Pure Stroke Live: Whale of a Workout

I wasn’t looking for a workout. Maybe I was just responding to one of primitive paddling man’s most basic instincts. From my viewpoint, standing on the edge of a sandstone bluff at the western tip of Santa Monica Bay, the sea shimmered like a mirror—and was just as flat. But it was a pleasing sight, soothing to the nerves.

“A mild, mild wind,” opined Melville’s Captain Ahab, on just such a day. “And a mild looking sky.”

But then came a cry that certainly would have stirred Moby Dick’s peg-legged nemesis.

“Whale!”

Just outside the kelpline the sunlight glinted off something dark, a black hump slowly rolling on the surface like an old tire. Then came the whoosh of mist, the leisurely exhalation of a California gray whale, moving slowly to the west. Just cruising, I thought, breathing easy.

Now a whale sighting is always a neat thing, the personification of extra-terrestrial intelligence stimulating to even the shallowest imagination. But on this particular day I responded to something a bit less existential: like a Chumash Indian brave, whose tribe once populated this very same coastline, I ran to get my board and paddle, determined to stroke out and draw abreast of the leviathan, pitting my frail craft and puny arms against the sea’s mightiest heart.

Right. I probably just wanted to mess with the poor thing. So out I paddled in full Battle of the Paddle mode, head down, shoulders stacked, high cadence (with no warm-up) looking up every now and then for the spout, digging deep. You know what? Whales, even smaller species like the gray, move deceptively fast. I remember hellman standup veteran Gene “Tarzan” Smith talking story, recounting the time he paddled with a 90-foot blue whale off Redondo Beach, actually surfing the wake generated by the giant’s seemingly lazy progress.

Now I was paddling as hard as I could, heart rate spiking, my breath rasping, working to close the gap with the gray as it headed out around the kelp in a more north-westerly course. Was I getting closer? With each hurried glance I could see more of its bulk and at one point could have sworn I felt a wisp of its spout on my cheek; we had both turned into what little wind was blowing. I was going full-out. The last time I sustained this pace I was trying to beat Gerry Lopez and win a bet in the Hawaii BOP. Then suddenly it occurred to me that here I was participating in the most primal paddle race, the original battle of the paddle, a man alone on the sea chasing a whale.

Did I say chasing? I may have thought that’s what I was doing when after about two hard miles I came up alongside the gray. Then he (or she), apparently taking notice of my pathetic efforts for the first time, regarded me with elaborate indifference, casually flicked a broad fluke and pulled away as if I was standing still.

So I did just stand there, paddle in hand, breathing hard but smiling after my Chumash workout.

Editors Note: Editor-at-large Sam George writes the Pure Stroke column for every issue of SUP magazine. In the spring issue, he examines the beauty of being a beginner.