Book Review: Warren Richey's Without a Paddle: Racing Twelve Hundred Miles Around Florida by Sea Kayak
What is it about guys? We spend most of our adolescence locked in a hormonal death-match, one which leaves us gawky and pimple-plagued, obsessed with sex at precisely the time in life at which we are the least sexy. Pent-up and frustrated as Bighorn Sheep in rutting season, we turn our attention to certain activities designed to do us harm—driving vehicles at high rates of speed, bashing our bodies into each other on the playing field, binge drinking, chucking eggs at oncoming traffic—and all this at precisely the time at which our ability to exercise sound judgment is about the same as, well, Bighorn Sheep in rutting season.
Somehow, we survive this period. We settle down, find careers and partners, buy houses and start families. Then, sometime in our forties, something goes haywire. My theory is that, embedded within all those vaccinations we receive as children is a type of Trojan virus, similar to the one that infests our computers, and, just when we need them most, wipes out our hard drive. Through our twenties and thirties, the virus lies dormant, giving us the absurd notion that we have a handle on life. Our careers progress, we buy more stuff and imbed ourselves deeper into our lives and our relationships. Then, one day, just when things should be settling down, just about the time we should be entering a period of wisdom and enlightenment—whammo! Something hits the reset button. We're eighteen again: slaves to many of the same longings that tormented us in our youth.
In response, some of us (I'm not naming names here) : get divorced, relocate to a strange, exotic-sounding location (just for purposes of example—South Beach), buy the same sports car, in the same color, they owned at twenty-five (something like, oh, let's say, a 1990 Alfa Romeo Spider—Ferrari red), chase the same kind of women they chased at twenty-five (with about the same level of success, which is to say, poor), enroll in an MFA creative writing program and begin a brand new career in a vocation which offers a success rate similar to the odds you get from the Florida Lottery.
The virus, virulent as it is, seems to manifest itself with different symptoms, depending on the host. Warren Richey, author of the engaging memoir of challenge and self-discovery, Without a Paddle: Racing Twelve Hundred Miles Around Florida by Sea Kayak, managed to avoid the whole sports-car-model-search syndrome. Instead, he chooses to ride a seven-foot, seven inch, fifty-six pound sea kayak around the entire state of Florida. As the story begins, Richey has recently turned fifty and is still reeling from a difficult split-up with his wife. He buys a kayak as a reward for surviving his divorce, "a declaration of independence, a celebration of moving on."
That's all well and good. Instead of using the kayak for casual fishing and camping trips, however, Richey, a journalist for twenty-eight years who now covers the Supreme Court for the Christian Science Monitor, decides to put his mind and his body to the ultimate test. He enters The Florida Challenge, a twelve-hundred mile race which begins and ends at Mullet Key, on Florida's west coast near Tampa. Participants have thirty days in which to complete the circuit, which requires them to average better than forty miles a day as they traverse the Gulf of Mexico, the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, rivers, and sections of the Intracoastal Waterway. As Richey points out, the pace required to complete the race is daunting, especially in a craft powered by paddles and muscle in which five to six miles an hour is the best one can hope for in ideal conditions.
And conditions are rarely ideal. Richey, an avid outdoorsman who has done enough kayaking to know, expects the worst: storms, headwinds, dangerous currents, shoals and shallows, and extremes in temperature. Then, there are the critters to consider: all variety of sharks, alligators and crocodiles, sixteen-foot pythons, water moccasins that drop from trees—even gigantic two-hundred pound sturgeon with a nasty habit of jumping out of the water and ramming unsuspecting kayakers with the force of an NFL linebacker (Richey considers bringing along a football helmet along as a precaution, but opts not to take up precious space and weight on the kayak).
As intimidating as these external dangers will be, Richey knows that the hardest part of the Challenge will come from within. In order to complete the race, he'll have to average twelve, sometimes eighteen hour days in the kayak, which means long stretches of paddling at night, often out of sight of land, and with little sleep. In fact, it is the endless, grinding, mind-numbing and judgment-impairing aspects of sleep deprivation that Richey dreads and fears the most.
Richey plans the trip methodically and shares that preparation with the reader. There is an appendix to the book which lists every item he brought along, provided, presumably, just in case anyone who reads his harrowing account might be tempted to replicate it.
Finally, race day arrives. Early one morning, Richey, who bestowed upon his kayak the self-effacing, yet accurate name, Sharkchow, and about a dozen other racers, set off on their journey. Soon enough, everyone becomes separated and isolated, each employing their own strategy, each battling the same elements, not to mention the calendar.
