Seven Lessons of Sea Kayaking

by Edward B. Rackley

Norfolk dawnI scurried around the banks of the Potomac River, burying canned food, clothing and jugs of water in the cargo hatches of my kayak. My launch down the US eastern seaboard was imminent, a journey I’d been preparing for over a year. Weight distribution was the preoccupation of the moment, as the lay of the ballast would determine my tracking ability. Fighting for a straight line over unfamiliar waters in the following weeks would waste time and drain my stamina.

Dark cumulus crowded overhead, but a rainy departure didn’t bother me—a baptism of sorts and reminder that elemental immersion and climate exposure are a kayaker’s default mode. The East coast hurricane season was at its peak, and I’d be tracking storm developments on a weather radio. The draws of an autumn trip were cooler air temperatures and less solar intensity, with coastal waters retaining their summer warmth. The clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies would have thinned, the noisy summer beaches vacated. Raptors and Monarch butterflies had begun their southern migrations down the coast, and fauna would be fattening up for the winter—autumn is a time of preparation and epic distance. Deep winter with its quiet frozen landscape is my idea of perfection, but autumn offers clement temperatures, crisper air and favorable tradewinds for long distance kayaking. It was my final window before the big freeze.

The hatches were near capacity and a last-minute triage became necessary. Crouching to gather what wouldn’t fit in the boat (running shoes, books), several pairs of muddy boots shuffled into my peripheral field. I craned my neck to find I’d been surrounded by a mini flash-mob of weathered, disheveled characters—local fishermen curious about my hurried preparations and bright blue kayak. Murmuring amongst themselves and staring down at me, one finally spoke.

“Where you goin’ in that thing?” The Outer Banks.

“All the way to Carolina?” Yep.

A long silence. “Shee-ut.”

More silence. I was being assessed.

Finally an utterance, matter-of-factly: “Ballza steel.”

“Yep. Boy’s got ballza steel.”

The matter was settled. The group peeled away, still mumbling about my endeavor. An elderly man lingered at a distance, a solitary observer enjoying the river at this early hour. His large stooped frame was neatly dressed, graying afro cropped close to his skull. His clear eyes watched me from behind 70s era chrome-framed lenses. What did he see in me? I continued with final adjustments to bulkier cargo, securing them on deck with elastic webbing. When I looked up again, my observer had repaired to a nearby truck.

Nothing more would fit into the narrow, coffin-shaped boat except the lower half of my body. It was time to launch. My heart raced electric—now began the journey I’d conceived a year ago. I jogged back to the car to thank my friend for the early morning lift.

Inuit paddlers

Walking back to the loading ramp, the elderly man reappeared and approached me. From his right hand hung a loose chain, the kind used for military ID tags. In the seconds we faced each other, his expression changed. No longer a curiosity, I’d become a purpose to him. Without ceremony he held out a large hand-carved wooden crucifix. Nodding my gratitude and briefly holding his gaze, I hung it around my neck. Its weighty, rough-hewn form felt medieval, an amulet from a distant era. Memories of this silent farewell between strangers would resurface periodically over the weeks of solitude that followed.

So began the first of many extended solo trips I’ve enjoyed this year. Most last a few days or a week; the Outer Banks trip covered 350 miles in nearly three weeks. Squeezed between work obligations, every outing corresponds to the psychic craving of the moment: a scorched-earth epic journey down the US coast, a solemn meditative retreat along a quiet river, or a high-kicking adventure in freezing weather or a whirling storm. Whatever the flavor or duration, every adventure is an expedition requiring training, planning and preparation for failure.

Each time I paddle, novelties and insights surface and accumulate, calling out to be described, developed and shared. I write until the inner critic becomes hysterical, then I procrastinate. How to describe my adventures? I could wax poetic about the joys of riding tailwinds and surfing the boat, my close encounters with wildlife, slogging into headwinds for hours and the pleasure of rich conversation after many days without human contact. But dozens of kayak chronicles already exist, masterfully rendering their experiences in as many ways. An acerbic observer of the human circus, Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania sustains these themes for a record 500 pages, only stumbling when indulging his mockery of indigent islanders. I prefer the work of explorer Jon Turk, who circumnavigated the sub-Arctic Ellesmere Island earlier in 2012 (NYT coveragehere). Turk previously paddled Cape Horn and the cold ocean currents connecting Japan and Alaska, once trafficked by Stone Age mariners—the Kon Tiki of epic kayaking—and spent years with a Koryak shaman in the wilds of northern Siberia.

