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Bob Laney

When I moved from New Bern to Wilmington a few months ago, I brought with me a sleek, long, narrow ocean-going kayak named a Nigel Dennis Romney Excel, made in England.  It was used, extensively renovated and sold to me by my good friend Bill Webb.  It is 16 1/2 feet long and 23 inches wide. Janet likes to paddle as much as I do, and often initiates the trips.  She has a Perception fishing kayak which is short, wide, slow and not good tracking.

When we paddled together, I would take two strokes and glide 15 feet.  She would take five strokes and fall behind.  I made it my goal to get her a higher class, seagoing kayak like mine.  But it would have the trade-offs of being narrower and more tippy.  Janet did not warm up to that idea well, because she had never fallen out of her kayak, and she sternly wanted to keep it that way.

It took several months of me wheedling and debating to get her to agree to me buying her a sea kayak.  We bought from Bill Webb a new Wilderness Systems Tsunami 135 Pro, which Is 13 1/2 feet long and 23 inches wide, which is about a foot narrower than her Perception and my canoe. This boat is considered to be at the small end of sea-going kayaks. After several more months of Bill’s work outfitting and renovations, including giving Janet a very plush and comfy seat, we took delivery a few days ago.

Janet and I were both nervous about how she would fare with the sleek boat.  Over the last few months, Janet made several comments throwing cold water on using the boat. She wanted to know my plans to sell the boat if she did not like it.  My concern was that she would capsize several times quickly, get frustrated, get mad and not want to use the boat again.

But after we took delivery, she became more excited about paddling, so we planned a trip that day to Smith Creek park, which has a small lake and a convenient dock with a boat ramp.  We made detailed plans for me to be standing about thigh-deep in the water while she was paddling. I was supposed to stay close enough to keep a hand on her arm or deck safety line.

With considerable enthusiasm, Janet helped me get the boat afloat in a few inches of water. When she got into the boat, which is a somewhat technical, multi-step process, I changed our plans and did not hold her arm or the boat  She methodically eased into the boat with no trouble. I expected her to paddle around me in a little circle and not get more than about 10 feet away. After a few minutes of circling, and doing a few low and high braces, she surprised me by pointing the bow towards the other end of the lake about three-quarters of a mile away and started paddling. As she moved there was no boat wobbling, no errant paddle splashes and no hesitancy. Just smooth, strong progress across the lake.

After a while she returned and said she was doing fine and really liked the boat. I asked her if she was ready to get out and head home, and she said “no.”  Instead, she pointed the bow to the other end of the lake and took off again. This time she went out of sight several times behind some stretches of land surrounding some small coves. When she returned again, she expressed no problem with balance or any other insecurity. She was tired enough to head home, but wanted to go paddling again soon.

So, three days later on May 16 we went back to Smith Creek Park lake and this time she paddled the full circumference of the lake, going around the outside and into and out of all the coves. I estimate it was about 2 miles. This trip may not sound like a large escapade, but I remember my first half a dozen paddles in my Romney Excel being paranoid and feeling unbalanced the whole time. I needed about six trips under my belt before I felt confident that I could stay in the boat without capsizing.

I have learned from experience in my later paddles this past winter and spring that these low-slung, narrow boats actually do better in difficult conditions, like wind, waves, currents and tides. The next step in Janet's development will be to try some of these stronger conditions sometime soon.

On the cloudy but warm afternoon of April 17, the Twin Rivers Paddle Club convened at the New Bern YMCA. Several experienced members of the club lead a kayak rescue clinic. The club has conducted several clinics in the past and plans to conduct one or two more clinics this summer. Each class has a different focus, such as safety procedures, self-rescues, tandem rescues and others.  Today's class was about tandem rescues.  It was well attended with about 10 persons in the water and 15 persons observing. I was previously scheduled to work as an in-water assistant, but because of a recent hamstring injury I went as an observer.

On April 2 Janet and I had not paddled for a couple weeks so we were anxious to get on the water.  The weather was a beautifully blue sky and deceptively warm in the sun.  But in the shade or in the wind it was noticeably cool.  We mistakenly did not take a sweater or jacket. We decided to go to Archie Blue Park, just a couple of miles from our house in suburban Wilmington.

