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 Chapter 5

Beaches and Ice

Rubber boats can be used from almost any beach most of the time. As with yacht clubs, it's easier to sneak on to a private beach with an uninflated rubber boat than with a kayak, and, once below the high water mark, you can inflate your boat perfectly openly no matter who sneers at you. Indeed, when bent over blowing into the valves with the mouth low and the rear end high, it's easy to make or simulate rude noises if anyone approaches too closely. But most beaches in America have public access.

You may think that, not having a rigid rowboat, you can row out through surf. It's quite surprising how little surf it takes to invert the boat and drop it on top of one. This process isn't as painful as it would be with a rigid rowboat, but it tends to diminish one's dignity in front of the beautiful people who may be present on the beach. The approved technique for lowish surf is to tie the bow rope of your boat around your waist (two half-hitches will do) with some six to eight feet of slack. You then wade out, lifting the bow over the waves, and get entirely clear of the surf zone before climbing in. It's easiest to crawl in directly over the bow, preferably by grabbing the oarlocks or ropes tied to them.

Because a small rubber boat is so much lighter and handier than an ordinary rowboat, it's possible to lift the bow much higher, and hence over bigger waves. One turns side- to the waves so as not to be knocked down while holding the boat high with one hand. One can even thrust one's head into the wave while still holding the bow of the boat above it. If the waves are still bigger, there is yet another technique available.

When the water is sucked out after a wave, it's often shallow enough to stand in front of the incoming wave. If so, one holds the bow of the boat, or the painter where it attaches, at arm's length, and hurls it stiff-armed up over the wave. One completes the follow-through by diving as low into the wave as possible. One then swims out quickly to get the boat beyond the next wave before it breaks.

Some of these techniques may sound rather unlikely, but I spent a whole summer in California without any failures. I am, in fact, quite a poor swimmer. It takes me forever to swim a mile, and a friend who was a competitive swimmer once observed me and remarked,

"I can't figure out why you don't drown."

A good swimmer ought to be able to get his or her boat out to sea even against the winter surf. One limitation is that not all beaches are so configured that you can stand in front of a big wave, and you consequently can't throw your boat over it. In that case, the only solution is a kayak.

The techniques mentioned above are intended for use by one person. In any case, as mentioned above, rubber boats don't row well with a second person aboard. If, however, you are determined to take a second person, that person should swim out through the surf independently, and then get into the boat.

Some forty years ago, it happened that I was with an attractive young lady who said that she hardly swam, but still wanted to go out. I never had a life jacket in those days, and, of course, it's insanity to take anyone like that anywhere near California surf, even on a calm day. But she was very pretty and quite insistent. Putting her in the stern of the boat, I thought I could lift the bow over a wave and pull it and her over it.

We got to the wave, and, as soon as I got my head through it, I found that I was holding the rope, and nothing else. It had gone completely around the boat, being attached at some six points, but the rope had cut through the rubber in all six places. The empty boat was bouncing toward the beach, and there was no sign of my friend.

The feeling that you've just drowned another person is a uniquely horrid and intense one. It takes some of the sting out of it if you also think that you're about to be drowned yourself, but, in this case, I could only rush frantically around in the surf. In the event, she simply bobbed up. She evidently swam a little better than advertized, and she certainly didn't panic. In fact, she seemed rather cheerful about the whole thing. Still, it's better to lie on the beach unless all members of the party have the necessary skills in hand, not to mention a rubber boat for each person.

Suppose now that you live in Bloomington, Indiana, and that you can't get away for very long very often. You teach experimental psychology at Indiana University, and you supervise graduate students who, in turn, care for the laboratory animals. If you aren't there, the graduate students, let loose, will go drinking and partying. They'll also forget to feed the animals. Then, when you get back, you'll get some bad looks from the hungry rhesus monkeys.

A few miles from Bloomington there is Lake Monroe, a nice big reservoir with a dam at one end. Like other "made lakes", it has many arms to be explored, and, if one isn't alert, it can be hard to find one's way back. Even without exploring the arms, it's a good day's row from the campground on the highway to the dam and back. While there isn't any swell, a good breeze will kick up some chop, particularly in winter.

The only trouble is that a good part of the lake is likely to ice up for most of the winter. Most often, there's a band of ice ringing the shore and open water beyond it. It's easiest to get through in a rigid rowboat or small sailboat. You sit on the bow with your feet forward on the ice and strike downward with an implement. The handle of an oar can be used, but it will soon be degraded. It's better to pick up a small log on shore. The problem is that, once out a little way, the boat will drift back away from the ice that you're trying to break.

The approved technique here is to take a small anchor with a short chain attached, and, swinging it briskly from a standing position, fling it out as far as possible in a nice high parabola. With luck, it will penetrate the ice. With even more luck, you may be able to pull the anchor and boat together, cutting the ice. But this is unlikely. Let's assume that the anchor and chain are simply sitting out there on the ice. They offer just enough resistance so that you can keep the boat to the edge of the ice as you hammer away at it. Eventually, an anchor throw will go over the other edge of the ice, or through it.

Sometimes, when you get hyped up with strange herbs from the Bloomingfood health food store, you go out to Lake Monroe with your kayak. You once had a bad experience trying to use the anchor with the kayak, and so you try a different technique. Lifting your paddle high, you thrust it through the medium-thin ice at the edge. It begins to look as if you can chop your way through to clear water. The ice then gets a little thicker. You aren't quite sure how hard you can chop without breaking the paddle, but you chop anyway, and reach some open water.

There's another stretch of ice blocking you off from the main lake. You're tempted to charge it, but you aren't quite sure how hard and fast one can ram a kayak into an ice field without slicing it open. On the other hand, you and your friends have all lost boats off cars on expressways without ill effects. It may be that kayaks, be they plastic, fiber- glass, or kevlar, can handle a lot of ice.

In this case, the boat rides up on top of the ice, and sticks there. It is here too thick to chop, and you aren't sure how you're going to get back. You worry about the monkeys.

The next time, you take your rubber boat. After laying it out from shore on the ice, you sit on the bow. It's hard to fling an anchor from a rubber boat, but you manage. Then, instead of pounding on the ice, you simply stand up on it while holding a line to the stern. This insures that, when the ice breaks, you fall back into the boat, as opposed to pitching forward. Near to shore, the ice breaks readily.

Out further, the ice holds your weight. You try jumping, and you discover that, if you jump near enough the edge, it does break. It takes nice coordination not to go right through into the water, at which point you would have to crawl back into the boat. After one partial dunk, you walk out on to the ice a few feet, and pull the boat entirely on to it. You might be able to drag the boat the whole fifty yards to open water, but that courts total immersion. Instead, you get back in the boat and jump within it. You can do this in total confidence of staying dry, and it feels good in an odd way.

The graduate students claim that your weirdness is connected with the fact that you're only comfortable in the company of laboratory animals. They may, even now, be telling unflattering anecdotes about you while crawling through the coffee bars in the Kirkwood district. You wonder what they would say if they saw you now, perfectly happy without even a hamster in sight.

You do eventually get to open water with these various techniques. You row for a while, and then head back. The channel you made coming out seems to have closed, and you probably wouldn't be able to find it in any case. You therefore repeat the process in reverse.

When you get back to the monkeys, they chatter gaily. You remain with them for a couple of hours, and then go out to the convenience store to get them some treats. They really do seem to prefer you to the graduate students. You feel good about that.

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