Still flush with whitewater adrenaline after a fall rafting weekend a couple of years ago, I came home determined to get a kayak. A weekend spent rafting a Class IV-V river packs in more excitement than many see in a lifetime. Still, once I had been rafting enough times to become relatively confident that I would in fact survive each trip to see my wife and kids again, I wanted to ramp it up a notch. Even while rafting I would find myself casting wistful sidelong glances at the kayakers zipping through the rapids, seeming at one with their boat and the water.
I love rafting, but in a raft, you are are on top of the rapids. In a kayak, you are in the rapids. In a raft, you are one of 8 paddlers – while everyone has a role to play, you can generally miss a stroke or two and still be OK thanks to the efforts of your fellow paddlers. In a kayak, you are it. I wanted that experience. So, I found a decent used whitewater kayak for sale, got a paddle, helmet, spray skirt and PFD, and I was ready.
That was two years ago, and the kayak still hasn’t seen a river. Life tends to get in the way.
It was understandable, therefore, when my wife looked at me a bit skeptically the other day when I told her that I was taking my kayak on our beach vacation. Not to be deterred, I took the boat down from the storage rack that I had built underneath our back deck, knocked the old wasp nests out from inside the cockpit, and spent the next hour figuring out how to make enough room on the roof of our minivan to accommodate both the kayak and the rooftop carrier that was bulging with boogie boards, sand toys and the other unnecessary necessities that accompany a family of 6 on a week at the beach. The boat would have looked more at home lashed to the top of a jeep or laid in the bed of a pickup than it did strapped to our minivan’s luggage carrier, but I eventually got it loaded and ready for the road.
We made it to the beach, and yesterday I hoisted the kayak over my shoulder and headed down to the ocean. I had flippantly told Jennifer before I left that she should call the Coast Guard if I wasn’t back by suppertime, but I was only half joking. I had never taken the boat out in the ocean. The waves were relatively calm, but even so I knew that there was a decent chance that I would flip. The eskimo roll lessons that I had taken soon after I bought the kayak seemed long ago and far away. Given that they had taken place in an indoor swimming pool and not in the Atlantic ocean, I guess they were.
My first challenge, though, was getting the thing in the water. The kayakers that you typically see at the ocean are usually in stable”sit on top” boats made for the ocean. You launch these in much the same way that you launch a surfboard – push through the first few waves and hop on top. My kayak, on the other hand, is a whitewater river boat. It has a rounded bottom and no keel, so it is easy to roll. Complicating the situation is the need to squeeze the lower half of your body into the cockpit, and then attach the spray skirt around the edges of the cockpit so the water will stay where it belongs – outside the boat.
My plan was to take the kayak out beyond the breaking waves, hoist myself on top, slide my legs into the cockpit, fit the sprayskirt, and be on my way. It made sense at the time, but it was totally unworkable. Hoisting myself on top of the boat was easy enough, but this technique had me laying on top with my stomach over the cockpit. The only way that I could pull my legs up under me and slide them into the cockpit was to grab onto the cockpit edges and do a gymnastics-type move where I’d push up with my arms, fully extend and lock my elbows, do a crunch as I brought knees up to my chest, and then slide my feet inside.
This would have been hard for me to do on parallel bars. Doing it on a tippy kayak floating in a calm lake or swimming pool would have been extremely difficult. Doing it in the ocean with waves rolling in every 5-10 seconds was impossible. I’d get up on top, and as soon as I started to bring my legs up, I’d flip to one side or the other. Or, a wave would come in and deposit a couple gallons of ocean in the cockpit. Or both.
After repeated failed attempts, I decided to try a new approach. Maybe I was on the wrong side of the boat. I moved around to the other side and tried again. That was worse. Then, having tried everything else, I tried again facing the stern instead of the bow. I got up on top, and this technique did result in my feet pointing forward, the right direction. The only problem was that I was on my stomach, and needed to be on my back in order for my feet to go in the cockpit. Imagine laying on a log floating in the water, then trying to flip over on your back. Add in some waves and you get the idea.
By this time my arms were starting to tremble with exhaustion, and I was yet to paddle the first stroke. I became resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen – not this way, at least. I grabbed the tow rope and headed back toward the beach.
While all of this was going on, I had been vaguely aware that I was accumulating an audience onshore. All of my crowd was back at the beachhouse and missing the entertainment, but there were a lot of strangers who getting quite a chuckle at my expense. The older I get the less I care about that sort of thing, but I wasn’t excited about getting so close that I could hear the snickers, be they real or imagined. I had no choice, though, so I trudged on in, directly toward several young women who had put their beach chairs on the water’s edge to as to get a better look.
One of them got up and walked toward me as I was still making my way to the beach. I put on a forced smile. “Y’all enjoying the entertainment?”
She smiled and looked a bit sheepish. “We were laughing a bit,” she admitted. “Do you need any help?”
She was obviously an athlete, with shoulders as broad as mine. I figured her offer was a serious one, but I wasn’t sure what she could do. I didn’t see how I could launch from the shore and get through the waves.
She continued. “I think if you go ahead and get in the cockpit and put the sprayskirt on, I could give you a push and you could get through the waves.”
Her terminology was significant. Cockpit. Sprayskirt. Oh, no. I’ve been embarrassing myself in front of a kayaker.
“Do you paddle?”I asked, knowing the answer.
“Yeah, I run a kayaking club at my college.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “I didn’t realize that I was getting laughed at by an expert! Sure, it would be great if you could give me a push.” I got in, attached the spray skirt, and with the help of a good push and a few hard strokes, I was on my way.
And that was that. I made it back in to shore about an hour later, with nary a flip or Coast Guard rescue, looking forward to paddling again another day.