Among modern kayak scribes, Turk sets the bar for the genre because (1) expedition kayaking and marine exploration are his life, writing is secondary (unlike Theroux and others for whom paddling is mere source material); (2) his treatment of the inevitable ‘why’ questions every endurance paddler hears (e.g., why pursue desolate environments, endure incessant personal risk and prolonged solitude?) are credible, concise and void of fatuous navel gazing.

Incredible achievements by kayak are not uncommon but few expeditions receive wider attention. Dramatic as sea kayaking can be, it is devoid of spectacle. There are no cheering stadiums or finish lines, nothing to interest the paparazzi. Its accomplishments are personal, often undocumented. In stark contrast to the popularity and media coverage of professional surfing, yacht racing or collegiate rowing, sponsors of kayaking expeditions are not household names and rarely offer cash prizes. This obscurity serves the sport in important ways however, primarily as a purgative. It is still free of the vanity infecting many fringe or ‘extreme’ sports with competitors for whom bragging rights matter more than testing the limits of human agency.

Examples of this trend are many but the popular Tough Mudder obstacle course events, where racers climb ropes to scale walls, run through fire and traverse ice baths, take the neo-gladiatorial spirit of extreme sports to a new level. A shout-out to the glories of testosterone by fading middle-agers, Tough Mudder is choreographed struggle: man competing against a hostile, man-made environment. Can there be a more depressing spectacle—do our day jobs not generate enough suffering at the hands of other men? The hype and spectacle of Tough Mudder is the antithesis of the sea kayaker’s inward journey, a submission to the caprice and indifference of open sea and sky. In a kayak we learn to listen and cooperate with the subtle drama of nature’s fluid dynamics, or we fail.

Most writers prefer long narrative and scene descriptions to capture the exhilarating trials of sea kayaking. I offer a different approach: a condensation of what I’ve learned from endurance paddling, a kind of primer for the uninitiated compressed into seven themes.

1. Epic at the door

The longer I inhabit the world of Homo faber—of human industry and commerce—the more my passion grows for remote, wild spaces. Sea kayaking offers an attractively minimalist means of traveling to and through isolated, undomesticated environments. Life constraints are such that my destinations are local, the scale of my journeys unremarkable compared to Turk or Theroux. Yet even in my populous post-industrial mid-Atlantic region, mild paddling conditions can turn extreme, heightening personal risk, particularly on solo trips. But danger and distance are not what elevate a kayak journey to the realm of high adventure. Epic can be local too. Learning to appreciate the epic opportunities at our doorstep is a question of perspective and lens, framing and calibration.

This perspectival shift requires a catalyst. My reconfiguring of the epic as local was born of a slow-burning frustration that gradually acquired a quasi-political bite. We know the species has been mobile and migratory since our genetic birth. Yet most of today’s travel is routine, even rote; the mythic dimension of our journeying is gone. Commercial tourism and business travel have replaced the journey as quest. There is no oracle to seek, no pilgrimage or rite of passage to undertake. Foreign travel is a leisurely distraction from our domestic lives; we embark to ‘expand our horizons’ then dutifully return home. We prioritize convenience and efficiency; we seek out pre-packaged experience with well-mannered surprises, never the primal or calamitous variety.

Our tourism of programmed excursions is bled of immediate danger, avoiding discomfort and disorientation. Consider the cruise ship phenomenon, its self-contained world. Climbing Kilimanjaro has become a pampered photo-op exercise in a ‘controlled environment’. However anodyne our excursions have become, something in us is reaching beyond the familiar, seeking a world beyond our bubble, hungry to taste what isn’t us. Despite crippling domesticity, a tiny flicker of something wild and free still animates us. We choose either to extinguish this impulse or to develop it.

