It’s April on the coast of Maine, and I’m upside-down underwater again. The ocean’s surface is a green gauze curtain swaying in the wind, and I can’t tell sideways from up. Think. I force my numb hands to loosen their grip on the paddle and let it float upward, finding the edge of my kayak. I’ve run out of air to blow through my nostrils, but I can hold my breath a little longer. Remember the steps.
Inside the cockpit, my knees grip the underside of the deck. My thoughts are frozen sludge, like honey moving to the bottom of an overturned jar. I touch the blade of my paddle to the gunnel, wrench my shivering muscles forward until my nose is nearly touching the deck, and sweep the paddle forward and out, pulling against the surface like it’s something solid. I feel half my face touch dry air and gasp, taking in a mouthful of water before I crash down again. Panicking, I abandon the paddle, tear my spray skirt off the combing, and lunge for the surface, kicking my legs free of the boat. Then I’m floating, straining against the tight gasket of my drysuit to suck air. Twenty feet from me, snow is erasing the beach.
It took me five months to learn to roll a sea kayak dependably, and from either side. It took another two before I could do it in surf. The first time I tried was in the warm Pacific waters off Baja, with a NOLS instructor shouting advice from the beach.
“Relax, Lunita, you will never get it if you come up too fast!”
Every time I came within reach of the surface, I’d jerk my head toward air, twisting my torso and stopping the momentum of the rolling boat. Again and again I wet-exited and came up coughing, the salt water searing my eyes and throat. Three weeks before, on the first day of NOLS’s kayaking section, a storm stranded us on the beach. From beneath the snapping hem of a tarp, I watched as my instructor waded out into the whitecaps, smacked his bow through the confused chop near the shoreline, and began to surf the long, rearing swells as they tumbled and broke. Whenever a wave sent a grappling hook of heavy water over his gunnel, tipping him into the surge of foam, he’d roll back up on the other side of the break. I watched the instructor get pushed by the white crest of a wave like a sled gathering speed; it was the most graceful thing I’d ever seen.
I wanted to achieve the same elegance, to be unafraid. Right then I felt the opposite. I was doing this course because I’d taken time off from college in Rhode Island. But something wasn’t working. When obstacles came at me, I let them knock me down. What would it be like, I wondered, to be able to balance on the tip of a wave? At 19, I’d left the safety of home, the protected Atlantic bay where I grew up, and I was terrified. I couldn’t chart a course for fear that it would be the wrong one. I thought only of turning back.
Most activities in the outdoors have a make-or-break skill built in, which you reach when you’re no longer a beginner and are becoming something more. Get to this sticking point and there’s a daunting, sometimes dangerous task that you have to get right before ducking the rope marked experts only.
Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you might think about this transitional phase in a different way. When I was learning to backpack, a barrier for me was map-and-compass navigation. For skiing, it was jump turns. With both, I made progress only when I cared enough about mastery to keep failing until I got it right. I think this is true for many people knocking on the door of proficiency.
The author in Peaks Island, Maine (Photo: Greta Rybus)
“Being bad at something gives you perspective,” says Michael Easter, author of The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. “Any time we learn a new thing, it rockets us into presence and slows down our sense of time. Facing stressful situations can actually be good for us, because it helps us adapt to challenges later on.” Easter knows plenty about facing down stress: in one memorable part of his book, he shoots a bull caribou during a monthlong expedition in the Alaskan backcountry—his first time hunting.
With sea kayaking, the stress of rolling was only a preliminary to the shock of cold water—a reminder of the stakes involved if I capsized and was unable to get back in my boat. On the ocean, calm conditions can turn deadly in minutes anytime you’re exposed to open fetch—an uninterrupted stretch of sea without the shelter of land. For me, learning to roll was a prerequisite to venturing into deeper waters. I sensed that nailing this skill could make my old, everyday fears seem small. The ability to roll would give me self-reliance, both in and out of a boat.
In Maine, on one restless day toward the end of April 2019, I decide to paddle alone around the island where my family lives. The swath of sea the house faces, ringed by the mainland and a fence of islands, is smooth when I start out, but as I round the northern tip of the island and enter the sound, I hear surf crashing on the rocks. I’m paddling the length of what island dwellers call the backshore; during winter storms, sea foam covers the road. I could, and should, turn back. I haven’t once managed a successful roll, and no one knows I’m out here. I keep going.
I’ve always loved the color of the winter ocean—silver and crumpled, like the foil from a chocolate wrapper, each swell a fingernail scraping the surface smooth. All the times I’ve watched the waves from behind windows or the curve of the road, I have never really seen them, not as I’m seeing them now.
I must get better, I tell myself. I must get better so I can do this without the need for fear. Right now, though, I’m just stroking as fast as I can, trying to outstrip the rising wind. I can feel the sweat start down my back, my hands gripping the paddle too tightly. Behind me the swells arch their backs and hiss, whitecaps forming on the crests. I’ve made it around the southernmost point of the island now, and I’m racing through the channel, swells catching my stern and sending me hurtling through the gap. It takes all my strength and focus to keep my bow pointing perpendicular to the waves as they push me from behind. Each one is a fist opening, my boat the offering in its palm.
On the ocean, calm conditions can turn deadly in minutes anytime you’re exposed to open fetch—an uninterrupted stretch of sea without the shelter of land.
When I come within sight of the gravel beach near our house, it’s all I can do not to shout with relief. It was a mistake to paddle on the open-ocean side of the island—alone, without the skills to self-rescue. I feel this in my locked knees and aching arms, in my heart still beating in my throat. I’m cold and tired, but I’m not finished yet. I stop short of the beach and tip myself into the water. I have two tries to right myself—maybe three, if I have the energy.
And suddenly I know that I will learn this someday. Accepting the inevitability of failing is teaching me to right myself with grace. I realize that I don’t care if I get it today. My blundering, the cold and the constant drip of salt down my throat, the choice to do it at all—they’ve given me a new way of being on the water, of dancing with forces that are beyond my control. I’m out of air, so I reach for the surface and twist my hips—my ear cradled in my shoulder, the back of my life jacket flush with the deck of the boat—and roll up. I’m so surprised I almost tip onto my other side. My numb cheeks stretch into a smile.
I returned to college in the fall, after transferring to a school in Maine. To my surprise, I loved it almost immediately. Not because the new place was so different, but because I was different. Learning to roll had trained my muscle memory in the motions of recovery, but it was more than that. The practice of rolling taught me to love that moment of instability, the thrill of not knowing if I’d remain upright. As a paddler—and as a person—I’d pushed past the sticking point.
Now when a wave comes that might be too big for me, I don’t fight it. I choose to capsize, trusting that I can right myself. Knowing that, for me, there is a joy in this. A wave is a wing extended, downy feathers ruffled in the wind, and I circle beneath it like a rising eddy of air.