Our near death and the kayak incident in Moorea
Have you ever thought about how you're going to die? I have. I would be rather old, maybe ninety, resting on my couch after having finished homemade ricotta cheese ravioli, freshly made peach pie, a glass of wine, and a nice helping of limoncello or borovicka to finalize the event. Only with a full belly and relaxed state of mind would I be ready to cross the bridge to the other side.
However, my wishes for my final moments did NOT include being on a kayak, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in French Polynesia, on the island of Moorea (which I only recently learned how to pronounce), surrounded by stingrays, sharks, and many other fish to witness the incident.
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself... let me rewind.
What man hasn't paddled on a small boat on a lake with mirror-like waters to sway his lady? Even in the middle of New York City, which is built from massive cement skyscrapers squeezed together, architects cleverly designed a "lake" in the middle of Central Park, that allowed men to show off their God-given masculine gift of paddling. It is a romantic gesture that ladies find irresistible.
A romantic gesture gone wrong: kayaking in French Polynesia
I had paddled once or twice before and thought I was ready to impress my sweetheart Viktoria. In retrospect, I should have proven myself last year when we took a trip to Lake Moraine in Canada. That would have been a foolproof plan, as the only problem to avoid would be falling into the lake's freezing glacier waters.
Instead, I left my opportunity for Moorea on day four of our twelve-day vacation to this one-of-a-kind paradise. What could go wrong? It was a beautiful sunny morning at 82 degrees Fahrenheit; I had just finished eating three of the most delicious croissants for breakfast and was ready to explore the island and impress my lady.
The kayak rental at Tipanier beach: a disastrous experience
We arrived at the kayak rental at Tipanier beach, the same picturesque beach we visited the night before to watch the sunset. The rental was a wooden hut with surfboards, kayaks, and paddleboards sticking out from every corner. To our surprise, it was run by a sassy French woman in her sixties. She was wearing a floral sundress and resembled more of someone who was about to bake a pie, not rent us a kayak.
Nearby was her nephew, who resembled a young Fabio, assisting a French family with their kayaks. Besides the shed was sitting his young wife nursing a baby, and two dogs sleeping at the back of the shop, after a good breakfast, I presumed.
"Yes, you rent kayaks here. Stingrays, yes." The French lady was vividly annoyed as she realized we do not "Parlez-vous français," and she had to speak English.
"You know how to kayak, oui?" she asked.
"Yes, I sure do," I responded. She looked me up and down as if she didn't believe me. "You sure? There is a current." This was her first and last attempt from deterring us.
Lost in translation: navigating the Pacific Ocean on a kayak
After the payment, the French woman walked a few feet to the edge of the beach and gave us instructions.
"Do you see the green triangle and the red square? Well, do you?" she asked as she pointed somewhere in the distance.
"Hmm, no. Where?" I responded.
"There! Right there!" she kept pointing at the open ocean.
What green triangle? Does she mean the edge of the water that changes color to a more turquoise green? Or one of the white buoys floating in the water? Something else, maybe? I looked confusingly at Viktoria, but she was even more puzzled than me.
"Red square, you see it, right?"
We both nodded, hoping the other understood. If not, we would figure it out as we got closer to the stingrays.
She then insisted we get one thing straight: "On the way there, make sure the green triangle is on your right, and on the way back, make sure the red square is on your left. Ok?"
"Yes. Yes." We both agreed as we were anxious to get going.
And just like that, she returned to her shop. Viktoria briefly considered putting on her life jacket but then put it away, saying, "We'll be fine." She smiled, and we started on our journey.
As the captain of this "small ship," I established the navigation and paddling rules: "I will call out which side we paddle on so that we stay in sync, ok?"
A challenging paddle in the turquoise waters of Moorea
At the beginning, things were going well. Right, left. Right, left. As we passed the pier, we turned right and paddled towards the "square and triangle." We followed the French lady's directions to a tee. After only two minutes in the water, the waves started to splash in Viktoria's face a lot. She assured me that she was fine, although a bit annoyed, as this was far from the Central Park-like joyride she signed up for.
At minute three, I began to regret ever getting in that kayak. "This is a tad rougher than I expected," I yelled so Viktoria could hear me. "Left, right. Right. Left. Left. Left, Left again!!" We started wrestling the current, moving further and further from the shore.
At that point, we could only communicate through our faintly heard synchronized paddling directions against the roaring crashes of the waves. "Left, right! Left, right! Right, right, left, left!" we screamed.
