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Unlike most small craft, the kayak, with its great maneuverability and virtually watertight spray apron, is, under experienced hands, quite safe in even sizable surf. For this reason kayaks have been used for years in certain parts of the country (notably the Gulf Coast) for sport fishing off exposed beaches. Getting out through the surf entails getting wet, but done correctly, it is an exhilarating adjunct to the day's fishing—and it saves the time and expense of a long boat trip down a coast barren of harbors.
Surf can also be an end in itself. I have spent many afternoons running surf just for the thrills it affords. You paddle out just beyond the surf line and wait for a big one to approach. Some people count every ninth wave, but I always get confused and have to just watch. As it comes, you dig in and start quartering it. Then, as the wave takes hold, you sit back amidst the spray and foam and, frozen with fear, enjoy the rush back to the beach. (A little advice to the beginner: try this first of all in a relatively dispassionate surf. Never, never try it in cold water.) Approaching the beach is where things get a tiny bit hairy. The whole trick of the thing is to get off the crest before it dumps you onto the sand. What you want to do is get the bow of the boat swung back out toward the crest, so that after the wave has hissed by, you are ready to paddle back out to sea to wait for the next one. This maneuver is accomplished by the simple expedient of digging in with the seaward paddle, thus causing the kayak to lose way and pivot rapidly into the face of the wave. In practice it usually involves a blind frenzied thrust with the paddle, followed by a tremendous feeling of having conquered the wild forces of nature, followed by a short frantic swim in water that somehow seems colder than it did 10 minutes ago.
The maneuverability and seaworthiness that make the kayak a decent surf vehicle are the same qualities that suit it for the white-water kayaking. Most parts of the country possess white-water streams, if only in the spring ( Kansas, where I am now teaching, seems to be a notable exception); and, even if only to tell your grandchildren that you did it in your fey youth, you must try it. At least once. Here you have all the thrills of surfing combined with the added pleasures of rocks, snags and occasional waterfalls—minor ones if you have planned well.
Kayaks are not primarily designed for sailing (there are some aspects of designing for optimum performance in paddling that are incompatible with good sailing), and trying to beat a kayak into a chop can be a heartbreaking experience. But off the wind they slip smoothly along with little disturbance. This ability can make for a delightful lazy afternoon and can perhaps be best enjoyed on a coastal cruise, when, late in the day, with shoulders beginning to feel the strain of paddling, you decide to see what lies beyond the next headland.
Because the crew comprises such a large percentage of the total displacement of a kayak, a fine shifting of weight keeps it sailing upright even in strong winds. The little boats are surprisingly stable in this respect, too stable for some blood. If you find yourself in this predicament, you can follow the lead of an old friend of mine, Charlie, a philosopher who will remain surnameless to protect his reputation for sanity in the classroom. Finding his sailing rig too tame, Charlie cleared a hole in the skis, books, magazines, papers, Porsche parts and paddles that littered the apartment we shared. He then proceeded to fill this hole with yards and yards of cotton cloth which he industriously cut and pinned during several evenings that should have been spent writing a paper on Kant. A young lady of cunning domestic skill was then bribed with wine and candlelight into taking the mess away to her sewing machine. While she sewed, my philosopher labored on. Kant remained in exile, and I stared fascinated from my perch at the typewriter where I was supposed to be writing the Great American Play which would get me a master's degree in drama. It was like watching someone do a very large jigsaw puzzle. Charlie cut and sanded. He fastened blocks and rove lines. He fashioned a crude sliding seat from plans supplied by an anonymous canoe expert. At last the parts were finished and the cotton rescued from the girl and turned into a sail of sorts.
Put together, the parts formed the greatest, fastest, most marvelous, most overcanvased kayak man had ever built. With it Charlie would (he said) skim over the waters of the park lagoon majestically seated at the end of his sliding seat, disdainfully passing all who might dare to challenge his might. It was grand. Charlie was ready.
I missed the day; my presence was required at a matinee of Romeo and Juliet given for the nuns. I do not know exactly what happened. No eyewitnesses ever came forward to enlighten me. All I know was that Charlie came home late that evening, Ondinelike, with a wisp of lagoon in his hair. He dragged the sodden smashed remnants of the rig into the apartment and fell into a coma on the couch. His eyes remained starkly open, his quivering mouth mumbled words of blinding speed and Olympian exhilaration and something about a miscalculation at a bridge. He never spoke of it after that. It was too painful. The grand kayak was never rebuilt. But the idea lingers on. The idea lingers....