Monday, September 17, 2012

Kayak adventure (of doom)

Stock photo. Imagine this, but with more screaming and maniacal laughter.

This post isn’t about writing, reading, Masks, or anything else. It’s about kayaking!

No, I’m not really much of a kayaker, although I wish I were. I enjoyed paddling around in a kayak on family camping trips as a kid, and after literally dreaming about it for months, I decided that what I really wanted to do for a recent birthday was get back into the water. Since I hadn’t touched a paddle in years, I wheedled a friend into coming with me, figuring that the last thing I wanted to do was get out into open water and then discover I didn’t actually know what I was doing. What can I say? Ignorance shared is ignorance doubled, and I’m a big fan of ignorance doubled—or, in this case, squared.

Now, even though this trip was a bit of a disaster and involved my friend hysterically screaming that I should leave her to die and tell her children that she loved them (she doesn’t have any kids), I had lots of fun, perhaps because I went in with low expectations. Really, my goal was to paddle around at water level, enjoying the sights and smells. As long as I didn’t get drowned or run over by a boat or attacked by a sea otter (long story, don’t ask), I was going to be happy. As long as there was paddling, interesting smells, and a lack of drowning, I was delighted. You’ll want to keep that in mind when I start laughing uncontrollably at my friend’s suffering.

We got to the kayak rental place I’d found online, parked where we were supposed to, and strolled over to what turned out to be a glorified lemonade stand with “kayak rental” on the sign above the little counter. Once we’d signed every waiver in existence, we were introduced to an experienced kayak dude who never told us his name—I’ll call him Salty. Salty was about 50 or 60 years old, a graying surfer type with leathery windburned skin, a build that was all sinew, and prescription sunglasses on his nose. He led us down to the water’s edge, where several kayaks were beached, and asked whether we wanted a double sit-on-top or a double sit-inside (which I’d been taught to call a sea kayak). I asked for the sit-inside, since it was what I’d paddled as a kid, and he got us strapped into our life jackets and gave us a quick tutorial on how to paddle a kayak—basically, if you want to turn right, paddle on the left side, and vice versa. Muttering those instructions under our breath, we pushed off and paddled earnestly toward the nature reserve north of the slip. I sat in the back because I’d identified myself to Salty as the stronger paddler (a.k.a. the one who’d done this before, the one who’d had this cockamamie idea, and incredibly stubborn when it came to things like ignoring sore arm muscles). We only ran into one pier before getting into open water.

Our first problem was coordination. No matter how many times one or the other of us shouted “left left!” or “right, right, bloody right!” (“bloody” quickly became our shorthand for “paddle like our life depends on it because there’s a boat/buoy/pier/landmass in the way”) we never seemed to have our paddles in the water on the same side of the boat at the same time. Then the current decided to take issue with our choice of direction and spin the kayak until we were pointed southward and drifting counterclockwise, paddle as we might. Finally, we decided to literally go with the flow and head south to what I considered a distant second-place attraction—the mansions covering several islands in the lower harbor.

For a while after that, things went pretty well. We got a smooth alternating rhythm going, mostly because I started mirroring my friend’s paddling style even when I didn’t know what she was doing. I tried to call out only “left, left, bloody left!” when we were about to run into something, and we mostly didn’t run into things for a while. The kayak slipped through the water just like I remembered, and we got to make lots of sarcastic comments about the stupid names rich beachfront types give their boats. (My personal favorite was the boat registered in Las Vegas called Carviar. Apparently you can register a yacht in a city in the middle of the desert, and you can do it while you’re drunk enough to misspell “caviar”.)

And then we hit what we came to call the Bermuda Triangle.

We paddled down a channel between a small peninsula and an island, and came to a spot where three channels came together—and because two of those channels led to relatively open sea and the third did not, naturally the only direction the current felt like moving was inland. We paddled left, and got spun in a circle to the right. We paddled right, and got spun in a circle to the left. We bumped into piers, moored boats, and in one case a beach that I swear came out of nowhere. We got about halfway out of the Triangle several times, but right around the point where we drew level with a boat called Rampage (I swear I’m not making this up) and a mansion that I thought of as having delusions of Thomas Kinkade, we were always spun around and washed back inland again. My friend began to despair. She said her arms were tired, and yelled in frustration. She announced that we were surely going to be swept out to sea, or sliced in half by a passing boat. She cursed Poseidon—which, as someone who counts Homer’s Odyssey as her favorite book, I had to tell her was a terrible idea. What if we ran into a Cyclops, or a witch turned us into pigs?

