The Difficult Becomes Attainable, Paddling Without a Paddle.
The splash. Water caught my face. Shoulders. And as it dripped off of me. My arms never noticed. They moved methodically. Left Arm reached forward and into the water. As the right arm finished the stroke. Fingers slightly bent and spread. As if I was holding onto an egg. Not a hard boiled on. But one that is fragile.
Four weeks ago. I decided that I would trade in my trusty steed, the stand up paddleboard. For a craft which help create my go to vehicle. The traditional paddleboard, known to some as a prone paddleboard. The word prone has a couple of definitions. The one that relates to this description, from Merriam-Webster, lying with the face downwards.
This change was something I have been tossing around for a bit. But was afraid to stray from what I was comfortable doing. And something I was good at. Stand Up Paddling.
The 32 mile journey down the Tennessee River, known as Chattajack. Was an event that I had no desire to do. And the reason was not because of the event. The location, or people involved. But rather the dedication to training.
I enjoy paddling three to four days a week for one hours sessions that kick my ass. Actually I love it. It is my gym. My place to flush out frustration and invigorate the hormones leaving me less stressed and with that euphoric feeling, known as a runners high. It also allows me to tap into the athlete, competitive side of my brain. However, I had no desire to spend multiple hours on my board, training. Things like surfing, doing yoga, fishing or good times with family and friends takes priority over. And still does.
The athlete in me could not let go of the fact that I was going to compete but not do long paddles. I began to beat myself up for not setting doing the work required to compete. The two multi hour paddles I had scheduled were replaced with a surf session and fishing adventure. Both ironically served as great training feats, just not the typical paddle for 5 hours that my mind and ego were attached to.
Sitting with AJ Deflippis in South Florida. Our discussion about the sport we both loved turned into a Q and A session on how prone paddling is a huge benefit to surfing. Something that I have also been avoiding for the past six years. Always dabbling, but never committing to learning the full aspect of catching waves without the aid of my paddle.
A few cold beverages into the conversation. I looked at him and said, "I am fucking paddling Chattajack prone." With no hesitation, his hand raised as if he had a question in class, but not signaling a question but offering support. Our hands met in a thundering high five. And his response was all I needed. "Fuck yes you are." The following day we headed out for a paddle on the boards. It was not my first time prone paddling, but first time with a goal. And also having someone who knew what they were doing alongside me.
AJ helped me with all the basics and nuances to keep the board moving forward. Steer. Knee paddle. And enjoy this new perspective of paddling. We spent about 45 minutes out on the water. Clocked about 2 miles of distance. And I was blown away with how good I felt.
The irony to this, was the day before I found myself at Tuesday Night Race League with my friends from Blueline Surf and Paddle in Jupiter, FL. One of my favorite events of all time. But Wednesday morning my body was trashed. Elbows, back, all felt as if I was hit by a truck. And I was in shape.
As the week rolled on another good friend, Chad Hinkley, heard that I was looking at paddling Chattajack prone and took me out for a bit longer of a paddle. And this time we added catching some small wind chop bumps into the mix. Humbled. Yet excited. I was feeling a connection to paddling on my stomach.
Leaving the palm trees and warm water. The real test would come into play. Would I be able to prone paddle in the cold waters of New England?
A few days after returning back to the lake, a package from the team at Surftech arrived. An inflatable Stock Bark Commander. In prone paddling, stock means 12'. As I inflated the board. I was a bit unsure how to dress. But my years of living in the cold and time playing in the snow. Taught me that warm is always better than cold. I put on my 4/3, 7 mm booties and 5 mm mittens. Grabbed my board and headed out.
This session was an experience as it was my first time on an inflatable prone board, first time paddling in a wetsuit and first time head to toe in rubber. But just over 3 miles and an hour later I made it home. The runners high was with me. And I was excited to paddle more.
A bit later in the week Mother Nature fired up some goodness on the coast. I headed east and took in some salt water therapy. My first session I paddled out on my stand up paddleboard. Scored some epic rides. But the second session. I decided to try my surfboard.
As I paddled out I felt comfortable. Something that has always been missing when I surf the traditional way. Looking out on the horizon, I saw the water rise up to the clouds. And I knew a set was coming. As I pointed the board towards the beach. I took a few easy strokes with my hands and before I knew it I was standing on the wave.
Grinning from ear to ear on the paddle back out. I thought beginners luck. But as the day went on. It became obvious it was less about luck and more about paddling. In this two hour session I caught more waves than ever. Bigger waves. And actually surfed them. I also learned that I didn't need gloves on my next training paddle.
With the days closing in on Chattajack. My mind and body became open to whatever was going to happen. I briefly read over the cutoff times. Did some math in my head. And realized I should be able to beat all the cutoffs and complete this thing. When I arrived in Tennessee, I was surrounded by a group of individuals that were so supportive. Any doubt faded away. Quickly. This was confirmed on Thursday before the race as I met up with the team from Bark Paddleboards. We were all prepping our boards for the weekend. Something I knew nothing about. Water bottle holders and chin rests are not accessories for a stand up paddleboard. I watched and listened as Joe Bark explained the how's and whys. Aj and the other team members also shared some insight, making me feel comfortable.
Dressed in boardies and my tank top I headed out to the Tennessee River. This was my inaugural meeting of my new ride, the 14' Ghost Carbon Commander by Surftech.
The paddle with everyone was just what I needed. My body felt good. And the energy level was through the roof. I was ready for Chattajack. And had a plan to make sure I'd get my chocolate milk at the end of those 32 miles.
After completing Chattajack, something happened that I do not know how to describe. It was surreal. Empowering. Almost everyone whom I spoke with, confirm it is why Chattajack is the event it is. And why we all want to keep coming back to the Tennessee River Gorge.
My body felt great, especially for paddling 32 miles. The only real soreness was on my forearms which faded in about three days. I was back to practicing yoga three days later. And five days later found myself playing hockey again. I paddled lightly on the 6th day. And hiked day 6 and 7.
Today I will head back out on the water. Something I am excited to do.
My takeaway from this experience is simple. We can accomplish anything we want. There are tools and people all around us that will allow us to succeed. But there are also others, who are afraid, just like us. Who will support the decision not to do these challenging things and provide words to back up this decisions.
I have chosen to surround myself with the believers. The dreamers. The ones who say Fuck yes.
This is why I paddled 32 miles without a paddle. And I'm here to support you if you choose to embarque on something that many think is crazy.