It rarely gets cold enough here in Seattle to keep me from getting out on the water, so I’ve been getting year-round exercise and recreation paddling my Struer K-1 trainer on the canal that connects Puget Sound to Lake Union. The launch ramp is only 1-1/2 miles from my home and I’ve made this outing hundreds of times, so often that it has become an efficient routine that takes well under two hours from the time I decide to take a break from work to being back at my desk, rejuvenated and clear-headed.
When there was a break in the wind and rain on the last Sunday of last November, I changed into my paddling wet suit, loaded the kayak on the roof racks, and headed for the ramp. The news being what it was in 2020, I usually didn’t listen to the radio, and instead put the seven-minute drive to good use, often doing memory exercises. On this particular Sunday, I was trying to remember cast members from the movie Young Frankenstein. Gene Wilder was easy and I could picture Peter Boyle, both as the monster and as himself; his name wasn’t long in coming to mind. I knew that the name of the actress who played the ingénue laboratory assistant was one I’d be able to recall, but I got stuck on the similar-sounding name of Vikki Carr and it took me a while to come up with Teri Garr. Later in the drive, out of the blue, the face of a neighbor I hadn’t seen in over a decade came to mind, and his first name dawned on me in a few seconds: Craig. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to come up with his last name, but a half minute later, after I’d given up trying, it too popped into my head.
Within a couple of hundred yards from the ramp and feeling pretty good that my memory wasn’t too far gone for a 67-year-old, I heard a thump on the car roof and caught a glimpse in the driver-door rear-view mirror of a brown diagonal shape crossing the field of view. The kayak had flown off the racks.
I pulled off the street and walked back to the delicate, 30-lb Struer. It had flipped over and come to rest upside down on a diagonal across the edge of the roadway, half on concrete, half on the dirt and gravel of the median. The car coming up from behind had plenty of distance to stop and the driver rolled down his window and asked if I needed help. I replied “No, thank you. I’ve got it.”
I picked up the kayak, got it out of his way, and carried it back to my car to inspect the damage. Aft of the cockpit there was a T-shaped crack in the deck. It was as big as my hand and had a gumball-sized rock wedged between the jagged edges of one of the tears. The rudder blade was bent from vertical to nearly horizontal and there was a 1′-long hole in the bottom, just ahead of the rudder. I looked up and down both sides of the road looking for a missing piece but didn’t see any stray bits of the hull. I didn’t realize until I got home that the skeg, which guards the rudder, had been punched into the hull and stayed there.
I suppose I could have been angry, but I was numb with disbelief, not by why my kayak could have flown off the car, but by how I could have missed something I had never failed to do in nearly a half century of driving boats to the water: tying one down on the roof rack.
In the instant I saw the kayak in the rear-view mirror, I knew what had happened: I had made one small change in my routine. I have been loading the Struer the same way for years: I open the twin doors to the garage, slide the kayak off the carpeted eye-level shelf it shares with my lapstrake canoe and my son’s two paddleboards, and carry it to the car where I set it on the foam cradles and tie it down. On this Sunday, right after I’d put the kayak on its cradles, I glanced at the garage. The doors were open, as they always are at that point in the routine; I don’t close them until after I tie the kayak down. But one time last year I’d forgotten to close and lock the doors, and I was surprised to see them open when I came back from paddling. Not wanting to forget this, I walked away from the car and closed the doors. By the time I had returned to the car, I had slipped into the rest of the routine—the steps I do without thinking— got in and drove off.
If the bow of the kayak were visible from the driver’s seat, I would have noticed it bouncing and swaying; if I were heading to a distant put-in, I would have, as a backup to memory, rolled the window down, reached up and checked the tension on the rope.
The kayak stayed put for five turns, four stops, a 1/4-mile of arterial westbound at 25 mph, and 3/4 mile of boulevard southbound at 20 mph. It might have been a bump in the pavement that lifted the bow enough for the kayak to take its short flight.
As bad as the damage was, I had fixed the kayak once before and already knew how to approach the repairs. It had been air-freighted, brand new, from the Struer factory in Denmark, protected only by a soft, translucent cocoon of bubble wrap and a “Top Load Only” label. The label had evidently been ignored and the kayak made the flight to Seattle under a pile of other cargo. The deck and hull had pancaked, splitting the seam between them and breaking deckbeams free of the gunwales. The corner of a box or a crate had pushed through the bubble wrap into the foredeck, tearing through the plies of hot-molded mahogany. I’d put the kayak in slings and left it hanging from the ceiling in my basement for about two years as I mulled over how I’d put it back in working order.
Afloat for the first time, the repaired Struer proved a great pleasure to paddle and provided great exercise. It became my most frequently used boat, taken out well over 150 times each year. This time, it won’t take two years to make the new round of repairs. I’m eager to have the kayak available again for the outings I’ve come to rely upon for physical and mental wellbeing. I trust the Struer’s new scars will make an equally indelible mark on my memory, a prompt to tie the kayak tightly to the roof racks.