Pure Stroke: Man Up

“Hey, it says here you only bought one-way tickets.”

This from the friendly guy behind the counter of the Catalina Express ferry in Dana Point, Calif., checking my reservation on his computer screen. He smiled at Nia and me.

“You two plan on ever coming back?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But we’re paddling home.”

The Ocean Ohana Catalina Challenge Relay was still a few days away, but Nia and I decided to head out to California’s most fabled Channel Island early, attempting, in that optimistic, married couple way, to pull off an incongruous combination of romantic getaway and arduous endurance event—the 39-mile paddle back to the Dana Point dock probably being the least fraught with potential danger.

You’re always rolling the dice, convincing a partner to get involved with an event that they’re not participating in directly, and especially one like the Ocean Ohana race. Essentially you’re asking your beloved to come and put up with all the hardships—in this case, dicey channel crossings, bunking up with teammates, early morning wakeup calls, shared bathrooms, rude noises and terrible smells, Clif Bar breakfasts, endless paddle banter and a long, uncomfortable day in a small boat. And with nothing more to do than sit and watch, you have all the fun. Or not, which can be even more tedious.

Nia didn’t need too much convincing; we’ve shared plenty of adventures and she’s been up to every challenge. Dirt-camping in Scorpion Bay, kayaking in West Africa, tsunami relief work in Sumatra Bay: Nia, as they say, “Can hang.”

Yet the upcoming race would be different; she wouldn’t really be doing anything. Other than watch me and my teammates, Seth and Vic, paddle for the mainland as if somebody really cared who won the Over-50 division. But last year’s race had been so much fun, I’d told her. Oh sure, what was supposed to be a downwind race turned into a straight-into-the-teeth-of-a-stiff-south-wind slog. And yeah, it rained for the first few hours. And no, there wasn’t a toilet on the rigid-hull inflatable boat we were in. And, well no, you don’t really cruise back across the channel, but more sorta just race ahead and then wait, bobbing and idling in the rain (and later the hot sun), waiting for each paddler on his relay leg to slowly catch up. Great fun—and I meant it.

So over we went on the speedy ferry, my relay team (including our irrepressible drill sergeant/ boat skipper, JP) scheduled to land the day before the race. And we handled the romance part like pros: holing up in our tiny Avalon hotel room sweet, taking long walks in the wooded canyons, swimming with sea lions and garibaldi… staying up late watching movies and eating Oreos with milk. Like I said, real romance. But then on the day before the race, my phone rang. It was Seth.

“Have you seen the weather report?” he asked. No, I hadn’t. But I checked. Apparently while Nia and I were second-honeymooning, the channel conditions had taken a turn. On race day they were predicting northwest winds of 25 to 30 knots, gusting up to 40, with 14- to 18-foot seas. Small craft advisory with a red flag gale warning.

“Ocean Ohana hasn’t called it off yet, but what do you think?” Seth asked. “You’re already over there.”
Yeah, I figured, with my wife—who would be riding in the boat on the way back—in a gale. I told Seth, “Hey, if you think we should pull the plug, I’m not going to argue.” I had, after all, already experienced a few hell-crossings in my time. And after I’d told Nia the decision had been made, (“One of safety … really”) and we’d cut our tryst short to barely make the next, and maybe the only, ferry back to the mainland for a few days, I’d almost convinced myself: Paddling before gale-force winds with those kinds of seas would be a thrill, especially downwind. It wasn’t the conditions that worried me. But to put Nia through that sort of day, like an all-day plane crash with seasickness thrown in for good measure … well, no self-respecting, loving husband would ever do that. Right? Right?
Yeah, right.

We weren’t five miles out of Avalon when we saw the first boats coming the other way: small-cabin cruisers and open skiffs, piled high with standup race boards, racing across the channel toward Avalon. Running toward the sound of gunfire, so to speak. Nia and I stood on the rail, watching them. I wondered aloud if the race would be called off or not (the next day, race organizers did just that). But now, bounding back with at least my tail between my legs, Nia just looked out at one particular craft, a black inflatable, the Bimini top sagging under its load of unlimited boards and paddles.

“Does it matter?” she asked. “I still wish we were on that boat.”

I had nothing reasonably honorable, or remotely masculine, to say. And I couldn’t help recall an old adage from silent film temptress Mae West, in which she described herself as being, “More of a man than you’ll ever be, and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”
Maybe. But I’ll tell you this much: The next time I ask Nia to go to a race with me, I’ll make sure she has a paddle in her hand.
Sam George

This originally ran in our Summer 2012 issue.

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