Pure Stroke: Floating Downstream

Dead things float downstream. Whoever first tossed out that pearl of wisdom obviously never paddled standup. Oh sure, I get it, the idea that it's this struggle against the current that makes us stronger, and that a gritty determination not to take the easy path eventually leads to the greater reward. But like I said, whoever came up with that aggressively inspirational gem never paddled straight into the teeth of the wind while standing up. Then you don't feel any stronger, or any more accomplished, or more successful. You simply feel ridiculous.

Let's face it: paddling standup upwind is ridiculous. It's bad enough in more venerable paddle craft like kayaks and canoes. Look at what characteristic these forms of locomotion share: a low profile posture, so that in the unfortunate event of an upwind leg the paddler presents the least possible surface area, minimizing resistance. But even so, no Aleut worth his walrus bladder sprayskirt would ever think of deliberately paddling his sleek kayak in to the wind. The ancient Hawaiians, undisputed masters of outrigger canoe culture, had a handy phrase for such foolishness: E ho'i ka wa'a; mai ho'opa'a aku i ka 'ino, or "Make the canoe go back; do not insist on heading into the storm."

Notice they stress not to insist heading into the storm; those burly Polynesian paddlers loved their downwind runs even back then, bravely traversing the island channels when the whims of the gods and associated meteorological conditions provided a following wind. But to insist on paddling up wind? Well, the aforementioned Hawaiian phrase was also employed as a cautionary adage, a plea to the unwary [read: clueless] not to do something that would surely lead to serious trouble.

Those old Hawaiians would surely be laughing at me because I'm constantly finding myself in serious trouble when compelled, for some reason or another, to paddle against the wind. Like the time I was competing in the Santa Monica Pier Race, no looping course but a series of back-and-forth laps that paralleled the stylish shorefront. But it was ugly that morning, with a gloomy marine layer and a wet, grimy wind that inexplicably seemed to blow simultaneously from opposite directions. A southnorth wind, if you will. There was no respite from the opposing chop regardless of course direction; no stroke rhythm as the nose of my board plowed into the oncoming wind swell, green water constantly washing over the deck, my ordinarily frisky Joe Bark 12'6" fighting the reins, behaving more like an ornery plough horse than a thoroughbred. With that wind in my face the whole time, mocking me, laughing at my clumsy efforts. One lap was tough enough. By lap two I was swearing, by lap three almost weeping. By the final lap, thoroughly wretched and demoralized, I approached the pier, maybe three hundred yards from the finish, seriously considering the simple alternative of turning out of the wind, heading into the beach, and slinking back to my car, my shame hidden from the finish line crowd by the pilings. I was in fourth overall at the time. And though I eventually finished in that position, I still felt like a loser.

At times like these, with the wind in your face, a standup paddler need address only one elemental question. Not "Where will I finish?" or "Will I beat last year's time?" or even "Will I beat my buddies?" But simply, "Shall I continue?" And I'm not just talking about racing. I went for a casual paddle here in Malibu, steering "close hauled", so to speak, angling across a mild northeast "Santa Ana" wind, my intention being to eventually turn around and run straight downwind back home.

Why the wind, increasing in intensity to a moderate gale, decided to eddy around so that the whitecaps were now railroading from west to east is beyond my comprehension. All I know is that if I didn't want to beach my board by Pamela Anderson's house, sneak through the fence and hitch-hike home on PCH I had an exhausting two-mile, snot-bubbling paddle ahead, the wind shoving like an insistent hand against my chest, catching at my blade at every lift, blowing me backward one board length for every two of progression. Finally, after a half-hour of this self-imposed ordeal, that essential question asserted itself.

"Shall I continue?"

Paddling stupidly upright into the wind, I mean. This futility need not continue: all I had to do is put down my paddle, drop to my stomach and paddle home like a more reasonable human being. But then, drifting backward, I looked to my right. There was Laird Hamilton's beachfront headquarters, the surfside temple to testosterone where His Lairdness holds court all summer, humbling mere mortals with his relentless energy. I didn't see him dragging logs through the sand or single-handedly launching a heavy Jet-Ski, but that didn't mean he wasn't up there somewhere, watching me, judging me. Was I going to drop to my knees in sight of Standup Superman? Or was I going to continue to paddle upright against the wind, regardless of how ridiculous that endeavor truly might be? Yeah, right.

Dead things float downstream? Or in our case downwind? Not hardly. Only smart things do.
Sam George

This article originally ran in our Spring 2013 issue.

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