Home or away, domestication follows us wherever we go. Our homes, cars and offices continually buffer us from nature’s open systems and caprice to a point where these basic realities become foreign and forbidding. This domesticity refines us and prolongs our lives, as any visit to the developing world will highlight. But it also dilutes certain strengths required for a life in nature. Civilization saturates our lives but it’s ubiquitous and overrated. Sea kayaking presented itself to me as a partial way out.

In some ways I stumbled blindly into sea kayaking. Its minimalism and flow, clean lines and stripped-down qualities long appealed to me. But its potential to invert my received sense of the epic as distant and exotic, heroic and super-sized—this hidden force was slow to reveal itself. But in my short two years of paddling solo on open water, I’ve learned that epiphany and high adventure are all about attitude, not latitude.

The Potomac River flows past my house in Washington DC, meandering north and south before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, a vast brackish region rich in tales of the earliest sea-faring settlers on North American soil, their failures and struggles with presiding indigenous tribes. Where the Chesapeake opens to the Atlantic Ocean begin the Outer Banks, a string of coastal barrier islands whose waters and dunes I explored as a child at my grandfather’s cottage. These places comprise my biography, and yet because of domestication and convenience my knowledge of them is wholly superficial. Before the advent of automated travel and the industrial economy, our knowledge of local forests, hills, and bodies of water was intimate and expert. These features were our active resources, intrinsic to daily survival. Historians have shown how early American settlements perished for lack of knowledge of place: failure to adapt to seasonal dynamics and adopt local survival practices.

Today we navigate our complex of paved roads, bridges, off-ramps and intersections using global positioning technology. Our cars reach most destinations regardless of weather or reference to the cardinal points. This unmooring of mind from habitus is a technological feat bordering on magic, but its result is nothing to praise: an atrophied sense of direction and dim grasp of our natural surroundings. With all these concerns in mind the possibility of paddling the 350-mile stretch between my home on the Potomac River and the family cottage on the Outer Banks became very attractive. Nautical charts and dead reckoning would prevail over a GPS; the smartphone and other gadgets stayed at home. I’d fill the holes in my biogeography by crossing my regional waterways by hand and sleeping on the ground, open to the sky.

Paddling along the sleepy coastal communities of the Chesapeake Bay, through the former Virginae Britannia with its early settlements at Roanoke Island and Jamestown, I encountered these now inert locales as their original urban planners intended: to greet and impress visitors arriving by water. On appearance alone, absent signs of industry or human presence, the solemn stillness of the Chesapeake coastline felt unbroken and ancient. Fish occasionally jumped at my approach, a family of otters hissed at my passing, pelicans swooped overhead and Monarch butterflies pursued their epic migration south. But these moments were rare, and apart from bustling Norfolk Harbor with its cargo ships and aircraft carriers, the rural coastline mostly seemed denuded and stunned.


I thought of the decades of intensive fishing and chemical pollutants draining into the Chesapeake and North Carolina sound from industrial farms inland. Village marinas were abandoned, shops boarded up. Crabbing, oysters, and smallholder farms were no longer commercially viable, and few hands touched the earth. For those who remained, subsistence was managed by serving others’ needs. Tourists and second-homers now stood at the top of the food chain—but where were they? An economic desert had reclaimed what was once a vibrant mercantile region of global reach, like sand dunes overtaking a palm-lined oasis. I’d driven through these areas countless times but only by experiencing them from the water did I grasp the weight of this historical transformation.

My thoughts turned back to my kayak, one of the few prehistoric vessels still in use today. Kayaks have their own story of incremental transformation and progress, and yet retain their original form and function. Construction materials have evolved over four millennia, but original boat designs have not been bested. The movements and practice of paddling, the art of maneuvering through open water and wild weather, also remain unaltered. Most of our personal transport today is passive (we are ‘passengers’), with the work of forward motion being transferred to gears whose propulsion is fueled by the residue of dinosaur bones. The stark and pristine kayak survives as an exotic.

2. The meaning of the boat

Like a lighthouse on a perilous shore, solo maritime expedition speaks to our imagination because of its contrasts: isolation and communion, departure and return, comfort and risk, singular smallness against the ocean’s vastness. But as a symbol for the self’s turbulent journey, seafaring through rough seas holds little interest for me. My primary attraction to sea kayaking is its immediacy, a mode of free movement in wild nature. The antonym of a ‘road trip’, a kayak journey follows no established path, only that born of judgment, intuition and the mercy of the elements. Yes, there are coastlines and river bends to follow, but these do not always allow a direct route for reasons the mariner must learn to recognize. Self-propulsion and constant exposure to the elements are after all our original state, although in the last hundred years they’ve become unwelcome inconveniences to be avoided. We live constantly under shelter, and drive or fly almost everywhere.