I was a little anxious about the logistics, since we did not leave home until about 5:15 p.m.  I had never started a trip in my life after 5 p.m.  But the sun did not set until about 7:30 p.m., so we felt it would be okay to paddle for a couple of hours. 

Our route took us from the put-in at Archie Blue Park on Burnt Creek to the junction with Smith Creek. Then the river trail continued down stream on Smith Creek to the SE Fork of the Cape Fear River at about 6.1 miles.  We went a mile from the juncture further down Smith Creek.  The sun was getting low in the sky, the wind had picked up and the sky was getting cloudy.  We decided to turn around about 2 miles short of the SE Cape Fear River.  Because I was pushing the pace, our paddle back to the take-out at the Park was a bit quicker than the trip from the put-in downriver.  And this fast pace was despite paddling against the current and a stiff wind.  We got a good muscular and cardiovascular workout.

Despite being within the city limits, the paddle trail was surprisingly remote. We passed under a couple bridges for cars and trains; otherwise there were no signs of civilization. We were watching for wildlife, but only saw some large fish swirling just under the water surface.

The adventure was at the takeout. I got there first and remembered that about 80% of my boat exits resulted in me losing my balance and falling in the water.  Sometimes when I fell, I seemed to be too anxious, and I was moving too fast. This time I moved slowly and carefully. After I was standing fully erect with one foot balanced on the creek bank and the other foot balanced in the canoe, the situation seemed good.   As I briefly stood there the canoe slowly drifted away from the shore. My legs stretched further apart. As I tried to pull my legs together, I severely strained my left thigh hamstring muscle. I immediately cried out in pain and fell in the water.  When I squirmed around to get up, I found that I could not stand or walk.  I yelled to Janet that I was in serious trouble. I had to sit there in cold water up to my waist in a shortie wet suit until Janet could come ashore and get us oriented. 

Janet quickly took charge and fashioned a paddle for my use as a crutch. She strained her muscles enough to be sore the next day hauling both our boats up the bank and onto the grass.  Then she drove the Jeep, with a manual transmission from the parking lot to the grass, which was itself a small tribulation for her. Luckily, a young couple with a baby walked past and Janet recruited the man to help me load the boats on the Jeep roof racks. Finally I carefully drove home and we got further organized and recuperated from there.

Despite the trouble, we did have a decently good time and we'll go back there again.

On the sunny but cool and windy afternoon of Sunday, March 24, Janet and Bob went bike riding at Long Leaf New Hanover County Park.  The park is a beautiful large open area covered with moderately disbursed tall pine trees. Visitors are allowed to park anywhere in the park between trees. Facilities include many long and winding hiking and biking trails, tennis courts, a small children’s playground, a dog park, picnic areas, a pond, and a few other things. 

The outer loop is about a mile or a little more with a few hills. Our first bike circuit was steady work.  Then we paused by the pond to eat a large snack.  We illegally fed some food to the Canadian geese in the pond. Janet was able to get one of the geese to eat a bite of muffin off her knee.

Gracie came along but stayed in the car while we biked.  Next, we took Gracie to the dog park where she mostly played kickball with Janet. 

Our second bike circuit was a little faster and had me huffing and puffing to keep up with Janet. She is a majorly strong biker; Plus, I am terribly out of condition after a year and a half of pain from three separate physiological causes and a commensurate lack of exercise.   A good time was had by all.

On the cool and cloudy afternoon of February 22, Janet and I followed her directions to Greenfield Lake Park in Wilmington.  We were biking on the 4-mile paved trail around the lake in the park center.  But the main attraction was the beautiful swampy lake full of and surrounded by miles of cypress trees and Spanish moss. We went without Janet’s dog Gracie.

