David Packman goes stand-up paddleboarding to get outside his own head, but it took a chance encounter with a stranger to get him there.
There’s nothing quite like being out on the water on a stand-up paddleboard in the early morning. It quiets the mind and shuts out the internal clatter—if only for a while.
Not long ago, I met up with one of my oldest mates, Jason, for a pre-breakfast paddle in Byron Bay, my home on the Australian east coast. The morning was as good as it gets. The ocean still as a pond, not a breath of wind, and the water crystal clear. A magnificent blue-sky sunrise greeted our arrival on the sand.
Carving our way out from Clarkes Beach, we headed towards The Pass. Our goal was to head around Cape Byron and the lighthouse—marking the mostly easterly point of Australia—before swinging back again.
I have to admit, despite the perfect day, I was firmly stuck inside my own head. I paddled on, but quickly realised it was going to take something special to find that place of serenity that usually comes so easily among the waves. Just then, a giant sea turtle emerged, popping its head out of the water right beside my board with a sizeable splash. Such an ancient creature, probably hundreds of years old, reminding me to be here, now.
But it wasn’t enough. Not today. My lizard mind was determined to hold me in the past – and to keep me worrying about the future.
By this time, Jason was a long way in front of me, rounding the headland beyond The Pass and starting out on the stretch to Wategoes Beach. Despite spending so much of his life on the water as a kitesurfing instructor, Jason remains in constant awe of the ocean. He is as enthralled about its beauty as I imagine he was the very first time he ventured out, perhaps even more so. It’s life-affirming for me to witness such passion.
By the time I reached Wategoes, he was riding a few waves closer to shore. I sat down on my board and just took in the scene, gently rocking with the ebb and flow. The pristine water sparkling all the way out to Julian Rocks and beyond, a handful of surfers working a small break in the corner and the mighty lighthouse rising above it all.
It was then I noticed a lone kayaker. Just floating, he created a picture of serenity. In my current state of mind, I felt a yearning for some human interaction and chatting with a stranger seemed a perfect antidote to my inner noise.
I paddled up closer and offered a quiet “g’day”. The last thing I wanted to do was to interrupt his peace. I was quite ready to exchange a quick greeting and move swiftly along.
As I got up beside him, it appeared he was about my age – maybe a bit older – and quite clearly, very fit. He caught me in his gaze and smiled. Before long we were engaged in a solid conversation about life. Exactly what I needed.
After a time, I asked him casually where he had come from this morning.
“I just set off from the main beach,” he said. “It’s the easiest place given I have the wheelchair to deal with.”
I looked at him more keenly than before and my eyes now picked up a few extra details that I had not even noticed previously. Dave began telling me about his motorcycle accident as a teenager. And he told how lucky he felt.
“It was pretty horrific,” he said. “But I was fortunate with how things played out.”
Despite the incident occurring in a very remote area, Dave was happened upon by two off-duty intensive care paramedics and a police officer. As he says himself, it would have been a far worse outcome had it not been for these medical professionals.
“It gave me a reason to feel that although the accident was obviously a big bummer, good karma was with me on that day.”
He even saw the upside of the grueling rehabilitation program which followed.
“I did my rehab with some young guys who couldn’t even scratch their own backsides.
“I had upper body movement. I left there feeling lucky too.”
Dave is a strongly motivated individual. Not long after finally arriving back home from rehab, he got in touch with a special needs group offering ski trips and a matter of weeks later, he found himself on the slopes learning a new sport. With it, a new life emerged.
Years later, sitting out on the water with me, Dave reflected on that life. A promising surfer prior to his accident, Dave had picked up skiing with ease. In fact, he ended up representing Australia at four consecutive Winter Paralympics winning a bronze medal in Super G at Albertville, and another in Giant Slalom at Lillehammer. He also competed in the 1990 World Championships in Winter Park, Colorado.
Now, with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi right around the corner, his story seemed even more poignant. Dave was planning a sleepless month ahead glued to the television.
At this point, Jason appeared, and the three of us continued to talk. It was then a huge pod of dolphins slipped up beside us and we watched in silence as they came so close we could hear them breathing. After they slowly swam past, we turned and paddled together back towards Clarkes.
At The Pass, Dave stopped to catch a few waves and we said our goodbyes. Jason glided ahead and I found myself alone again.
I paddled the rest of the way feeling completely alive, having been jolted into a keen sense of reality by the words of a man who had been challenged but had risen above it to achieve so much. I noticed the sound of my paddle as it swished through the water; I became aware of my feet fixed firmly to the board; I watched the ocean floor as my shadow stirred the life below; I felt at one with the multitudes of fish and the occasional ray.
The sun was higher in the sky and the world was wide awake.
So too was I.
Many thanks to David Munk, an inspiring man.
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Photo by Chris Walker Innerwealth / Flickr