It’s September and the boating season here in Seattle is just about over. And I’m ready. It’s not that I’ll stop boating, but the seasonal boaters will.
I row and paddle year-round along the city’s ship canal. There’s a 7-knot, no-wake zone all along its 7-1/2-mile length, and during the summer, especially on weekends, the canal sees a lot of pleasure-boat traffic, the majority of it power boats. Most abide by the limit and trail a rolling corrugated fan of waves. If I’m paddling my kayak and taking an oncoming boat’s wake head on, I’m through in a few strokes without breaking cadence. The wake of an overtaking boat, moving along the canal about two knots faster than I’m paddling, stays with me longer and each passing crest nudges my bow toward the concrete and riprap banks of the canal. A series of sweep strokes on the shore side keeps my kayak’s delicate hull, a thin four-layer laminate of mahogany veneer, from getting stove in.
Some power boats, designed to go fast, drag big wakes even at 7 knots. The first half dozen waves astern may even be cresting, so I’ll bring the kayak to a stop and angle the bow to the oncoming waves to keep from getting drenched. Taking the waves over the stern may require bracing with the paddle to keep from getting capsized. Faced with these wakes, stand-up paddlers, canoeists, kayakers, rowers, and scullers, all brace for impact. In some parts of the canal it’s a one-two punch when the wake bounces off concrete walls. All of this drama plays out well after the wake-throwing skipper has passed by and has gone on his way in blissful ignorance of the ill-will generated by his passing.
I grew up rowing and sailing, not motoring. In a rowboat. the view is over the stern; you have to look over your shoulder to see what’s ahead. Most of the boats I’ve sailed have had tillers, not wheels, so I’m usually seated sideways with as good a view astern as forward. With either kind of boat, speed is not an option for avoiding an approaching threat, whether it’s a squall, a freighter, a ferry, or a powerboat. I learned at an early age to scan all 360 degrees of the horizon. That might not have happened if powerboats had been my introduction to boating.
In most of the powerboats I meet on the canal there is a helm very much like the driver’s side of a car with a forward-facing seat, a steering wheel, a windshield, and a dashboard. But there are no rear-view mirrors on the boats. If speed is on your side and you have the right of way over any vessel passing you, there’s not much to compel a skipper to make a habit of glancing over the stern for their own safety, let alone that of others. This summer, only one skipper looked back to see how I was faring as his wake caught up to me. He had, as you might expect, slowed down and moved toward the far side of the canal as he had passed by me.
I credit small boats with teaching me a lot of valuable lessons: patience, because destinations are not quickly reached, perseverance, because sea miles are often hard won, humility, because small boats are vulnerable, and equanimity, because the wind and waves may demand it. It’s that last one, equanimity, that I try to draw upon when a wake on the canal washes over my deck and my bow slews toward the rocks, or when the cresting waves of a passing of a speeding cabin cruiser slap the wind out of my sails. It’s all too easy to dwell on what might be instead of what is, but there is nothing I can do to make negligent skippers more mindful any more than I can improve bad weather, and I haven’t been doing so well when it comes to equanimity on the canal. Next May, when Opening Day signals the start of next year’s boating season, I’ll have another opportunity to practice.