Marathon Paddle (Part One)

The Captain answered my phone call with “Hey-O.”

Without preamble, I said, “So I have this idea.”

“Yeah?”

I continued, “We rent a boat, motor out to Avalon, sleep on the boat, and then paddle back the next day. Hoover can drive the boat and track us back. I’m thinking like a 24-hour deal.”

The Captain paused for a second, and said, “OK, let’s do it.”

“Perfect. We’ll do it this weekend.”

At the time, the Captain had a standing offer to his buddies that whatever adventure they wanted to try, he would go along. It was like a coupon he gave you at the beginning of the year, a sort of wingman coupon, that you could redeem on any adventure during the year. So this was me redeeming my adventure coupon for the year.

That Friday, the Captain rented a boat from the marina club that he belonged to, and we picked up the boat a little after noon. She was a comically small motorboat, about 18 feet long. She had one outboard motor on the back hanging in the water, and two captain’s seats, with one bench seat at the back by the motor. A very tight cabin with a single padded mattress was in the narrow hull.

For a trip in the late afternoon from Newport Harbor to Santa Catalina Island (which was 30 miles away), there was going to be significant wind and chop across the channel. I figured it was going to be a rough ride in this little thing. But as we prepared the boat for departure in the harbor, it was a picture perfect sunny day with scattered clouds and a light breeze.

Hoov pulled up and got out of his car with a grin.

He said, “Gentlemen, commence operation beer me.”

With the Captain and I both in the water paddling, Hoov would be our third, and would drive the boat. He figured there wasn’t a better place to drink a cold one and relax with your buddies than behind the wheel of a boat under the warm sun in the open channel. Hoov no doubt looked forward to mocking our pain from the comfort of the boat while we suffered across the channel all day.

We carried our two fourteen foot paddleboards from our cars and put them on the dock. After looking thoughtfully at the boat for a bit, we stowed the boards along the rails, one on each side of the boat. Once stowed between the cabin and the railing, it was impossible to walk to the front of the boat. As I walked back to the boat from my car with another load of gear, I laughed at the boat which looked like it was made of two paddleboards with a motor. The boards were so big, they almost totally obscured the boat.

As we untied and started underway, the Captain said, “By the way guys, I rustled up a fourth.”

“Who?”

“I met this dude named Kenny. He’s from New York and just moved out here. He wants to come along.”

Hoover asked, “How’d you meet him?”

The Captain said, “Pretty funny actually. We were on a double date. His date and my date were friends. We ended up hitting it off more than we did with our dates. He’s a tri-guy” (by which the Captain meant he runs triathlons) “so we’ve been training a little bit together.”

I asked, “Is he a waterman?”

“God, no. I don’t know if he’s ever been on a boat in the ocean but he sounded like he was game for whatever. He can swim at least.”

I said, “Good enough. Where is he?”

“He lives over on the peninsula so I told him we’d pick him up on the way out.”

Hoov cracked open three beers from his Yeti cooler, passed them around, and we motored over to grab Kenny. He was waiting on a dock, wearing a ball cap, and holding a small backpack. He looked amiable, athletic, and relaxed.

I’d known the Captain and Hoov for decades and I thought it was strange that this dude I’d never met was willing to hop on a boat without a clue what we were about, and set off into the ocean with us. I figured he must be a fairly fearless type, up for anything. I wasn’t wrong. Since that date, Kenny has come along on all of our adventures, and now I call him the ‘Yes Man’ because whatever it is you want to try, he’s a yes.

Hey Kenny, I’m thinking of hunting great white sharks with this exacto knife. You in?”

Sounds exciting. So in.”

Hey Kenny, I’m thinking about swimming the North Sea from England to Norway with nothing but a tube sock on my junk? I need a buddy to do it with me.”

He’d say, “Sounds like a blast!”

I love that about him. Just last weekend, Kenny decided he would “Everest,” which meant that he would achieve the elevation gain of Everest while on a run. So, he ran up 29,000 feet on a random Saturday by launching himself up and down the same mountain here in Southern California, over and over again in the same day. Why? Because somebody asked him if he wanted to do it with them, and he was in, so in.

Hoov threw him a beer and we introduced ourselves. Kenny seemed excited about what we were doing and he instantly fit in. The Captain turned the bow toward the open water and we motored out of the harbor at ‘no wake’ speed.

I asked Kenny, “Ever done anything like this?”

As he took a swig, he said, “To be honest, I’m not even sure what we’re doing, but no, I’ve never been to Catalina, and I’ve never paddled before. But I’m looking forward to watching you guys give it a shot.”

Kenny and I toasted and both took another swig. It was a lovely afternoon, with the sun low in the sky and various boaters lulling around the harbor, waving and raising their glasses to each other. Another perfect day in Newport Beach.

