From a distance, the six sea-kayakers looked quite graceful. The bows of their 16-foot, banana-colored craft cut smooth circles into the calm blue waters of Jericho Bay, which sparkled under the bright light of the afternoon sun over Memorial Day weekend. But within earshot of the kayakers, a more clumsy picture emerged.
“OK, now sit back on your right butt cheek! Sit back on your right butt cheek!” said Masha Reznik, 27, as she dragged one of her fellow kayakers on a rope behind her during a rescue drill. If the paddler put more weight on their right butt cheek, it would make the boat turn left and help Reznik tow them toward safety.
This was no ordinary kayak tour of the Maine seacoast; this was a four-day course designed to train future kayaking guides and instructors in the technical skills of ocean navigation, team leadership and — in this case — kayak towing. The students strained against their bulky life jackets and Gore-Tex body suits to clip carabiners to each other’s kayaks and paddle them away under the watchful eyes of the head instructor, Nate Hanson.
“For me the attraction of being on a boat on the ocean is dancing with this huge partner that can absolutely crush you,” said the 39-year-old Boston-area native, a biologist-turned-furniture maker-turned sea kayaker with a wad of sunscreen stuck in his ear. “But if you follow certain rhythms and rules of the tides and weather systems, you can have a wonderful experience on it.”
After a lifetime spent boating and sailing, Hanson started teaching those rhythms and rules in 2013 through his own kayak school, Pinniped Kayak. The name means fin-footed, like the amphibious seals that watch the kayakers with curious fascination. Hanson hopes that, like the seals, his students will become more comfortable on the water.
Pinniped’s courses range from a six-day journey along the Downeast coast to a one-day class in coastal kayak skills in Bar Harbor, along with a range of custom options in between. But all the courses have something in common.
“Instead of just staying on the shore and learning to paddle in circles, we can learn a little bit about paddling and then practice that as we paddle out to an island,” Hanson said. “That allows us to put the instruction in the context of a journey.”
The four-day course was certainly a journey. After two days spent in and out of classrooms, Hanson, Reznik, and the three other students packed their kayaks with food, tents and water before paddling out from Webb Cove, near Stonington, to test their skills on an overnight trip through Jericho Bay.
At first it wasn’t easy; gray skies and 10-mile-per-hour headwinds made for hard paddling that worked butts and core muscles as well as backs and arms. The countless islands of Maine also made things more difficult. When two islands are close together, all the water from the ocean has to rush between them, like a crowd of passengers leaving a subway car. The fast-moving water speeds up the current and can make paddling more difficult, or, as experienced kayakers might say, more interesting.
“Maine kayaking, and the Stonington archipelago in particular, is truly world-class,” said Gordon Wissinger, 48, a nuclear engineer who has kayaked in California and Florida, and was training with Hanson to become a kayak instructor. “All the different islands in close proximity to each other means I can do something different every day.”
Or do many different things in one day. As the candy-colored buoys, pine-topped islands and confused-looking seals passed by, the sky cleared and the wind died down; perfect conditions for towing and navigation drills.
“Navigation is a matter of faith in your compass and your charts,” Hanson told his students as they clutched their plastic compasses like rosaries and bent their heads solemnly over their nautical maps. They learned to find their bearings in magnetic north and true north, calculate distances in knots, and look around for landmarks — or signs from the gods — to keep them on a straight course.
“There are so many islands here and tours to guide people on,” said Reznik, who is training to be a Maine-certified kayak guide. “I’m really going to have to step up my leadership and navigation skills, which is dope.”
Equally dope (that’s youngster for “awesome”) was the final destination, a mound of granite boulders called Saddleback Island, which made all the training worth it. The six sea-kayakers drifted their boats onto shore and waddled out of them, like helmetless astronauts on a pine-lined Mars. They set up tents in the woods for the night, cooked sauteed tofu, asparagus and brownies on a natural granite countertop, and guessed at bird calls as the sun set over the finicky, island-spotted, beautiful waters of Jericho Bay.
“The ocean doesn’t care for you, it doesn’t even know you’re there,” Hanson said earlier. “It’s just up to you to find your place in it.”
Getting on the water
While growing up near Boston, Pinniped Kayak founder and instructor Nate Hanson took the subway to the Charles River, where he paid a dollar to sail the whole summer with the Community Boating program there. To sign up for lessons, contact him at 669-2174, [email protected], www.pinnipedkayak.com and on Facebook.