We are not water people. But, at least once a year, my wife pretends that we are, booking a vacation to a far-flung beach to swim and snorkel like the glistening, buoyant, youthful souls featured in ads in Travel & Leisure. On our last trip on the way back from Cabo, my raw and bloody knees throbbed, wedged against the window seat, as I stared out the window at surfers who disappeared into the gaping jaws of a sea that did not terrify them. I admit that I get caught up in the current of a romantic, seaside escape—the fleeting idea that I might become one with the water instead of being swallowed up by it. I know how to swim, which is sort of like saying I can paint. I can do it, but it’s not pretty. You’ll want to look away.
In Cabo, I ended up snorkeling into a rip tide that smashed me up against rocks, again and again, until I panicked and somehow got to shore. Part of being an idiot is having no idea how dangerous or stupid the thing you just did was until you’re finished with it. Not to be deterred, we followed up that outing with a boat tour to swim with sea lions. Turns out, my wife gets seasick just by looking at a boat, but once we got to the destination, she jumped in the water with me. Our 12-year-old son was too scared to join us, even though I promised him that nothing bad could happen. He stayed on the catamaran, getting heat exhaustion and a blistering sunburn while waiting for us. When I finally climbed into the boat, I looked at him laughing while covering up my forearm. “It’s a good story,” I said, because I love a good story. “A sea lion bit me. I think he was just playing around.” Blood cascaded down my arm onto the deck. Our son doesn’t need to see Jaws to solidify his fear of the water. He just needs me.
Still, there’s some kind of amnesia that sets in every time I smell the salt and hear the lapping of waves against a shore. Recently, I found a property in Kodiak with a black sand beach, a piece of paradise overlooking waters leading into the Pacific. The setting begged for a kayak. I convinced myself that I would enjoy my retirement years with daily forays into the bay, exploring tide pools by boat. I would become this other person—a water person. I started looking at portable kayaks. My main criteria was that it not be “tippy.” I searched “stable, lightweight kayaks for beginners,” and clicked on products with five stars. There was one that you filled with air and another that folded up and looked like an origami project. Neither appeared seaworthy. So many people enjoyed paddle sports, perhaps I was overthinking it. How hard could it be? I remained determined until I came across this headline in the news: Coast Guard Rescues Friends Adrift in Giant Inflatable Flamingo Near Kodiak. Apparently, in celebration of a 30th birthday, a few friends and their dogs set out on the water in their pink plastic avian raft (without lifejackets or paddles) and were swept out to sea. Except for the 30th birthday part of the story, it sounds exactly like something I would do. I know a little fear is a good thing and also that I can’t stop myself from answering the call of adventure. So, instead of treading water, I’ve decided to lean into the dream. I picture myself in a pink kayak with a feathered boa (because, why not), making peace with the waves rather than fighting them. Sail on.