This perspective is born of accumulated frustration with the unfortunate mix of forgetting and ingenuity that characterizes how we live today. The kayak is rich in intrinsic meaning, accrued across millennia and long studied by historians. Like other transhistorical human artifacts (hunting tools, clothing, dwellings) the kayak marries functionality and design. A marvel of primitive technology whose lineage reaches back to the sub-Arctic Inuit and Aleut peoples, the qajaq (Inuit) offered a hunter a silent means of getting within harpooning range of his prey—narwhal, seal, whale and caribou—throughout the sub-polar regions of Asia, North America and Greenland.

To conceive and build a single-passenger, watertight vessel out of animal skin, bone and driftwood in order to better stalk large aquatic mammals on open arctic waters shows considerable cunning and courage, particularly in conditions where capsize can be fatal. Early kayaks were personal watercraft built by the hunters themselves, with frames of lashed driftwood or bone and covered in sealskin. Wives and children participated in the construction by curing, drying and sewing the skins. In lean times when protracted storms made hunting impossible, Inuit could rely on two forms of life-saving sustenance: the fresh meat of their sled dogs or boiled seal skin torn from a kayak hull. They preferred to eat their kayaks.

Despite custom tailoring by individual hunters, a recurring symmetry among surviving 16th century Inuit kayaks reveals shared standards on design and construction that reach across a number of sub-Arctic ethnicities. Kayak length for example was typically three times the span of the hunter’s outstretched arms. Width at the cockpit seat was equivalent to the hunter's hips plus two fists, sometimes narrower. Typical depth was a fist plus an extended thumb, making for an average dimension of 17 feet (5.2 m) long, 20–22 inches (51–56 cm) wide and 7 inches (18 cm) deep: snugly fitted compared to today’s sea kayaks. Once seated inside, a special skin jacket (tuilik) was laced around the cockpit to enclose the paddler, creating a waterproof seal. This early spray skirt enabled the ‘Eskimo roll’ to become the preferred method of regaining posture after capsizing, critical to preventing cold swims and possible death.

Today I paddle with an array of tools and modern innovations strapped to my deck that an Inuit would find foreign. These include my hull-embedded compass, hand pump to evacuate water in the cockpit and nautical charts for navigation. My two-bladed paddle is of the lightest carbon fiber. My spray skirt is insulated neoprene for subzero paddling. But these are modern conveniences to make kayaking safer in foul conditions, and very different from the gear accompanying traditional kayakers. Inuit paddlers lashed a miniature armory to their decks, with enough sinew cordage and gaffing hooks to harpoon, dissect and transport a small whale back to camp.

Sea kayaking is full of symbolism and history; its connections to our earliest days of group survival are deep and unique. Still, one doesn’t need to be a Jungian or modern revivalist of skin-on-frame construction to find meaning in the sea kayak. Much of our earliest mechanical innovation was inspired by workings observed in the natural world. Aristotle built an entire natural philosophy around observable phenomena; Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers shared an interpretation of flight mechanics based on avian study. Early kayak design and construction by Inuit, Aleut and other groups was not sui generis, its inspiration is clearly the family of ice seals abundant in marine polar regions. Just as most of us see the trace of a bird’s wing in modern aviation, any committed naturalist will see a seal’s movements in the modern kayak.


In this way the sea kayak is a gift from the past, a living expression of primitive technology that I can own, operate and enjoy. And in a world where much of our experience is mediated through technology and divorced from its origins in nature, kayaking offers one of the last un-mediated and least abstract modes of engaging with an unfamiliar world—the sea, its tributaries and their empty coastlines.

3. Wonder and self-propulsion

Traveling under one’s own power is as basic as it gets. No paddling, no progress. Traveling solo, quiet and low on the water, shifts my perspective from the post-industrial present to a more primitive era, before mechanized transport compressed our experience of travel time and distance. Paddling returns me to this older mode of journeying, ofWilfred Thesiger’s ‘hard road’, where the details of a distant horizon are revealed incrementally and one navigates by dead reckoning.

