When my husband proposed a 27-mile paddling adventure to circumnavigate Gardiner’s Island, I said yes without hesitation.
Long distance running, I figured, had equipped me with all the skills and experience I’d need for the task. After all, I can cover 26.2 miles on foot without a problem. Four a.m. departures are routine for me. I know how to stay fueled enough to keep my energy levels steady without getting into bathroom trouble. And even if nature calls, I am a master at squatting wherever I am and taking care of business. Most importantly, perhaps, I am at complete peace with my pace. I start slow and finish strong. It’s comfortable, it’s conversational, and completely sustainable for hours and hours upon end.
But some things, I learned, don’t translate so easily from land to sea.
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“PICK UP THE PACE!”
The sound was faint, but my husband’s directions were clear as day. When someone levies this command, there’s no mistaking it.
We were aiming for Cartright Shoal, a sandbar four miles from shore we’d designated as our first rest stop. The cross-current was tossing our kayaks like salad. The forecasters had vowed that the winds wouldn’t get stronger than 3 mph, but now, at 5:30 a.m. they were gusting strong enough to drown out the sound of my huffing and puffing.
I glanced at my Garmin, in search of a lift. I’d brought it along for moral support, figuring that seeing the miles accumulate would provide a steady flow of positive feedback when the going got tough. After all, it worked for running.
One mile; 28 minutes.
Not the news I was hoping for.
I watched my husband’s red lifejacket disappear into the horizon, and sighed hard.
I was accustomed to letting the race pack speed ahead without me, but this effort felt like a nightmare: I was pouring every ounce of energy and strength I had into moving towards a destination that never got any closer, no matter how hard or how fast I tried. I was going nowhere. I needed a little positive self-talk. I leaned on what had worked in marathons.
You’re not in pain. You’re not injured. Just keep going. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going. It just matters that you’re going. You’re a runner. You’ve done way harder than this. Just keep going. Don’t give up.
An hour later, I crashed into the sandy beach and emptied myself out of the cockpit, sideways.
I dusted off the sand and the seaweed, bit hard into a cheese stick and grumbled softly, trying not to get too worked up about how little distance we’d covered and how exhausted I already was.
How could I be so out of shape? I ran the San Francisco Marathon last weekend. I ran 17 miles yesterday. I can’t believe I ever considered myself an athlete. I’m supposed to be training for the Toronto Marathon. How am I ever going to finish that?
I had learned from running never to seriously entertain any doubts, fears, or urges experienced before the halfway point. For better or for worse, we were still three miles from the starting line, then it would be another 27 miles around the island.
Peter had landed 20 minutes earlier, and had already cased the island. He was snapping photos and cheerily chirping about his findings.
“We could totally paddle out here and camp out,” he said. “Who would know?”
“Yup,” I grunted, stuffing back tears.
I turned back to Garmin.
Four miles; 90 minutes.
If I was running 27 miles today, I’d have covered 10 miles and only have 17 to go. I barely made it to the rest stop. What was I thinking?
Rattled, and unsure of how I would make it another 30 miles, I stopped at an abandoned lobster trap and used one of the few remaining skills I still felt confident about.
I squatted and peed.
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Peter stared hard and long at me and sighed. He was fresh off of completing a course to get certified as a Maine Kayak Guide. He’d never taken the test to get the actual certificate, but after spending a lifetime on the water –on surfboards, rowing shells, canoes, kayaks, and sailboats – (his vanity tag says “WATERMN”)- he was confident on the water and I was confident in him.
Now he was worried. And so therefore, was I.
My slowness – an asset on the ground – had become a liability at sea.
He reviewed the safety protocol for me three more times.
“When a boat comes toward you paddle directly into the wake,” he said. “You don’t want to take the wave broadside. You could capsize.”
“Got it,” I said.
“Now repeat it back to me. What do you do when you see a boat?”
I repeated his instructions verbatim.
And we shoved off.
I tried not to panic, knowing that it would only steal energy I’d need to paddle.
Don’t worry about how fast you’re going. Before you know it, it will all be over.
Shortly after we shoved off, I saw a menacing black flotilla barrelling towards us at top speed. I figured it was a fisherman, eager to get the first catch of the day.
Man they’re aggressive, I thought, as the protocol we’d just reviewed escaped my brain. Runners are so much nicer.
Unsure of what to do, I held up my yellow paddles in an “I surrender” gesture as he pulled up next to us, sending our kayaks bobbing about like weeble wobbles in his wake.
“Are you in distress?” he demanded.
“No.” Peter said.
“Well you’re trespassing,” he yelled. “You will be arrested. This is private property.”
Ah, right. Security.
Gardiner’s Island is private property. It’s been owned by the same family for 400 years, and apparently they weren’t taking visitors.
“You’re being watched,” he continued. “There are security cameras all over the island.”
He was wearing no uniform, but definitely took his job seriously. I expected him to take out a gun at any minute. “We’ve taken down your license and your boat numbers. You will be arrested.”
Security cameras, where? In the sand? In the seaweed? In the lobster trap? Had my bathroom break tripped off the authorities? Did they have my bare buns on film?
“If you step again on the island,” he warned, “you will be arrested.”
“Ok,” my husband said. “Sorry. Thank you.”
We watched him speed off.
“There’s no way that we can paddle around Gardiner’s Island without stopping,” Peter said.
“We must abort the mission.”
I was disappointed, as I was looking forward to the bragging rights I’d earn telling everyone about our 27-mile paddling adventure. But I’d exhausted any excitement about actually paddling that far. There was a tiny part of me, I admit, that considered our near arrest somewhat of a bailout. Narrowly escaping a night in jail sounded way tougher than DNF’ing our adventure for lack of guts and gusto.
We forged on to explore some of the other areas of the bay. Without the prospect of a long-distance endurance test hanging over our heads, my mood lifted a bit, and I felt, for the first time that day, energized. Nevetheless, I continued along at my pokey pace. After all, we no longer had to worry about finishing the journey before sundown. Why rush?
As we reached the next spit of land, 5 miles and 3 hours later, my husband sighed and stared at me, again, long and hard.
He pulled off to shore, and without a word, took out a rope, and tied my boat to his and started paddling. He was giving me a tow.
If it was going to make him less miserable, that was fine by me, and it would likely make me way less miserable too.
It was actually kind of nice, just floating along, all of my strokes as value added.
When we finally reached shore, I looked at my Garmin one last time.
13.93 miles; 5 hours, 52 minutes.
As we dragged the boats and equipment out of the water and on to the car, I tried not to draw comparisons to the pain, angst, and energy cost of this 14 miles compared to its cost on land, but it was impossible.
I could cover nearly 40 miles in that time on land. No equipment to haul up, and no one ever hassles you about trespassing. I’m sticking with running. This water stuff is for the fish.
“Now that I think about it,” Peter said, “I guess it might have been better if we’d trained for this all summer and built up to this.”
Right. Blinding flash of the obvious. The fundamental principle of competition had somehow been lost in translation. If you want to finish and enjoy a long-distance sporting event feeling healthy and strong, you actually have to train your body and your mind for it.
And that takes time. What we had done was akin to jumping into a marathon without training.
“I refuse to feel badly about this,” I protested. “We went out on an adventure. It wasn’t the adventure we planned, but we were out here for six hours and 14 miles. Beats the heck out of sitting in the suburbs talking about it.”
“You’re right,” he said. “It was a beautiful day.”
Best of all, maybe I still had enough time left in the day to go for a run.