In an effort to keep my body moving, I have desired to take up kayaking for a while now.  My legs still work, but some days I am not sure how long that will be true.  The cartilage in the joints is disintegrating thanks to chemo, so hiking can sometimes be painful.  Being a paddler in my younger days, it just made sense to me to find another activity I enjoy to mix things up from time to time and to give my legs a break.

We were going to rent boats the last time we were in Seattle to go out on the Sound, but we never did.  In fact, I have been wanting to rent boats for the past couple of years, but have never gotten Bill to agree.  This time, when we decided against it on our trip, I made him promise me we would do it when we got home.  And so, when I drove past a sign at the Olympic Rowing venue in Gainesville advertising kayaking classes, I signed us up.

My intention was to learn how to get in and out of the boat as well as to learn the differences between canoe, raft, and kayak strokes.  I mean, how different can it be? Since we both have paddled everything except a kayak in our pasts, I figured it would be a big review for us. I dragged Bill to our first lesson and he was a good sport since he had promised me we would do this.  We were supposed to have 6 people in our class, but 3 dropped out, so it was us and one other guy.  When we met our instructor, an Olympic kayaker, it should have been my first clue this was not going to be the beginner class I had imagined it to be.

First off, the boats were not the little recreational kind you rent at different lakes around here.  They were “real” kayaks with cockpits, and they did not have flat bottoms for stability.  Our first lesson was what to do if you capsize…save the boat from sinking by turning it over. I guess they assume since you are wearing a life jacket you will not need saving.  The next lesson was getting in.  The instructor was showing us, very slowly, how to move from standing to sitting in the kayak.  My mind was watching his movements and knowing my knee couldn’t do what he was doing. Fear crept into my throat.

Bill, on the other hand was just ready to get on with it, and was halfway in his boat.  The problem was he didn’t finish watching the lesson…brain injured ADHD doesn’t really allow that…so he was jumping ahead of the instructor.  The boats are unforgiving of such things, and it tossed him right into the water.  He remembered lesson number one well, and reached for his boat to turn it over as I was yelling to forget the boat and get his brand new very expensive glasses, which were floating to the bottom of Lake Lanier.  Meanwhile our instructor, still giving his how-to-get-in-the-boat lesson, turned around and said, “I wasn’t finished with the lesson.  You have to listen first, then do it.”  He was quite patient as Bill tried to get the boat, save his flip flops and hat, and get back onto the dock.  Lesson #1 was quite a bit more expensive than we had planned.

Everyone was in their boat but me, so the instructor had me get into the boat on the dock, because I knew I could not do what he had demonstrated. When he pushed me into the water he said to pretend I was going down a rapid. I gripped my paddle and swallowed hard.  I made it in without going over, and I felt accomplished. I wondered, ‘Can I get out now?’  Our lesson was 1 ½ hours and it took us 45 minutes just to get into the boats.


Next, the instructor got in a little motorized boat so he could film our technique and show us how we were doing. Great, just what I wanted. Documentation. I was just happy to be upright.  He showed us the proper strokes, and how our arms needed to be placed, while we were twisting our core, and catching the water just so.  There were, like 10 movements to think about, all happening at the same time.  The guys were moving right along, and my kayak was veering left.  I was reverting back to canoe strokes to line it up again.  Then I would veer to the right.  I could not go straight to save my life.  How did I know this you ask?  Because it was all being filmed by the instructor in his little motor boat, as he shouted, “head up and straight, twist your core, move your arms further apart on the shaft, elbows down, catch the paddle by your feet, shorter strokes, etc…  He was trying to help, but I was going in circles.  When the lesson was over, I rolled out of my boat onto the dock, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

Lesson # 2 was with a Paralympian named Nik, who had a prosthetic leg, lots of tattoos, and muscles for miles. He is ranked one of the fastest kayakers in the world, and he was very passionate about his sport, and he wanted us to be as well.  He was really quite amazing, taking off his leg and jumping all around, carrying his boat to the water.  I felt a bit stupid telling him my leg doesn’t bend very well so it is hard for me to get into the boat.  He just laughed at me, but said he could give me pointers…which he did. He had me sit on the dock and then just scooch over into the boat on the water.  So much easier than holding my breath and hoping whoever pushed me off the dock would do it correctly.  However, I continued to go around in circles the entire lesson and he followed me in his kayak, trying to help me figure out what I was doing wrong.

Then he got out a tandem boat, that looked like a rocket in the water.  I got in the back and he was in the front paddling us around.  It felt like it was going to flip and anytime I tried to paddle I thought we were going in.  He kept it in balance the whole time, using his back and core muscles…the ones with the flaming skull on them. Turns out kayaking isn’t only about the arms.  We all had turns with him so we could feel what a competition boat feels like. Then he got out another one which was super streamlined and completely round on the bottom. He had Bill get in, which lasted about 10 seconds before it threw him in the water.  He taught Bill how to climb back in the boat from the water, which was quite impressive. His intention was to show us how much more responsive the other boats are so we wouldn’t get discouraged with the ones we were using because “as you get better you will graduate to the better boats.”  He said this as if we were going to continue past the three lessons we paid for.  It had the opposite effect on me, I decided I never wanted to move past the boat I was using. Bill was all in as usual, and I thought- ‘What have I created?’

Our last lesson was almost canceled due to rainy weather, but when we arrived our instructor was ready to go, even though he was leaving early to compete in the World Championship in Portugal that afternoon. He gave me some tips on how to fix my arm positions, and told me just to practice only arms…not to worry about going in circles.  He filmed some more from his boat and then worked with Bill quite a bit from the dock. I had a bit of a breakthrough, in that it seemed all of the different things came together and a couple of times I actually went straight!

kayak with paddle.jpg

Our instructor had to catch his flight out, so we wished him well and said our goodbyes.  I’m not sure he made me into a kayaker in our lessons together, but he certainly has two new fans who will follow his career. As for us, we will continue to kayak, but I think we will stick with the little rental places around here. Even in the unexpected level of lessons, I reconnected with my love for being on the water that I have missed. I don’t think you will see me in any competitions any time soon…but if you do, I will be the one going in circles.

(I got all of these pictures from unsplash.com)

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