Paddling With Technology

I'm fairly certain that NASA launched the first moon landing with less technology than we use to plan paddle trips. 

I was planning a paddle trip recently, and was shocked to find myself looking at three different screens at once. (To make it even worse, I had to use a fourth device to take the picture.) 

Minimalism at it's best :).

It wasn't, relatively speaking, that long ago that I started paddling. Technology was in pretty full swing: I surfed the internet on my laptop with no cables attached, my cell phone was waterproof, though not yet smart, and Google was already a popular search engine, if not yet an official verb.

We lived in a pretty connected world. Yet when we went out on the water, we left most of that behind. We carried (sort of) water proof VHF radios that kept us in touch with the mainland (sort of). We could check the weather forecast and radar before we left, but once we were on the water, our only source of weather information was the tinny robotic voice coming from the NOAA weather broadcasts on our radios. There was much less certainty in the conditions, and if you were leading groups of people on the water, this meant that you had to be ready to respond to unexpected changes in the weather based on experience and intuition.

A dozen or so years later, a lot has changed. Increasingly accurate and detailed wind forecasts makes it possible to plan trips so that they are safer and more enjoyable. Smart phones allow us to watch an approaching storm on radar from the water, and make the decision to push on or seek shelter without having to wait until threatening clouds develop. They also provide more reliable communication and access to help in the event of an emergency.

Along with my phone, I also usually bring my Gopro. Waterproof, mountable action cameras provide a great way to capture our stories and adventures on the water. We can then upload these images to social media and share them nearly instantly with people around the world. This increases the visibility of paddling and encourages more people to get on the water, which is good for the sport as a whole.

Although it was as far back as the eighties that GPS was released to the civilian population, it is only recently that the technology has become cheap enough and reliable enough to have applications on the water. GPS watches allow us to train smarter through instant and unbiased feedback about speed and effort. Satellite phones and trackers allow others to follow on the water adventures in real time, providing an additional safety net. Yet despite the advantages these technologies bring, I worry about what we're missing when we're looking at our screens or watches. It's easy to get distracted by numbers, obsessing over our speed, or stroke rate, or calorie burn, instead of using the feel of the paddle entering the water, or listening to our bodies for feedback. Looking at our cameras can distract us from a deeper level of experiencing as we move through the environment, taking us out of the moment as we consider if a certain picture will be Instagram worthy.

There's a joy that comes with just grabbing your board, paddle, and PFD and hitting the water, with no thoughts of cords, chargers, or battery life. Unfortunately, technology is a bit like toothpaste. Once it's out, it's hard to put back in the tube. Most of the time I paddle, I'll continue to take some sort of camera , phone, and watch with me. The challenge will be to put down the camera, silence the phone, ignore the watch, and experience the beautiful simplicity of being on the water.


Aaron Mearns