The Captain and Hoov took the two chairs at the wheel and Kenny and I settled in at the bench seat next to the outboard motor. We talked about his time in New York and I learned he was a fellow lawyer, and so we fell in to a little shop talk.

But our chat did not last long because as we exited the protection of the harbor, and we made a slight right turn toward Avalon, the boat was instantly beset with fairly large swells, and a pretty decent headwind. The Captain pushed down on the throttle, the bow lifted up to the sky and we were off, bouncing hard along the incoming swells.

Kenny raised his beer bottle to his mouth to take a sip and as he did so, the boat lurched into a trough. The bottle jammed into his front tooth and he yelped.

“What happened?”

Kenny said, “I think I chipped my tooth.”

“Dude. Yeah, the pleasure cruise is over. It’s gonna be like this here on out.”

We put our bottles down in cupholders. Then we both stood up and went to hang on to the back of the guys’ seats so we could see what was coming. The boat was really rocking and we were all whooping it up as it banged down on every swell. As the hull hit the incoming swells, sheets of spray flew past and doused Kenny and I. I worried about the boards and checked to make sure that the cushioning we had put underneath them was still there.

The Captain, seeing the quickly setting sun, decided to go full throttle. The boat rose even higher and started flying through the water, skipping over the top of the crests. At one point, the boat dashed over a wave and the engine’s constant and angry growling suddenly raised itself to a high pitch. The entire boat with two boards and four passengers was now airborne. The blade, no longer pushing water, made a high pitched whine as we flew through the air for a moment until the boat touched back into the next wave.

I looked in amazement and Kenny who was white-knuckling the back of the Captain’s chair. We all screamed and it felt like we flew through the air in slow motion. But not to worry, we touched down and continued on like a bat out of hell toward Avalon.

I said, “Cap, better take her down a notch.”

And he did.

Kenny looked over at me with a serious look on his face. “Are we okay?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are we good out here? Is this normal?”

I said, “Sure. We’ve never done anything like this really, but I’m sure we’ll make it.”

“Really?” Kenny looked genuinely concerned for his welfare.

I said, “I think so”, and shrugged, “but if not, the life vests are in there.” I pointed at the compartment under the bench.

Kenny was understandably nervous, and so was I. The sun was going down fast and the swells were doing a number on us. It was uncomfortable just to carry on, as each wave buffeted the little boat. It was like a sledgehammer stroke to the hull every few seconds.

Kenny followed up, “What do we do when the sun goes down?”

The Captain said, “Well, we keep pointing ourselves toward Avalon, and it will light up so we follow the lights.”

“Seriously?”

Ian said, “Yeah. I know you can’t see it now but it’s out there. When the city lights come on, we’ll see it.”

But we couldn’t see it. There was a sort of haze obscuring the island and it could not be seen at all. We powered on through the dark at a pretty good clip.

At one point, while standing behind the Captain and holding on to his seat, and dodging sheets of spray, I was suddenly thwacked in the crotch. It was like a precision shot to the balls by something wet and hard. I doubled over.

“Jesus!”

The Captain turned. “What happened?
“Something just whacked me right in the zipper zone!”

Kenny asked, “What was it?”

“I think a fish just flew out of the water and hit me in the balls, man.”

We all cracked up but I was seriously perplexed. It was all very strange. I went back to the bench seat by the motor where you couldn’t hear anything, and nursed my nads. Kenny moved to where I was behind the Captain.

About 20 seconds later, Kenny yelled out, “Arrrrghhh.” He too doubled over in pain, holding his crotch.

Hoov called out, “The fish are hunting balls man.”

Kenny was stunned. “What the hell was that? I got it in the same way you did, except right on the tip.”

I said, “I dunno what it was but you better get out of the way.”

Kenny came and sat down with me, both of us, with fresh ice cold beers snugly between our legs. We puzzled over it for twenty minutes as we motored through the dark.

Eventually, however, the sun dipped, and Avalon’s hazy orange glow started to appear in the darkness in front of us. Then, all of the sudden, the boat’s progress was not so violent. We had entered the shadow of the island, the lee shore. And after a bit, we cruised slowly into the harbor, where the harbor master’s boat met us and gave us a slip number for the night.

As we tied up the boat, the Captain started laughing.

Hoov asked, “What is so funny?”

Ian held up a line that was dragging off the side of the boat. “It wasn’t junk hunting fish. You guys were just whipped in the balls by Poseidon, using this line.”

The line had evidently been dragging alongside the boat the whole time, and as we violently bucked along the water, it would randomly swing out and whip into the boat right behind the Captain’s chair, right at groin level. Duly noted.

We called a water taxi and headed on shore for dinner.

We were going to have to carb up for the morning, because tomorrow was going to suck.

(END PART ONE)

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