fitness · motivation

Back in the kayak again—taking it up a notch in Casco Bay, Maine

Kayaking is deceptive. It seems really easy when you rent a recreational boat to paddle around a lake, or on a flat river or sheltered harbor. And it is.   It’s mellow and fun. I’ve blogged here about the lazy pleasure of taking boats out with friends on the Charles River in Boston, and also more recently here about watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak. These outings were super-fun, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to paddle around in a body of water (urban or rural) when you get the chance.

Sea kayaking, however, is another story.


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That’s Justine Curgenven, a world-class kayaker and documentary filmmaker.  She’s circumnavigated New Zealand, kayaked the Aleutians with Sarah Outen (the first people to do so successfully) and also filmed these and other expeditions.  Just watching her documentaries– like “This is the Sea 4” (part of a series) makes my hands sweat.  It’s worth checking out if you are curious.

Last weekend, I learned first-hand both how wonderful sea kayaking is, and also how steep a learning curve it has.

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On the ocean, there are a lot of factors that you have to consider before even loading gear into the boat:  winds, tides, currents, local topography, waves, and weather conditions.  Then there is the business of knowing how to paddle in bumpy water with swells, tidal races, wind, rocks, etc.  All this is/can be fun, but it requires a variety of skills and also a lot of experience.  And of course you have to know how to get back in your boat when (not if) it capsizes in the ocean.  Many sea kayakers know how to roll their kayaks to get back upright.  Here’s Cheri Perry on her way back up.


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I’m not there yet.  Luckily there are both self- and assisted rescues you can learn to do to get yourself back in the boat when you do an unexpected “wet exit” (one of my favorite euphemisms of all time).

My friend Janet and I arrived on Peak’s Island bright and early Friday morning to join Tom Bergh and Liz Johnson of Maine Island Kayak for their 3-day Fast-Track sea kayaking course.  Tom is a legend among sea kayakers, having paddled all over the world (including Antarctica).  He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met– he offers clear, simple instruction, all tailored to each student’s level.  Liz is relatively new to kayaking, but has embraced it fully and is now a licensed guide and also teaches and assists Tom in many ways in the business.  She was at my side for a lot of the course, always encouraging and offering suggestions that helped increase both my confidence and comfort in the water and my technical skills.

The course lasted three days.  We spent day one getting used to and making adjustment to our boats (beautiful fiberglass sea kayaks made by Nigel Dennis), reviewing some basic paddle strokes in a sheltered cove, and then practicing rescues near the beach in 61-degree (16 C) water, which gets very cold the longer you stay in.

Day two took us to some areas in Casco Bay with rocks, surf, and what they call “bumpy water”– waves, swells, tidal races, choppy seas.  At one point my boat washed up on a rock and I was temporarily stranded out of water.  I yelled “Help!” without thinking.  Turns out that keeping a cool head, assessing the situation, and paddling either forward or backward when the next wave comes in does the trick and gets you unstuck.  Not that I actually did any of this– I flailed about while the instructors tried to get me to listen and calm down.  However, I eventually got myself back on water again.  This happened a second time near the shore, and this time I was (slightly) more ready to deal.

We tried surfing the kayaks on breaking waves, which sent a few of us sideways and exiting wetly.  However, everyone got back in– a little scraped up and soggy, but otherwise fine.  Then we headed over to a nearby island (Cushing Island), where the water pounded the cliffs, sending waves back out to combine with the ones coming in, producing much bigger waves.  And some of us paddled into a little cove, where waves were bouncing everywhere.


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This was very cool.  It was also scary, at least to me.  Just being out on the ocean (even in this relatively protected area), I felt small and vulnerable.  And I was.  So I practiced some strokes while paddling further out from the rocks and cliffs.


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Several times on day two I thought to myself, what in the world am I doing out here?  I’m scared of this.  But at the same time I looked around me, and was overwhelmed with how sublimely beautiful it was on the water, in a boat, a part of the natural scene.


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My fear bobbed alongside my love of the seas and islands and birds and animals (yes, we saw dolphins and a seal).  And that was, in the end, okay.

Day three took us further out– to “the outside” as Tom put it to us.  We crossed shipping channels, used our compasses to plot headings to and from various islands in the bay, surfed a tidal race (I only hit someone else’s boat once– sorry, Humphrey), and crossed through some eddy/current/something scary to go around another island to here:


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Janet (in the blue hat), tried out some of the rock gardens by the cliffs, while I bobbed around and paddled in the swells with Liz.  This time, though, the love outpaced the fear.  It was fantastic to be out there, expanding my “safety box” (as Tom put it) and increasing my confidence and pleasure.

After lunch on a beach and more compass navigation lessons, we headed back.  The wind was up and the area in the above photo had turned really choppy and agitated.  I felt like I was paddling in a washing machine.  Humphrey, an experienced paddler (and husband to Liz, the instructor), stayed alongside me, trying to distract me by discussing legal theory (as he’s a lawyer and I’m a philosopher).  I was concentrating hard on paddling straight, compensating for all the chop, but was smiling– both at his kindness, and at the marvel of nature I was smack in the middle of.

We had a last lesson on towing another boat, and then headed back to the beach.  Janet is in the foreground, and I’m grinning behind her.


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I learned a few things over the kayak weekend.  First, I now know what I don’t know about sea kayaking, which is almost everything.  I’ve got a long way to go.  I also learned that fear can bob alongside pleasure and fun.  And finally I can choose in what ways I push myself out of my “safety box”.  I will be pushing, though, as there’s a lot of water out there to see and explore in.

I talked with Liz this week about her own history and views on sea kayaking. One of the things she likes best about it is the sea kayaking community.  “I find people to be incredibly welcoming. I’ve participated in several different sports, and they tend to be quieter, cerebral. I’ve appreciated that they’re not competitive.”

Liz on fear: “I get scared a lot. We have our safety box within which we feel comfortable. To grow we have to push out the edges of that box. [For example] these are bigger waves. This wind is so strong, I can hardly paddle back. It’s scary. Pushing your boundaries.  Just surfing a wave when we were out got my adrenaline going. [It was] a scary thrill.”

Liz told me that women are actually well-equipped for sea kayaking: “Women don’t have a disadvantage sea kayaking; our advantage is that our center of gravity is lower. This is a huge advantage in a boat. We are more flexible than men—keeping hips loose, maintaining balance—this is really key. We develop upper body strength, too.”

One problem (and this is no surprise to readers of this blog) is that gear manufacturers don’t tend to make boats and gear for women’s bodies, especially ones who are smaller or larger than the average male kayaker. “One hard thing is finding a boat that fits well, especially for smaller women. I’m 5’8” with small frame. The contact you have with your boat is important for maneuvering it, and giving you confidence.”

I agree with her; as a woman who is larger, finding a boat that fits me well is a challenge.  However, when I get my own kayak, I’ll want to get it custom-fitted (to make sure it’s tight enough to have good contact and control, and also comfortable for long distances).

I’ll close with this from Liz about why we sea kayak: “The boat is the vehicle for getting out there, learning about yourself, learning about nature. Everything else is secondary to getting out there.”

Yes yes yes!  I’m going to scale up that steep learning curve, one stroke and one wave at a time.

Readers, what have you done that had such a steep curve?  Do you like those kinds of activities?  I’d love to hear about your experiences.