At 50, Christian Science Monitor staff writer Warren Richey hit a bad stretch. He and his wife had just divorced. He was struggling to keep up with alimony, child support, and his elementary school-age son. One day alone in a kayak, Richey looked down at the water and understood why a person might tie an anchor to his leg and jump in.
He didn’t. Instead, he picked up the anchor and took the kayak on a race. A 30-day, 1,200-mile race around Florida. The Ultimate Florida Challenge is a grueling trek that requires racers, at one point, to carry their kayaks down a highway for 40 miles. No driving, no getting help from friends. It’s an exercise in self-sufficiency, endurance, and personal courage – the three things Richey needed most.
In Without a Paddle, a memoir that reads more like a journal than a tightly conceived narrative, Richey recounts both the race and his inner monologue. For nonkayakers the latter will likely be far more interesting. In one memorable passage, Richey describes seeing for the first time the woman who would become his wife, noting that it took two years between catching a glimpse of her perfect tan and asking her out on a date. (She said no.) From this detail and others, the reader learns that Richey is not impulsive. He is, however, steady and determined. One stroke at a time, he makes it through the Florida Keys.
Several chapters later Richey writes equally vividly about the moment he knew his marriage was in trouble. The memory of his ex-wife shrugging off his hand in the mall still fills Richey with more dread and anxiety than the real alligators and snakes all around him.
The former Mrs. Richey isn’t the author’s only conjured companion on the boat. There is also Linda, Richey’s new girlfriend, and Jason, Richey’s son. They each are inspirations for meditations on love and sacrifice. Linda even serves as one of the few gestures toward plot, as Richey decides that upon finishing the race he’ll propose to her on the beach.
If race officials had penalized for verbal meandering, Richey might have lost a few points. In between deliberating about one tactical decision after another – where to string his hammock, how to navigate a strong current, whether to eat another Snickers bar – he unpacks years of information he’s gleaned as a reporter.
Topics include grizzly bears, manatees, an unsolved murder, waste removal in Florida, Muslim culture, chess, the history of the railroad, and the founding of Miami. Eventually Richey gets himself and the reader to the intended destination, but both could be forgiven for wishing for a stronger tail wind and a more ruthless editor.
However, if “Without a Paddle” suffers from excess weight, it delivers what many adventurers seek and adventure stories offer: an epiphany. Richey’s is lovely, a dawning realization that faith is stronger than fear. “To tempt fate is to try to sneak through a door,” he writes. “To trust is to expect the door to be open and to remain open long enough.”
The lesson is as relevant to shuttling a kayak through a storm in the Gulf of Mexico as it is to weathering heartbreak. Although Richey doesn’t say why his marriage fell apart, he beautifully describes how vulnerable a husband and father can be.
Richey’s slow willingness to feel alive again – even if living hurts – is the gentle undercurrent that runs through “Without a Paddle,” eventually carrying him home.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.