The Condo Kayaker

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Chuck McMillin,
Chuck McMillin, leader of Chesapeake Kayak Adventurers, at a meetup. Photo: Andrew Lightman

When I turned 50 a few years ago, I came to the realization that my body’s ability to regenerate and heal was not what it was in younger years. An avid Ultimate Frisbee player, I began to discover injury as a constant, unwanted companion. When a torn meniscus sidelined me for 12 months, three years back, I dabbled in flat water kayaking.

Being on the river on a quiet summer day provided a respite from the complications of life as a managing editor. After drowning an iPhone, I learned to leave all such electronics locked in the trunk of my car. Untethered, I valued the opportunity to let my thoughts settle while I fell into the rhythm of paddling.

At first, I simply rented boats whenever the fancy struck me to get out on the water. These sit-on-top recreational vessels required little skill to use. On the river, however, I grew to envy the grace and power of experienced kayakers.

This year I decided it was time to tie the knot and commit to my newfound mistress. Yet, as an urban dweller whose demesne totals 920 square feet, where was I going to store a boat? A 17-foot sea kayak was not going to fit under my platform bed.

Equipment
After experimenting with vessels that inflated or folded down like an origami crane, I came across reviews of the Trak Seeker ST 16 (www.trakkayaks.com), an ingenious craft inspired by the original Eskimo kayak – a wooden frame covered in stretched animal hides.

The Seeker, in a modern twist, consists of two aircraft-grade aluminum frames whose pieces are shock-corded together much like a set of tent poles. Once snapped together, they fit into a military-grade polyurethane skin. The bow and stern are fastened together at five points, three of which are hydraulic jacks used to tension the boat. The result: a 16-foot sea kayak that handles like a hard shell but packs into a wheeled suitcase.

I am not always the most mechanically adept. My first attempt at assembling the Trak took more than an hour. Over the past five months, practice has reduced the time to 30 minutes. The boat is quick, responsive, very stable, and fits in the back of my VW GTI hatchback.

For safety, one must always wear a portable flotation device (PFD). Paddling also requires paddles. These are distinguished by their size, weight, and portability (the number of pieces into which they can be broken down). I favor lighter, carbon fiber paddles that break down into two pieces. At my height of five feet, nine inches, I am most comfortable with a paddle length of 210 centimeters.

Aside from a PFD and paddles, one should purchase a long sleeve rash-guard top to protect the upper body from the sun. A floppy hat is also essential. Water bottles that can be fastened to deck lines are necessary for hydration. A sponge, throw bag, flotation devices, a bilge pump, and a paddle float complete the safety gear.

Sounds overwhelming? It was; and after inelegantly falling into the Potomac in the choppy water near Gravelly Point, I decided that some instruction was in order.

Lessons
While it is not difficult to paddle a boat forward, controlling its motion requires both skill and experience. Much of what one learns is not intuitively obvious. Most importantly, while kayaking is generally a safe endeavor, once one falls out of a boat, getting aboard in the middle of a river is not easy. And none of this even touches on the complexities of rolling a boat.

After doing some research, I enrolled in a sea kayaking class at Potomac Paddle Sports (PPS), www.potomacpaddlesports.com. The two-year program combines weekly “practices” with five structured lessons. I found their American Canoe Association (ACA)-certified instructors patient, knowledgeable, and helpful. The two lessons I attended this past summer taught me the basics of boat handling: strokes, techniques, and safety

Most importantly, I learned how to get back into my boat in the middle of a river using a paddle float. The ability to “self-rescue” gave me confidence to explore the region’s rivers on my own.

While I began my instruction at PPS, I took advantage of other opportunities to hone my skills. I took two lessons from Chuck McMillin, the ACA-certified leader of Chesapeake Kayak Adventurers (CKA). McMillin is my favorite instructor. He is patient with beginners, detail-oriented, skilled at explaining the non-obvious, and possessed of a very dry wit. Most of what little finesse I have in boat handling I learned from him.

Getting on the River
Once one gains some basic skills, it is time to take to the water. Fortunately, we live in a region crisscrossed by rivers. I began my exploration with sojourns on the Potomac and Anacostia waterways. The former is best sampled above Roosevelt Island where the powerboat traffic is light. The latter is perhaps the most scenic. Launching from Bladensburg Water Park, where rentals are available, one can paddle down as far as Nationals Park and even beyond.

For adventures father a field, I recommend going with a group. CKA, for example, is more than a place to take lessons. Organized through Meetup.com, it is a fun community of paddlers who get together biweekly for kayak adventures throughout the region. Participation requires either owning a sea kayak or renting one from McMillin.

I have paddled with CKA and other kayak meetups on the Potomac, Patuxent, and parts of the Chesapeake Bay. When one is learning the ropes, especially on open water, it is more fun and much safer to paddle with experienced friends.

Now I await the opening of the public kayak dock at The Wharf’s Seventh Street Park just down the street. If you see a guy in a red kayak out in the Washington Channel some morning, just remember that the boat lives in the living room of his condo.