Inhabiting this silent, slow pace of progress for days on end ensconces the paddler in an ahistorical cocoon. Paddling for hours, days and weeks, my protracted encounter with climate and sea becomes a private chamber of epiphany and fantasy, available right in my own backyard. Passing long familiar places and seeing them from a marine perspective plays pleasurable tricks on the mind. Even after two years of paddling, the kayak’s extreme slowness and the slow-motion unfolding of the horizon while following the arc of a river or the contours of a coastline framed by a low cloud ceiling and shifting tides still trigger the sense of first contact, recalling the privilege of being a visitor from another era or world.

As recent books like Born to Run argue, our bodies are engineered for fine athleticism and endurance, our digestive system a furnace of energy production. A day of sea kayaking can involve tens of thousands of strokes with a double-bladed paddle, roughly a stroke every second. One blade of the paddle slices the water’s surface as the other exits in a graceful, even flow. The terms of this forward march recall tollbooths on a remote highway—to advance, regular deposits are required; in this case the energy exerted by each paddle stroke. And like all combustion engines these days, conservation of energy and efficiency are key to performance. A clean stroke is essential to avoiding premature exhaustion. Weeks of paddling allow ample opportunity to optimize one’s stroke, to minimize extraneous movements and develop stamina.

Unlike canoeing, kayak paddling is a winged, rhythmic sweep that pulls me forward, a stroke at a time, the gurgle of tiny whirlpools in my wake. Regular paddle contact with the water’s shifting surface also builds confidence and stability, the paddle serving as a hand-held balancing bar, not unlike a tightrope walker. Maintaining forward momentum in chaotic seas creates the illusion of stability, but in practice the torso swings port and starboard with each stroke, sometimes dramatically when I’m digging deep. A misplaced downstroke can throw a paddler seriously off balance, even trigger a roll. If in Laurie Anderson’s lexicon, “walking is always falling,” then paddling on turbulent seas is constantly capsizing.

On flat water or gentle seas, the motion of paddling relaxes into an ancient, familiar movement, natural and instinctive as walking. Much of this ease is owed to my paddle, a prosthetic extension of the human arm adapted to aquatic mobility. Little is known of the origins of paddling. As a means of locomotion, is the paddle older than the wheel, for instance—does paddling precede swimming? Steering or poling a heavy log or drifting ice pan downwind requires nothing expressly fashioned by man, so paddles and paddling must be derivative in some sense. But whether kayaking preceded sailing is murky; historians consider both to be pre-Colombian.

4. Endurance and creativity

Physical exercise in all its forms has long been a catalyst of reverie for me. My use of exertion to generate creative insight is not unique; the relation of physical endurance to artistic inspiration was first popularized by painter J.M.W. Turner and the wider Romantic movement of the late 18th century. Immersion in nature and prolonged exertion, often solo, continue to attract artists today. Eve Beglarian, a contemporary composer, recently kayaked the length of the Mississippi River from Minnesota headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, a four-month journey. She described her trip as an experiment in seeking other modes of creative inspiration. For her, endurance kayaking was “a kind of wonderful exercise where your mind can travel as you’re traveling.”

What is it about kayaking that makes the mind travel? The physiology of exercise is primarily responsible, not a ‘communion with nature’ as presumed by the Romantics. The same conditions that invoke flights of mind and euphoria for long-distance runners, endurance cyclists or high altitude climbers apply to kayakers. Increased heart rate pumps fresh blood and oxygen through the brain, stimulating cerebration. Thought may be physiological in substance but the associations we generate are our own, and these defy mechanistic explanation. So the physiological account of reverie and endurance is only partial.

Sven Lindqvist’s telegraphic essay on weightlifting, Bench Press, presents a sardonic but serious investigation of the ways in which physical transformation is central to our experience of being alive. Physical exertion may make a sufficient condition and cause of creative thought, he argues, but another element is required to make the transformation complete. For Lindqvist this is the extended duration of mental focus during endurance activities that elevates the quality of our reflections. “The concentration necessary for sustained exertion creates an inward stillness that is liberating,” he writes. “Fatigue is liberating. The creative moments come in the short intervals between my exertions.”

