In Life, the Universe and Everything, the third installment of the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, Ford Prefect, a reporter for the aforementioned guide, suggests that there’s a trick to flying.
“The knack,” he says, “lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
This tip was on my mind during my first-ever stand-up paddleboard lesson with YOLO Board Adventures this past November as I stood amongst a gaggle of fellow travel writers on the shore of the fun-to-say Choctawhatchee Bay, nestled within the Florida Panhandle’s Emerald Coast region.
I reasoned that if flying is the art of throwing yourself at the ground and missing, then for me, stand-up paddleboarding was the art of throwing myself at the Choctawhatchee Bay and missing.
Or course, in order to throw myself at the water during my stand-up paddleboarding lesson I would have to first, you know, stand up. And this took me a while. And eventually I did stand up.
But let me begin at the beginning.
That mild late afternoon, after tucking into two well-rounded meals at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, we writers, our bathing suit waist-banded bellies quite full, arrived at the YOLO Board outpost in Miramar Beach.
After we posed in manly fashion with our paddles, our good-natured guides Curt Davidson and Justin Dunwald had us listen up for some instructions. They began saying something along the lines of, “When you’re on the board, your instinct is going to be to … ”
And then for reasons that still escape me, my mind wandered… to the fact that three days before, America had elected itself a new president… that we six writers were slightly under-dressed for the assertive breeze that was digging into us as we stood on the shore of the Choctawhatchee… that this was a water sport with paddling, so a persistent voice in the back of my head was repeatedly saying “Paul, you’re not good at this kind of thing so maybe end your vision quest and pay attention” but sure enough when I tuned back in all I heard was the very last line of the tutorial, “…. so don’t do any of those things.”
It was like that time George Costanza had no idea how to get started on a special project from his boss because he missed hearing the instructions, but I suppressed the anxiety caused by my failure to listen just long enough to hear some of the things I should be doing while I was paddleboarding:
- Keep one hand on top of the paddle. The horizontalness of the handle on top of the paddle reinforces this.
- Once you stand up, start paddling as soon as possible.
- If you start to lose your balance, don’t try to shuffle your feet too much or you’ll walk right off the board.
And since I’ve established I zoned out while other important tips were dispensed, allow me to refer you to tips for preventing paddleboard injuries and tips on how to paddle straight by YOLO Board team member Leah Seacrest.
Curt and Justin shepherded our small group out onto the water and soon enough, I observed that thing that happens when random guys of different abilities are thrown into an active pursuit — we splintered into three groups: The advanced and sometimes more athletic guys who lead the pack and stay there, the dudes who you typically don’t see again until you’re done; the guys who comprise the middle of the pack; and the straggler with whom one of the guides, for reasons of compassion or legality or perhaps a bit of both, is determined to stick with. In this case, the straggler was me, with Curt patiently paddling alongside.
So there I was on my knees on the board on the bay. Paddling. Taking a very long time to pilot my board in the right direction, which at one point was heading toward some reeds. Then I was in the reeds. All the while, Curt was encouraging, letting me know I was doing fine, directing me how to get out of the little jams I had gotten into.
Soon after clearing the first batch of reeds I was determined to stand. Perhaps it was the sight — the way-off sight — of my fellow stand-up paddleboarders standing in the distance because, peer pressure, but also, standing up clearly was my next goal, and all I had to do was just. Stand. Up.
In this situation, standing up takes a little more courage than you might think. But stand I did. Slowly, awkwardly rising from my knees, wobbly, I stood, a mix of things helping me remain upright: instinct (don’t lock your legs, I told myself, as that never seems like a good idea); half-remembered instructions (don’t try fancy footwork and walk off the board); and gentle direction from Curt (get your paddle in the water), which is particularly helpful if you’re standing for the first time or recovering from a stumble.
My favorite direction from Curt, reiterated in the YOLO links provided above, was to keep my eyes on the horizon, which aside from being a far more attractive sight than my ugly feet, was a good tactic that served to improve my balance and in some respects, make me one with the experience of paddling.
Once we got past the reeds and into a wider part of the bay, Curt also subtly dispensed with his quiet instructions and simply said, tell me about Traveling Dad. And I thought, does this guy really think I can engage in a casual conversation while I’m trying to throw myself at the bay and miss? But being a step ahead of me, Curt knew that the conversation, like gazing at the horizon, would help me relax.
As Curt and I chatted — about Traveling Dad and the advice our writers dispense, about his family, my family, the importance of being present as a parent, and other topics I really enjoy talking with other dads about, I thought, hey this is good stuff, I wish I could write it down, and it was at that moment that my mind started overchurning and I began to overthink my paddle strokes and stance and balance. And for the third time I lurched forward, planting my hands and knees back on the board, though I stumbled forward with relative grace, if you can imagine, and got back up with relative speed. And without Curt having to tell me, I got my paddle into the water as soon as possible and resumed paddling.
This improvement in my stand-up paddle boarding skill was in part due to instruction and so I was a bit more confident, but also, my five compadres were also within sight on the shore back where we had started, so of course I wanted to look cool and in control. And somehow that’s how it turned out. Curt and I paddled the homestretch side by side, me upright, not buckling, looking like I had been doing this… well, at least for the last hour. And we brought it in. I was happy, as I often am after a water sport, to be back on land. But I was also sad, as I often am after an adventure, that it was over.
Like any worthy pursuit, stand-up paddleboarding takes practice if you want to get good at it and as I’ve touched on, it’s one of those activities where its helpful not to overthink what you need to do.
And if you really want to successfully throw yourself at the water and miss during your YOLO Board adventure, it also helps to pay attention whenever someone is being kind enough to give you instructions. This is true when you’re not paddleboarding, too.
Images: Maggie McCall, Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa