Adventure, Photographs, Sea Kayaking, Texas

“It Was an Excellent Day”

Me on the sea. Photo by Ken Johnson.

Even though I struggle with how to go forward, I still prepare for a lengthy sea voyage. That’s because I hope to kayak at least the 150 miles of coast between here and Mexico, even if I switch to other transportation at the border.

That 150 miles is challenging. It’ll be a week of 8+ hour paddling days. I will camp out, carry my own provisions and deal with wind and weather with no resupply points. Training has been intense.

Rolling

Possibly the most important sea kayak skill is “the roll.” If you capsize in kayak, a true professional will simply twitch their body, flick their paddle and roll back upright again, ready to keep moving.

This is a life-saving skill. My mentor Ken had me read a collection of kayak disaster stories. Paddlers who got lost and blown off course, groups separated in high seas, and sudden storms that struck from a blue sky. The results were hypothermia, stranding and even death. As much as these accounts differed, they all had one thing in common: everyone would’ve been fine if they’d just stayed in their boat.

That requires rolling.

If your kayak turns over and you don’t know how to roll, your only choice is to eject into the ocean. And most kayakers—even expedition paddlers—fall in the “don’t know how to roll” category.

(Or they can’t do it under storm conditions.)

Rolling isn’t taught as a basic skill. I believe this is a problem. Kayaking 101 should be: how to paddle, how to turn, how to roll. It’s a more important safety precaution than even rescuing kayakers who end up in the water, because it can prevent that situation from happening.

But kayakers hate learning to roll. It’s not just intimidating (as all trained skills are for beginners), it involves the panic of drowning (strapped in a boat with your head underwater), disorientation (upside down), physical shock (you think that water is warm?) and discomfort (salt water sinuses every time). So it’s considered optional… until you get turned over in a storm.

This is where two nasty human habits come together: we avoid danger, and we like comfort. Staying comfortable can cost you your life.

After talking with instructors, I set a goal of 500 successful rolls before I strike out for a Gulf expedition. If I can do that many in practice, it’s likely I’ll roll instinctively if the sea demands it.

The count so far is 60.

Me performing a kayak roll. Photo by Ken Johnson.

Into the Gulf

Recently I’ve pestered Ken to go out in the open Gulf of Mexico. Technically we’re in the Gulf every day, but a line of barrier islands shelter our coast. Conditions are much tougher beyond those islands.

So Ken indulged me. Last week we finally we got the right conditions: a warm, clear day with moderately strong winds. I opted to ride Ken’s Peforma kayak, his most stable wave-surfing boat (the fighter jets of the kayak world). We left in high spirits.

Here’s what I meant when I asked to go the Gulf: let’s paddle hard to cut through the surf, get out to the big gentle swells, and enjoy a day at sea. We’ll have to surf the waves back to shore when finished, a single pulse-pounding run.

Here’s what Ken meant: you’ll paddle hard to cut through the surf, you will immediately turn around and surf the waves back in, and after they have their way with you you will repeat it again, and again, and again.

On the way Ken confided that he had seen conflicting surf figures for the day. “One said waves up to 2.5 feet, the other said up to 4.5 feet.”

Me: “I hope it’s 4.5!”

Ken: (silence)

The reality was a blend of both, with rare waves hitting the 4+ foot category but few that were much smaller. Ken gave me advice, which he doesn’t always do.

“You need to keep paddling as hard as you can into every wave as we go out,” he said. “Unless it’s so big you don’t think you can take it.”

“Then what?”

“Hold your paddle bow-to-stern and lean all the way forward. You’ll probably just cut right through it.”

Probably.

So we went out.

The Cattle of the Lord Tethra

In a fit of beautiful ignorance, my first run out was cheerful and easy. I crashed over waves taller than my body, laughing as my bow stabbed walls of white water. We made it past the surf—that is, where the peaceful waves of the sea approach the shore and turn into white, ravenous monsters—and reached the calm swells beyond. I kept going.

Ken instructed me to turn around and surf back.

“You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be behind you.”

This unnerved me, but I didn’t have long to think. Facing back toward shore, the swells I thought of as peaceful suddenly turned angry. Each one threw the tail of my boat around from behind. I hadn’t even reached the surf and it was a struggle to keep my bearing, the waves launching me forward at great speed. There is no “off” button for this.

I slipped along the swells toward land. Ahead I saw the first white tips of cresting waves, and then I was in one, its bulk behind me and its foam gurgling to my flanks.

In Irish myth, waves are the cattle of the titan Tethra. I had entered a stampede.

I slammed my paddle in a poor man’s version of a “low brace,” literally leaning on the wall of water behind me to keep upright. My brace wobbled—I’m terrible at these—but it held and I stayed up. Firing ahead of the wave I emerged upright and I broke into adrenaline.

“HA!”

The next wave came for me. I rode it, and then the next one. It was one of my best surfing runs because I had no idea what I was facing. I reacted with novice bravery, and bounced from wave to wave.