On the water, however, reverie and kayaking make poor traveling companions. The difficulty lies in recording one’s thoughts while in the boat, as paddling occupies the hands and hands-free drifting is too bumpy for legible handwriting. Nothing on deck or in the hatches is impervious to damp and notebooks absorb humidity like sponges, blurring my scratches into a drunken scrawl. Less a logistics issue than my own mental indiscipline, I’ve yet to figure out how to file my thoughts away for later retrieval. The hours pass, the wheels of exhaustion take over, and I forget them. Ernest Shackleton and his officers on The Endurance kept immaculate journals during their two-year Antarctic odyssey, but with my modern gear I fail to keep a single notebook dry and legible during much shorter, far less arduous outings. Grease pencils resist sand and salt abrasion and supposedly write well on fiberglass hulls, so I may soon be scribbling directly onto my deck.

5. Solitude, companion and mentor

I feel the thorns of solitude on long trips immediately after departure, then acclimatize to being alone. A week into my Outer Banks journey I had spoken to no one, and my thoughts cycled back to the Samaritan I met the morning I left. Our Kabuki bows, his crucifix gift, token of a stranger’s concern—the encounter perfectly encapsulated why I prefer traveling alone, despite the loneliness.
A solo traveler is a stranger, defenseless and accessible, in contrast to group travelers who move behind a wall of their own making. As long as the focus of any pack—animal or human— remains inward, a social barrier is thrown up that ensconces the group. This buffer is not available to the individual, whose attentions extend freely into his surroundings. Exclusive group focus has its social functions (e.g. bonding) but it decreases our chances of serendipitous encounter with others, particularly strangers. Chance encounters with strangers can be good or bad, but group travel, even as a couple, often precludes their very possibility because the interior gaze of any group dynamic occludes our surroundings.

Conversely, the heightened vulnerability and exposure to risk that come with solitude mean that our self-reliance and resourcefulness are forced into serve us in new ways. Alone on violent seas I learned that patience with danger—specifically, restraint in lieu of brash action born of nervousness and fear—always yielded a way through a problem or saw the problem simply dissolve. Panic results from an acute awareness of danger and destroys our ability to perform. Unlearning the physiological association between fear and poor performance requires patience, practice and play.

Before my first long distance journey, I’d jotted a Lindqvist quote in my journal: “In the desert, the loneliness is laid bare that actually exists everywhere.” Lack of human contact was nothing unfamiliar, but the absence of people in the coastal communities I passed felt uncanny, even staged, and definitely post-apocalyptic. Out on the water serendipitous exchanges with genial strangers were impossible, as might have happened on land. But in my silence I was lighter, stealthier, and saw more wildlife as a result. Camping alone with a small tent and no fire, I avoided detection. Unlike land, the water was free, un-owned, unmarked and constantly shifting. Land was fixed, demarcated and belonged to someone. I took subversive pleasure in my stealth camping, far from designated parks and dreary campgrounds.

The solitude we feel on open water is in many ways a mirage. After buying my first kayak I paddled miles offshore to experience ocean swell, test the boat’s handling and practice self-rescue techniques. On a windy, cold afternoon in March, a pod of dolphins joined me, their blowholes trumpeting spume as ragged dorsal fins skimmed the water’s surface. This initial sense of welcome dissolved when I felt a looming presence behind the boat. A quick glance over the stern caught a glistening 30-foot, barnacle-encrusted, rectangular brown form rise high above the waves before disappearing. Such a colossal protrusion could only be attached to a much larger being, an underwater something, who’d chosen to swim very close to me. I knew evasive action was futile. Rattled and resigned, I waited for the worst, which never came.

As my attention drifted from the event, a lyric from childhood sprang to mind: “The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above … .” The lesson was indelible: my feeling of isolation on the open sea was complete illusion. Below the fold—beneath the liquid surface over which I moved—life forms proliferated, their actions unpredictable. Later I learned that several whale species swim the offshore Carolina currents, though sightings such as mine were rare.


