Adventure, Sea Kayaking, Texas

Kayaking in Bad Water

Ken, my kayak mentor

Ken, my kayak mentor

“I owe you an apology,” Ken said.

He pulled his boat closer to mine, matching my pace. We had just come into the harbor from the heaviest seas I’ve ever kayaked. The big waves knocked my little boat around for miles. The harbor, protected by a wall of rocks, seemed laughably calm by comparison.

“An apology? Why?”

Ken opened his mouth in a guilty grin.

“When we started out today, I didn’t think you would make it.”

Ken is 81 years old. He’s been kayaking for 20 of those years, and that makes him one of the more experienced paddlers on the Gulf coast. He’s mentioned in books, been the subject of magazine features, and a Veracruz, Mexico-based sea kayak company even named one of their boat models after him. Not a bad C.V. for someone who started post-retirement.

Whatever fame Ken may have earned, however, is invisible when you talk to him. If you saw him at Paddle Fest you’d think he was just one more weekend hobbyist having a day off. But you might notice that everyone knows him—and many have learned what they know from him. He’s just plain easy to get along with.

That isn’t why I asked him to teach me. Last winter I spent months researching kayak schools, instructors and tour companies across the Texas coast. Ken’s name kept coming up again and again, and finally I contacted him. I told him my plan to paddle along 1,000 miles of Mexico as the next leg of my journey.

“I could teach you to do that.”

“How much would you charge for lessons? By the week, or month or…?”

He laughed. “No, just show up. I go paddling every single day. If you break anything you’ve bought it, but you can tag along for free.”

That’s a pretty good sales pitch.

For most people, kayaking is safe. It takes a little while to get your balance down (most new paddlers end up in the water at least once) but in the bargain you get a fast, agile, unsinkable boat. Take it out for an afternoon fishing trip, or a tour along the coastal marsh on a sunny day, and chances are you won’t get hurt unless you’re drinking.

But safety evaporates quickly if you’re going on a sea voyage. You can spend days on the water at a time sleeping in the boat as you go, or you can hug the coastline and put in to shore every night (that’s the choice I prefer). Both options demand skills: I’ll need to surf my kayak on 10-foot waves, muscle through surf to get to open water, roll completely undersea and back up again, and turn 360-degrees in driving winds without tipping over. That’s to say nothing of navigating, gauging the weather or avoiding collisions with ships and rocks.

Our first day out together I learned to “brace.” This is a seemingly magical process where you slap your paddle on the surface of the water and it supports you as if you’re pushing on a solid floor. That went well enough, so Ken told me I was ready to roll.

I did not feel good about this.

“Do you tend to panic when you’re underwater?” Ken asked.

“Not generally.”

He found this hilarious. I didn’t get it: I’ll gladly cannonball off a dock, but rolling means turning your kayak upside down while you’re in it. Going underwater is less than relaxing when you’re pinned there by a 19 foot fiberglass wrestler.

But here’s the secret of adventure: everybody is scared as shit. Adventurers have exactly no less fear and no more bravery than anyone else. All we have is more determination. That’s where all the good fireside stories come from—a gritting will to keep trying. If you keep not quitting long enough, eventually you look like a genius.

I told Ken we should do it.

Me on the water.

Me on the water.

I didn’t drown on my first attempt at rolling, nor today with four foot waves (small by Gulf standards, but enough that Ken told me many experienced paddlers wouldn’t have gone out). I don’t move like a fish—sometimes I’m about as graceful as a kid playing pirates—but being out there on the water holds an excitement, a true sense of exploring.

I can’t yet say whether the 1,000 mile paddle will really happen. I could simply walk to Mexico, and that would make it very easy for other people to join me (for a day, a weekend or a few hundred miles). A kayak expedition is not so easy to join. It takes thousands of dollars of equipment per person, and extensive training. Both options would be grand, would be truly worthy of the word “adventure,” but only one option is really accessible. What matters more, companionship or great deeds?

An inner voice tells me I must help other dreamers go on journeys too. If my own journey doesn’t do that, I think it might feel rather less than heroic.

Did you know you can kayak with Ken Johnson? He offers tours and instruction.


12 thoughts on “Kayaking in Bad Water

  1. Gary Fortuin says:

    Also- I shared this with my team at work.  Every year at this time we ‘roll’ our kayak in a way as we get ready to produce around 7 million tax statements for the company.   Yes, I’m using the metaphor of kayaking in the gulf in relation to creating tax statements.


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