Lessons Learned: Stand Up Paddling Edition

I have to admit, after a week-long vacation aboard the Karen Marie, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Sporting a fresh tan, my shoulders were relaxed and my arms swung easily at my side; there was a strut in my step as I walked the docks. I was proud of my boat and the fact that we made it to three new destinations together, returning no worse for wear.

There would be no sailing the weekend after our trip, as Karen’s family was in town for their annual visit to Newport. Shoulder tension returned, just a bit, as we prepared an itinerary for their visit. An active family, we planned to spend Saturday afternoon exploring Jamestown’s tranquil Dutch Harbor via Stand-Up Paddleboards and kayaks. (This is in spite of the fact that I often scoff at the local “hippies” who practice yoga on the elongated surfboards near our marina.)

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I played through the afternoon multiple times in my head. We would enjoy a leisurely paddle out to Dutch Island then take a short walk to the lighthouse on the southern end. We’d get just enough exercise to burn off breakfast and not feel guilty about fresh fish tacos from The Shack afterwards.

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And it started off just like I had hoped. I snapped pictures from my WaterShot submersible cell-phone case of happy smiles and shared laughter. I even let myself smile as we reached the lighthouse. Everything was going according to plan and I could practically taste the celebratory tacos. I walked along the shoreline, perfecting my rock skipping technique as Karen and her older sister embarked on a “short race.”

Busy counting skips, I lost track of them until a passing boater and his son mentioned that the sisters were fighting against a strong current and might need help. He was right; they were paddling and paddling but being pushed farther north away from their intended destination. Like the tough guy I fancy myself, I took off after them to help guide them out of the channel and away from the incoming current.

Tough guy decision, yes. Smart, not so much.

After reaching them and trying to coach them out of the channel, I found myself being swept up in the current at the same speed I could paddle.

“Some lifeguard I’d make,” I thought to myself.

After much labored paddling, we eventually did get out of the channel and away from danger but not before ending up nearly a mile away from the rental shop.”What was the full day rental fee,” I wondered, as we crawled desperately towards home. Resorting to paddling from a seated position to rest our legs, we were not a pretty sight.

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I waved down a passing boat and asked for a lift. The “captain” informed me that he didn’t want to bring the boards on his boat, pushed his throttles to the pins and left me spitting mad and struggling to stand in his wake. I was furious.

“He’s lucky he wasn’t within an oars reach,” I grumbled.

Later (much later) I realize I wasn’t mad at him, I was mad at myself (OK, and him too a little) for not paying attention to what Sailing for Dummies tells you on page one: be aware of the wind direction and current. I ignored both of those things.

The boater who warned me of the current earlier, watched the whole episode unfold and he, along with his young son, came to our aid, towing us on our boards almost the whole way back to the rental shop, saving us from having to dish out the overtime rental fee. I never did catch our new friend’s name but he epitomized the character that most boaters possess. They’re the kind of people that jump to help someone in need without a moment’s thought of reward. The young boy in the boat was learning from one heck of a role model while the not-so-young boy being dragged behind him on a paddle board ate a big slice of humble pie.

Returning to shore with tired shoulders and wobbly legs, we were a tired bunch. Too tired even for fish tacos; all we wanted was water. It took some time, but we we eventually found ourselves rehydrated and able to laugh about the events of the day. It may not have gone according to plan, but it was a day on the water that I know we’ll all remember for a long time.

Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten out sailing half a dozen times. Most days, I’m happy to report, progress was made and I’ve SLOWLYYYYY but surely been staring to figure out this whole wind-powered thing. Then there are days, like I had a few weeks ago that humble me in a hurry.

On this particular day in question there was a steady breeze between 15 and 20 knots, which had Karen and I zipping around Narragansett Bay at a solid 6-knot clip. Falling into a lull of complacency, I turned the boat too slowly while tacking and ended up in irons (facing directly into the wind, unable to maneuver), which after multiple weeks of avoiding was extremely frustrating. I fired up the engine (that’s cheating, I know) to maneuver us out of out proverbial stalemate. While doing so a strong gust pulled a loose jib sheet from Karen’s hands. Murphy’s Law was our third crewmember that day, and he placed that sheet into the water and into my spinning prop.

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The line spooled around the prop and seized the engine. What amazed me first was how quickly things had gone wrong, one second I’m sailing with sunshine and a smile on my face, the next I’ve lost the power of my engine and jib sail, oh, and that stiff breeze I mentioned before? Well it was pushing us towards cliff-side homes that were growing in size by the second.

The first course of action would be to take down the jib and free it from the line that was pulling it overboard. I told Karen to go down below and grab a knife as I lowered the jib. She came back up holding a dulled steak knife.

“This is the only one we have,” she yelled out.

Good grief, I thought to myself, recalling its inability to cut my chicken dinner the night before. With no other choice, I began hacking at the sheet with a furious pace until I finally freed my sail. Returning to the wheel and using just the mainsail, I could maneuver the boat, but barely. I could keep us off the coast but I realized quickly that I would not make it back to Jamestown with the main alone, I needed to free my prop from the tangled line and revive my engine. Thankfully a mooring ball appeared just a few dozen yards from the shore. I aimed my bow for it, and had Karen snatch it with the boat hook. The mooring line looked as if it came from the Jurassic era. There were pounds of green growth, crustaceans and what I was convinced was a Pterodactyl egg growing on it. Pausing for a moment to mourn the loss of my clean boat, I secured the mess to the cleat.

Now for the dreaded part; diving in to cut my prop free. Seconds after entering the water, I realized I had a tough task ahead of me. Choppy conditions were tossing the boat around and her high stern was slapping the water with gusto.

“I save you from the scrap pile and this is how you treat me,” I thought to myself while imagining the stern knocking me out. Thanks to the conditions, it would take almost half an hour before I could get the line off the prop. I was eventually able to fire up the engine and limp back home.

During that return trip I cursed the boat, I cursed the wind, I cursed my knife but mostly I cursed myself. I made multiple mistakes, but thankfully I also learned numerous lessons that day the most important was that being complacent is much more dangerous than being caught in the irons.