So I’m stuck here in Jacksonville Beach, Florida with very few local paddlers. My original paddling partner, Andy Morris, moved to South Africa a year ago, leaving me solo and in search of a new crew.
Recently, I have been lucky enough to befriend some others in the area: Max Schafer, Flavio Costa, Ivo Pavlov, Nate Humberston and Will Schaet. After hosting Sean Rice here this summer for a few clinics our group decided to form a club and paddle every Saturday morning. So far it’s been great because we come from vastly different backgrounds, sizes and shapes. We now train a bit with the lifeguards on spec skis as well, making for a good diverse group, but besides some occasional races that is the extent to our universe of paddling.
It was a month ago or so that somebody tipped me off that Lee Mc Gregor was coming to Florida to work on a sailboat that he owns and moors here. I figured no time better than the present to reach out to meet this guy. After all, he is certainly one of the most revered paddlers around and has coached some of the best paddlers in the world. So I found his email and asked if he would be kind enough to spare some time, adding that I would be happy to pay him for a lesson, as my forward stroke was in need of a physician; to which he agreed.
Excited as can be I drove 3 hours south down to Stuart, Florida, and found him in the marina where he told me he’d be, sitting and drinking a coffee. He looked just like I had seen in the pictures: long, bleached, salt and peppery hair with the physique of someone who has been exercising all of his life. He met me there with his lovely wife, Gesine and invited me to sit with them. We sat and talked as the hours passed by. He recounted having paddled with Oscar Chalupsky when he was 15 as well as sailing across the Atlantic while his son, Hank, paddled alongside the boat.
He offered the advice: “train alone” and various other kinds of foreign concepts to my virgin paddling ears. This guy is serious. He justifies virtually everything he purports. He asked me what paddle length I use to which I replied, 212 cm. He said, "let’s see if that’s right". So he went on to say that when someone tells you they paddle with one paddle length it is highly suspect, because there are so many variables involved in calculating this. First, what boat are you paddling in? How close is your rear to the water when you sit? Second, how long is your torso? Just because we are the same height standing up as each other does not mean we should have the same length paddle. So he asked me to sit down on the ground and measured how high my head came up to the wall. He did the same and we could see that his torso was just a tiny bit shorter than mine even though he was exactly my height standing up. This tiny difference needs to reflect in the length of the paddle. Next, do you use a seat pad? If you do, you must lengthen your paddle accordingly.
Before I knew it, we had spoken for about 30 minutes about the length of my paddle. Next was foot pedal length. He sat me in my boat on the grass and looked at the length of my foot pedal. “It’s too short, you need to lengthen it. When do you get the most power from pushing with your legs, when they are bent or nearly straight? “ When they are nearly straight. Well, then here we went again for another half hour. Next up, the forward stroke… While sitting on the grass he asked me to make like I was paddling the grass. He asked what motion would I make to actually pull my paddle into the grass and move myself right by the paddle as if it were perfectly stationary. Again, a lengthy explanation ensued and before we knew it, 2 pm came around and we were finally water bound!. We started with some simple forward strokes on one side only. I always find these awkward and unenjoyable, but it is this simple motion which dictates everything else, for better or worse.
Sunburnt and seven hours later and we were still on the wet in Stuart inlet. What was supposed to be an hour session would become a full day of intensive discussion, practical execution, and a bit of laughing too. I had just spent the day with a legend, learning what he loves the most. “Knowledge and love are everything. Without both we are nothing” were his parting words.