Getting a splash out of water sports

Dec. 31, 1969, 7 p.m. | By Olivia Bevacqua | 51 years ago

As summer approaches, students desert the indoors and rush to the sea with boats in tow

Sophomore Jocelyn Dowling has one thing on her mind as she fights her way through the Potomac River's raging rapids in July 2003: staying afloat. Capsizing could mean the loss of three days' worth of food and supplies tied loosely to the seat behind her. Water sprays across her face as she maneuvers through the whitewater, edging past jagged rocks that dwarf her red canoe.

From Viking ships to Royal Navy submarines, humans have always shown an interest in exploring Earth's waters. This interest has recently manifested itself in the popularity of water sports: Over 71 million Americans participated in recreational boating in 2002, and there have been almost 13 million boat registrations as of Dec. 1, 2001 for the U.S. and its territories, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Whether crashing through whitewater, skimming the glassy surface of a lake or sailing across an ocean, water-loving Blazers share a universal reverence for the natural element that drives their fun.

The rush

Choosing between the claustrophobic classrooms of Blair and a world defined by walls of water and a ceiling of sky is a no-brainer for senior Sarah Robinson. Instead of balancing homework and testing schedules, Robinson's mission is to stay balanced on the ocean's surging waves while in the nature world. While Dowling braves whitewater in canoes and kayaks, Robinson's weapon of choice is a surfboard.

There is nothing like the thrill of riding a wave, according to Robinson, who tries to frequent Ocean City every other weekend in the summer to surf. "You're gliding and flying across the water, with the whitewater right behind you, pushing you forward. It's a giant rush."

Dowling, who kayaks and canoes with her summer Quaker camp on the Potomac and Antietam rivers, identifies with this state of euphoria. Rushing through a set of rapids, a canoe can tip and jam into rocks, sometimes sending the boat spinning off its course amid the whitewater.
For some athletes, cutting through whitewater is more than an occasional thrill; it is a lifestyle. Three-time Olympian and 23-time World Cup medallist Davey Hearn has built his life around canoeing and whitewater kayaking. "You challenge yourself, competing with and against the power of nature on a moving playing field, a whitewater river," says Hearn, who has paddled on the Potomac River for over 35 years. "Paddling and canoeing offer me the opportunity to explore the world from a different perspective."

Building a dream from scratch

Some people rent their boats, others buy and still more borrow. Senior Kate Eaton builds.

For about the past 12 years, Eaton and her family have built boats in their own backyard. Past achievements include the 12-foot Cat's Paw and 18-foot Wendy Ann, as well as a small kayak. Eaton has braved the ocean waves in all of her boats, some of which took several years to complete.

On some outings, Eaton has been caught in "terrifying" storms while navigating her homemade creations. "Sometimes you sink down between eight-foot waves, so you're surrounded by walls of water. It can be scary because none of the boats have motors," she says.

During these storms, Eaton says that the wind can be so fierce that the boat tips over far enough for freezing water to begin spilling over the sides. "If our neighbors are along for the ride, sometimes they'll get freaked out and think, ‘What am I doing in this little wooden boat that my friends built in their backyard?'"

While their past boating endeavors have evoked emotions of admiration and—during storms—fear, the Eaton family's current project typically induces nothing short of disbelief: a 42-foot sailboat on which they plan to sail to Norway.

"My family is insane," says Eaton with a laugh. "My brother quit his job to help work on the boat—he's a bit of an idiot. I'll be surprised if we don't go bankrupt by the time this is over."

After years of daydreaming about a cross-continental adventure, the Eatons began working on the boat last summer. Eaton's father expects the project to take five years.

"When we first decided we were going to do this, I was like, ‘We can't build a 50-foot boat in our backyard; it won't fit out the driveway!'" Eaton recalls. The project quickly snowballed into an obsession. The Eatons set their sights on Norway as a final destination because they want to witness the Midnight Sun, a phenomenon in which the sun is visible for 24 hours every day.

Regardless of project size, Eaton says that the best part of the entire process is taking the maiden voyage on a newly completed boat. "It just feels so good seeing every little part that you've worked on come together," she says. "You might spend weeks on one oar, and finally you get to row it."

Water world

Slicing her paddle through the swirling waters, Dowling works her way out of the set of rapids. She and her friends are three days into their river journey, and they have five more hours of paddling before they will be able to set up camp. Like Robinson and Eaton, Dowling views her relationship with the water as a combination of love and determination. The sun glints off her boat as she fixes her eyes on the river ahead.

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