A few days ago, just after dawn, I paddled out across the harbor with an unusually specific destination in mind. On the previous morning, I’d spotted a fresh piece of driftwood almost as long as my standup paddleboard—12 feet 6 inches—and decided to retrieve it. There was no way to tell where it had come from, but I figured the next storm might well wash it right back out into the Bay. It would be a hard-to-spot boating obstacle, so to help the community, I’d remove it.
Okay, okay, here’s the real reason; after so many weeks away from competitive sailing, I was also desperately hungry for a boating challenge.
The paddle out was quite easy, because the predicted southerly gale hadn’t yet arrived. But by the time I wrestled the branch—not heavy, but the very definition of awkward—onto the board, there were puffs circling around me—and a bit of chop building up. Even so, the first part of the paddle back to the dock was straight downwind. I even had time for a bit of daydreaming, imagining where in the garden this spiky new addition would fit best—before I turned to cross the harbor and realized the strengthening wind was blowing me sideways. I couldn’t possibly paddle hard enough or long enough to get back to where I’d started.
My mind instantly shifted from “isn’t this a fun adventure” to “this is stupid.” If things really went pear-shaped I could ditch the log, but that would mean the driftwood had won—and it would also reintroduce a significant boating obstacle back into a navigable waterway. The better solution would be to readjust my cargo, which would hopefully reduce the drag of the longest branch enough that I could make it back to the beach.
Fortunately, there was a boat in the harbor to serve as a rest stop, and I grabbed onto its transom long enough to turn over the log. Still awkward, but less branch in the water now—and the drag was on the windward side of the board, so it would steer me upwind. When I started paddling again, my speed had climbed and I was holding my own against the breeze’s push to leeward; still a lot slower than my usual average, but once again a safe adventure rather than an accident waiting to happen. Ten minutes later, I made it back to shore—out of breath, and grinning.
Why did winning a battle with a piece of driftwood make me so happy? Because it challenged me both mentally and physically—like any good sailboat race. And while I didn’t get to rehash the details with anyone who’d battled the same challenges, I did enjoy sharing it with Paul when I got back to the house. I also earned a very useful trophy; our garden now has a new border, replacing a rotting piece of driftwood picked up on a similar dawn raid a few years ago.
#stayinghome makes clear that the challenging unpredictability of regattas is simply impossible to replicate. To prepare, we have to make sure both boat and body are in top form, as well as getting everything to the regatta. On the day, we study the weather and try to match it to our fastest equipment. On the water, we build up and then burn off that competitive fire while trying to properly prioritize among all the specific skills of racing sailboats. And finally, back onshore, we get to relive the day’s challenges with others who share the same passion.
With all of that not an option right now, I feel very lucky that I can occasionally turn a morning paddle into a challenge I can “win”… even if my competition was just an awkward and not particularly smart piece of driftwood. And even if paddling it home didn’t really help anything, besides my own mental health.
Got a challenge to share? Tell me about it in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every human comment, with thanks.