By Moulton Avery
(editor’s note: This week, east coast paddling legend Moulton Avery, aka Captain Cold Shock, for his expertise on cold water ailments and what to do about them, reflects on sea kayaking and the joys of aging. Enjoy!)
Ah, personal image, that great deceiver. A decade and a half seems like a hell of a long time when you’re looking forward, but looking back it’s another story. You reach a certain age, you blink your eyes, and suddenly weird hairs are growing out of your ears, your nose, and who knows where else. It’s pretty freaky.
A witches’ brew of family obligations, a weird back injury, and a bum hip knocked me out of the cockpit for roughly that long, and when the doc finally said “OK, dude, you got your new hip, now go forth and paddle”, I naively thought I’d just dust off the old boat and, with a little practice of course, kinda pick up where I left off. I was, in other words, cluelessly waiting for a huge “wake-up call”. It’s a dangerous place to hang out, because when the shocking call finally comes, many a startled older gent has been known to start swilling the grog well before noon.
My first inkling that something might be amiss came during physical therapy for the new hip, when my old boat began calling out to me in my dreams: “Moulton….Mooolton….I’m still here…..If you think you can squeeze your fat, blubbery buttocks into the cockpit….ha ha ha ha ha”. You know, that sort of thing.
Back in the day, with close to fifteen years of good sea kayaking and teaching experience under my belt, I considered myself a pretty good paddler. I was comfortable in the saddle when conditions got “a little pushy”, as we used to say. I’m also familiar with the old line “you never forget how to ride a bicycle”, and figured it surely applied to “riding” a sea kayak as well. As things turned out, I was right. It does. Sort of…
Unfortunately, what I somehow overlooked in my enthusiasm for getting back on the water, was the really fine print that said “Yeah, dumbass, you never forget how, but – check it out: Your paddling now sucks! You want a wake-up call? You want a reality-check? No problemo. C’mere, dude, have I ever got a sport for you!”
That’s one of the things I really love about sea kayaking: it’s simply not possible to BS yourself – or your mates – about your paddling competence. As soon as your boat hits the water, reality intrudes. Oh sure, Whiplash, you were All-Pro back on the beach, but now you’re on the water, and guess what? You either suck at making the boat dance, or you don’t. And I can guarantee you – nobody’s gonna be impressed when you demonstrate your uncanny mastery of the half-roll…
It didn’t take me all that long to figure it out, because as I quickly discovered, I didn’t just suck, I sucked big-time! Somehow, while I was snoring away at the helm, a most unfortunate transmogrificaiton had occurred: I had morphed from being a competent SEA KAYAKER into a brand new state of being. No longer could I consider myself a waterman, or even a waterboy, for that matter. I was now, without question, nothing less than a Sea Slug. It wasn’t a pretty sight, either, and unless I was planning on stopping in Grogtown on my way to Geezerville, something clearly had to be done about it.
Kayaker – Teach Thyself! “Well”, I thought, “that’s just the ticket. Sure I’m a little rusty, but, Crikey, I know how to teach sea kayaking, so hell, I’ll just coach myself. Dust off the old bag o’ tricks and polish it up. Shouldn’t take long. Shouldn’t take long at all.” I was like a blind mole rat, poking his little bewhiskered face out of the tunnel and into the sunlight. I felt the warmth and figured I was home free. Trouble was, I couldn’t see shit. That’s just the way it goes sometimes, and sure enough, that’s exactly how it went for me.
If this was a book, rather than a blog, the back cover would read something like this:
Watch in mute terror as he kicks his way to freedom after another blown roll. Laugh till your sides hurt as he capsizes a Barge-Style rental kayak in flat water a mere four feet from the dock and his glasses are lost. Listen to the whimpering as he blindly reaches out for more Tylenol at 3am. Shake your head in wonder as he loses yet another pair of glasses – this time while standing on the dock, no less – and fries his cell phone diving into the water in a botched attempt at retrieving them, before they, too, are lost in the murky depths. Thrill to the feel of having your jaw drop as he completes a successful roll, but loses a third pair of glasses, this time with a “floaty strap” attached. Where are they? Who the hell knows? If they’re floating nearby – which, by all rights, they should be – he can’t see well enough to find them. Might as well mount a white cane and an inflatable barking dog named Ruffkin to the bow so others can keep a safe distance from this aquatic menace.
And that was just for starters, mates. Folks at the boathouse took such pity on me that they offered me a part-time summer gig helping them lead what I came to think of as “my little ducklings” – a smallish group of 100 or so “sea” kayakers who had signed up for a leisurely evening flatwater paddle on the Potomac River in Washington, DC. You know, a “See the monuments sparkle in the moonlight” kind of outing. Since I was the only “guide” with any teaching experience, they had me run sweep, a location where, as you know, all the folks who really need some pointers just happen to wind up. It was a great experience. “Excuse me, sir, I believe your paddle is upside down.” Folks loved the help and I loved helping them.
But the poor little ducklings. God only knows what they really thought. I mean, picture it: here’s some “guide” supposedly looking out for their safety and welfare, and he seems nice enough with his paddling tips, and vaguely OK, mentally speaking, but what’s the deal with him wearing those sunglasses after dark? How the hell can he see where he’s going?
The “deal”, of course, was that thanks to the recent economic “downturn”, (Go, Wall Street!) our twelve-year-old family business had gone belly up. I was also in the middle of some domestic unpleasantness, and what with all the legal fees, I didn’t have quite enough “green energy”, as my brother likes to put it, to spring for yet a fourth pair of new glasses in eight weeks. So when the third pair skipped town on that blind date with Neptune, the only thing left was my dark prescription shades. It was either wear them, or break out the white cane and Ruffkin, the inflatable barking dog – a combo that doesn’t exactly work in the “guide biz”.
No complaints, though. I know I’m a lucky duck. I may be on the road to Geezerville, but thanks to that get-a-new-hip card, I’m standing on the brakes and taking my life back one paddle stroke at a time. It’s been a whole lot more than wonderful, and you know what? The very best part – the thing that really touches me deeply, is the incredible warm embrace that my fellow paddlers have given me, a prodigal member of the tribe. I was gone a long time, but now, thanks in no small measure to all of you, your friendship, and your moral support, I’m back. It feels really good to be home.
Feel free to comment to Moulton below. Perhaps you have experienced tribulations as you have gotten older which have impacted your kayaking, and maybe you are starting a new phase of sea kayaking. Please share your thoughts and tales. Captain Cold Shock himself will respond to your comments and queries.