Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kayaking with the Big Kids

Several years ago, I wanted to skill up so that I could do more open water paddling, I ran in to a Catch-22. Most of the recreational paddlers I started paddling with weren't interested in ocean paddling, and the more skilled paddlers I knew routinely closed paddles to those they determined to be "less skilled." I don't think it helped that I was a woman and that most of the sea kayakers were guys. For a while, I felt like I had to drag my husband out on every paddle with the "serious" guy paddlers as some sort of chaperone to prove to the guys and their significant others that I was actually there to kayak.* I found it to be a truly miserable time. I tried to recruit folks from my rec kayaking community to skill up without success and I had limited success "breaking in" to what began to feel like the "big kid" paddles. 

So how did I blast through the impasse? Well, two ways. First, I went out and skilled up the best way I knew how: I routinely invited those paddlers I knew to be more skilled on paddles that I planned. A lot of the time, I didn't know what I was doing. Some of them very rightly told me that, but I was not to be deterred. Once some folks determined that I was determined to get on the ocean, others took the time to correct me AND to offer the resources on where to obtain the correct information. They referenced great resources like, leant me nautical charts, and offered insight on the local knowledge they had gained over the years. Most importantly, a few excellent kayakers even began going out with me on the water, then the trips I planned, and supported me in ocean trips even before I knew how to roll. 

The second thing I did was actively work to develop my skills in more formal settings. I found instructors I worked well with and sought out their knowledge. I found that I worked very well with teachers who could clearly demonstrate, who did not overwhelm me with excessive talking, and who had a kind and gentle good humor that kept a nervous learner eager to learn. I almost gave up kayaking after a negative first experience, but Lamar Hudgens at Barrier Island Kayaks showed me that I could do the things I wanted to do AND have a great time. As a result, I've bought two kayaks from him and gone to numerous symposia at his shop.

One very important lesson I learned was that the more skilled kayakers weren't shutting me out of fun trips and adventures because they were cliquish. They were shutting me out because they feared for their safety and the safety of the group. A solid, skilled group of paddlers can only support a few who are less skilled--it's simply a matter of safety. For instance, I planned, or tried to plan, a trip to circumnavigate Bald Head Island in 2009. It was tough for me, even once I got more skilled paddlers to come along; the strong personalities of folks and what I interpreted at the time as an "officious" tone nearly drove me to cancel. But I stuck it out, and as a result, I got to do my first real ocean journey of 20 miles around the Cape of Bald Head.

So where does safety come in to the story? Well, in lots of places. I discovered on that trip that even the skilled paddlers had limits and they (and I) weren't yet aware of mine. They sometimes capsized during surf landings; they didn't always adhere to plan and sometimes took off on their own; some didn't pack enough water. On this trip I discovered that I become violently seasick in ocean swell. I also learned that I could paddle through 5 foot swells, vomit 20 times, and paddle ten miles without bailing out. (Now, seasick medication keeps me happily afloat.) I can't say what the others learned, but I learned I was a lot tougher than I thought and that the "big kid" paddlers still had plenty to learn too. That heartened me considerably. They didn't know it all. They simply knew more than I did and had more practice. With classes and people to practice with, I knew I could learn what they had.

So, if you're new to skilling up, take heart and be persistent. And if you're more skilled, remember what it felt like when you weren't and invite those who are lesser skilled on some of the more challenging, technical paddles. That way, our community continues to grow and to flourish.

Dawn S's account of the Bald Head Adventure is here:Bald Head Island

*My husband became an excellent kayaker in the process. :)


  1. Well said...


  2. I love it when the "Big Kids" let me tag along. I'm glad to have friends who will let me come out and test my skills in the sea. If not it would be practically impossible to practice on my own.

  3. I love it when the "Big Kids" let me tag along. I'm glad to have friends who will let me come out and test my skills in the sea. If not it would be practically impossible to practice on my own.