Circles of Change
I love the pivot turn too much, for sure. I hardly get past teaching how to stand on the board before I’m asking people to drop back down to their knees. I show them how shuffling to the back of the board lets the tail sink a bit under water while the nose lifts from the sea, shedding sheets of water as it does. With the paddle as horizontal as possible and power face turned outward, I instruct them to set the paddle against the board, then sweep it out in the widest circle possible, keeping the blade just beneath the surface of the water. I ask them to picture planting the blade and rotating the board away from it.
They do this, to more or less success, and after having done it, they’ve rotated 360 degrees. They’re back where they started. In the process they’ve nearly flipped or fallen off several times, and have to go through awkward motions to bring stability back to their board. A seemingly pointless activity, to go through so much effort just to get where you’ve been. But there’s a change that happens, and the change matters. As their board sweeps through 360°, they’re also sweeping outside of their comfort zone. The goal of keeping the board as flat as possible is tossed, and paddler and board now move together, as the paddler learns how the movement of his or her body has a direct and satisfying, or not, impact on how the board maintains dynamic stability. Limits and boundaries are tested. How far can you move back on the board without rocket shipping straight to the sky? How far can the board edge sideways throughout the turn before toppling right over on top of you? How much can you trust your body, and your ability to adapt, to guide your movements?
The goal of course isn’t really to do a pivot turn. It’s about the things you learn along the way. Yvon Choinard, founder of Patagonia, and climber, environmentalist, and outdoor industry billionaire, puts this another way in Jeff Johnson’s documentary 180° South.
“It’s kind of like the quest for the holy grail. Who gives a shit about what the holy grail is. It’s the quest, it’s what’s important. The transformation is within yourself, that’s what’s important.”
Life is full of trips that bring us back to our starting point. Every year the Earth orbits the sun, traveling through hundreds of millions of miles only to arrive back at its starting point 365 days later (if we ignore the greater movements of the cosmos, but it’s all relative ;) ). Every day, the Earth rotates on its axis, spinning us through sunrises and sunsets and tides and storms, only to do it all over again tomorrow. Each morning we leave the house, and god willing, come back home to the same place later that day. But each journey affects a change in us. Each year brings new hopes and dreams, each morning a different sunrise. Every time we come back home, we do so a bit older, we hope a bit wiser, and a bit more capable of being the spouse, mother, brother or daughter that we long to be.
Oh, and paddling. This is a blog about paddling, so we should talk a bit more about paddling. Many, probably most, of our paddles end up being round trip paddles, ending where we began. But of course, we never return to the same beach we left. Tides ebb and flood, and we return to more or less beach than was there when we left. Waves create or erase patterns on the beach. Sandcastles are left high and dry or inching closer to inundation.
But it’s not just the beach that has changed. Every paddle out changes the paddler, on lesser or greater scales. This Saturday we’ll run our first organized Island Paddle, where we’ll explore some of the many islands that punctuate Salem Sound. For some in the group, it will be their first time paddling past the outer parts of Beverly Harbor. For them, and others, they’ll step foot on, or paddle around, islands that have long served as background images in their pictures or memories, and now will become central features in the foreground. The islands are awesome. They’re mostly rocky and deserted, and though well within sight of land, have a remoteness that satisfies the explorer in us. Various found objects, clearly crafted by human hand, hint at a prior history, hard to conceive but ripe for the imagination to create scenarios of adventures past. But the islands are merely the stage on which the show plays out. The experience of paddling offshore, across open water typically reserved for ships under motor or sail, will affect a change proportional to the amount of challenge this paddle represents to each paddler.
But my excitement for the paddle pushes my words toward too much hyperbole. We’ll return from the paddle exhausted and excited at what we’ve done, but to be sure, this is no hero’s journey. It is unlikely any one of our paddlers will come back having discovered some deep secret or meaning of life. They might not even recognize that a change has taken place. The change is something that emerges over time, in the stories they tell, the memories they share. It emerges each time they look out to the water, seeing the islands in their mind with greater detail than their eyes alone can allow.
And maybe that’s why we paddle at all. The paddle, like the artist’s brush or sculptor’s chisel, bring us to a destination, but it’s what they allow us to learn and discover along the way that makes us grow and change, and the next time we pick up the paddle, we’re different than we once were.