which has a visibility of about 6 feet. This is pretty good for New England, especially good in these conditions. The main fish I am targeting is called Tautog. There are many fish species that are present here in these waters, but tautog are usually the first to show up in the spring, and last to leave in the fall. I believe the water is too cold for the Striped Bass to begin their migration up the eastern seaboard. So, instinct tells me that the tautog will yield the best chances of winning.
I jump off my kayak, take a breath and begin working the reefs. These fish are usually very black in color; the males have sharp, white chins which glow against the green background of the sea. I am bound to stay and work this small area, everywhere else the waves and wind will blow you into the rocks. In addition the water will be so murky you won’t be able to see anything. I lean back, taking a deep breath. Pulled myself under the rippling ocean and descended. I kick as the water becomes darker. I reach the bottom; it’s a rocky reef, which is the perfect place to find these fish. I become very still. Spearfishing requires a calm mental state and good athletic ability. Both of these talents are very important in order to allow you to stay on the bottom longer.
One by one, I picked off the best three Tautog that I could come across. I found each of them in small schools of other Tautogs. We call them “Nests” since it is around the breeding season, and the males will court multiple females at the same time. With my fish in hand, I checked my watch: 12:55. The tournament ends in one hour, five minutes. I have to get back out of this cove and brave this irate ocean once again.
As soon as I cleared the small cove I was blasted again in the face with that wind. The waves are coming over the bow and slapping my lap. The fish are located behind me in the tankwell and bungee’d in place in case the wave action knocks them loose. Each stroke slowly brings me back to the starting point. I begin to see other divers making their way back as well. I was able to paddle perpendicular to the waves for a good amount of time so that I could turn the kayak so that the wind and waves would surf me back. The plan works as I turn the kayak to the left, going directly north to the rallying point. I arrived ten minutes before the tournament ends. What a ride.
The weigh station is assembled as divers line up to have their catches counted. There is not as many fish as I have seen at other competitions. The general consensus was the difficult weather; too much wind, and waves to mess with diving and paddling. However, I found that my Ocean Kayak performed beautifully in these conditions. The scores are tallied, as I was then announced as a third place finisher. I felt so blessed and proud to be able to compete head-to-head with other divers twice my age and experience and be able to be a contender. I am awarded a bronze medal. Can’t wait for the next one!