I, meanwhile, had Tom Smith’s song “Bermuda Triangle” stuck in my head and mostly laughed hysterically at my friend’s distress. I was sympathetic underneath, but something in the back of my head kept repeating, Come on, we’re in bloody Newport! The worst thing that happens is we capsize, swim twenty yards to somebody’s mansion, and get arrested for trespassing while being poor. But that doesn’t really help when your friend is bidding a tearful goodbye to the offspring she doesn’t actually have.

After about twenty minutes of fighting the Triangle, I realized that there had been a flaw in Salty’s explanation—one I hadn’t caught because I hadn’t been in a kayak in a decade in a half and, most importantly, because when I was in a kayak, I was never allowed to sit in the back. I was a kid then! I wasn’t the strongest paddler! I had never been taught how to steer!

But I did know a thing or two about kayak-sized boats in bays. When I was a senior in high school, my final project in physics was to build a boat out of cardboard and duct tape—a boat big enough to hold a human being without sinking, even when we shoved boat and human into the water off Long Beach. The rules of the test were simple: if the boat floated, the builders passed physics. If it sank, we’d need a lot of extra credit.

Being my overachieving teenage self, however, I wasn’t content to make something that merely floated. No, the teacher was planning to race our boats, just for the hell of it, and I wanted to win. My lab partner and I set out to build something along the lines of a kayak, although we ended up with more of a canoe. We covered it with bright yellow duct tape and christened it the Banana Split. We tested it out by throwing a friend’s little sister into it and shoving it out into a swimming pool, and were so pleased with it that I talked a teacher into being our pilot for even more extra credit. And then, as we were driving down to the beach for the final that morning, my partner announced that, although she had promised to push the boat into position for the start of the race, she didn’t actually know how to swim.

So that’s how I ended up jumping into the ocean fully dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, pushing a yellow cardboard boat ahead of me, and then yelling my lungs out at the pilot when she froze and refused to paddle. (We lost the race by 0.21 seconds. Gah!) Afterward, a couple of small children asked to go for a ride in “the pretty yellow boat,” and I pushed them around, too, since they were too small to use the paddle. And by the end of the day I’d learned a thing or two about what makes boats go straight in the water. You see, the good old Banana Split had one thing a kayak lacked—a keel.

I started thinking about keels, and rudders, and airplane wings, and everything I’d ever learned about fluid dynamics and pressure differentials, and I decided I couldn’t possibly make things worse (groan!) with a little experiment. While my friend paddled like mad on the left side of our kayak, I experimentally stuck my paddle into the water on the right side. (Don’t mock—I was basically having to reinvent the wheel here.) The boat immediately slewed to the right. My friend shouted with triumph, thinking she’d finally beaten the current.

“Hold on,” I told her. “I’m going to try a physics experiment.”

If you’re going to reassure a panicking person, try not to use the word “experiment”. Luckily for me I have a wonderful and understanding friend, and she paddled gamely, and I kept sticking my paddle in whenever I felt we needed a course correction. And we finally managed to paddle a long arc out of the Triangle. We didn’t run into Rampage. We dodged several passing yachts that didn’t seem to notice our lowly rented kayak. After a few minutes, my friend was calling out “Rudder left!” and “Rudder right!” whenever she thought we needed to change direction, as if she’d been doing it all her life. We beached the kayak smoothly a few yards from where we’d launched, and I didn’t even mind being pitched into the water when my friend jumped out and tried to haul the boat further ashore.

My friend swears I was trying to drown her, and I ended up buying her lunch by way of an apology. To hear her tell the story, we were very nearly lost at sea.

But I got to slide through the water in an agile little low-slung boat, and startle a duck, and have a very, very good laugh while conducting an impromptu physics experiment. I think I’ll go back eventually, and try this again. Maybe I’ll remind Salty to mention the whole paddle-as-rudder thing so nobody else has to reinvent the wheel.

And next time I’m heading for that wetlands preserve, where it’s safe. I’m betting Carviar isn’t the kind of boat that’s piloted sober.

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