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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Jerk to Inflate

The Dumbing-Down of Paddlesport

by Farwell Forrest

Tamia, who walked by just as I started this column, caught sight of "Jerk to Inflate" and said, "Oh, you're going to write about presidential politics this week, are you?"

Sorry, Tamia. I'm not. And I hope this won't disappoint anyone else. What I am going to write about is the creeping incompetence that seems to be infecting paddlesport. What's been the big news in the three decades that I've been a serious paddler? Easy. Science has made materials stronger and lighter. Boat designs have multiplied and become more specialized. The world's best paddlers have gotten steadily better. Rivers once thought impossible are now run again and again.

But what's happened to the average paddler? Not much, it seems. It's even possible that he (or she) has become less skillful, and even more dependent on technological fixes.

Part of this can be explained by the growing popularity of paddlesport, and the enormous variety of boats available to would-be paddlers. When I first picked up a double paddle, about 25 years ago, only real enthusiasts became kayakers. We all expected to serve a long apprenticeship, and I spent two hours or more nearly every day on (and in) the water, learning to control my boat.

We also didn't have much choice about the boats we paddled. Not counting ultra-specialized racing boats and ultra-expensive folding kayaks, the novice paddler had only two alternatives: a high-volume slalom boat, or a long and very narrow Greenland-style sea kayak.

If you opted for the slalom boat, you spent a lot of time going in circles. If you chose the Greenland kayak, you quickly learned to brace and roll—or you spent more time swimming than you did paddling. Either way, you learned that paddling was a skill.

We weren't all athletes, of course. I certainly wasn't. Be we were prepared to spend a lot of time learning the elements of boat control. If you weren't, you quickly decided to look for another sport.

Nowadays, things are different. More and more paddlers expect the boat to do the hard work. If they can't keep a boat going in straight line, then it must be the boat's fault, right? Well, maybe. There are bad boats, to be sure. But a good paddler can make almost any boat do almost everything. The problem is simple. As paddlesport gets more and more popular, fewer and fewer folks are willing to serve any sort of apprenticeship, let alone submit to a regimen of disciplined practice.

This was brought home to me with considerable force recently. I've been trying to sell two kayaks. Both boats are examples of a now nearly-forgotten type—the high-volume "all-rounder" touring boat. Big and beamy, they're 1960s-vintage slalom boats on steroids. They'll hold gear for a week or more, and Tamia and I have paddled them everywhere from tiny Adirondack ponds to the New Brunswick coast. They're equally at home squirming down some beaverdam-fed seep or breasting a Fundy tidal stream. Which is the same thing as saying that they're equally poor at both things. That's the nature of compromise designs. They'll do almost anything, but they do no one thing supremely well. In short, they make considerable demands on the paddler's skill and judgement.

Few paddlers are up to the job, it seems. I've had literally dozens of semi-serious inquiries about my kayaks, but only two genuinely-interested would-be buyers have actually tried the boats out. One drove three hours to do so. The other came from right next door. The first had a year or more of experience paddling a popular recreational kayak; the other had been in a sea kayak in Florida for an afternoon.

Two very different folks, in short, but they had one thing in common—they expected the boat to keep them going in a straight line. I gave up the idea of selling the boats immediately in both instances, of course. First impressions are important to any would-be buyer, and no one in his right mind wants to sell someone a boat they're not going to be happy with. Still, while we were out on the water together, I thought I'd try a little consciousness-raising in the few minutes I had their undivided attention.

Waste of time. In vain I attempted to explain that these boats—and many others, as well—required a certain finesse. Nothing extraordinary. Just the combination of strength and skill that comes to almost anyone who accepts the discipline of mastering a sport. The two would-be buyers weren't having any. They'd paddled before. The boats they'd paddled went straight whatever they did or didn't do. My boats wouldn't. Case closed.

I could have told them about the ten-hour days Tamia and I have spent in these two boats making miles against Force 5 winds. About descending a steep, rocky little terraced drop on the Deer River without even scratching the gel coat. About portaging both boats and all our gear for more than a mile in a single trip, and still being able to bend down to get a closer look at an Indian Pipe along the trail.

I could have done all these things, but I didn't. These folks didn't want a boat they'd have to learn to paddle, however great the reward might be in the end. They didn't even want to learn to paddle.

Too bad, that. They're missing out on a great deal of fun. And it's not necessarily good news for the rest of us, either. What do I mean? Let me give you another, very different, example. My favorite life-jacket for tours on warm lakes is an early Stearns' inflatable. It's not Coast Guard certified, unfortunately. I have to bring another PFD along to stay on the right side of the law. It's a damned good life-jacket for all that, though—buoyant, comfortable, and fitted-out with a dozen handy pockets. There's only one thing wrong with it, in fact. The lanyard you pull to inflate the jacket ends in a big red plastic tag. So far, so good. But the tag also carries a legend, in big white letters. "Jerk to Inflate," it says.

When I first saw that startling injunction, I asked myself who would need to be told this. Surely anyone buying an inflatable life-jacket would know what the lanyard was for, I thought. And if they didn't, they'd read the instruction booklet that came with the vest, wouldn't they? We depend on our life-jackets to save our lives in a hard chance, after all. Would paddlers really refuse to spend two minutes learning how a new jacket works? Once, I couldn't believe that they would. Now, however, I'm not so sure.

Is it too much trouble to take two minutes to read the life-saving instructions in a booklet? Is it too much trouble to spend two hours—or even two days—learning the rudiments of boat control? Too often, I'm afraid, today's paddlers would answer yes to both these questions. And that's a big problem for us all.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

It's summertime, and the living is easy. Or is it? Next week, Tamia tells what happened when she and Farwell tried to spend a quiet day on a favorite pond. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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