“Alright everyone, I’m only going to explain this to you once so pay attention. The motion you make with the oars requires minimal effort. It doesn’t take much to move these vessels, but you have to follow instructions. If you do not, I will give you three chances to fix whatever you’re doing wrong and then . . . the coach comes out. The coach is six-foot two and a nasty SOB. He will get in your face, and trust me, you do not want that. I am strict and demanding, but you will learn the correct way to paddle today ladies and gentlemen. I will not hesitate to send you back to shore if you slow us down by not following directions. Do not force me to let the coach out, gentlemen.”
Dan, our kayak instructor, finished his tirade with a long hard stare at Rodney and me. Instinctively, I turned around. Not seeing any spider, snake or shark, I considered that Dan had already singled me out as the ‘problem child’ of our little excursion.
Let’s back up a day or two. Bree asked me on Wednesday if we could try kayaking before leaving Hilton Head Island. By Thursday, we had our fill of biking, swimming and sleeping. Trips to the cinema had depleted possible movies (Inside Out and Jurassic World were excellent by the way), and the next soccer match for the U.S. women was slated for Sunday.
To top it off, Sean and Shannon had driven that day to nearby Savannah to sightsee the homes and hop between the city bars with the women. If I ever wrote a novel about my siblings, the title might read “Old Houses and Free Drinks” or “Strong Alcohol and the Colonial Cottage in Which to Drink It.” Much of the family’s passions can be consolidated into either group, drinking and discussing the nicities of 18th century architecture — my own novel, “Gaming by Day, Reading by Firelight,” escrews all mention of drinking and thus is probably far less interesting. As a poor teetotaler, neither activity really peaked my interest, so I decided to remain in Hilton Head to bike, swim and possibly minigolf. However, after a few hours of pedaling, I regretted my decision, envying the possible adventure Savannah provided. Thus, I signed us up for kayaking for the next morning.
After a short instructional session on shore, we immediately boarded our kayaks and set off for the water trails. Besides Coach Dan, eight of us launched from shore, pairing up in two-man kayaks: a family of four from Alabama; Bree and her friend, Jess; and finally Rodney and me. Coach Dan recognized the Alabama’s (as I began to call them) from a previous excursion, lauding their form and techique. Bree and Jess also received a fair amount of compliments — Jess later revealed her brother teaches kayaking and thus she had a good idea how to manage the backseat or ‘engine.’ Rodney and I were the group’s sole newbies.
Here’s what I learned after about two hours on the water: 1) In a two-man kayak, both men need to paddle in unison on the same side of the kayak (unlike a canoe, I’m told), if not the boat spins in circles, the oars smack into one another like a swordfight between drunken sailors, and — as a result — you look like an idiot, 2) To travel straight, both partners need to alternate between left and right sides, otherwise again you spin in circles and look like an idiot, 3) To turn, partners need to paddle repeatedly on one side of the boat, but if you do not communicate with your partner and remain in sync, you spin in circles and . . . yet again, look like a complete idiot.
Few of these helpful tips were communicated by our coach. He mimed the motion of the oars on shore and reminded us to keep our arms extended and straight. On the water, Dan left us alone, forcing us to cope with the mechanics, which proved . . . trickier than expected. Remaining in sync was our first real hurdle. In the back of the kayak, I had to mimic Rodney’s uneven rhythm, occasionally speeding up and slowing down like an angry man in beltway traffic. Shouting “Left, right, left, right,” kept us in sync but somehow we still found ourselves entangled among the grasses or steered toward a boating lane. I suspected that we were rowing more heavily on the right side, but saw no easy way to remedy this. Meanwhile, Dan, Bree, Jess and the Alabamas paddled further and further upstream.
Another issue was the power turn or ‘sticking the flat of your paddle in the water’ – technique. Dan in his small one-man kayak demonstrated how easy it was to turn quickly in emergencies. In our floundering efforts to move in a straight line and avoid colliding with speedboats, we used the power-turn extensively, but found that it slowed us to a halt and placed us at the mercy of the current. Or the wake of angry speedboats.
Dan only returned to chide us on our incompetance. Whenever he looked behind, Rodney or I were out of sync, fighting the current, or buried in the reeds. After fifteen minutes and two strikes, he abandon us wet with sweat and speedboat water to lead the Alabama’s through the water trails. Rodney and I tried our best to follow but somehow could not stop pinballing between the islands of grassy reeds.
“Do these guys even excerise?” he asked Bree while Rodney and I warded off the rapidly approaching pylons jutting out from some private pier. “Have they done any physical activity before? Ever?”
“Uh . . . no. They play tennis and . . . and run now and then . . . ” she answered somewhat embarassed, as her brother avoided the pier only to be swallowed by the reeds for the fifth time. The insuent cursing could be heard in Savannah.
“Well, you have them,” he said, “I cannot deal with those guys right now.”
God bless my sister. If she had not come to rescue us from ourselves, we’d probably be still floundering in the mud as the tide rolled out to sea. She became our smiling less-hairy drill sergent, shouting ‘One, two, one, two’ until we found our rhythm, explaining how to steer without halting, and basically helping us without abandoning us to struggle on our own. After ten minutes, Rodney and I were gliding through the water trails easily. And you know what? Kayaking became fun.
The rest of the morning, we kept a lookout for wildlife. Dolphins dove beside us, squeaking and splashing our boats. Sand sharks chased schools of shrimp, which attempting to escape bubbled at the surface. Herons speared fish; local oyster farmers pulled in their catch; the tide slowly crept back out to sea.
Hours later safe on shore, I felt proud of myself, for conquering the kayak, by which I mean learning how to move in a straight line and turn effectively. Still, it felt good, until Sean and Shannon returned from their water-boarding excursion with Coach Dan. We sat near the pool at the time, washing away the sweat and heat. Like sharks, I should have known something was wrong from their smiles.
“He wouldn’t stop talking about this group he had before us,” Sean said, his grin spreading across his face. “He wouldn’t stop praising Bree. Said that this brother and sister booked a kayak excursion and the older brother couldn’t manage to even steer the boat correctly. He had to have help from his baby sister; otherwise he’d still be stuck in the tall grass. What do you think of that, dude?”
I said nothing, but forced my mind to the waterways, the cry of gulls, the quiet flow of the water, and the splash of its denizens. Would it be worthwhile to curse the man, the trip, and thus stain all my accomplishments not to mention the serene beauty with bitter anger? I relaxed and sat back in my lounge chair. Absently, my mouth south the refuge of someone’s margaritta.
“That Bastard!” And I closed my eyes.