Spring paddling lessons

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I talked to the wind last weekend. And learned a couple of important lessons, too. But before we get to those, let me backtrack a few weeks, when I went to Ottawa’s top paddling shop, Trailhead Paddle Shack, and I picked up a new 12-foot, 6-inch inflatable touring stand-up paddleboard from Starboard.

Eager to try my new SUP and get onto the water to get ready for the Jock River Race on April 21 — the first race of any kind that I have entered since running across a grassy field at a friend’s cottage-country regatta more than 30 years ago — I ignored the -10 C windchill and ice-flecked water and asked my wife to drop me off on Victoria Island in downtown Ottawa on Saturday.

I pumped up the board quickly, slid the fin into position, zipped up my wetsuit, tightened my PFD, cinched the leash around my ankle, and stepped over the ice to get onto the Ottawa River.

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The water was calm at first, but as soon as I got downstream from the island, a northwest wind gusting to more than 50 kilometres an hour pushed me toward the Ottawa side of the river. I battled to make progress and had to step onto the rocky shoreline just past the outlet of the Rideau Canal to portage around a solid line of ice, and then struggled to make my way northward — under the Alexandra Bridge, past the National Gallery — against the wind. Once I reached the waterfalls where the Rideau River empties into the Ottawa, and rounded the corner where Rockcliffe Park overlooks the water, the river curves eastward — and the wind, which I had been cursing aloud for the previous half hour, became my friend.

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Blowing hard onto my back, whipped up breaking waves, the wind propelled me along with the current. Downwinding. Flying. “Thank you,” I said out loud, planning to zip along the river to Petrie Island at the eastern edge of the city, feeling rewarded for my perseverance.

That’s when I started to struggle to control the board, swerving wildly on the crest of each wave, crashing down and flexing my knees to maintain balance. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Ottawa, on days just as windy as this, with large wakes kicked up by fast boats, but something was amiss.

After I tumbled into the water, and scrambled back on the board, and then jumped back in to retrieve my paddle, I had a hard time warming up. After another 20 minutes of paddling, I pulled over to the shore (just past the Aviation Museum, it turned out) and hauled the board out of the water — and noticed that my fin was gone, probably jarred loose during that portage over rocks and ice.

Lesson one: make sure your fin is properly attached, a mistake that explains my lack of control, and a mistake I’ll never make again.

Lesson two: test your cold-water self rescue skills.

As I quickly changed into dry clothes from my dry bag (including fleece-lined jeans, a dry toque and warm mitts to replace the now-icy neoprene paddling gloves), I was thankful for the chance to test drive my ability to recover from a potentially dangerous situation with a major road just a few minutes away. Once I felt warm, I ate some chocolate, deflated and packed the board in its rolling backpack, and walked to the museum, where I sat in a sun-drenched atrium to wait for my wife, who graciously agreed to come pick me up.

Later this week, when I go back onto the water, I’ll double check the fin. And maybe I’ll try the Rideau instead.

Photos by the wonderful @lisaanngregoire!

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