“There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness”” Dave Barry once wrote. I reminded myself of this as I battled a ferocious headwind, not gaining any ground, in a channel between the island of Koločep and the Croatian mainland. I was pretty sure that was where we were but maybe it wasn’t, I didn’t really care, I just wanted to move forward and I wanted some lunch. I wasn’t much enamoured with my big, clunky kayak. It was too big for me, I could swim in the cockpit but it bobbed well on the rolling sea, so at least I felt stable. The wind was just stronger than I was.
I was in the beautiful Elaphiti Islands of Croatia and I’d set out from Sunj Beach on Lopud that morning with nine others and two guides – Cautious and Reckless. Reckless was in the lead; Cautious was near the back. Sunj bay was protected and calm but the weather near Dubrovnik was predicted to be unpredictable and it was.
I don’t have photos of the stormy part because when I stopped paddling for even a minute I began moving backwards. The two Viking women and the military maiden were in front with Reckless. The Vikings were strong; they paddled their fjords off each weekend at home in Norway they told me (even if it was snowing). And the army woman was…well….in the army, so this paddle probably satisfied her love of life-threatening situations.
In contrast, kayaking is my summer hobby. I do it mostly on warm, sunny days in a kayak loaded with a tent, food, pots and pans, sleeping bags and beer.
It complements my leg-strengthening hobbies such as skiing and cycling. It strengthens my upper body although I am now doubting that.
I was paddling on the spot, as if on a kayaking treadmill when suddenly Cautious appeared alongside and asked how I was doing. “Just fine” I lied “but it’s tough to make headway”. Without further conversation or consultation, he hooked me up to a rope so that he could pull me when necessary. He had been the Croatian national flat-water kayak-racing champion in his teens. Should I protest about the rope I wondered, since I was an experienced kayaker (guffaw) and should be able to keep up. No, this was a holiday and I was a recreational paddler with nothing to prove, and since I seemed incapable of proving anything anyway, I hitched a ride.
On this exposed channel of water, in the wind and the rain, I worried I’d lag so far behind the others that if anything happened nobody would hear me shouting or see me drowning (despite my eskimo-rolling lesson the previous day). There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness” I reminded myself again, and I preferred to stay on the “hobby” side of that line. I tried to make myself feel better about being attached to a towline by paddling hard to keep the rope slack as much as I could. If I’d known we’d have wind I would have feathered my paddle before I left I thought, then I’d keep up. I was searching for excuses.
We entered a sheltered bay at Gornje Celo on the other side of Koločep. The sports scientist with us seemed to know the biomechanics and biokinetics behind staying upright and moving forward in the gale force wind but he let up his guard as he entered the bay. I watched a wave catch him broadside and flip him over a few metres from shore. Then I noticed his strong, expert-swimmer wife was being towed in by Reckless. I felt marginally better after that but the fresh fish lunch and a beer made me really feel better.
Cautious and Reckless avoided each other during lunch. After studying wind maps at breakfast that morning and disagreeing on the potential for strong winds that day, Reckless had thrown Cautious to the wind and we set out on the water . The argument continued but they compromised after lunch by offering two options: 1) walk across Koločep and take the ferry back to Lopud with Cautious, or 2) kayak the high seas with Reckless. Army woman jumped into her boat without a second thought. After all, she had been to Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of us walked across the island, drank more beer on the other side, sunned ourselves on the dock and took the late afternoon ferry back to Lopud.
The two guides then returned to Koločep to transport nine kayaks back to Lopud. I suppose that’s the leader’s job when he is leading hobby paddlers who refuse to cross that “very fine line”.
This all happened on day two, but it was on day one that the differences between our guides first became apparent. It was a warm, calm, sunny teaser as we paddled from Lopud to Sunj beach and played along way.
Encouraged by Reckless, we lined up awaiting our turn to squeak through a narrow gap between two rocks. Cautious intervened after the first four went through, blocking the gap with his kayak. Wave backwash was exposing the rocks beneath the water. “Too dangerous” he said, and the tension between them began.
The wind and waves continued for two days, during which the army and the Vikings paddled out for some “fun” with Reckless. The rest of us, the Reluctant Kayakers, as the behavioural therapist (who knows these things) dubbed us, stayed with Cautious. We hiked to the fort on top of the island and paddled in the early morning to Trsteno on the mainland, before the wind picked up.
We had a slow lunch in Trsteno and saw a 500 year-old Plane tree and a fountain belonging to Neptune, or maybe Poseidon. I read that this old tree is unique in Europe and is Croatia’s 2018 nomination for The European Tree of the Year. I’m not sure what the tree actually accomplished this year that might earn it this honour. Maybe just growing another big ring and refraining from dying is enough when you’re that old. It might win, so I’d watch for it on the cover of Time Magazine.
The winds picked up while we ate, which meant a challenging paddle to Sipan, our next island stop for three nights. Climbing into my kayak, a wave’s backwash from the pier flipped me over before I even began. This humiliating entrance made for a soggy and salty arrival in Sudurad on Sipan.
After dinner and drinks in Sudurad’s pretty little harbour, the Army woman and the Vikings went off early to bed, as they had each night of the trip. Perhaps this was their key to success. I, on the other hand, let the gin I was drinking and a small locals’ bar talk me into dancing all night, (embarrassing myself further) and adding to my mounting tiredness.
The next morning, I sleepily paddled somewhere down the coast and sat fuzzy-headed on the rocks while others swam. Then I walked to the village of Sipan on the other side of the island, only to immediately jump on a bus back to Sudurad for a quick nap, to enable me to drink gin and dance that night.
And so the week finished and it was time to head home. I think my kayaking skills regressed that week but I did pick up some new skills. I learned how to make a dinner napkin chicken, for example.
I know if I make one too often, my friends will think I’ve crossed “the very fine line” so when I get home I’ll practise kayaking instead, in my own boat, the one I know best and that fits me the best. I must learn to move faster because you never know when you might find yourself having to kayak with Vikings.