By Amy O’Connor. All images ©2017 Ray Wheeler and Amy O’Connor used by permission.
Large swells were rolling at me from my right, having crossed a 200 mile reach of the Mediterranean Sea between Lybia and the southern coast of Crete. Choppy reflection waves came at me from the left, rebounding off multi-hewed, jagged cliffs. And a quartering tail wind pushed a third set of wind waves diagonally across my course, continually pushing my bow to the right. My husband Ray and I were paddling with all our might towards the tiny town of Scafion on the southern coast of Crete, even as wave peak heights increased and we temporarily disappeared from each-other’s view in the deep troughs.
It was the last day of a five-day paddle along a mountain-walled coastline penetrated by a series of thousand-foot deep canyons including world-famous Samaria Gorge, the deepest in Europe. The gray and buff mountain wall looming above us was carpeted in places by the brightest spring-green-colored pine forest I have ever seen. By day we threaded a steep and boulder-strewn coast line dotted with magical coves of turquoise water, while in the evenings our camp sites were bathed in magenta sunsets.
Ray and I love the exhilarating intimacy of exploring intricate coastal waters by kayak. We have paddled on the Alaska Gulf Coast, the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, and among the islands of the Gulf of California. It is the call of wilderness, beauty, adventure, and self-reliance that keeps us coming back for more. It is what drew us to the Greek islands in the first place.
But for me, this trip had an added element of challenge and adventure. On previous trips we had always used a double sea kayak, with me in the bow and Ray in the stern, doing most of the navigation and steering. While I have some experience with whitewater kayaking, I am the less experienced kayaker and always ended up in the bow, helping to propel the craft and enjoying the ride, but having to do nothing to steer the boat, read water, or in any way handle waves. This time around, I had my own boat, a brilliant yellow 16-foot TRAK kayak. And all of the steering and balance was up to me.
On the last day of our paddle along the southern coast of Crete, I benefited from the experience I had gained on several previous paddles among the Cyclades islands of Greece. I had come to trust the Seeker, a versatile and efficient performance kayak, and had learned to handle it well. One of the lessons I had already gleaned from videos on the TRAK website was that the boat could remain upright in some very turbulent conditions. As a new single sea kayaker this gave me courage. And when I began encountering some of the larger, rougher waves of the Aegean, I learned some important lessons.
The first lesson was that increasing paddle frequency improves stability because every time you push your paddle into the ocean, you are in effect bracing. So even if unpredictable waves catch you, you will likely stay upright at increasing paddle speeds. Of course, you have to be judicious in using this technique because it takes energy. I reserved my most intense bursts of paddling for the times when all three types of waves described above came together. In fact, it became a fairly automatic response to any dicey situation.
In my experience, kayaking also helps you find strength you did not know you possess. After having paddled for several hours in the difficult conditions along the coast of Crete, I thought my paddling powers were waning and was not sure just how long I could keep up intensive paddling. We had finally rounded a seemingly endless headland and were considering the option of finding a beach and camping for the night, not an easy task along this rugged coast with few and often unfriendly, steep beaches. The downside: we knew that worse weather was on the way and did not know how long it would last. If we did not reach Scafion before dark, it might be days before we could attempt the final leg of the trip. And at that precise moment we looked up and saw Scafion swing into view, a small dot of whitewashed houses huddled together, a welcome refuge from the whims of the sea. My strength and optimism returned. Scafion or bust! I knew we could make it!
It may have taken two hours, but we did reach Scafion just before nightfall. A rising tail wind pushed us along. Sometimes it was as if we were on a smooth, slow roller coaster, sliding up and down large swells with the wind at our back, an unforgettable feeling of freedom and ease. We encountered a few more rough spots with the three-wave phenomenon confusing matters. But as the wind and waves were clearly building, we finally slid into the protected harbor at Scafion, to the safety and comfort of a tiny, irresistibly picturesque Greek island village.
Perhaps the final lesson of the trip, one I re-experience with every kayaking adventure, is the importance of full immersion in the natural beauty of a wild coastline, stretching my limits both mental and physical, experiencing new and exhilarating places, and gaining perspective on the rest of my life — in short, of dancing in wildness.