"Which boat are you paddling?" Vadim Lishchuk, the race photographer, asked me at the North Shore welcome party.
"A green Vajda, Tomorrow."
"I'm going to put a camera on your Hawx," He asserted.
"Um, I'm not sure you want to do that. I'll probably flip over a few times."
"I know. It will be good," he insisted, and I shrugged, wondering why Vajda even named a surfski after a flying creature anyway.
So, there was a camera duct-taped to my kayak, facing me, when I went to apply my race number Saturday morning. Number 29. That was the same number I was assigned the first time I entered the North Shore Cup three years ago. It was a fateful adventure, but worth a recap:
I bought my first surfski a couple weeks before North Shore Cup in 2014. I showed up to the race as green as the hull of my boat. It was about 45 degrees outside, and I had about 17 layers of clothing on my body. I was wearing my favorite snow boots as I stood on the beach of Lake Marion, which doesn't look bad from the cove where the pre-race meeting was held. Having never experienced the tumult of a mass start, I was overwhelmed from the beginning. I fell into the water shortly after the race began. The safety boat helped me back in, and I tried a few more strokes before crashing into the waves again. My whole body was trembling and terrified. I managed to make it back to shore, though I considered just leaving my kayak in the water and swimming to the beach. I threw my boat on my car and drove 90 miles before finally stopping and changing out of my soaking wet clothes. I was heart-broken. Kayaking, the only thing I enjoyed about Georgia, had let me down. I cried for most of the drive back to my apartment on Lake Lanier. My bleak, basement-level apartment was just big enough to fit my surfski across the 21-foot span of the living room/dining area. I was cold, and I was lonely. I had moved from Oklahoma City to Georgia only weeks before, away from all my family and everything I knew. The only friends I had were paddling people, and the season was finished. I would have to step over that vengeful vessel multiple times a day, as it leered at me like a resentful roommate. I just wanted to curl up with my cat and warp straight through winter. And I didn't even have a cat.
Fast forward to North Shore 2015:
This time, the weather was warmer, and I was a stronger paddler. I entered the 12-mile race. I was scared and shaking, even while we were on the easy part of the course, near the shoreline. I considered turning around at the buoy for the short course, but I kept going. Lisa Ramm, a kayak friend of mine who was paddling near me, said, "No! Don't go back. You'll always wonder what would've happened if you tried to finish." I found out about a mile later, when I toppled into the water while attempting to cross the lake. I surprised myself by being able to climb back on my surfski independently. I kept going, but I felt like I was struggling just to stay upright. I fell again, and tried to remount several times, somersaulting over and over with every attempt. By the time Mark McKenzie pulled up alongside me in his surfski, I knew I was done. He helped me back into the seat, and I paddled back in without a problem. I was proud of myself for facing my fears and trying so hard in spite of my trepidation. I was happy to hit the beach, but, of course, disappointed that I hadn't finished. I promised I would be back next year to seek my revenge.
So, here I was.
"What's the worst that could happen" had happened, and I had survived. But this time, my tribulations would be documented on film, so I was bound to be a star, sink or float. I didn't look at the lake before plopping my boat in the water. My kayak's starting to look a little ragged, really. People offered to let me use more stable, fast sea kayaks to attempt this race, but I insisted on using my trusty steed. We paddled around for a few minutes before the race started. I knew a bunch of people out there on the water--friends of all sorts, people I've met while kayaking in the region, paddling all kinds of vessels. The atmosphere was amiable, not competitive. I tried to psych myself up, reminding myself that I had paddled this lake in calm water several times. The course is easy. I've handled some rough water and survived. The wind and waves are more consistent than the washing machine we threw ourselves into last year. I tried to forget about the camera glaring at me from my bow. Before I had time to freak out, we were lining up. The race started like I now understand kayak races begin: in a briefly turbulent paddle grapple with everyone scrambling to gain ground before being caught up in the wash. I made the first turn easily and headed into the wind. I tried not to take the waves head on, and I tried to keep far enough from shore to avoid the seaweed--both bits of advice fellow paddler Andy McMarlin has given me. He had been there for my first North Shore failure, and he was out there ahead of me today. I didn't know where anyone else was. I just kept right-left-right-lefting toward the turnaround. The wind grew stronger, and the water more challenging, but I took each wave as it came at me. I heard Mark McKenzie hollering my name after a couple miles, and Andy cheered me on as he made his way back. I panicked a little before the 3-mile turn but reminded myself that it's OK to pass the buoy and wait for a lull in the waves to make the turn. I successfully circled the buoy and felt a swell of elation that almost knocked me off my boat. The best surf skiers love this downwind paddling business, but I'm a flatwater kind of girl. I struggled periodically, but took my time, aiming just to finish, not caring how fast I was going. I rounded the final corner and rode a wave on in to the finish line. I can't remember the last time I felt so much glee. Surfski paddling, for me, is about finding that perfect balance of excitement and peril, and when you hit it just right, it sends you flying high on satisfaction. Perhaps like a gleeful Hawx.
At the end of the day, I went home, put my kayak in the garage, and went inside my warm home to my boyfriend and my cat. They welcomed me warmly and proudly. Lake Marion can be an angry lake. Maybe I caught her on a good day, or maybe I really am becoming a proficient paddler. She's still ahead of me on our track record, but I'm floating high on my victory.