6. Learning the language of water

Mountains erupt and landscapes undulate, but the ocean is a place of hypnotic contrasts where silky liquid meets insensate force. Moods range from foul to placid, each instant shaped by extraneous, non-aquatic forces: wind and tides, essentially the pull of lunar phases. The state of the sea at any given moment is the manifestation of these more powerful, invisible forces. Sunburn, salt and sand can purge and neutralize our yoke of domesticity and erode the conditioning accumulated from years of comfortable shelter, clothing and hygiene. I wanted my submission to marine elements to bring depletion and renewal.

Mastering or simply surviving these forces requires buoyancy, forward momentum and the skills to recover from capsize in rough seas. In the worst conditions, balance is secondary to momentum, as boat direction reacts differently to wave size, angle of impact and wind speed, often in counter-intuitive ways. In the beginning I had much to learn, both about boat behavior in complex waters and how to use the paddle as a stabilizer when capsize seemed imminent.

Barrier islands along an ocean coastline provide all the challenges needed to educate a paddler. Negotiating the push and pull of rapid tidal currents as they slice through island inlets can be fearsome, but the ocean’s massive swell is a different order of intimidation. Even without waves or whitecaps, surface dynamics in open water can drop or raise a small boat as much as 20 feet in a few seconds, into troughs so deep you lose sight of land. On my first excursion in heavy seas I went out unloaded, without ballast, but the kayak paddled true, never tippy. I punched through the wave sets landing on the shore and entered the undulating swell of deep ocean. Lowering my skeg (an internal rudder) improved my tracking and confidence, but the sensation of rising and falling between waves and troughs was uncanny, like swinging on a high rope. Ocean kayaking can sometimes be tranquil, but the constant alertness required precludes any real relaxation.

Televised ‘nature shows’ sometimes feature newborn animals at play as an announcer explains how a bear cub or young wolverine learns to hunt and survive through extended periods of play. Play helps an immature animal develop the skills needed to survive as an adult. Riding high swell in a kayak is a magical experience, but only as long as waves and wind do not exceed a paddler’s skill. These forces can increase or die off completely without warning, and my kayak once flooded after waves overtook me with their massive height and strength. My spray skirt couldn’t withstand the amount of water washing over my deck, and waves and chop soon filled the cockpit. Hit by a rogue wave the boat rolled, forcing me to exit. Bellicose seas prevented re-entry or bailing. I floated three hours in cold water, lucky to be rescued.

My fear of overwhelming tailwinds and their waves was still sharp when on a subsequent trip an identical situation arose. Frustration and panic were building when an alternate tactic sprang to mind: instead of leaning forward and paddling hard down the face of the wave, I leaned back and paddled less or not at all. This elevated the nose of the kayak, slowed my descent down the wave and generally stabilized the play of forces between boat and wave as it crashed over my stern. I was elated with my breakthrough—here was another discovery through patient improvisation. I’d also experienced exactly how panic kills performance, and overcome it.

More relaxed in my situation, I glanced to my right at a pair of seagulls who’d been flying low alongside me while I struggled. One of the gulls had a stick in its beak that it would release before diving to catch it in the air or pluck off the water before rising back to its position beside its companion. After the third or fourth instance of this behavior, I realized the gull and I were doing the same thing: playfully practicing a technique that for the bird was central to its success as an airborne hunter. Play is practice, and by improvising without fear or frustration we can intuit ways to increase our mastery of any activity.

7. The uses of risk

Paddling alone on open water is not inherently dangerous provided you’ve practiced self-rescue in rough seas (righting and re-entering a capsized boat) and can maneuver your way out of a variety of threats imminent: a sudden lightning storm, heavy gale or separated shoulder. Much can go wrong, but most eventualities are manageable with proper preparation and rehearsal. We want to feel welcome in nature and generally we are, but our domesticity perpetuates the illusion of nature as benign host, caretaker and muse.

Nature can strike with lethal force—a shark attack or avalanche—but in practice much of its lethality is imperceptibly incremental, deceptively gradual, rarely momentous or sudden. Surviving an emerging threat is less a matter of physical toughness or steely resilience, helpful as these qualities are. In endurance pursuits like sea kayaking or mountain climbing, managing risk and improving our chances of success are primarily about astute observation and the ability to recognize patterns forming in our environment as malicious dynamics that can trap us. Sometimes these dynamics are purely psychological, potentially as lethal as nature’s forces.

