Weekends with Womack

Crossing a threshold in sports—one woman’s watery accomplishment

This summer I’ve been regaling blog readers with tales of my re-acquaintance with kayaking. One of the things that I love about kayaking is that it’s an activity you can do without much instruction, for whatever length of time you want, at whatever pace you want. It also gets you outside, on the water, moving along under your own power. Kayaking in any body of water at all makes me feel a little bit like I used to when I was 10 years old, riding my bike around my neighborhood; I felt liberated, autonomous, the open road (or water) wide open for my exploration.

All this is true.  BUT: when you start to do some sport, you quickly find out that in order to progress to the next level of activity, you have to pass some thresholds. Passing them may require special training, mastery of techniques, strength, speed, stamina, etc. And of course gear.

I talked a little about this in my blog post last week comparing cycling and kayaking. Both sports have a fairly low threshold for beginners—that is, you can do it without a lot of technical know-how. Basketball and tennis, on the other hand (at least in my experience), require some specific skills in order to play a game. I never learned how to do a lay-up so my basketball career never got off the ground…

We all know this—different sports have different-shaped learning curves, and the effort it takes to get to the next point on the curve (the next level of play or participation) varies a lot. As an athlete, being aware of 1) what the learning curve for your activity is, and 2) how much effort it’s going to take to meet your goals for that sport are both pretty important. I’ve learned, for example, that bike racing (road races and crits) for ME would require a level of training that’s just not feasible or desirable for me. However, fun road rides are both feasible and desirable. Competitive squash is also within my reach, given my available time and fitness and skill levels.

Over time, we all readjust our sports and activity goals, often because of time limitations and changing physical constraints, but also because we want to have new or different experiences. One thing I’ve noticed is an increasing desire to experience nature—in the woods or on the water—whenever possible.   Hence the renewed interest in sea kayaking.

This summer, after a long hiatus from it, I’ve been out on rivers and lakes and even saltwater estuaries in recreational and sea kayaks, and it’s been sublime. But one big goal has remained: kayaking in the ocean. That’s where the sports threshold issue reemerges.

In order to kayak safely in the ocean, with waves, currents, tides and changing weather, you need a bunch of skills. Some of them are technical—you need to be able to read, understand, interpret and plan trips based on tide charts, information about currents and the coastal geography of the area and weather forecasts. You also need some paddling skills for maneuvering the boat, like bracing and edging.

And of course you need to be able to get back in the boat if you happen to turn over in deep waters.

rescueThere are two kinds of rescues you learn in sea kayaking—the assisted rescue and the self rescue. The assisted one is where you get back in your boat (from deep water) with some help from a person in another boat. Turns out this isn’t very hard—with good instruction, everyone can do this using one or other of the many techniques available. But the self rescue seems more daunting—you have to get yourself back in the cockpit of your boat while treading water in the ocean, maybe in high seas.

Again, there are a couple of different techniques for self rescue, and I’d done one of them a long time ago. But I had been avoiding trying it again, out of sheer fear of failure. After all, the last time I did this was 15 years ago, and I’m older and feel less confident of my strength and abilities.

But if I want to kayak in the ocean (and do cool kayak trips with my friend Janet), I HAVE TO DO THIS.

So last Wednesday, Janet and I headed to Rockport, Massachusetts, to kayak in the ocean. This place looks exactly the way you might imagine new England coastal towns might look. That is, like this:

rockportThe outfitters wouldn’t let us take out ocean kayaks without demonstrating experience in rescues, but since Janet can do a self rescue in no time flat, and I can do an assisted one, they let us head out to sea. So off we went, picnic lunches stowed in dry bags and bilge pump and paddle float strapped to the decks.

There was some hazy fog along the rocky coast, so we stayed reasonably close to shore, avoiding the many outcroppings of rocks. The lobster fishermen were also trolling in the shallower waters, checking and resetting their lines, so we had to be vigilant. Actually, I’m pretty sure they’re used to kayakers and are adept at not colliding into them, but better to give them wide berth. After all, they’re working.

It was exhilarating and also a bit scary paddling in waves and deep water along a hazy, foggy, rocky coastline. I knew the chances of turning over were slim, and I knew I could get back in the boat with Janet’s assistance. Still, that vague uneasiness lurked in the background. Sigh.

We pulled into a beach for lunch, and some women obliged us with a photo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.04.07 AMAt that point I decided to face my fear and do what I had been avoiding for weeks: time to practice the self rescue.

I told Janet I wanted to try the scramble self rescue (also called the cowboy rescue, but Janet prefers the former name). It looks like this.

Yeah, right.

Having no other excuses for delays (all the lunch had been eaten and beach pictures taken), we took the boats out into the bay, where the water was deep enough but the waters were calmer. Janet did her self rescue first—nothin’ to it. Here she is, smiling astride her kayak.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.06.13 AMNow it was my turn. The moment of truth. ACK. Well, the only way through it is to do it. Here I go—over into the water.

solo1We cheated a little—Janet actually emptied the water from my boat and turned it over. This prepped me for hauling myself back in. I tried getting on from the back, which didn’t work at all. But then I approached the boat from the side, and then centered my chest over the back of the boat. Like so.

solo2Then I had to inch (and I do mean inch) myself onto the back deck, pulling myself, kicking my legs, all the time keeping low and making sure my legs stayed in the water. Janet was coaching me from her boat the whole time, which was a huge help. She also documented it for posterity. Here I am, posing for a photo and pondering how to get myself back in the cockpit, which at the moment, seems very very far away.

solo3Then comes another hard part—sitting up without tipping the boat over. Again, you have to keep your legs in the water to act as stabilizers. Here I am, so close to the cockpit, but with a final challenge before me—move butt over seat back and into cockpit.


Well, who knows how this happened, but it did. Here I am, marveling at my inexplicable but undeniable return to the cockpit of my boat, celebrating with a swig of water.

solo5And then a funny thing happened. When we set back out into deeper ocean to explore the nearby south coast, I felt… great. More confident, more at ease, more able to enjoy the waves, the open water. Oh boy. I had crossed a threshold.

It’s important to note that kayakers have to practice these rescue and other techniques in a variety of conditions (say, in rougher seas and in open water) to be really confident and adept. But with this accomplishment I was on my way.

So readers, what sorts of sports and activity thresholds have you crossed? What thresholds are you looking at now? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

6 thoughts on “Crossing a threshold in sports—one woman’s watery accomplishment

  1. Quite possibly have best day of the summer. Great recap! Thanks for the always awesome company. 🙂

  2. I’m new to kayaking and have taken two fundamentals classes, and the scramble rescue was a huge part of the second class. I tried and tried–and, now, two weeks later, the bruises are nearly faded. Thanks for sharing this message of hope and perseverance. My paddle arrived yesterday. I went all the way to protect my arms, shoulders, and hands and got a bent shaft Werner Calypso to go with a new-to-me 14 ft Eddieline Equinox. So, yeah, now I need to be able to get back in the boat!

  3. What a great description of that feeling. My latest threshold came yesterday. I love open water swimming, and yesterday I discovered that I am strong enough to do the beach-to-beach-to-beach (8 km total) I have dreamed of doing for several years. It only took four hours and I’m feeling good today (despite a few chafed spots). My friend Nadine had been trying to convince me that I had built up enough fitness to do double my normal distance, and she was right! We already talking about a 10 km next summer.

Comments are closed.