Highland Lake stretched out in the late afternoon sun like a drowsy sunbather, tiny waves rippling its surface like goose bumps.
There was little movement, other than the water jostling at the edges of my kayak while I floated there, my paddle resting across my lap.
Splendid scenery, splendid kayaking conditions.
So I inhaled one slow, deep breath, then leaned my body out over the side of the boat and tipped overboard.
Now submerged, I gave a tug to the skirt release loop. My legs freed from the confines of the overturned kayak, I bobbed to the surface with help from my personal flotation device (PFD).
I took a few seconds to reacquaint myself, having been startled by the sudden toss into the water. A nearby voice yelled out, “Hold on to your paddle. And stay connected to your boat.”
I’d just tipped over a perfectly good kayak in a perfectly good lake — and I’d done it on purpose.
This wasn’t my first kayaking experience. I’d rented boats before for trips on the Saco River near Camp Ellis or the Songo River Locks near Naples. I’d paddled lazily in borrowed, wide-bottomed boats on relaxed lakes over long vacation weekends.
Kayaking is a low-barrier sport that way. Rental shops abound in Maine, most of which required little more than a credit card and a request that you wear a life jacket. It’s not difficult to make the kayak work, as imperfect as your form may be.
The wonderfully easy access makes kayaking a stellar summer activity for novices who want to take in the local scenery. It also means novices can slide their legs into a brightly colored watercraft with little forethought or preparation.
Most times they’ll paddle along the waterway, gesturing at low-flying birds or the panoramic tree line. But sometimes, they’ll run into trouble.
“There are two kinds of kayakers,” said Ros Arienti, a registered Maine kayak guide. “Those who have tipped their kayaks and those who will.”
With paddling season on its way, it’s an ideal time to prepare for such an unexpected tip.
So I met up with licensed kayaking guide Theresa Willet, who owns Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk, and fellow guides Arienti, Jody Brinser and Ernie Forgione during a scheduled meetup on Highland Lake in Falmouth.
The foursome regularly hits the water to hone their skills and allowed me to tag along and learn the art of the wet exit.
But before I could slide into the cockpit of Willet’s lent boat, I needed to properly gear up.
Despite the 75-degree air temperatures, Willet suggested I come prepped with long underwear and fleece. And if I’ve learned nothing else in the last several months of Trail and Error, it’s to listen to the instructor.
Kayakers need to dress for the water temperature, I was told, rather than the air temperature.
I stepped in to a borrowed dry suit, looking more like I was prepping to jump out of an airplane than to tip out of a kayak. While a wet suit works by holding warmed water against your skin, the dry suit is intended to keep your skin — and your clothes — completely dry.
To keep the water out, kayakers need to squeeze their hands and heads through tight latex seals at the wrists and neck of the dry suit — a process akin to putting your head through the open end of a balloon.
Willet joked it was like being “born again” every time.
Then came the PFD, with Willet tightening the belly strap and tugging on the shoulders to make sure it fit properly, and the neoprene cap and gloves.
And just when I thought I could handle no more gear, that every piece of me was amply covered and waterproofed, along came the spray skirt.
The appropriately named piece of nylon or neoprene fits snugly around a kayaker’s waist — the “hem” stretching over the lip of the cockpit to prevent water from entering the kayak. It also makes a kayak the only place where you can yell, “Whoops, my skirt came off,” without causing much of a stir, as I found out later.
Finally we made our way to the water, which brings us back to my out-of-boat situation.
With the kayak still upside down, my feet blindly searched for the underwater cockpit. While floating on my back and positioned as if I were in a recliner, I tucked my legs inside as a way to stay connected to the kayak but keep my hands free.
Willet handed me the float — an important piece of self-rescue equipment though it looked like a deflated camping pillow.
Typically the float would be stowed in an accessible place on your boat. I inflated the float by blowing into the nozzle on each of the two chambers, then slid it onto one end of the paddle.
Taking my feet from the cockpit, I rolled the boat upright again, Willet talking me through where to grab, which direction to move, how to manage the paddle and the boat at the same time.
I set the floatless end of the paddle on the kayak’s top, just behind the cockpit, using it like a buoyant kayak kickstand.
Making sure to keep my weight leaning toward the float paddle, I hefted my body onto the kayak like a seal beaching itself on a rock.
One leg swung out, seeking support from the paddle. The other followed suit, until I was completely out of the water, propped by a thin paddle bridge. Willet instructed me to start turning myself, still on my belly, bringing my feet into the cockpit. The entire time, I kept my body weight leaning toward the paddle float. Were I to lean the other way, on the brace-less side, my trusty kayak might’ve seen fit to toss me overboard again.
Soon I’d positioned myself on top of the kayak, a climber clutching a shifty sideways tree. Carefully I scooted down, my legs moving into the cockpit cavity until it was safe to turn over and slide in.
I resituated the seatback, which had collapsed when I slid in, and found the foot braces. And after a quick check to assure myself that I was, in fact, restored to my proper place, upright and above water, I exhaled for what may have been the first time since I went into the water.
My first wet exit and paddle float rescue had been a success. Of course, I had the luxury of calm waters and the guidance of four registered guides — not exactly real-life conditions.
But the hope is, once practiced, those self-rescue skills honed in a nearby lake or indoor pool will be at the ready when a real-life situation calls for them.
Willet, Brinser, Arienti and Forgione practice weekly in warmer months — as guides they’re responsible for keeping the rest of us yokels safe.
Of course, we yokels can help keep safe by learning a few skills of our own — even if it sometimes means tossing ourselves out of a perfectly good kayak.
Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 822-4056 or at: [email protected]