fitness · fitness classes

“We’re all in the same boat!” a report from women’s kayak classes

A few weeks ago I went to a weekend-long kayak symposium (yes, they call it a symposium) at James Island County Park near Charleston, SC.  The weather was warm and so was the water, so I was really looking forward to getting back in a boat after a long winter on dry land.

The event, called the East Coast Paddlesports Symposium (as a philosopher, this term cracks me up every time), features classes for kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders (SUPers), and canoeists of all levels.  I was looking to firm up my basic kayaking skills– paddling, getting in and out of the boat (yes, that’s a thing), boat handling techniques like edging and bracing, and solo and assisted rescues (getting myself and others back in our boats when we fall out, which happens).

The venue was crowded and festive, with vendors, loads of people trying out water craft of all types, and loads of people running around with paddles and PFDs (life jackets, now called Personal Flotation Devices).

Lots of people walking on a path, with kayaks, canoes, vendor tents and demos all around.
Lots of people walking on a path, with kayaks, canoes, vendor tents and demos all around.

My classes mostly consisted of being in (or out of) a kayak in this lovely sheltered lake area, and some nearby coves.  On Friday I took an edging and bracing class, where you learn how to shift your weight to put your boat (sort of) on edge while paddling to help control the direction of your boat, to compensate for currents and wind.

One particularly hilarious exercise we did, for which I was the first volunteer, was a surprise bracing lesson.  The instructor asked me to help him with a demo; I said yes.  Then he got out of his boat, swam over to mine, and proceeded to throw himself onto my front deck, sitting up and pushing my boat all over the place.  This resulted in lots of splashing, me screaming with laughter, delight and a little panic, and using my paddle to brace on either side to keep the boat upright.  Win.

The next Friday class was a solo and assisted rescue class.  I’ve done these sorts of classes a bunch of times, but still can’t consistently and confidently do a solo rescue– that is, get myself back in my kayak by myself in deep water.  We worked on both assisted rescues and solo ones, but I made little progress.  I left the class feeling a bit discouraged.

The next day– Saturday– was a real eye-opener for me.  I had signed up for all women’s only kayak classes.  They had dopey names–  “The Feminine Edge” and (ready to grit your teeth?) “Damsels in Distress, No More”.  Sigh.  Do we really need to set women’s courses apart in these ways?  Methinks not.  But I digress.

In every other way, though, these classes changed the way I think about myself and kayaking.  Seriously.

What do I mean here?  Well, up to then I had thought of myself as particularly ill-suited to sea kayaking because:

  1. I have lots of trouble getting in and out of the boat– I’m not graceful or comfortable or quick to settle myself in the cockpit.  I am really uncomfortable getting out of the boat– sometimes I just turn over in the surf and drag myself out.
  2. I feel major stress and fear of fat shaming when getting outfitted (I don’t own my own equipment…yet), as I worry about finding a boat big enough for me, as well as other equipment that will fit.  As a result, my rental PDFs never seem to fit (they float up to my ears when I’m in the water– a bad thing) and the cockpit never feels right.  I have been fat shamed (and felt fat shamed) most of the times I’ve gotten rental gear.  That’s no fun.
  3. I don’t feel strong enough, lithe enough, thin enough, etc. to perform solo rescues and some other techniques.  I get discouraged and tired and just want to quit.

After reading the above, you might think, “Well, Catherine, since life is short, maybe you might want to consider some other sport”.  Believe me, I have resolved to quit kayaking many times.  But I somehow keep finding my way back to the water.  When I can get away from the above worries, I have a wonderful time.  But I have to deal with these challenges.  Hence the women’s kayak classes.

So, what happened?

Well, first, let me say that almost all of the women in my classes had their own boats and had a lot of experience kayaking (some 15+ years).  Some of them had some pretty impressive skills.

But guess what?  It turns out that all of them had many of the same fears and same problems I have.  Sure, some of the women had more skills than I did, but:

ALL of them thought that solo rescues were really hard.

ALMOST ALL of them couldn’t do the standardly taught “cowboy” solo rescue without some help.

MANY of them were really nervous doing assisted rescues.

ALL of the large-breasted women complained about the fit of their PFDs, so I was in good company.

ALL of the women with their own boats told me that I would get a lot more comfortable if I bought my own boat.  And make sure to get it fitted properly– many women end up with boats that are actually too big for them, which doesn’t work.

So I learned that, when it comes to dealing with fears and worries about kayaking skills and stamina and gear, we’re all in the same boat.

What a relief.

Here’s me at the end of the day, smiling and happy (just before I turned my boat over in the surf and walked proudly, if soggily, onto shore).

Catherine, the happy paddler, returning at the end of the day.
Catherine, the happy paddler, returning at the end of the day.

Now to keep my eyes open for good used kayaks that are right for me.  Stay tuned.

Readers, have you had any eye-opening experiences when you took a women’s only physical activity or sport class?  I’d love to hear from you.



5 thoughts on ““We’re all in the same boat!” a report from women’s kayak classes

    1. Oh, that must have been great! When I was out on the harbor, the dolphins were everywhere. So so cool!

  1. I always resisted women’s only classes because it seems like unnecessary segregation of the sexes – which is something I’m usually fighting against. But I always toyed with the idea of going to a self-defense class. I stayed clear, though, because I didn’t want to live my life in fear of some stranger in the shadows. And going to a self defense class is like a blatant admission that you really are worried that there is a stranger in the shadows. But I have been assaulted (by an acquaintance not a stranger, of course), and my response was to freeze. And I don’t want to have a freeze response. So a couple of months ago, I went with a friend to self-defense. And we did learn some cool moves. And I’m probably more likely to fight and scream instead of freeze. But for several weeks afterwards, I definitely noticed being more vigilant. Is that guy being shifty? Why is he walking so close? Is this the moment? Do I remember the moves? And then I would rehearse the moves in my head. And everything is happening just as I feared – I am thinking about a non-existent man in the shadows (who even if he was there, he probably has a knife or a gun and my 1 hour self-defense class is worthless). This is not how I want to live.

  2. Catherine, loved the post. I would like to learn to kayak but it seems that this year I need to learn how to handle the boat my husband just bought. I have a question though….wet suits and the larger figure….any tips? I purchased a PFD that looks more like a belt and I can just pull the toggle to inflate if needed when in the boat…hated the big bulky things.

  3. Hi Catherine, your post today brought me back to this one. I’ve been doing a lot of kayaking this summer and last and owned a boat some years ago. I’ve been doing some classes to brush up on my skills too. I was doing a session at a local pool in the spring, practicing assisted and solo rescues. My practice partner couldn’t get herself back into the boat at all, she said due to poor upper body strength. I can easily imagine not being able to pull myself back in, if I were tired, too cold, or maybe an injury. I remembered an experienced kayaker telling me about a stirrup rescue, where you use your lower body strength and a paddle float to get back in. It looks very doable. I don’t know why it’s not taught more often, maybe because the teachers are mainly 30-40 something men. If you’re interested, do a search on kayak stirrup rescue. You really just need a good length of webbing, tied in a circle. I’m going to learn it when the weather is a touch warmer. Have fun paddling this summer! Cindy

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