How to Fail at Paddle-Boarding

On a day of promising weather, I resolved to take our paddleboard out for the afternoon and get a little exercise. I’d previously paddle-boarded only in our small, protected cove, while Mike had paddled beyond to open water and completely circled the island on more than one occasion.

Mike and I are not a competitive couple. There is no one-upmanship or gloating in our marriage, but we are often inspired by one another. All of which is a tactful way of saying that if he was going to routinely and casually paddle around an entire island, surely I could complete the same journey at least once, damn it.

The CoveView of the cove from the island house.

Today’s the day, I thought. I’m going all the way around. There was no way to get lost; I’d just hug the shore until I arrived back at my starting point. Most people wouldn’t need to voice this strategy to themselves, but I’m notorious for getting lost, and my default direction is whichever way is wrong. I envisioned the headlines:

“Directionally Challenged Woman Lost at Sea”


“Idaho Mother of Two Unable to Travel in a Circle.”

I left Mike in charge of the girls and took the paddleboard out for some much-needed time alone. Paddling on my knees out of the cove, I reached open water and tentatively stood up. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t fall off… unless I was thrown off balance by the wake of a passing vessel. Or a whale that decided to breach underneath me; that would be just my luck. Or a sea lion that would tip my board just to be an asshole. And if I did fall off, did I know how to get back on? Would hoisting myself back up require upper-body strength, which I did not possess? What if the paddle drifted away? What if the board drifted away? I lowered back down to my knees, paddled back to shore and went inside the house.

“Back so soon?” Mike asked.

“No, I’m going back out. I just want to grab one of the kids’ life jackets. I mean, I’m totally fine, but I want to go all the way around the island, and I think I’ll feel more confident if I have a life jacket.” We had adult life jackets but kept them on the boat at the dock on the other side of the island.

“Okay,” he said. “Good luck.”

I set out for another try. With a life jacket, I was sure I’d have the confidence to do it. Chances were that I wouldn’t have any interaction with sea life. In all likelihood, the worst that would happen would be that I’d fall off, lose the paddle, kick myself and the board back to shore, and find my way back to the house. Not the end of the world, because in this scenario I don’t die.

I put the life jacket on without clipping it. Not out of overconfidence or a blasé attitude toward water safety but because it was a life jacket designed for a seven-year-old girl. There was no possible way I was going to get that sucker closed. In fact, the life jacket was probably good for my posture, as it was so tight on my shoulders that it forced them back, and I couldn’t help but think of Chris Farley singing “Fat Guy in a Little Coat” in Tommy Boy. I wondered how long it would take for the strain on circulation in my armpits to cause me to pass out. Or would it just deaden my limbs? Suddenly, the addition of a life jacket didn’t mean much in terms of safety.

I paddled on my knees beyond the cove. The water was dark, though occasionally I could make out the tops of giant kelp forests. When their leaves reached the surface, I spotted tiny snails clinging to them. What if I got tangled in kelp? Every movie scene of someone being grabbed by the ankle and pulled under or becoming entangled and drowning as a result flashed through my mind. I looked back to the island, so tiny when I was confined to it but now like its own country, one that seemed nearly impossible to circumnavigate. I pushed from my mind the fact that my husband routinely did exactly that in about fifteen minutes, start to finish. I looked back to the sea and saw the head of a sea lion poking up about fifty yards away. Something about that sea lion’s expression convinced me that it was a complete asshole, as far as sea lions go.

“Well, that was fun,” I said aloud to no one, and paddled back to the safety of the protected cove.

“How was it?” Mike asked when I returned.

“Great,” I lied.

“Did you make it around the island?”

“Yeah, not so much.”

“You look kind of funny,” Mike said, referring to the life jacket pinning back my shoulders.

As I struggled to remove it, I looked at my husband and said, “If you start singing ‘Fat Guy in a Little Coat,’ I will physically harm you.” He laughed, and I realized he hadn’t had that image in his head until I planted it there.

My intention had been to exercise while also reassure myself that I was still somewhat on par with my husband when it came to physical aptitude and a willingness to test it. Without any sense of competition, of course. But instead all I’d accomplished was getting my husband to equate me with Chris Farley. I love Chris Farley. His death still saddens me. But when I think of my husband and celebrities he most resembles, I come up with Emilio Estevez and Viggo Mortensen. When my husband thinks of my celebrity doppelgänger, he’s now forever plagued with refrains of “Fat Guy in a Little Coat.”

Vagabonding Alaska

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