By Elaine Viets
NOTE: This is a continuing series about my May 2013 Dead-End Job mystery from conception to publication.
My new mystery had a name: "Board Stiff." And a theme: beach concessions. But which one?
For that, I needed more research. I walked along the beach at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, checking out tacky T-shirts slogans. Some tourists must feel they haven’t vacationed here until they buy shirts with unprintable sayings. Something . . . Hanes-ous.
At Fort Lauderdale Beach, I discovered a correlation between bars and T-shirt shops. The lower the dive, the grosser the closest shirt shops.
At a boutique, I bought a pink-and-black blouse with no slogan. Somebody has to support the silent majority. Shirtwise, anyway.
I also studied beach concessions: Ocean kayaking was too strenuous. Parasailing looked too dangerous. It was. A few days later, a Connecticut woman fell some 200 feet to her death while parasailing on Pompano Beach.
But stand up paddleboarding caught my eye. I’ve secretly longed to hang ten, but lack the agility to surf the waves. Stand up paddleboarding, known as SUP, looked like a slow, easy-going form of surfing. Sure, SUPers could paddle through the raging ocean, like this man in Maui:
But the sport has a gentle side. You can paddle on a glass-smooth morning ocean or a lake. I signed up for one SUP lesson on Fort Lauderdale’s Middle River at George English Park.
Instead, I wore a knee-length T-shirt over a one-piece swimsuit, along with a cracked pair of sunglasses, in case I lost them when I fell off the board. I knew I’d fall off.
Mario gave me my first lesson at George English Park. He’s a good teacher. We waded out from a small crescent of sandy beach. The water was about three feet deep. Mario knelt on his board and rose up gracefully as a sea creature, paddle in hand. I got up from my knees with a shaky wobble, but I was standing. Sort of like a newborn stork, but not as cute.
"Don’t look down," Mario cautioned. "Keep paddling. Avoid the middle where there’s a current and stay away from that big corrugated pipe."
Then he gave the really hard command, "Relax."
I never relaxed, but I paddled. My SUP form won’t win any prizes, but my board was skimming over the quiet water. It was fun. I stayed close to the bank and watched a white egret. I peered into the backyards and living rooms of the houses facing the water.
I tensed at my first challenge: a Jet Ski roared by. My board rocked, but I stayed standing in its wake. For 45 minutes, I paddled until my arms ached and my knees shook with fatigue. A speedboat roared by with a bigger wake and stronger waves, and I tumbled into nine feet of water.
I thrashed around in the slightly salty water and surfaced, still wearing the cracked sunglasses. I crawled back on the board and stood up.
"You fell very gracefully," Mario said.
I paddled again, but I was tired. I finished my lesson a little early and left alive – and overconfident.
My second lesson was more challenging. This time, I went with another paddleboard rental company to a busy inlet on the Intracoastal Waterway in nearby Lighthouse Point. The water was rougher, thanks to lots of boat traffic. My instructor was about 30 years old and infinitely patient.
I stood up on the board, once again shaky, and paddled over to a brown waterbird who looked like a gnarled branch of a mangrove tree. The bird watched me with beady eyes. A boat roared by and my board rocked in the wake.
I fell off in four feet of water.
The bird still didn’t move. Maybe it enjoyed people watching.
I got back on, stood up, and followed my instructor in the other direction, paddling toward a house, avoiding a rusty ladder on a private dock. We paddled for about half an hour. Then a large dive boat went by and four big waves slapped my board. I wobbled but recovered for the first three. For the fourth wave, I lost my balance and tumbled into seven feet of water with a whale-worthy splash.
I surfaced and towed my board back to the shallow water by the twisted bird. He watched my humiliating struggle to stand up on the paddleboard.
At one point I was stuck on the board on all fours, rear in the air. Neither the bird nor my instructor laughed.
"Your paddling is good," my instructor said. (It wasn’t.)
"But you need to strengthen your center core. Try practicing standing up from a kneeling position."
I started practicing in the kitchen with a broom for a paddle. Our cat watched, fascinated.
This experiment gave me three things:
(1) In my novel, the novice paddleboarders needed to learn on a calm lake, not the ocean, as I’d originally planned.
(2) Some knowledge about the paddleboarding and some useful contacts to answer my questions.
(3) Deep gratitude that there were no photos or videos of my paddleboard lessons.
This week on the Dead-End Jobs Radio Show: Gondolier Capt. Pierre has heard hundreds of marriage proposals – and one spectacular rejection. He plies the canals of Fort Lauderdale, the Venice of America. Stream it Monday at 1 PM ET and Wednesday 6 PM ET on radioearnetwork.com