Above all, Without a Paddle is the story of a race. That race and the obstacles and uncertainties it provides give the narrative all the forward momentum the story needs to keep moving—literally. Very quickly, Richey learns that he is locked in a battle with himself. On the one hand, he's got a bum shoulder from a training accident (which aches with every paddle stroke), he's exhausted, his butt hurts, he's perpetually wet, dirty and hungry (he survives mostly on a diet of dehydrated turkey tetrazzini, bagels and Snickers bars) and, most of all, sleep deprived. His body begs him to stop. Only his determination to finish, to prove to himself that he can finish keep him going:
"Through it all I held to a simple goal— just keep moving forward. There is power in perpetual motion, a kind of momentum that extends beyond the force necessary to propel a kayak across the water. Somehow, I got this crazy idea that I was part of a larger effort, the beneficiary of a giant unseen hand with a finger firmly on the stern of my kayak, pushing."
Just keep moving forward—that becomes Richey's mantra.
The journalist in Richey reveals itself in several passages in which he provides the history of various points of interest along the way, often in great detail. Invariably, though, the pressure of the race and the imperative to keep moving are such that he either paddles right by them or treats them like NASCAR pit stops at which he can resupply, use the bathroom, or string his sleeping hammock and catch a few hours sleep. The effect of all this setup, followed by all this rushing, is something akin to a travelogue written by a meth addict.
As Richey describes it, the race takes on the characteristics of how others have described war—long periods of boredom and drudgery, in this case paddling, punctuated by moments of danger and sheer terror. This pace gave Richey the racer, and Richey the writer, the opportunity to do some recounting, rumination, and reassessment of his life.
There are frequent breaks in the action in which Richey considers his love for his son, his journalistic assignments, and, most pointedly, his previous marriage. These sections, in particular, will set off the cynical-embitterment warning siren in many readers:
"Why would anyone want to get married, anyway? They are all the same. When the honeymoon's over and life settles into the usual mind-numbing routine, that's when you begin to feel like you've made a mistake. Like maybe you came home from the ceremony with the wrong one. Like maybe she was just on her best behavior all that time you were dating. Once you are there and it's official, that's when they know they've got you . . . get that ring and get the kid, and they are riding the gravy train."
Fortunately, Richey's attitude towards relationships and women has been tempered by his girlfriend, Linda, who has become his link to the outside world and who he calls every day to report his location. Over the course of the race, Richey decides that Linda is everything he wants in a woman and that he will propose to her as soon as he sees her again.
These interludes are heartfelt, some are interesting, but they are also abrupt and disjointed. They read more like journal entries, wedged into random sections of the narrative by an author determined to add a reflective quality to his story.
Without a Paddle is at its best and most engaging when Richey sticks to the race. He quotes a famous British explorer who said, ". . .that no journey is ever truly an adventure unless you face a distinct possibility of death. Everything else is just tourism." Well, The Florida Challenge is definitely nothing remotely like tourism. When Richey takes us aboard the slender little Sharkchow, his clear and direct prose propels the story like a steady tailwind. We appreciate his wonder at the beauty and mystery of the water, the landscape and his connectedness to nature. We feel the sting of the gale winds in his face. We experience his loneliness, his dejection at the setbacks as well as his joy and relief when his luck turns. We understand his longing for the things we take for granted: soap, a long, hot shower, dry clothes and a Hostess cherry pie. We sense his exhaustion, his struggle to remain focused and fight off the befuddlement caused by sleep deprivation, a state of mind he knows could easily cause a fatal error of judgment. And, as the story progresses, we share his surprise that, with the end of the race in sight, he has emerged as one of the front-runners with a real chance at winning.
The story ends with Richey's epic, nearly desperate, final push to the finish. He's utterly spent, running on already depleted reserves of strength and determination as he makes his way through nasty headwinds and violent seas. Will he finish? Can he win? Richey concludes his story with a summary of the qualities which kept him going:
"Humility, not strength. Submission, not force of will. Listening for those voices. Those are secrets it took me fifty years and twelve hundred miles to discover. That's what I'm chasing out there on the water—the possibility that if I push harder and faster and longer I might glimpse something real, something eternal."
Without a Paddle is an elemental story which may provide an elemental answer to all of us of a certain age, buffeted by forces we neither control nor understand, adrift in an ocean of pain, regret and fear and unsure we've set the right course.
The answer, according to Richey, is simple: just keep moving forward.