Paddling the Pacific

For 15 years, Coos Bay man takes to the sea in his kayak, learning a lot along the way
In this April 4, 2012 photo, John Schlesinger, who has been sea kayaking for about 15 years, paddles his kayak in Charleston.AP Photo / The World, Benjamin Brayfield

COOS BAY — Battling waves in a kayak is a delicate balance between safety and thrill — but it's all worth the effort, if you know what you're doing.

Oregon sea kayaker John Schlesinger, who has been hitting the ocean for about 15 years, got hooked after he first paddled a sit-on-top in Monterey Bay during a family vacation.

"I just thought, 'This is fun,' " he said, adding that he's always enjoyed solitary sports such as cycling. "I didn't take lessons for probably five to eight years — I got myself in some trouble, lost my boat at sea — then I started taking lessons and I got more excited about it."

He learned the hard way, and wouldn't recommend that method.

"The best info I can give them is get good instruction," Schlesinger said. "Because I had a lot of bad habits to break."

The sea is a powerful beast, and one the semi-retired Schlesinger enjoys taming as often as he can. But he takes caution before heading out and constantly adjusts to the ocean while riding waves and ducking in and out of cliffs.

"I'm not fearless on the water, but you can't be scared either," he said. "There's so much power out there.

"It's risk management that we have to do all the time. I have to think about it all the time."

A few weeks ago, he checked his cellphone around noon, seeing if he could head out for some fun in the afternoon. He pulled up information on ocean swells, tides and wind — all important information to consider before slipping into your kayak.

"Listen to weather reports," he said, adding that wind speed and direction is an important factor. "The average person can't go more than four knots."

Sea kayakers should wear the right equipment — cold suits, helmets and personal flotation devices are standard, potentially life-saving items. Also helpful are ear plugs and a whistle — ear plugs protect your inner ear from the cold water, which can interfere with your equilibrium and permanently damage your hearing, and a whistle can signal to others when bad weather leads to poor visibility.

"If I'm teaching, they're going to get an earful of safety all the time," Schlesinger said. "They're not going to be in my class if they're not wearing a PFD."

He also recommends kayaking with others, carrying a radio, a flashing light and plenty of water.

"Because hyperthermia is just as bad as hypothermia," he said.

He's heard all the horror stories, and has seen his share of them in person. He told of a friend who got tipped over onto a rock after a rogue wave snuck up on his group. They were able to save him, but it was another lesson learned.

"Fun is the first part of why people want to go kayaking, but fun is getting to come back," Schlesinger said.

The enjoyment he gets on the ocean far outweighs the risks. He's an adrenaline junkie, but he seeks thrills with caution. When waves are just right, he loves riding them, as well as sitting back and witnessing the power.

"I like playing around rocks and the foamy stuff and backwash," he said. "And the splashing waves — it's amazing to be that close to it from the water. You can watch the foamy stuff just explode."

He lovingly detailed different paddle spots — from Trinidad, Calif., to San Juan Islands, Wash. He does some lake and slough paddling as well, but it's the ocean that keeps calling him.

"I love seeing the birds, the eagles and the osprey, the blue heron (on South Slough)," Schlesinger said. "But I like the ocean environment more."

And it's not about how far he can paddle, like those who kayak across the ocean for days on end, just for the challenge.

"I don't see the fun in that," Schlesinger said. "You're just looking at open ocean."

He's drawn to explorations closer to shore — cliffs, hidden beaches, arches, wildlife — nature that's difficult for land-lovers to see.

"There are some amazing things," he said. "(From the road), you don't see the gray whale and her calf. And they were within 50 feet of us. It was just amazing."



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