My kayak died last Friday, Friday the thirteenth. I know that some of you saw a photo on Facebook of me kayaking on the Farmington River that day. I did cruise up and down this mile long section of the river but my kayak was terminally ill. I just didn’t know it.
Owning a kayak was once a dream. One summer my husband, I and two of our daughters went camping at Shaver Lake. While sitting in a rented fishing boat, reading a book, I saw a young woman whiz by on a yellow kayak. She cruised by so effortlessly, skimming the water, a ray of sunshine on a blue lake. I wanted to be her. Now I had many reasons for wanting to be her. For one, she was young and I, already slightly over forty, felt old and fat. I had just begun teaching middle school English and had gained weight, a whole dress size worth. She was free and I was tied down by children, husband, job. For a long time, I would remember that girl in her yellow kayak, gliding on the lake, free. For all I know, she could have been speeding along in an effort to flee her problems. But to me, she became a symbol of freedom.
Several years later, in 2003, my husband gave me a kayak lesson for my birthday. Two of my daughters, one daughter’s boyfriend, my husband and I cruised the Oxnard Harbor with a guide. I loved every minute, gliding over the water, seeing the seals bobbing next to us. The next weekend, my husband and I each bought a kayak. My husband bought a sit on top kayak, mostly because he wanted to fish from it. I had other dreams. I wanted to kayak year round so I decided that I needed a traditional sit inside kayak, a touring kayak. I had visions of loading the kayak with gear for the day and traveling around large lakes. I had dreams of learning to roll the kayak so that I could handle waves. I had dreams of ocean voyages. To be honest, I am a timid soul.
I spent maybe a week learning about kayaks. It was summer vacation, so I could devote long hours to online research. I also read the two books on kayaking my daughters gave me. I daydreamed. I wanted something light weight, something I could put on top of our SUV by myself. I wanted something long—at least eleven feet. I wanted something bright so that other boats, those with motors, would see me. So even though my only experience had been in a sit on top kayak, I had a shortlist of three sit-in kayaks, but none were sold anywhere near our house except one. I went to see it. Red on top, white on the bottom, it was sleek, thin and pretty. I wanted it because it was pretty. So I bought a Perception Sonoma kayak, the first of their airalite kayaks, 13.5 feet long, 41 pounds. The kayak was made of a composite plastic which made it much lighter than the polymer kayaks like my husband’s. It was not a true touring kayak but was advertised as being good for day trips on lakes and slow rivers. Instead of buying it at a specialty store, I bought it at a chain sporting goods store. No trying it out. No returns.
The first time I got in the boat at the lagoon at Castaic Lake, I felt like I made a mistake. The boat was narrow, wobbly. Every time I shifted my weight, I thought I would capsize. My boating experience in the past had been canoes and row boats. I had never tried paddling with my knees bent. I couldn’t keep the kayak tracking straight. I would head out to cross the lagoon, but veer right and head to shore. Wind was a problem. The bow rode high in the water; the waves crashed over, splashing. I had just one lesson in strokes—forwards, backwards. I had no lessons on how to handle wind. My husband glided around on his sit on top kayak. I worked hard to keep my balance so I didn’t roll over and went just a few feet. I was wet. I was miserable. I thought I made a mistake. But I couldn’t give up.
I learned to be one with the kayak, keeping my thighs against the pads, my feet on the pedals (frog legs) while I stroked across lakes. I learned to concentrate on balance, keeping my eyes on where I wanted to go. I sang an old song by Melanie, “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates,” to keep my rhythm. I learned to use the wind. I learned to turn it up small creeks, then meander back to the lakes. I found the tricks to rolling with the wakes left by speedboats and wave runners. A few things I never mastered: rolling the kayak and getting back in. If I capsized, I would have to swim to shore, pulling the kayak. I could not climb back in.
And I worried about the kayak. On one of my first trips with it, I managed to knock the kayak off the MDX, bouncing it on the SUV’s hood so that it crashed on the cement boat launch. I worried that I would crack it. I worried that I could scrape it so badly on rocks that it would spring a leak. Eventually I took pride in the scrapes; the wear showed how much I used it.
