Monday, July 30, 2012

Beating the Barge

As part of the celebration of my 25 Years in Seattle which officially starts in August, I have been writing about some experiences that I've had in the past 25 years that have been instrumental in shaping me as a person and how I experience my life in the Pacific Northwest.

The following describes my participation in the Ski to Sea Relay in Belllingham, May of 1989 (I think). Our team name was "The Lactic Asses" (my idea) and we were a group of bicycle messengers. I was the kayaker and so this is also a tribute to my old boat, a Mariner Sprite named the HMS Minnow ("if not for the courage of its fearless crew, the minnow would be lost").

 Beating the Barge

    I was the passenger in a truck that had my sea kayak securely fastened to the roof, and I was being driven by a friend and teammate to the start of the final segment of the 7-leg relay race from Mt Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay. When we were stopped near the beach by a traffic marshal, my friend rolled down his window to address him, “I’ve got to get this fast lady to the start line”. Hearing that simple statement was a small, yet potent boost for my confidence levels right before my race. I had been in kayak races previously, but none where other people were depending on me to either maintain or improve on our team standings. Since I was the one who had gathered this group of skiers, cyclists and canoeists together, I was the kayaker by default of owning a kayak, not by virtue of being fast or experienced. But after hearing my friend’s comment of “fast lady”, I was more assured that I was, indeed, the right person for the day’s contest.

     After the canoeists on my team made their way down the river to the mouth of the bay, they handed me the baton and I pushed off from the beach and began to paddle. Soon after, it was as though the bathtub I was paddling in had leaked all the water out, leaving me with a few rubber duckies (other kayakers) and some soap scum (mucky mud). There was a very low tide, so the tidal flats were nearly barren, with just puddles of water spaced irregularly. I got out of the boat and lifted it, clumsily, toward where there looked to be more water. Then I got in and paddled, using the blade of the paddle to push off of the bottom from where I felt like I was wedged and I moved the boat along. Soon, I ran out of water again and, tired from lifting the weight of the boat, began dragging my boat instead of picking it up. I dragged it from puddle to puddle, paddled as much as I could, then resorted back to dragging. I had a vision of my teammate who had started the race on the downhill ski leg, quickly realizing that instead of taking a ski-lift up to ski down the slopes, he had to first hoist his skis over his shoulder, then climb the ridge in his rigid ski boots before reaching the freedom of powder skiing. I was having a similar experience; I wanted to paddle freely in the open water, but first I had to be tested in an exercise of tenacity. How much punishment was I willing to take? How exhausted could I become and still be able to paddle? What risk was I willing to take to achieve my goal?  Finally, I reached open water and began to paddle as I had envisioned – smoothly, efficiently and with power, noting that there was someone not too far behind me in another kayak. There was also another type of boat in my field of view, which I became very interested in, as well. It was a huge barge that looked to be coming my way.

    The officials’ Zodiac boat was moving between kayaks like a bee flitting from flower to flower. They buzzed up to me and issued a challenge. The barge I had been seeing to my left was coming into the harbor and was not able to stop or change direction. They gave me two choices: stop and wait for the barge to pass, or keep going, trying to beat the barge. Then, they qualified the latter with, “if you decide to go and you’re on a collision course, we will have to tow you out of danger and you’ll be disqualified”. The image of my teammate climbing the ridge went through my mind like a video play-back and I knew I had to choose wisely and be victorious on this, the last stage of the relay race.

    I had recently learned a navigational technique which helped to predict if I was on a collision course with another boat. I used it to measure the angle between me and the barge and whether that angle increased or decreased with time, meaning if I was gaining or losing ground or staying the same. I had been practicing it for the past 30 minutes and it was time to put it to the test. I declared, “I’m going to beat the barge!” which led to raised eyebrows of those in the Zodiac, though they wished me good luck.

    If ever there was a time to paddle with a perfect, efficient stroke, now was it. I was paddling for my teammates, for my safety and, most importantly, for my ego. I needed this challenge to assess my abilities and how far I could push myself; I needed this victory for my confidence. Gaining confidence in this tough situation was also a gain for an obstacle at work or with a relationship or in another arena in my life. In this instance, the obstacle was the barge coming into the harbor and heading at a speed that I knew I could overcome. I was testing my speed and strength, but also my skill. Was I remembering the instructions properly, could I make a reliable assessment from the information I was given? It was like a pop quiz in school and we were just told to put our books away.

    I heard a noise, a guttural sound that I didn’t recognize, and I was slightly alarmed. I knew that I had left my closest competitor behind, when he decided to wait for the barge to pass, but it took me by surprise to realize that the sound was emanating from my own body. I was grunting, pushing myself not just with my arms and torso, but from somewhere deep inside me. With every stroke, my legs would tense against the boat’s braces and my butt would attempt to move forward to provide power as each of my paddle blades dipped into the water and was pulled against the resistance of the water. The cold salt water dripped down from the blade, along the shaft and to my bare hands, making them feel sticky against the paddle and causing a squeak with each stroke of the paddle as my hands ground against salt and fiberglass. I could almost feel new calluses forming on my palms. The salty taste that reached my mouth was more from the water droplets in the windy bay than from sweat due to effort.

    I took another measurement and I was relieved that the angle between me and the barge was increasing, meaning I was gaining on the barge. But, not wanting to feel overconfident before actually succeeding, I kept pushing myself to paddle at the edge of my ability. In another few minutes, I had cleared the line from the barge’s bow and was free; I was not only out of danger, but I had met my challenge successfully and had advanced on several of my closest competitors. All I had to do now was hold on to my form and stave off exhaustion to make it to the finish line. I couldn’t feel my arms – was it because they were so salty that they felt numb? No, it was that I forgot I had arms; I had become part of the kayak, of the paddle, propelled along on the water like a fish, a dolphin, an Orca. I was moving but I wasn’t aware of the actual motions taking place. I didn’t have to think about keeping my arms straight and twisting from my waist, using my back muscles, or of my legs, shifting and pushing against the braces below deck. I had become my boat, sleek and fast.  And then I saw my teammates on the dock at the finish line in the harbor. They were jumping and whooping. I would find out later that they had seen the drama unfolding through binoculars. I landed on shore and fell out of my boat. My knees didn’t seem to work and my shoulders ached but I made it back to the water somehow and dunked my body in a victory bath.

    I never did find out how we placed in our category or what our overall time was or even what my race time was. For me, that was not the point; I had accomplished something greater than winning a race or setting a record. I had achieved the level of confidence necessary to overcome any obstacle thrown at me, whether it be on the water, in a classroom or in another type of life’s many contests. 

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