I used to play a lot of basketball, but oftentimes when I played, I would play for too long, and I would come home wrecked. My knees would hurt. My back would hurt. Even my stomach would hurt if I played for hours. I jammed my fingers, and sometimes had to wear a splint. I sprained ankles, hyper extended knees, and on occasion, I would take an elbow to an eye, or chip a tooth. Hoops can be brutal on the body.

As much as I loved basketball, as I got older and my body became less pliable, I got tired of the bloody aftermath, and I stopped playing. I looked for ways to exercise with a minimal pain tax, and I eventually turned to swimming, jogging, and then I found SUP. And as soon as I started to SUP, I was hooked.

One of the things that amazed me is that no matter how hard I pushed during my paddle session, I always felt great afterward. And I never got injured. Never.

Well, except for this one time:

I was paddling pretty far off shore that day. It was a weekday morning, sunrise. I was getting a paddle in before work. I left Newport harbor and paddled straight out to sea. In other words, I decided that day not to travel up or down the coast. Instead, I was heading toward Catalina, straight out to sea. I got a full two miles or so off the jetty and I was getting ready to turn around and head back.

It was a bit of a choppy day as the western swells were coming at me from my right. I was paddling at a pretty good clip, breathing hard, when suddenly, I lost my balance and my board began to tip to the left. A swell caught the board and started to push it over. I hung on as long as I could by leaning to my right, but it was a losing effort. I hardly ever fall in anymore, even on very rough days, and I was a little shocked it was even happening.

Somehow, and this part is a bit mysterious to me, as the board flipped on its side, I landed right on the rail. The board’s rail throttled my ribs near my right armpit, and immediately, the blow sucked the breath from my lungs. I fell in the water up to my shoulders, holding on to the board which was now upside down. My upper right ribs were screeching at me, as I flipped the board back over, and climbed on it.

I laid on the board, flat, and tried to catch my breath, which was coming in short spurts. I was fairly certain I had cracked my ribs, although I had never done anything like that before. I looked at the cloudless sky for a minute as the wave of pain dissipated. I listened to my staccato breath and the sound of waves lapping against the board.

I sat up and looked at the shore, two miles back the way I had come. I am jacked. I did not have my phone on me that day. I did not have my Garmin In-Reach satellite communicator. I had nothing by way of communication – other than yelling – and I couldn’t do that either.

I searched the horizon in every direction, and could not see another soul on the water.

I was on my own. Doing nothing, I would simply drift on the ocean as slow as these swells would push me and I would motate at a glacial speed, to who knows where. The western swells were not going to help with a south facing beach. That was not an option.

Like it or not, I would have to paddle back with cracked ribs. So I stood up, picked up my paddle with my left hand. I put my left hand mid-shaft on the paddle and put my right hand on the handle on top. I attempted a normal paddle stroke by reaching out on my left side, but when I reached my right hand over my head and attempted to apply force to the stroke, a shotgun blast of pain nearly knocked me over.

Well, that’s not gonna work.

Normal paddling was out. I found myself hoping for a sailboat full of happy mariners on their way to Avalon. I could flag them down and they could call for help. I scanned the water again but nothing, and no one.

I bobbed and frowned. The silence out there, miles from shore, felt like a message. The ocean’s indifference to my plight seemed like an insult.

I told myself I was paddling back whether I liked it or not and that was that.

I started paddling but within three strokes, it was too much, and pain-fueled sweat droplets flashed out all over my body. Then I decided I would paddle one handed so I wrapped the paddle as best I could around my left arm and paddled on my left side with only my left arm with the shaft pressed on my shoulder. The strokes were of course weak and almost useless. But I noticed I was moving in the right direction, if only slightly.

I had little choice but to continue in this way, so I did. I paddled and paddled and paddled, the shore seemingly as far away as ever.

A half hour passed, then an hour, and I saw that I was closing the gap. I was getting there. Here and there, I went back to a two-handed paddle for as long as I could stand it. Then back to left handed paddling. Creeping along.

But, eventually, I made it into the harbor, and then back to the beach.

Lesson learned.

When it comes to paddling in the open ocean, especially if you are alone, expect the unexpected and be prepared. Now, whenever I paddle, I always bring my phone. I also have my leash on, a waistbelt life vest, a whistle, water, a snack, and even a little flashlight. You just never know…

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