Monday at the office
One day in the paddling life of a skin-on-frame kayak builder

Opening my eyes I glance at the clock, eight thirty, but then I realize that it’s actually only seven thirty “yesss!” I whisper.  One of life’s little victories that only comes a few days each year.   Farewell daylight savings time.  Ahead lies cavernous evenings, full of possibility.  Writing projects, reading time, slow cooked dinners, a fire in the woodstove, and evening DVDs.  It’s morning now though, and it’s a training day.   Slowly I crawl from beneath the warmth of the covers and raise my bones to stand and peer out the window.  A brisk east wind is peeling the tops off of eight footers, rolling in from the Pacific.  The light is beautiful, low and soft and clear.  I’m searching the waves with my eyes, watching the rip patterns and looking for a line.    My 4mm neoprene super hero costume slouches lifelessly in a chair on the porch.  Piled nearby are booties, hood, gloves, helmet, and gadget vest.   All of it lying exactly where I dropped it before; none of it clean, none of it dry.  I retreat to the kitchen for a farewell cup of cocoa spice tea and a bowl of cereal.  Then comes the stretching, for a full twenty minutes I lay on the floor loosening my hamstrings and glancing through my new book about how to build a wind generator.  I could lie here all day, anything to avoid going ‘out there’.  The humor in my reluctance isn’t lost on me.   This is my job, I have to go kayaking today, to test new design modifications, on one of the prettiest coastlines in the world.

Reality greets me with an earnest iciness as I slide open the door to the porch to retrieve my wet and flaccid second skin.  I slide into the cold and sticky neoprene, and while unpleasant, the wetsuit isn’t what frightens me.  Pulling on my booties my nose is greeted by a smell that can only belong to something vile.  Someday a deadly flesh-eating bacteria will wipe out most of humanity, and deep in underground bunkers parents will tell their children how it all started right here, in my reeking booties.  I Velcro them shut and slide the suit legs down, more to keep the odor in than the water out.  Two quarts of hot water, three Cliff bars, my cell phone, and a small camera all make the trip down the stairs to rendezvous with my paddles, pump, float bags, paddle float.  Hoisting the crimson skin on frame kayak onto my head I limp toward the beach on a broken foot not quite healed.  A light kayak is a blessing.

Usually I’m nonchalant, but the waves are above seven feet and I never take my eyes off the peeling and plunging water as I walk toward it.  I need to absorb every bit of information that could help me navigate once my view is obscured by the shorebreak.  Ginny follows me with a camera, I haven’t told her where I’m going or when I’ll be back, not because I don’t care, but because I don’t know.

Entering the kayak and launching is automatic, I press my Greenland paddle and the kayak responds until I’m physically halted by a relentless shorebreak, frothing and churning with sand.  There’s no way to get through it and I wouldn’t want to be swept into the small but powerful curls to be slammed into the bottom.  Spotting a tongue of sucking water about a hundred fifty feet to my left I begin working my way sideways, punching the foam piles that march forward as I maneuver.  I reach the tongue and paddle into the zone where it gets ‘real’.  This is no place to linger today and all I can do is look for the next rip and hope I can get out before the next set hits.  I feel so feeble.  The scale of things makes it seem as though my strokes are ineffectual, I wish I were stronger.  I’m paddling with a little bit of reserve, but not as much as I'd like. Working the kayak in beach break this size demands absolute commitment, and the ability to pull hard without getting winded.  At least I have commitment.  I crest the eight foot waves a split second before they throw over, catching a bit of air out the back.  On either side of me the ‘Hawaii Five-O’s’ are firing off.  If one of those hits me it’s going to be bad, so I paddle at full force to get safely offshore.  My heart rate monitor reads 154, which is ten beats slower than last time.  Good, I’m either getting stronger or not as scared.  I turn my vessel ninety degrees to starboard and start up the engines.

Paddling offshore here is pure joy, and worth the difficulty of access.  Once outside the waves are large and swift and I savor the sensation of rising and falling with the energy of the earth’s largest ocean pulsing beneath me.  I trace the shoreline, moving North at a decent clip.  My body warms and as I reach the cliffs I’m starting to feel my hands again.  I dip my hands into the forty-eight degree water as I stroke to keep them out of the forty-two degree wind.  After forty minutes I arrive at short sand beach, a mile long south facing cove backed by 7 ft diameter old growth spruce trees and bordered to the North by Cape Falcon.   The waves drag across the bottom here, slowing their thunder, and the result is a nice, but not as punishing surfers beach.  Few people are surfing and I find a nice peak and pick off a few very nice long rides.  Sliding down the faces and then broaching over the back I have great fun on the bigger sets without the inconvenience of getting pounded in the impact zone.   I take deeper runs on more critical waves and pay for it when wave peaks a bit too fast, I get pitched, and my Sitka spruce paddle snaps under the force of tons of water.  I roll to the surface with the busted halves and look down at the failed wood and wish I had a bigger shaft.   I pull the spare off the foredeck and head back out to sea.

The prudent choice would be to head home but I’ve already come that way and heading somewhere else seems so much more appealing.  Again I turn north, past tall basalt cliffs.   The coves are nice but can’t compare to the raw power of the open beachbreak.  About five miles later I skirt the breakers a bit to close and come dangerously close to being swept away by a rouge fourteen footer that darkens the horizon, definitely a boat breaker.  I give a group of swimming sea lions a wide berth in accordance with the marine life interaction rule:  if you are bigger than it, get closer (and possibly poke at it).  If it’s bigger than you, get farther away. 

I’m hot and starting to feel my arms.  I’m pushing for the cove at Seaside, twenty-two miles from my launching site, but that seems unlikely now.  It’s getting late, I used a lot of energy surfing, I’m fighting a 1-knot current, and my east wind has swung around to the North.   It's been about eighteen miles now and I'm just scratching my way forward, sweating, and a bit off balance.  I don’t want to land on the exposed shoreline so I’m heading for the next cove, a stunning little spot known as Indian Beach.  It’s a hard slog though and when I finally get there my arms feel like noodles.  The surf is easy and offers little resistance as I work my way inside to the shore.   I surf in and lift the kayak onto my head, walking up the sand, onto the trail, and finally onto one of the prettiest little parking lots on the pacific coast.  Again, the light kayak is a blessing.  I glance down at the heart rate monitor computer, 2887 calories.

Trying to remove my PFD with the icy claws that used to be my hands is like playing one of those games with the robot claw that drops into the stuffed animals and gimmick prizes.  I feebly scratch away at the buckles and zippers until I’m finally free.  I approach a surfer, “Excuse me, my hands aren’t working so well, could you open this Cliff bar for me?”   And then on to the next order of business, my cell phone is also a blessing.  “Um, hi, Ginny, what are you doing tonight?  Would you be interested in dinner in Cannon Beach?  Good, because I’m, well, already up here and I’m sort of freezing.”  Ginny to the rescue, a beautiful sunset, and a dinner with LOTS of calories.

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