Until I didn’t. Every wave wants to spin you to one side or the other. Once you’re sideways it just bowls you over, like wolves on a smaller dog. I corrected this the first few times, but less so coming out of each wave, ever more off-course.

WHAM! My brace slipped through or over or under a wave and I was underwater. I had the instinct to keep my paddle, but not the instinct to roll. I yanked the loop on my spray deck and ejected.

Coming up was a rush, but only for a second. This close to shore, in such “small” waves, ejecting is safe. I seized paddle and kayak-nose and walked into shore cold, sore and disoriented.

Photo by Ken Johnson.

Abandonado

Ken surfed in behind me, neither disappointed nor surprised.

“Ready to try again?”

I didn’t feel like it, but that’s not the spirit. “Of course.”

“Great. I’ll wait here.”

“O…kay.”

It makes a lot more sense for Ken to stay where he can see me, and attempt assistance if needed. But it was still disconcerting. But how concerted are you supposed to feel on an Adventure?

The second run resembled the first, except I went under quicker. I strained like crazy to get out of my boat upside-down, and bashed my thigh as I ejected. It left a nasty bruise and a quivering soreness I can still feel.

On the third run I composed myself underwater, accepting that I would be there quite often. (“When you’re not falling in the water you’re not learning.”) In fact, I started to use my rolls.

Or tried to. In the washing machine, it takes a moment to recover your paddle, get it in position and start the roll. I did this, and with good form began to rise from the water—

WHAM!

—and took another wave slamming down onto my hull and face, forcing me back under.

I repeated this abortive maneuver on every run, sometimes getting a gulp of air and re-trying before ejecting. I never once made it upright.

The eleventh run. Photo by Ken Johnson.

Pitchpolin’

Walking in from a close encounter in 50-degree water is fatiguing, so Ken and I had plenty of time to sit in the sun and rest between my attempts. He continued his advice.

“If you’re lifted up by a really big wave,” he explained, “You could see your bow disappear straight down into the water in front of you. If that happens, the nose could hit bottom and launch you end over end. That’ll break your back, or worse, my kayak.”

“Are these waves big enough?”

“Not nearly. But it’s good to know for the future.”

He told me how to get out of it unscathed, and I went out for another run.

Unknown to me, the waves had ripped my forward hatch open—just a hair. That was enough to partly flood it, a gradual process that I didn’t immediately notice. I could tell that I was surfing worse (less successes before wiping out) and that hauling the Performa ashore was harder than before. I attributed this to my spiraling exhaustion.

A flooded front compartment doesn’t just hurt your agility, it makes you nose-heavy. On surf run number nine or so, a four-footer picked up my tail for what I thought would be a great ride.

I watched in slowed-down fascination as the whole front of the kayak dug down into the water. It disappeared just like Ken said. That’s not supposed to happen, I thought, but I was already up at a 60-degree angle.

I leaned back as far as I could and rode it out.

These runs went on and on. Ken explained to me that it’s not because the waves were big or fast—these are puppies by Gulf standards—it’s because they were so damn close together. You could hardly come off of one before the next one just trampled you over. Often there was only time for a single paddle stroke between waves.

“So you go surfing in this stuff all the time?” I asked Ken.

“Me? No, I would never surf in this.”

One time I wiped out on the way out. Another time I braced on the wrong side, essentially volunteering to capsize. And in a black moment of underwater Zen, feeling at total peace and floating into kayak-roll position, the whole boat slammed so violently I swore we’d hit rock. It was the next wave chomping its hooves across my hull.

I made 12 runs. On the eleventh, shivering, worn, teeth clenched, head down, laughter over, paddle held true, I made it back to shore. I had surfed the whole fomorian minefield and reached the sandy shallows where cattle fear to tread.

In spite of myself, I grinned.

Part of me knew: end it here. End it on a high note. But high notes are contagious.

I turned back to the frothing monsters and paddled out to sea. My front compartment was full like a gas tank and I had no idea.

The first wave tore me apart. I almost lost my paddle (“$450 plus shipping,” Ken reminds). My right hand hit sand undersea, the left scraped along the cockpit coaming. When I surfaced I found I’d re-slammed my trembling, frozen thigh and blood was running down my thumb.

I did not walk my boat to shore. We drifted in.

I made offerings to the sea. I checked the equipment and bound my thumb with paper towel. I had trouble walking, standing up or taking my seat.

It was an excellent day.

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

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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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.

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Adventure, Mexico, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

How to Cross Mexico Safely

I was a stranger and this guy had a gun. He told me he took it everywhere so he could shoot whoever tried to mug him.

I told him I was camping out at the County Fairgrounds.

“You’re not gonna wake up,” he told me. “There’s stabbings there every night.”

But the police said I could camp there. They thought it was safe. He laughed.

“Go anywhere else. You don’t know this town. You’ll get robbed!”

I asked if I could camp in his yard instead. Of course not. So I went to the Fairgrounds.