Normally, when I go on a trip, I take one or two devices with me to navigate.  My main instrument is a Garmin Montana 750i with a plethora of sophisticated features and programs. Today the Montana misbehaved and I left it in the Jeep at the parking lot. For several years I have had the popular and well-known app on my iPhone called All Trails.  I have read many reviews that were mixed good and bad, so up to now I had not used it. Without the Montana, I turned on All Trails and instantly saw the several nearby trails, including Greenfield Lake Park. Another couple of button pushes and we had a GPS icon on the device map following our location and progress on the clearly rendered trail. A  miracle! I have never had an electronic device work so fast, accurately, intuitively, and easily.  I recommend you get a copy on your phone.

The trip was just about right for Janet’s and my stamina.  We never felt worn out or exhausted, but by the time we got to the end at the parking lot, we were as tired as we wanted to be.  The next morning, we were both a little sore, in a good way! A good time was had by all.

On the cloudy and windy afternoon of  February 21, Janet and I went kayaking in Banks Channel of the Cape Fear River from the Wrightsville Beach public access between Wilmington and Cape Fear. The wind was quite breezy at 12 knots and kicking up a substantial wave chop, but no white caps.

The view was mostly motor boats tied up at private docks on our (eastern) side of the Channel and beach houses on the other side of the Channel.

This weather was the strongest wind in which I have paddled. I was pleasantly surprised at how efficiently and smoothly my long and slender boat held its orientation against the quartering wind and cut through the waves.  I felt comfortably stable. Janet in her short and wide fishing kayak did not have the same advantages, but being a strong paddler, she held her path through the water and kept up with me.

Going out, we paddled upstream almost directly against the wind.  Our progress was smooth and sufficient. Coming back, the wind shifted.  Instead of being directly behind us, it was quartering from our starboard stern (right, back side).

At one point for a test Janet and I were beside each other and paddling at the same speed facing into the wind. Then we quit paddling at the same time. Janet’s Old Town stopped moving immediately. My Excel coasted 15 more feet, showing the efficiency of the narrow boat.  Nicely, I had no pain from my pinched nerve sciatica, or from the sharp seatback.

Almost predictably, at the takeout when I pushed back in the cockpit to exit my boat, I struggled to do a backwards pushup, and could not quite rise up high enough to sit on the back deck.  My butt got caught on the cockpit lip, I lost my balance, and went over into the chilly water.  Fortunately, I was wearing a full wetsuit with neoprene gloves and boots and felt fine.

Afterwards,  we took Janet’s Golden Retriever Gracie to the beach and let her play by chasing balls and sticks. A good time was had by all.

On the cloudy and moderately cool afternoon of February 17, Janet and I went to Smith Creek Park outside Wilmington, NC. We took our bicycles and her Golden Retriever, Gracie.  There is a paved path for walking and biking surrounding the lake. Beyond the paved path are dirt trails which are mostly unmarked, winding through the woods. Janet had been there before, so she was our guide.

We first traversed the dirt trails. Along the way, I found a rare sign with a trail map.  I stopped to read it, but Janet did not see me stop and kept going. I called her a couple of times, but she was far enough down the trail that she did not hear me. Then I made a yelping sound that I learned from my Dad that's very loud and piercing, to get somebody's attention, which sounds sort of like a hog call. Janet heard me and came back to the map sign. She let me know that she did not like to be the recipient of a hog call, so since then I have used my emergency whistle.

Then we biked around the paved trail back to the parking lot, where Gracie was patiently waiting in Janet’s vehicle. We took her down to the dock and took turns throwing tennis balls and sticks into the lake for her to jump from the dock and retrieve. A good time was had by all.

On the cool and cloudy afternoon of Sunday, February 11, 2024, Janet instigated a kayak trip for us in our recently discovered Holly Shelter game land on the border of New Hanover and Pender Counties.  We put in at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp on the northeast branch of the Cape Fear River. I paddled my sleek and efficient but delicately balanced and a little bit intimidating Nigel Dennis Romney Excel 16 ½ foot kayak. Janet paddled her wide and short fishing kayak which was comfortably stable.

