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The Slocum Challenge Chapter #2

Posted by on September 11, 2012

Chapter 2:  “In Search of the Elusive Plop”

Let me begin with a moment that perhaps some of you can relate to from my fist summer of kayaking 20+ years ago. Having had my first lesson, I felt confident enough the following Saturday to cross the 75 yard channel separating Marion’s inner harbor from it’s outer harbor. Because?

…Well, because I had practiced my low and high brace without capsizing even once. So that must mean that I was in pretty good shape to handle “stuff”. Even though I had little idea as to what stuff was at that point in time.

About half way across the channel, the opposing wind and waves created a death defying 5” to maybe 7” chop. By then, I had episodically started holding my breath imagining a host of worse case scenarios, yet this little voice kept reminding me of staying centered. It was not a very strong voice at all but at least it was there.

After planting a tenuous paddle stroke into the approaching beam wave on my left, I stared to capsize in slow motion to the opposite side. At which time I released my right hand from the paddle shaft and deftly placed my palm on the water to “brace” myself. Let the paddling world take notice that here was someone destined to be a true sea kayaking legend!

Thank goodness that little voice came back.  I snapped my hip up enough to center the kayak and maintain my weight over the mid-line of the boat. I simultaneously grabbed the paddle again and planted it into that same wave that was now surfacing on the right side of my kayak. When I made it to the other side I stopped and laughed like a fool for a good minute or two.  Not exactly the stuff of Sir Edmund Hillary’s summiting the south peak of Mt Everest!

Today, what I find to be most challenging are confused seas, as there are no predictable patterns and the opportunity to broach is always present. I have a fairly reliable high brace; but I cannot roll my kayak despite the efforts of several talented instructor friends.

Paradoxically, it has also been at those times when I encounter confused seas that I have been most able to stay in the moment and focus upon just one element of my stroke to keep the demons of doubt at bay. In other words, I have a strategy to handle my variety of stuff and that leads me to the point of this chapter. What has caught my interest in paddling the Slocum Challenge this year is for it to be an exercise in “mindfulness” or the quest for the ever-elusive “plop”…my silent mantra. Let me digress for a minute to explain what “plop” means to me.

The “catch phase” of a forward stroke is the smooth placement of the paddle blade into the water out near your foot. Think of it as catching the water for an instant before you start to uncoil your body and pull yourself up to and past the paddle. When done properly, there is very little splash as the paddle enters the water. To me it sounds like a “plop” sound when done correctly. What I have also noticed when I am pushing too hard is a huge splash sound caused by my paddle starting its “power phase” before it has even fully entered the water.

This year will be my 5th Slocum River Regatta/Challenge. My goal is to see what happens when I worry less about who is closing the distance from behind or about how hard to push the “Barf-O-Meter”, as I try to achieve a preconceived goal for myself that is not realistic. This year’s goal is to simply be more mindful about the moment I am presently in without imposing any judgments upon that experience and to see what happens.

This is what I have been trying to do more of as the Challenge date draws closer. As a once a week paddler, I am not able to get out on the water any more often than in past years so that part will be a constant. What will be different will be my focus. What will be different will be to see if my time is slower or faster than in past years and to see if the overall experience is more enjoyable.

Before I close out this second chapter, let me suggest a mindfulness challenge of sorts. The next time you are out on the water and the conditions are relatively calm and there are no apparent dangers around you, try this two-minute exercise:

Paddle at a comfortable pace, close your eyes and focus upon just one element of your forward stroke. Just keep that element in mind as your sole focus. Let it become your silent mantra. Then just notice what is happening. Do you notice subtle shifts in the wind on your cheek or that the slapping of the wave against your bow seems louder on one side than the other? Do you become aware of your kayak turning to one side more that the other because your paddle stroke is 6” longer on one side than the other; or perhaps that your grip on the paddle shaft has loosened a little?

Well you get the idea. Judgments fall by the side and pure enjoyment of being on the water may just have increased.

Chapter 3 will be my post race reflections on whether or not I achieved my goals.

Paddle on!…To be more accurate: Plop on!!

– Boreal Alvik


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