Near death experiences are reluctant teachers. I’ve learned very little from emergencies where I inexplicably escaped death. Their one constant is the power of panic to distract, impede and confuse—the ultimate self-sabotage. Emergency survival requires precisely the opposite: the composure and intuition to plan an out. If panic so effectively expedites our undoing, what evolutionary purpose does it serve? Survivors don’t panic; at least they manage not to die from it. In dire emergencies, panic—essentially toxic levels of fear—can kill us and prevent us from saving others.

Norfolk dawn

Seven hours after I took this photo I had lost my boat and was treading water in steep swell a quarter mile from the nearest shore. I’d gone hypothermic, my boat swamped and near sinking. The day began with the goal of crossing Norfolk Harbor, where the Chesapeake Bay and James River meet the Atlantic. The Intracoastal Waterway also runs through this junction, and I hoped to camp on its banks that night. By eleven a.m. I was at mid-crossing, the Norfolk Naval Station was in full view and I could better gauge the size of the waves ricocheting off the loading docks and parked container ships. A westerly wind blew hard down the James River as it entered the Bay, pumping more swell into the fray surrounding me. The morning’s heavy, daunting seas were not behind me as I’d hoped. Afternoon conditions would be much harsher, and I was already paddling at my limit.

My unease grew as I approached the narrow passage between the Craney Island landfill and the Navy docking area, a half mile opening whose tributary meandered through downtown Norfolk and exited town as the Intracoastal Waterway. I was hit by a merciless new wind from the west, blowing down the James as it emptied into the bay. Waves alternated frantically, their outsized confusion mirroring my inner state. Washing over the bow and stern, some rushed down the length of the hull, slamming into my upper body and face. The boat bobbed so violently I felt tossed in all directions; all sense of forward motion was lost. Partially full from the morning’s heavy swell, the new wave action soon swamped my cockpit, the thin nylon spray skirt useless against the deluge. Bailing myself out was pointless; no bilge pump could compete with the gallons of water entering the boat with each new wave.

Fighting off panic, I dug harder into each paddle stroke, desperate to see the shore more distinctly as evidence of distance covered. I tried redirecting the boat to put the largest swell behind me and thus gain ground, but the submerged boat refused my paddle commands. A full cockpit not only makes a kayak non-responsive, it becomes dangerously tippy. The additional gear lashed on deck made it top-heavy, increasing its propensity to roll.

Still I paddled frantically, believing this would maintain balance in the waves and chop. In retrospect my agitation only exacerbated the tippiness of the boat, but my growing panic blinded me to alternatives. With more experience, I’d have known to stop paddling and settle into a drift, wait for calmer seas then bail myself out. Instead I attacked the hostile conditions as a threat on my castle—the boat—not realizing how much it weakened my position.

Not a week later, in similar conditions 120 miles south of Norfolk at Cape Hatteras, I found myself exhausted, exasperated and again flooded by high waves. Another capsize loomed, seemingly inevitable, and my panic peaked again. This time there would be no rescue; I was miles from shore and had seen no other boats all day. After fighting a couple of hours, the prospect of repeated failure was too much. In resignation I lay my paddle across the cockpit and waited to roll. I lowered my head in exhaustion and failure; the worst was yet to come. My gaze fell into my lap, submerged in the reproach of a flooded cockpit.

Time stopped; the coup de grace would arrive any moment. Then, miraculously, the chaos around me relinquished its fury. Hopeful, I looked around and lifted my face to the sun. The wind appeared calm. The waves relaxed, the boat ceased its violent sway. Uncomprehending, I laughed and cried out to the wind. I yanked off the useless spray skirt and began bailing with an empty plastic bottle, relieved in my bones to feel buoyancy return as the cockpit emptied. Only by abandoning my failing, panicked effort had I stumbled into the solution.

Drifting stabilizes a sea kayak even as surrounding conditions remain hostile. Not paddling means less collision with powerful currents, waves and elemental forces. To drift in life is a social taboo; we’re raised to attack every moment and fight to the end. Detachment in crisis is one of many counter-intuitive lessons I’ve learned from sea kayaking.