It seemed really nice. I showered, I met the other campers and I slept all night in a windstorm. It was cold but the cold wind never did try to stab me.

That was in Mississippi. A white man named Whitman said I was going to die. He knew all the black people and how bad they all were. They all had knives. I only saw their kids learning to dance in the park and then some of the teens listening to music in cars. I guess they keep the knives really well hidden.

“They’ll cut your head off,” everyone says about Mexico. A lot of Americans tell me that. They sure know a lot about Mexicans.

But the dangers of Mexico are real. The top 200 miles of that country are a war zone. Foreign travelers aren’t really targeted but someone traveling alone on the highways would really stand out. Mexico is one of the safer countries I’ll cross on my journey—safer for an American than the US is—but parts of it are not safe at all.

Options

I basically had three options for how to cross Mexico on my own power.

  1. Bike it. I can make 50-90 miles a day and if I reach hostels before sunset I can just tear through the danger zone. I think this would be a poor way to go because it’s essentially fleeing from one of my favorite cultures.
  2. Pilgrimage. I could join a pilgrimage headed toward the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. We’d be on foot and I’d be in a large group, with a spiritual purpose, which is probably safer. I love this idea but it would also veer me away from my course toward Yucatán.
  3. Take to the sea.

Guess which one I chose.

Something like this.

Something like this.

Kayaking

Dawn lights up the waves like crowns on enemy kings. The weather report is clear—eat quick! Slam that coffee. Up, to the water, up!

The tide is going out and our little barks with it. We face the surf, those pounding walls of water diving into shore. They want to take us back; we are not going back. Paddles in the water, struggling from the hip, struggling from the back, arms taut and hair drenched in foam. Is this to trade one fomhór for another?

There is no other way: to reach the open sea we must break through the surf.

Out on the open, science is our concern; check the compass, point the bows, re-check the weather; are all heads present?

We go so far we cannot see land. Here the water is calmer. It is slow oliphants, not charging bulls and rams; it is the heaving shoulders of sleepy giants.

20 feet up on the swell; a glimpse of horizon, a blast of wind; drop back to the trough 20 feet below. A few paddle-strokes will do you but stay together mates, stay together.

We go like this for some time. There are snacks at sea, cameras come out of drysacks, distant boats are sighted and avoided.

Dolphins jump beside us. Did you know that dolphins will escort kayakers on the open Gulf?

Perhaps it’s sunset, perhaps the GPS says it’s time to make our camp. A hard starboard and we cut toward land.

Now the surf is with us, that hammering crashing wall will carry us to our beds—but it is not tame, no it is not tame. It is on the backs of bulls now, the churn of the stampede that we ride. Like Pamplona we make our run.

The final hundred yards. What speed! The beach looms pink before us, come in at an angle now, turn it to the side—there is no reason to rough up your boat.

Come aground, stow that gear; who’s scouting town and who’s making camp tonight? We need street food, we need cold agua. Welcome ashore, bold spirits, welcome ashore.

How?

The plan is this: reach Texas. Get a sea kayak. Learn to use it. Kayak 1,000 miles from Texas to Coatzacoalcos (see map), stopping every night at a different town or beach.

Considerations:

  • I will be a fluent Spanish speaker before crossing the border,
  • I will cross legally and abide by the 6 month maximum stay in Mexico.
  • I will train extensively in sea kayaking before making the voyage.
  • Assume I will procure all reasonable navigational and safety equipment.
  • Some cartels have boats, however as one experienced Gulf kayaker said: “Kayak jackings are distinctly less common than carjackings.”
  • I would prefer not to go alone.

I leave New Orleans in late June, and will arrive in Corpus Christi, Texas around August 7. I plan to practice on kayaks until late 2013 or early 2014, then begin the voyage.

I invite you to join me. 

The Open Call

I believe the myths are real. I believe we can do great things.

Adventure is my path to that. Adventure tests me, frees me, shows me to shatter past my limits. We are capable of great things: to adventure is to breathe them every day.

It’s not always pleasant. It’s not always safe. The adventurer shies away from unnecessary risk, makes every precaution, but when risk is unavoidable—we grin into the wind.

But it is to live, it is to know, it is to know the self, it is to know the self triumphant.

Often I say: there is no call to adventure. There will be no owl with your invitation letter; no wizard will abuse your door.

Today I prove myself wrong.

I invite you to adventure. I’m giving you notice. The true call is silent, it is urgent, it is in the blood: you feel it if you have the call. You must decide for yourself.

But today, one adventurer is reaching out to you. Come with me. Meet me in Texas, we will find you a boat; we will train together; we will do something great. It may not set records, it may not change history, it will challenge every limit we have, we will throw ourselves to that challenge because—

To adventure is to experience myth.

If you feel a call don’t put it off. Email me to discuss it; whether it’s right for you, individually. We don’t need to make a firm plan just yet. Let’s just talk options.

I’m drew@roguepriest.net and I would like to adventure together.

If you’re a new reader you may enjoy the report on the adventure so far.

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