Sep 27, 2013, 06:59AM

What Kayaking Will Teach You

Lessons from a boat and a paddle.

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I went kayaking for the first time last summer. It ended badly with a near-drowning and rescue out of the Chesapeake Bay. I spent a year not going kayaking again. Spending a lot of time on an island and being a sea glass hunter meant I really wanted to try again, but I couldn’t shake the visions of being tossed around in the bay, unable to get back into my kayak.

A friend from the book club asked if I wanted to go out and kayak with her. I had flashbacks of being left behind by the other kayaker. She assured me we’d only go out into the Choptank River, in four feet of water, so if I flipped over, I could just stand up. I could do standing, I figured. So a few months ago I went out with her. It was blissful. Loved it. In calm waters on a low tide, we could make it to the best sea glass hunting beach I’ve ever seen, and I found amazing and rare colors.  We went out a few more times, and I was hooked.

Kayaking is great exercise. Normally I only exercise primarily my lower body (read: shake my ass in hip-hop cardio class), and paddling is a great workout for the upper body. Kayaking alone to an abandoned beach is absolutely the most peaceful state in which I’ve ever existed. Not to go all new-agey, but it truly restores my soul. The island in general is like one huge life iPhone charger; when my batteries are low, I need to charge them with bay breezes, Great Blue Herons and sweet silence.

Spending time kayaking over the last few months has taught me a few things that apply to life in general:

  1. The tides govern all, and you have no control over them. But you should understand the tides. My tide chart app lets me know when low tide is and I leave an hour before. Kayaking at high tide can be a bad idea. The tides change quickly, the currents can suck you in the opposite direction you intended to go and sometimes you have to work hard just to stay afloat. Ditto weather: you can’t control it, but you can check it. Storms can suck, so you want to be ready.
  2. It’s all about balance. When you launch a kayak, you learn to quickly adjust your stance so it’s wide and low until you’re seated. Jump in too fast, or too far to one side? And you’ll find yourself underwater. Put too much crap in the front or the back of the boat, and it throws off your steering when you row. You gotta try to keep the balance.
  3. Know your destination. Where are you going in the kayak? Depending on what kind of person you are, this can matter. You can sit around for an hour measuring mile distance, wind strength, water depth and all kinds of factors that will affect your trip. At low tide, I just get in the boat and go, because I think it’s more about the journey than the destination, like they say in all the motivational posters.
  4. Bring supplies. What you planned as a three-hour tour can end up as eight hours because you discovered a beach you swear no one’s ever seen before.  So bring a bag containing water, granola bars, sunscreen and bug spray. If it’s a hot, sunny day you don’t want to end up dehydrated and starving.
  5. Communications are important. I only bring my iPhone (in a zip-lock bag) mainly because the EMTs at the fire hall have a boat and are super cute, so I envision a damsel-in-distress rescue at some point. What I end up using my phone for more than anything, though, is the Notes function. As a writer, most of my ideas come when I’m out on the water paddling. It’s amazing what clearing your mind can do to make you think of something. I’m too dumb to remember the ideas, though, so I jot down article ideas for later.
  6. Ride the waves. Sometimes, when paddling against the current, it feels like you’re going uphill slowly. You just work and work and pull and pull against that water and it takes forever to get where you’re going. But once in awhile, the tide and the wind and the current are just right, and you have two choices. You can keep paddling like a champ because you’ll go even faster, or you can choose, just for a few minutes, to cruise, and let the forces of nature take you toward your destination, even if you’re not sure what that is.


—Follow Mary McCarthy on Twitter @marymac or see more of her kayaking pictures on Instagram.


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