Derek Pickell is a water sports/outdoor sports Canadian transplant now living on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Here Derek recounts his trials and tribulation of trying to emulate a TV hero from back in the day and learn a new skill – in this case paddle a surfski.

No pain no gain – surfski trials and tribulations 9

For those not familiar with surfskis: they’re long, extremely narrow, lightweight and performance orientated sit on top ocean going kayaks. Differing massively from your everyday sit on these boats are designed purely for open water down wind paddling and efficiently punching through surf. In the hands of an experience paddler these craft are extremely efficient and fast on the flat – only outmatched by Olympic K1 and K2 kayaks. Downwind, however, nothing else comes close. Surfskis, however, are quite tricky to paddle, as Derek found out…

Magnum force

‘Ever since I first watched Magnum P.I. as a ten year old I had dreamed of getting hold of a surfski Growing up on the Canadian Prairies meant there was virtually no chance of me ever getting one – the nearest retailer was more than 2000km away, I had nowhere to paddle, but more importantly, I had no money.

No pain no gain – surfski trials and tribulations 10

Fast forward 30 years and my circumstances have changed very little. I still wanted a ski, there is no retailer within thousands of kilometers and I have a little money. The fundamental difference with my ten year old self is: I now live in Grenada (Caribbean), and theoretically have a place to paddle every day if I wish.

The stars align

A while ago I started looking at surfskis again but quickly resigned myself to the fact I would probably never own one. These boats are expensive, added to which fact; shipping costs, duties, and repair costs associated with inevitable damage during transport meant that I had to give up on my boyhood Magnum P.I. dream. And then something miraculous happened. I saw a flyer on a bulletin board outside our local Spiceland mall. Someone was selling a ski… Grenada!

The ad was for a 21ft carbon Fenn Mako Millennium. Make, model, material and size; none of this mattered to me – the ski was on the island and I had to have it.

A South African student, who was studying medicine at St. George’s University, was the owner and he had shipped the boat from home. He had no interest in freighting the boat back again, however, as it was badly damaged the first time.

A bad buy?

No one wants a 21ft long kayak – nobody outside of Hawaii, Australia or South Africa that is. There wasn’t exactly a bidding war for the boat then. Apparently not everyone wants to be like Thomas Magnum; in fact, I was the only person who showed any interest in the ski at all and as such got it for a very (very) good price.

My background in action sports is pretty extensive. I stand up paddle board, ski, snowboard, am a self-taught kitesurfer, am generally a good alrounder in the water and have a decent sense of balance. Nothing could have prepared me for learning to paddle a surfski though! Unstable; tippy; these words can’t even begin to describe how my new toy feels. The damn thing simply has no interest in staying upright whatsoever. I’m just thankful the ocean is warm…

No pain no gain – surfski trials and tribulations 11

Before purchasing the Fenn Mako Millenium I had visions of catching open ocean swells, blasting downwind at 15 knots, surfing small waves and maybe eventually even making a passage between Grenada and Carriacou – our small sister island to the north. Now I knew that paddling the ski wouldn’t be easy – heck, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. If it were easy, I’d have seen one before. If it were easy, what fun would that be? (At this point, I was wishing that it were just a little bit easier).

Making progress

By the end of my first session I was able to take 5-10 consecutive strokes without falling in. While this doesn’t sound very impressive it was 5-10 more than I could manage at the very start. I was wet, exhausted and fairly disheartened by my initial experience to say the least. I had hoped there was something wrong with the set up of the boat, or perhaps the repairs were such that it wasn’t performing properly. I knew just the person who could tell me.

My friend Conor represented Ireland in K1 flat water kayak at the Olympics. An Olympic flat water kayak isn’t exactly a surfski, but they are also terribly unstable, so if anyone could diagnose the problem with my boat, it was him. It had been several years since Conor had paddled a high performance racing kayak, but he hopped straight in mine and sped off like the champ he is. Damn! It was me being rubbish after all…

A little web research revealed that the Fenn Mako Millenium is entirely unsuitable for beginners. It turns out that my boat is a high performance racing machine made for expert racers who want to go as fast as possible. What Google doesn’t say is that it is also made for giants.

The wrong fit

I assume that in order to be an elite surfski racer you have to be huge – certainly for optimum fit with the Millenium. I am 6’2″, and have to stretch to reach the steering pedals with the tips of my toes. My heals couldn’t rest in the bottom of the footwells, so I had to add 1inch thick blocks.

My inability to paddle like I imagined is a result of being too tall and too thin. I’m pretty sure that my skinny legs and giant head give me a higher center of gravity than the average human and contributed to my frequent capsizes.

No pain no gain – surfski trials and tribulations 12

Any new sport will work new muscles, and present new challenges, but nothing could have prepared me for the pain I’d experience paddling my ski. Core muscles are constantly engaged in the struggle for balance and to remain upright. They are also used to swim between capsizes.

The aching pain in my core muscles subsides ever so slightly when it is overwhelmed by lower back pain. (Conor says that you need to sit up straight and bend forward slightly in order to paddle correctly). This is easier said than done when you have the world’s tightest hamstrings and are already stretching out to reach the rudder pedals. Combine this with no back support (such as with a conventional sit on top seat), no cushioning between my boney ass and the bare carbon seat-well, and I can just ignore the pain long enough to imagine my wife saying: ‘Why would you buy a boat that you can’t even paddle?’

Sound like fun?

Strangely it somehow is. Just like when I taught myself to kitesurf in 2000, there is a lot of satisfaction in learning to do something that initially seems impossible. If it were easy, everyone would do it. I’m not paddling my ski effectively yet, although I can sometimes make 100 strokes or so without falling in now. I’m no Thomas Magnum, but hopefully I’ll get there someday. Now if I can just convince my wife to let me keep a moustache…’

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