Once I could cruise effortlessly, I had adventures in the kayak. Every summer I did the entire circumference of Shaver Lake, dodging ski boats and jet skis. I took it to Newport Harbor, where dodging yachts was the biggest difficulty. My kayak was practical. When my ancient Springer Spaniel injured her paws, I put the cart wheels on the kayak and used it like a wagon to pull her down to the lake. Once a thunder storm hit the Sierras while I was on June Lake. I pulled the kayak onto the beach, propped part of it on a rock, and scrambled under it where I sat until the deluge was over.
Kayaking is a quiet sport. I am able to glide close to egrets, herons, small frogs. An osprey once caught a fish just a few feet from my kayak. Last summer while paddling in a cove, I saw a bear strolling across a meadow. At first I thought he was a rock but as I approached, he moved along, oblivious to me in my boat. I enjoy being able to cruise along shorelines, seeing birds, squirrels, deer.
My one excursion into the ocean (outside of a harbor) was fraught with anxiety. We chose to go out from Stinson Beach, a rather quiet cove but first I had to get through the surf. My husband gave me a push and told me to paddle hard. I did but small waves broke over my prow, filling the kayak with water. Uncomfortable (even though I was wearing a wetsuit), I became worried that I had too much water and tried to pump. Then I was afraid of losing my balance. If I overturned my kayak, I wouldn’t be able to get back in. Furthermore my husband had launched his sit on top kayak but then took off and was further out than me (because he wanted a photo). I started to worry about Great White sharks. Did my kayak look like a seal? When I finally calmed down, I could appreciate the sea otters and seals in the area. I swallowed my fear, relaxed and thought I could do this again. Then I tried to coast back in. My kayak overturned, dumping me out, snapping my paddle leash. I was able to grab the kayak and the paddle and wade to shore. Later a friend told me about paddle floats. But I was hesitant to take that kayak into the ocean again and thought about buying a second one.
Now that we are in Connecticut, we need to find new places to fish and kayak. While there is a pond near our house where I could kayak, the best kayaking is in the river. But could I use my kayak in the river? I stopped by the kayak store in Collinsville to see what they recommended for kayaking on the river. One of the women working there asked what I had. So I told her. I told her about my ocean adventure. “Did you put airbags in the bow?” I must have looked puzzled. “I have a similar kayak. The bags help with buoyancy.” A trick I did not know! Were there tricks for kayaking on the river? I decided to take a private lesson to go over strokes and currents.
Friday morning, I met the young college student who was going to review currents and techniques with me. I learned I was a better kayaker than I thought. My use of the paddle to get into a boat in water was good. I tended to make my strokes longer than what is energy efficient but I could correct that. We meandered up the river against the current. My boat began to fill with water. First a little, then some more. “Do you think you have a leak?” my instructor asked. At the end of the lesson, he helped me empty the boat. The store wasn’t opened yet, so I couldn’t see about repairs so I went back out. The boat was filling at a more rapid rate. I came back, emptied it, put it on the cart and went into the store. That’s when I learned that the first Perception airalite kayaks had numerous problems. Stress fractures occurred under the seat. The seal where the two parts join together often became compromised. The bow was subject to hairline fractures from hitting rocks or being dropped. None of this was really repairable because materials used in repairs of Kevlar and fiberglass boats wouldn’t stick to the plastic used in making this boat. So all the things I worried about in the beginning—nine years ago– were actually possibilities.
I felt sad to hear my old friend was ill. I left the boat so that they could fill it with water and see where the leak was. That afternoon, the owner of the store called me. “You do have a fracture in the bow. Whoever repaired it for you before used something that I never saw before. I don’t know what it is but that type of crack isn’t repairable.” I told him that the boat had never been repaired before. Then I asked where old kayaks are buried. He suggested that I make it into a planter.
When I came in to pick up the kayak, the young man who worked on it showed me how something white had been used to fill in the crack. My husband shrugged: “So we bought a cracked boat?” Our repairman assured us that this was done recently. So this is a mystery. I emailed the moving company.
My poor red kayak is no longer seaworthy. It sits next to the wood shed, awaiting disposal.
My new kayak is sunshine yellow.