Mostly Overland

in search of Kinder eggs

The Kayak Incident


Kayaking on Lake Atitlan, before it all went to hell.

If there was a low point in my four months of traveling, it was probably the day I spent trying not to drown in Lake Atitlan.

I think I mentioned in my previous post about San Pedro that I had met a girl named Sophie on the way in from Antigua, and since we were in the afternoon Spanish class together we had talked about kayaking to the other side of the lake one morning.

Thus it comes to pass that on a pleasant Thursday morning that we meet at San Pedro’s Panajachel dock. I have brought a waterproof bag to hold my camera and lenses in transit across the lake. The air trapped inside makes it pretty tricky to cram into my backpack and this amuses Sophie considerably. For her part she has brought at least 3 bags along, containing God knows what, but I don’t ask questions and before long we have engaged the service of some extremely low-tech kayaks, and we’re under way.

It was a great morning to be out on the water, clear and nearly calm, and we head into the open water of the lake. Despite the pleasant conditions, Sophie emits frightened yelps every time a small swell passes under her hull, and frequently conveys her fear that she is going to roll her kayak at any moment. She never does, and we make it to the other side of the lake without incident. It takes a little less than an hour.

We’re headed for San Marcos, a bit further down the shore, but before we make it there, Sophie becomes concerned about the safety of her non-waterproof point & shoot camera and wants to put it into my waterproof bag which no longer seems so comical. I say fine, give me the camera, but she doesn’t want to hand it to me on the open lake, so we look for a place to put ashore. We find a small beach cove where fisherman launch their wooden canoes and we put ashore there.


The beach on the far side of the lake. Sophie’s original canoe is blue, mine is yellow, and you can see a wooden fishing boat as well.

We come ashore, take some photos, I stow Sophie’s camera, and after a little break we’re ready to set off for San Marcos. But right before we leave, Sophie has one more request: that we switch kayaks, mostly on the basis that mine has a slightly more pronounced seatback molded into it, or maybe it was less pronounced, I can’t remember, but for some reason she wanted to switch. Forgetting that no good deed goes unpunished, I agree. Maybe I should mention that I don’t do a lot of kayaking, so it doesn’t immediately occur to me why this might be a terrible idea.



View back to the San Pedro volcano.

And anyway I have bigger problems, which is getting Sophie off shore. We have totally underestimated the power of the waves crashing on to the beach, and while the heavy wooden boats of the fishermen don’t have a problem launching from the beach, our light kayaks are easily tossed around by the surf. Sophie’s new kayak does a couple of barrel rolls and crushes the foot of its previous captain before Sophie even gets into it, and there are several abortive attempts to launch her during brief moments of calm between waves before she finally hits the open water. The prospect of now launching myself (there are fishermen around, but their involvement is limited to laughing their asses off at the dumb gringos) is daunting enough even before I discover that Sophie has left her big bag on shore, and is yelling at me to grab it. Finally I get to find out what’s in the bag. There’s like three liter bottles of water and several changes of clothes as though we’re crossing the Gulf of Mexico. The bottles have to go, but I’m able to shove the rest of her baggage into my backpack, barely.


Here is a fisherman who does not give a shit about gringos washed up on his beach.

My launch is an unmitigated disaster. I capsize three times before I can cover more than 3 yards. When I finally stabilize myself enough to get a few strokes off shore, I capsize again, but fortunately it’s still close enough to shore that I can stand up in the water and get myself back in the kayak. After this fourth dunking I finally make it to open water and start to catch up to Sophie. Each swell seems like it’s going to tip me and it’s only at this point that I come to appreciate the size difference between the kayaks – my new kayak is smaller than my old one, and while it might be manageable by a girl who is probably weighing in at no more than 110 pounds, it’s a suboptimal vessel for a 6’2″ 190 pound male to be commandeering, particularly with three people’s worth of baggage strapped to his back.

I know there was only me and Sophie. I’m just saying she packed enough for two.

After riding out three or four relatively minor swells another small one flips me again, and this time the water is too deep for me to touch bottom. I have a life jacket on, but the waterproof bag in my backpack is acting as an additional flotation device but the way it is riding high on my back makes keeping my head above water a little difficult, and there’s no getting back in the kayak out here, let alone staying in it. I yell out to Sophie that we need to switch back, and to this end we head for a small floating dock – Sophie, kayaking; me, swimming and towing my kayak by rope. By the time she rows up to it Sophie has become extremely concerned — not about me, mind you, but whether her camera was going to be ok.

I manage to pull myself up to the floating dock and hitch my kayak. Sophie comes aboard as well. Within moments some guy on shore is yelling at us to get off the dock, because it’s apparently private property. I could not possibly care less. Getting into kayaks on open water, even from a dock, ends up being dicey. I get Sophie back into her original kayak but I need her help to stabilize me while I get me and our bags into mine. At last I’m successful, and we are back in business but we’re short on time and I’ve just about had it, so we ditch San Marcos and head back to San Pedro.

There are a couple of problems, though. The wind has picked up and the waves are higher now. Additionally my kayak is now sitting lower due to the additional weight, and had some water in it when we launched from the dock besides, so I have to use my flip-flop to bail myself out every few minutes. I swing further south, away from Sophie on the way back, partially due to the wind, and partially due to the much-needed tranquility of solitude, although I always had her in my sight. (The buddy system was not exactly a two-way street, on shore, later, Sophie told me “I zoned out for like twenty minutes and then I looked around and had no idea where you were!”).

We return our kayaks and Sophie is as chipper as ever, ready to head off to class. I tell her I am not talking about our trip until I have a beer. A few hours later, at break time during class, for the only time in my three weeks of lesson, avail myself of the school cafe, which mercifully sells beer, and I’m ready to join the conversation Sophie is having with some of my classmates.

The first thing she says when I come over is “Pete capsized FIVE TIMES!”

I take a long drink from my beer and return to class.

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