I am spending the weekend at Neah Bay along the northwestern nose of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, in a sea-kayaking course called, ominously, "Introduction to Rough Water." I am pondering one final run, out through the surf zone to the Pacific swell and back, in an 18-foot fiberglass banana that these waves can toss like a Popsicle stick. The surf has been building all afternoon; I don't want to go. But an inner voice nags: carpe diem. Today I have the expert coaching of Leon Sommé and Shawna Franklin, two of the Northwest's top sea-kayak instructors. But next time, I'll be on my own.
This is the third kayaking course I've enrolled in since I fell in love with the sport six years ago. Each new adventure has forced me to push my personal envelope to the limit. As John Meyer, co-owner of Seattle's Northwest Outdoor Center, puts it, kayaking's learning curve is an arc through fear, then frustration, and — most important — fun.
A klutz learns to love the kayak
As a beginner, I vividly recall both fear and frustration, although for me, the latter came first. My introductory course started benignly on Lake Washington. A certifiable klutz in all athletic endeavors, I capsized my boat just getting into it, in water 1 foot deep. On the lake, I struggled for hours simply trying to paddle in a straight line — as my mentor, following a few yards off my stern, sternly refused to allow me to use my crutch, the kayak's retractable rudder.
In my next class, an equally unyielding (and wise) instructor led nine of us out into Puget Sound one not- very-balmy evening and announced a surprise drill: "On the count of three, you're all going to capsize, then get back into your boats any way you can. It's extremely rare that a group this size would all lose it at once, but we train for worst-case scenarios." We chorused a protest. It was cold, windy, and getting dark. "No negotiation," he barked. "One, two, three." And over we went.
A most responsive watercraft
With practice, a sea kayak becomes a wonderfully responsive, stable, and companionable watercraft. Roughly twice as long as a whitewater kayak, it is designed for speed and endurance — I'm still no athlete, but I can hold a cruising speed of 3 1/2 knots (4 miles per hour) all day.
A sea kayak can handle a range of situations. It's at home on bays and inlets sheltered from the open sea, and on lakes and lazy rivers too. Since the Pacific Northwest comprises all these, the region has become the West Coast's nerve center of sea kayaking. But you'll see kayaks all over, from San Diego Bay to Alaska's Glacier Bay.
At its best, sea kayaking offers a meditative oneness with the marine environment. Adventure writer Tim Cahill said it perfectly: "Paddling sometimes feels like a religious chant, a prayer offered to sea." When all's going well, a paddler morphs into a kind of honorary sea mammal.
Building confidence and skills
But to achieve that marine nirvana, you have to be able to handle the frustrations that the sea will throw out to test you. Organized instruction is essential. Any intro course should cover basic paddle strokes, bracing (to avoid a capsize), self-rescues and assisted rescues, how to judge weather and currents, marine navigation, kayak equipment, and muscle conditioning.
Some schools teach the Eskimo roll as part of basic training. "You can kayak safely without it," says Sommé, "but we see it as a confidence-builder. If you can roll, you're much more capable in a wide range of situations." Adds George Gronseth, founder of Seattle's Kayak Academy, "By learning the roll, you're actually less likely to need it because it will improve your bracing."
Riding a monster wave
In the late afternoon at Neah Bay, I suck up the nerve to take that final run at the Pacific. Sommé and Franklin have spent the day teaching us to paddle parallel to waves, leaning the kayak against them, and reverse-paddling through breakers — an essential skill, because a kayak must approach the beach slowly on a wave's back side, not hurtling forward like a surfboard. Now, as Franklin tells me, "We can't teach judgment. You have to gain that by going out."
I paddle through the surf zone, punching forward through 3-foot waves. I'm turning the kayak for the ride back to the beach when a soapy green monster coalesces before I'm ready, Neptune's revenge arising from the deep. I slide sideways across its face, brace like crazy, then furiously paddle in reverse. The wave breaks over my head, but I'm still upright. Then a second wave comes, and it's a little smaller, so I opt to ride it. This cowboy move slings me toward the beach, way too fast and out of control, but I literally lean on the wave with my paddle and survive the careening ride.
"That was awesome!" shouts Sommé, and I bask in that glow for five seconds before getting honest: it was luck. But it was also one more ratchet up that arc, and it was fun.