We were both taking somewhat of a risk by paddling in 60-degree air and 50-degree water temperatures with less than full exposure protection.  Hypothermia was a clear and present danger if either of us capsized.  I had on a full wetsuit with a neoprene cap, gloves, socks, and shoes, which was a lot of protection.  But I would have been safer in a dry suit, which I cannot afford. Janet was even braver, wearing only street clothes. When we discussed the merits of our clothing outfits, Janet stated bravely that she will not turn over and get wet.

Janet’s dog Gracie was not with us since it was cold, we expected to paddle several miles and Gracie is suffering from such strong arthritis in one of her legs that she limps all the time.

The river had little discernable current. But the wind was moderately heavy and gusted strongly enough to occasionally push us backward. We never determined which way was upstream, so we paddled first against the wind for several miles. This direction turned out to be downstream, which would normally be backward.  Then we turned around due to my sciatica pain getting bothersome and made our way with the wind pushing us back to the dock.

Another issue is that my kayak was made for rolling self-rescues.  I cannot do that maneuver, but I still have a seat back which is almost non-existent and not sufficiently supportive for my weak back.  With my good friend Bill Webb’s assistance, I added a foam block to the rolling seat back, but it is not wide enough or soft enough for me to paddle comfortably. With more help from Bill, we are plotting how to renovate the seat back to make it wider, taller, and softer.

Ever since winter arrived here this season, I have been a little anxious and fretful about if, or when, I could fall in cold water and have a problem. As bad (or good?) fortune would have it, when I was exiting my boat at the take-out, I made the mistake of driving my boat too far up the ramp, which made the bow tippy and changed the balance point.  When I sat on the back deck, I did not have the middle width of the boat in the water to give me proper balance, so I fell in the water up to my neck.

I was surprised by how much protection I got from the wet suit. I certainly felt the cold water but had no trouble with a bad shock or being unable to save myself.  Fortunately, I did not have to do a real deep-water self-rescue.  So, I walked out of the creek and up the ramp. I felt better that I had gotten wet with no terrible repercussions.

After the paddle, we ate a picnic that Janet prepared sitting in the sun on the grass by the dock. Pleasant and refreshing.  A good time was had by all.

On an Indian summer warm day on October 29, Janet with her golden retriever Gracie and I paddled our canoe and kayak in Martin Marietta Park. We went from the canal to Goose Creek, and then on to the Neuse River. This was my second trip onto the Neuse River and in times past I have been intimidated by the suspected current. As I am learning, this close to the coast, the Neuse has little current and is no trouble to navigate.

While Janet and I paddled our boats, Gracie swam the whole way. I am surprised by her strength and endurance. We went for several miles going out and then coming back to the same put in. In the pictures you can see a short video of Gracie swimming between our boats.

Janet and I are having a good time paddling together and it is nice practice for me to get used to my re-outfitted canoe and my upgraded kayak. A good time was had by all.

A couple of weeks earlier, Janet, her golden retriever Gracie and I had paddled Rice Creek near Wilmington, NC, going upstream first, as we are taught to do for safer logistics.  That way, we can return to the takeout with the current in our favor. Then we don’t have to be concerned about the current being too strong to paddle back. On October 21 we decided to go there again and paddle down-stream first.  We had discovered before that the current is so mild as to be negligible.

The weather was warm and clear, with a few drifting clouds and less wind than before. Janet provided Gracie with a nice new dog PFD (life jacket).  The jacket’s usefulness was a tradeoff.  It gave Gracie more flotation, which was safer if she got tired and had to rest in the water.  But it also caused a drag in the water and hindered her forward progress, making her tired sooner.  Janet elected to leave the jacket on for the trip.  

The black water was getting a little cooler on each weekly trip as the fall season progressed. Fortunately, neither of us boaters fell in. Gracie relished the water.  She never stayed still on the bank. Even after swimming with us for several miles, when we returned to the takeout, she joined us on the shore and then jumped right back into the creek to cavort some more.  

Each outing I am getting a little more used to paddling and staying stable in my sleek sea-going kayak. I am working on building up my torso muscles so as not to get sore while sitting in this stilted position for the entire trip. Each outing Janet shows what a natural athlete, comfortable outdoors person and water sprite she is. A good time was had by all.

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