Paddling With The BestPhotography and Text By Mel Tulin © All rights reserved.
"It's the little things in paddling that really count" said Derek Hutchinson as he transformed his kayaking students from frogs into princes and princesses. What a weekend it was! The weather was perfect - sunny, breezy, the temperature at the Pataconk Reservoir matched the temperature of the water which hovered around 74 degrees - just warm enough if you happened to be one of the few who forgot one of the little things!
Derek was in rare form, which he always is - an incredibly knowledgeable and brilliant advisor as
well as an astute critic that can pick up on any mistake. And he is sure to let you know! "Mel, look
what you're doing!" was uttered more than a few times during those days. "That's a slice! The deck is made for your map and nothing more. Keep your arm straight! Didn't we agree on how to hold our paddle for this stroke?" We had the opportunity and privilege of spending two days of kayaking lessons with Derek Hutchinson and it was well worth it! It was a weekend I will never forget!
Derek carefully guided us from using crude paddling strokes early in the morning hours to performing skilled water ballet techniques by late in the afternoon. The wind was blowing strong and frequently changing direction but Derek always managed to find the perfect calm spot on the reservoir. Each of
Derek's instructions had a memorable picture associated with it. "Hold your paddle like a fairy holds her wand, not how a witch holds her broomstick! Be sure to balance that paddle on that imaginary can of coke on your bow! Make sure that your arm is straight and look back at your paddle! I can't hear that depth charge!" These were some of his calls throughout the day. Did you know that "your index finger is the same size as your nostril? But, when you do the high brace it is your thumb that should fit right in there? While doing a forward stroke, hold your paddle 9 inches from your ear when you begin."
We started the day with a lesson on land about paddles and how to hold them correctly. Even though we had different skill levels, one thing we all had in common was our love of the water and kayaking.
Derek began his magic by leading his troops across the lake - him paddling backwards faster than we could paddle forward. Later in the morning we would try our luck at paddling correctly backwards with our new-found skills. "Did you know that Captain Bligh was flogged because he could not keep the wake straight on his ship?" There would be many more student "floggings" before our lessons were over. Derek's teaching days were always intertwined with little stories and jokes from his past experiences. He readily admitted that no skill learned today was going to be perfected today. Paddling backwards was not an easy task, but Derek could do it with speed and accuracy. Practice certainly makes perfect, so we all knew what we had to do.
By the end of the morning, we had all attempted using our bodies, knees, and paddles to maneuver our kayaks. Each stroke that we learned was broken down into individual steps, each building upon each other. We learned how to raft together and take turns standing on the decks of our kayaks. Most were a bit timid at first, but responded with much enthusiasm as they finished the task. We learned how to get perpendicular to our partners, trying to tip our kayaks as far over as we could, before taking the real plunge. It really helped to see how far we could test ourselves. Many of us made significant improvements during the morning.
We had a nice leisure lunch on the beach with Derek showing us how to eat "Ms. Pim's" cookies in just one bite, breaking down the steps just as he taught us how to kayak! He graced us with more stories, tips, suggestions, and opinions for us to digest along with our food and cookies.
The afternoon was saved for practicing our water ballet techniques in a sheltered cove across the reservoir. As we began using our newly acquired skills, I started to realize that it's not the destination that's important, but the way you get there that really counts. We practiced sweeps and sculling, high braces and low braces, forward and backward extended paddle turns, draw strikes, telemark turns and more. When an unfortunate soul decided to take an unexpected dip, Derek was there, before I even heard a splash, to guide us through a new rescue procedure each time. We learned the t-rescue, using one other kayak and the h-rescue, which uses two other kayaks. "That was beautiful! Great job! Look at that!" were just some of the calls from our renowned teacher as we began to put it all together and actually look skilled! "And to think I knew you when...!" indicated that we actually did have some talent.
But the coup de grace was when a man in a red canoe paddled up to this little island in the middle of the lake and sat on a picnic table, looking enthralled with our class and Derek. He pulled out
his camera and started snapping away. We found out later that he is an amateur photographer who takes pictures as a hobby. So, Derek decided to "strut his stuff" and show off for the camera. It
was like watching a water ballet show. One of his favorite strokes is a high brace forward turn with his paddle behind his head. As he neared the photographer, he tipped his hat in salute. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. So, Derek, we would all like to tip our hats to you for two wonderful days of lessons where you carefully and caringly transformed us from frogs on land to princes and princesses in the water. It was a weekend that I will remember forever.
After the lessons, we were privileged to extend our time with Derek by joining him at Lenny and Joe's in Westbrook for a fried clam dinner. He reminisced about more of his tales and talked in great detail about his first book that he hand-wrote. While his daughter posed to hold each correct paddling stroke, he sketched all of his own pictures for the book. And now, 25 years later, the same instructional techniques and style still remain the same. Just to sit with Derek and listen to his extraordinary stories was so incredible! As we were driving home later that night, my husband, with a big grin on his face, looked at me and said, "Paddling with the best.....it just doesn't get much better!" After searching the Internet and being successful, two original copies of Derek's book, Sea Canoeing, published in 1976, arrived from Edinburgh, Scotland. Next time we see Derek, we have the perfect book for him to autograph for the two of us!