Paddles Up

By Laura Davis

I smell the ocean expanding around me as our six-woman canoe slogs through the chop.

The first leg of the race was as exhilarating as a first kiss: salt water slapping into our early-morning mouths. But the middle section rounding Makapuu is slow and painful.

“ONE, THREE, FIVE, CHANGE!” screams Jack from the escort boat before it motors past, almost silent in the raging wind. Water change. The 25-mile race is too far for one crew, so we rotate between paddling and stuffing our faces with PB&J in the motorboat. I dig my paddle deep, like a gigantic spoon in a bowl of ice cream, and push forward against the gale.

“Unzip!” I think I hear Ali, the steerswoman, call from seat six. At least I think she calls it. I can’t hear anyone clearly except Meredith in seat two, directly behind me, who passes up the calls. I don’t think Meredith particularly likes me, but that doesn’t matter here.

“Girls in the water!” Meredith relays, as Jack’s boat drops in the replacement girls.

Dig. Dig. Dig.

I grab the slippery wet zipper and peel open the canvas that blocks waves out. Vulnerable now, we charge forward with ocean sloshing up and over our port side. An inch of water on the bottom of a 40-foot canoe weighs about 200 pounds: a heavy stowaway.

Dig. Dig. Dig. My lower back tightens, triceps pulsing with lactic acid — 30 meters, 20. The water-bound girls guide Ali to them with splashes as we creep up on their bobbing heads.

“Paddles in!” yell Ali and Meredith almost in unison. I jam my borrowed blade into the paddle clamp, stand bolt upright and jump over the right gunnel into the frothing swell. Rebecca, treading water, supermans herself into my abandoned seat and takes over before I hit the water.

So often we leap to see each other’s flaws, to comment on weight and clothes. Not here.

I’m swimming toward the escort boat with a huge grin (we are a successful team!), when the canoe capsizes and dumps all my beautiful, adrenalin-pumped partners into the choppy blue.

We are all novices.

This is our first flip in deep water.

I am now a spectator of my own team, hands tight on the escort boat’s cold railing, counting my breaths. Are they trapped in the canvas? Can they get out? Jack is reaching for the red floatation ring when heads break the surface.

The other canoes have surged forward, fading in the distance like water bugs skimming across a lake. Our women right their sinking outrigger with a splash and clamber back in, bailing out ocean water with milk jugs cut into water scoopers. In the escort boat, we cheer and pound each other on the back. The paddlers’ mascara is smudged, and seats three and four are busy bailing, but Ali pokes her paddle in and calls, “Paddles up!”

The race is far from over, and they are all heart.

Laura Davis writes and uses a library card in Honolulu. She can be found on Twitter @davislauradavis.

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