Learn to Kayak and experience this serene and thrilling sport

I am spending the weekend at Neah Bay along the northwesternnose of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, in a sea-kayaking coursecalled, ominously, "Introduction to Rough Water." I am ponderingone final run, out through the surf zone to the Pacific swell andback, in an 18-foot fiberglass banana that these waves can tosslike a Popsicle stick. The surf has been building all afternoon; Idon't want to go. But an inner voice nags: carpe diem. Today I have the expert coaching of LeonSommé and Shawna Franklin, two of the Northwest's topsea-kayak instructors. But next time, I'll be on my own.

This is the third kayaking course I've enrolled in since I fellin love with the sport six years ago. Each new adventure has forcedme to push my personal envelope to the limit. As John Meyer,co-owner of Seattle's Northwest Outdoor Center, puts it, kayaking'slearning 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 coursestarted benignly on Lake Washington. A certifiable klutz in allathletic endeavors, I capsized my boat just getting into it, inwater 1 foot deep. On the lake, I struggled for hours simply tryingto paddle in a straight line ― as my mentor, following a fewyards 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) instructorled nine of us out into Puget Sound one not- very-balmy evening andannounced a surprise drill: "On the count of three, you're allgoing 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 atonce, but we train for worst-case scenarios." We chorused aprotest. It was cold, windy, and getting dark. "No negotiation," hebarked. "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 awhitewater kayak, it is designed for speed and endurance ―I'm still no athlete, but I can hold a cruising speed of 3 1/2knots (4 miles per hour) all day.

A sea kayak can handle a range of situations. It's at home onbays and inlets sheltered from the open sea, and on lakes and lazyrivers too. Since the Pacific Northwest comprises all these, theregion has become the West Coast's nerve center of sea kayaking.But you'll see kayaks all over, from San Diego Bay to Alaska'sGlacier Bay.

At its best, sea kayaking offers a meditative oneness with themarine environment. Adventure writer Tim Cahill said it perfectly:"Paddling sometimes feels like a religious chant, a prayer offeredto sea." When all's going well, a paddler morphs into a kind ofhonorary sea mammal.

Building confidence and skills

But to achieve that marine nirvana, you have to be able tohandle the frustrations that the sea will throw out to test you.Organized instruction is essential. Any intro course should coverbasic paddle strokes, bracing (to avoid a capsize), self-rescuesand assisted rescues, how to judge weather and currents, marinenavigation, 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 itas a confidence-builder. If you can roll, you're much more capablein a wide range of situations." Adds George Gronseth, founder ofSeattle's Kayak Academy, "By learning the roll, you're actuallyless 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 takethat final run at the Pacific. Sommé and Franklin have spentthe day teaching us to paddle parallel to waves, leaning the kayakagainst them, and reverse-paddling through breakers ― anessential skill, because a kayak must approach the beach slowly ona wave's back side, not hurtling forward like a surfboard. Now, asFranklin tells me, "We can't teach judgment. You have to gain thatby going out."

I paddle through the surf zone, punching forward through 3-footwaves. I'm turning the kayak for the ride back to the beach when asoapy green monster coalesces before I'm ready, Neptune's revengearising from the deep. I slide sideways across its face, brace likecrazy, then furiously paddle in reverse. The wave breaks over myhead, but I'm still upright. Then a second wave comes, and it's alittle smaller, so I opt to ride it. This cowboy move slings metoward the beach, way too fast and out of control, but I literallylean on the wave with my paddle and survive the careening ride.

"That was awesome!" shouts Sommé, and I bask in that glowfor five seconds before getting honest: it was luck. But it wasalso one more ratchet up that arc, and it was fun.

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