French directions and ocean currents: a recipe for disaster
I finally saw the square that the French lady might have been talking about. It was maybe 20 inches wide, attached to a buoy. How was I supposed to see this from the shore? Unfortunately, with all the commotion, I forgot if I had to be to the right or left of it. My nerves were sending me into a panic.
When a peaceful ride turns into a nightmare: my kayak adventure in Moorea
We were about twenty minutes from the shore. The waves picked up again, and we both frantically paddled towards the stingray filled "shallow" waters ahead that seemed no more than a hundred meters away. "Left, right. Left, right."
We spotted a group of stingrays, and I could finally breathe. The worst was over.
Unfortunately, once I jumped in the water, I realized it was way deeper than anticipated. Instead of my waist, it was up to my chin. How am I going to get back in the kayak? Not only that, but I also needed to tie the kayak to "something"; otherwise, the current would pull it away, along with Viktoria, into the vast ocean.
I found a buoy and quickly tied the kayak to it. Viktoria decided she would not get out of the kayak because of the issue of getting back in. I put my goggles on and plunged my head into the water. I was amazed as the stingrays surrounded me and glided through the water like elegant dancers. When I came back up to the surface, I realized that the waves were getting choppier and more unpredictable.
"Let's go back. This isn't worth it," I decided. Viktoria gladly agreed. She was getting scared as she was not the strongest swimmer.
But can I get myself back in this kayak? Oh boy. Imagine pulling yourself out from water that was up to your neck and into a kayak without rocking it or flipping it over. My first try was a complete failure. By my seventh try, I had become rather frustrated. Maybe I should have only had two croissants this morning, not three. I was losing hope. But then, miraculously, I did it. I managed to jump up into the kayak without knocking it over. Yesss! Now we just had to paddle back to safety.
Maybe due to my lack of nautical experiences, I was under the impression that we would have a much easier time on the way back. I don't know if the current had turned, but once we started paddling, we found ourselves in what felt to me like a life or death situation.
The risks of kayaking in the open ocean: my personal story
"Right, left. Right. Left, left, left, right, right, right, right!!!!! "We were spinning in a circle, unable to move forward towards the shore.
Our survival instincts kicked in, and we paddled as our lives depended on it. Yet, we would barely move an inch at a time. We have all seen that movie. We have all dreamt that nightmare. You try to move forward, using all of your strength, yet you remain stuck in the same spot. It's terrifying. We were both in a massive panic.
Really? Is this how we are going to go? I thought to myself. "Left, left, left, right, right", we yelled at the top of our lungs.
The kayak rocked back and forth, taking in massive amounts of water. It was in my mouth, the kayak, everywhere. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" I was freaking out.
A minute later, we spotted a kite surfer nearby. "Help, we need help!" we yelled into the wind. Then we saw another person, a lady, maybe 20 feet away. We continued yelling, "Help us, please!" No reaction, no one turned in our direction. Maybe they didn’t understand English?
But seconds later, it hit us. We realized that the water only reached the woman's waist, and we were close to the shore. "Sam! We can stand," Viktoria yelled. The panic had blinded us to the fact that we could safely get out of the kayak now and perhaps even five minutes ago.
Grateful that our lives were spared, we pulled the disobedient kayak across the shore back to that confusing French lady. "Don't drag the kayak through the sand. You will damage it!" she yelled at us.
Fuck your kayak! I wanted to say. We almost died. But I composed myself and left without another word.
A tale of two kayaking experiences
The next day, we opted out for a full boat excursion with Moorea Miti Tours to see the magnificent stingrays and sharks. It was effortless and awesome, and of course, we went back to the same spot we almost died the day before. This day, however, played out very differently. The ocean was calm. Once we got into the water, it only reached my waist, not my chin like the day before. We were so happy to be able to enjoy seeing and touching the stingrays and looking into their playful eyes. Easy does it, and it did, this time.
If you ask Viktoria, she got everything she wanted. She saw and played with the stingrays and was very impressed with my paddling skills. In her eyes, I saved our lives. 😊
Lessons learned from my kayak trip in French Polynesia
We will never know what I did wrong that day. Did I go right at the green triangle when I was supposed to go left? Should I blame the vague directions from the French lady? Or was the unruly ocean to blame?
We did see kayakers the following day – and we sent prayers their way, whether they needed them or not.
I only have one favor to ask of you. If you happen to rent kayaks at the Tipanier beach, can you please ask the French lady what she meant regarding the red square and green triangle? I would love to know the true meaning one day. Till then, au revoir and safe paddling!
~ Written by:
Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.