Monday, November 24, 2003

Evening Surf

The location is top secret, but I can say this: it is the Pacific Ocean. Towards evening the wind dies, and waves turn to sculpted glass. They are about head-high to a kayaker, nothing intimidating. Once you’ve known waves, what they feel like, it’s hard to look at them as if you didn’t know them, like a friend or lover. It’s hard not to imagine yourself moving with them, the way you know. Just being here is pure joy, on the water, surrounded by ephemeral art, drenched in it.

Body and boat are one animal, and we move to the rhythm of the ocean. A swell steepens and grows into a perfect emerald slope. Energy of 1,000 miles with the evening sun glowing within it. The crest thins to translucent, bends, and crashes into white. Momentary crystals hang above the foam, then fall into it.

The wooden bow of my boat arrows through the dissipating tumble. Sunlight on wood grain. Rays grow long and orange. The kayak etches line after perfect line down the sculpted curves. On my right, nothing but rushing air. On my left, a wall of green whose topmost edge now steals the gilded sky, now crashes over me in holy baptism.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Submarine Races

 The West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium came and went leaving me with an infusion of kayak enthusiasm from other instructors and from friends seen but once a year.  Not least of all, the Cardboard Kayak race willgo down in history, as well as going down soggy in the water.  My friend Neil and a few of his pals entered as Submarines, Inc with the brilliant idea of building a "boat" around a person, giving them a paddle, mask, fins, and a snorkel as the periscope, and pushing thelucky volunteer into the water to race against other contestants out around a particular kayaker and back.  I was chosen for the privilege.

Less effort went into hydrodynamic design than into explanation. We were shooting for a self-powered submarine. Integral propulsion. Or Inner-Girl propulsion. The plan was based not on the lines of the well-known Inuit tradition, but on the lesser-known but distantly related You-In-It design. Dave from Pygmy Boats misunderstood and thought we'd said "you idiot" design. No, Dave.

Neil & Tim portaged their maritime wonder to the water in a fireman's carry with my cardboard-covered fins flapping the air before me, and my vision limited by my mask and the cardboard around me to a small rectangle of sky. We sang confidently "We All Live In a Cardboard Submarine." At the starting signal, they threw me into the water face down and shouted after me. I was peripherally aware of the other contestants moving rapidly away.

Water seeped into the snorkel. I couldn’t pick my head up to see where I was going. The box made me too stiff to arch up and clear one paddle blade from the water, so each stroke was both push and pull. The box wouldn't let my fins enter the water, either, and air kicking was getting me nowhere on account of the lack of wind. Something had to be modified. It was too late for design work, so I focused on technique. I had joked earlier that mine would be the only craft which could complete a roll.

My technical crew on shore worried when they saw their snorkeled box listing, flippers treading air, and watched the snorkel submerge. Not to worry. I had decommissioned the periscope and opened a porthole—my mouth. The submarine found new balance on its back. From here, the upper paddle blade could clear the water, thus making each stroke pure forward propulsion. Advantages were clear. Direction, however, was not. Eventually I took to using the angle of the sun to steer. Highly advanced internal navigation systems were developing in the slowlywaterlogging submarine.

From somewhere far away I heard cheering. Somebody must have won. Where was the darn turn-around point? Eventually a yellow kayak loomed into my patch of sky and someone asked if I was ok. Never been better. Can I turn around now? Muscles screamed, but I kept paddling. Even experimented with torso rotation. Finally when I tipped my head all the way back I could see people on the beach. I could hear cheering. My paddle touched ground. I was being lifted. The sun spun away. Total disorientation! Vertical? Whoops, capsize. Propped back up again. I raised my paddle in the air--winners of the Submarine Division!