The iPhone and the Kayak: a Modern Fable

I distinctly remember thinking about what my next blog post would cover as I dropped my kayak into College Creek for a nice nature paddle this past Saturday afternoon. Part three of my series on digital hoarding seemed like the obvious answer, as well as the path of least resistance. A few hours later and utterly exhausted, a new idea slowly crept into my head…

The original plan for that Saturday was to explore a new body of water and its wildlife in my recently broken in kayak. Given that it was still early, it occurred to me that I would have enough time to take the ferry across the James River and try one of the creeks in the Surry/Scotland area. However, when I got to the ferry I found that traffic was tremendously backed up, probably the result of the nice weather and the triathlon that had finished nearby earlier that day. No problem, I thought, no shortages of creeks to go and explore around here. The second choice was one of the bays near Hampton on the York River. What to do? I consulted my iPhone, of course, which I always have with me lately, and found that I-64 was a mess. Thanks to this information I quickly discarded locations to the south and along the York River — thank you iPhone! So, where was I? After a cup of coffee and consulting my iPhone some more, it seemed like the thing to do was to put in at College Creek and paddle down to the James River, see the sights, start to paddle back, catch the sunset, and a few minutes later load the kayak and drive away in time for dinner at home. I was even able to find a new spot to put in near the airport on Google Maps, without wasting too much more time. So there I was, finally pushing off with my kayak at around 6 p.m., life jacket, bottle of water, headlamp (I had planned to get back just after sunset), and of course my handy-dandy iPhone (which I used for tracking my path, speed, photos, weather info, and, amazingly enough, phone calls).

On the Creek With My iPhone and a Storm Coming…

Last photo before the storm hit and taking photos became a silly idea.

After the same old, same old on the creek – you know, a couple of bald eagles, some ospreys, blue herons, king fishers, and mind-numbingly beautiful marshes, I was in the National Park and approaching the James River. It was at this point, maybe about two and a half miles from where I’d started (after about an hour of paddling/sightseeing), that I noticed that the sky was not the same crispy blue it had been when I’d started. My first instinct was to fire up my iPhone and check the weather; while this was loading I kept paddling towards the James. After a few minutes of paddling, it dawned on me that I barely had any phone signal at all, and certainly no data out there in the middle of the water, in the middle of a National Park. Who could have guessed? (Hint — apparently not me.) Fortunately, there was enough of a signal to call home and ask my wife if we had some weather coming in. I had last checked the weather the previous day and was only concerned about the early afternoon – which was long gone by this point. As I waited for her to call back with the forecast I paddled some more, away from my starting point. When she called back to tell me that we were under a severe thunderstorm watch I could almost have touched the Colonial Parkway (about three miles from my starting point). From my previous trips I knew that given good conditions (no wind or current or distractions) I could do almost five miles an hour in my fat little kayak. When I turned and started to head back as quickly as possible, it was not long before I got a sinking feeling as the sky in front of me (to the NW) turned first darker, and then near black amazingly quickly. Apparently the storm front was moving directly towards me at about 45 miles per hour. Given some paper and pencil I could have worked on this, “one train traveling at five mph leaves…” problem, but at this point it was pretty clear that I was not going to beat the storm back to the car.

I did manage to make pretty good progress for about 20 minutes before the front hit. I would conservatively say that for quite a while (an eternity it seemed) the wind was a constant 30 mph or so, but gusting quite a bit higher, and it was at this point that my forward speed, according to my iPhone’s GPS, was an abysmal 0.4 mph. Between its inability to get me a weather forecast about 30 minutes earlier and this new insult, this point in time may represent the all-time-low on what had been until that point a dreamy relationship with my iPhone. The misery of the howling wind was quickly compounded by pouring rain and what seemed to be about a 20-degree drop in temperature. I was still nowhere near any possible landing point so things could not possibly get worse — until they did, that is. First it was hail, which mercifully was pretty small, enough to really sting but not do real damage. This came as I finally pulled up next to a boat pier. It was too tall to try and climb in these conditions, but I managed to hold onto it for a few minutes until the wind subsided a bit. When I pried myself from that wooden pier and resumed my return trip, it was not long afterwards that another storm cell came over me. I could now see this coming on my iPhone’s radar app – lucky me, I now had reception and could clearly see all the misery, which I had no way of avoiding, heading my way, yippee!

My iPhone Redeems Itself

At this point you may be asking yourself, how is his phone still working? – well because it has a waterproof case (thanks, C.!). A pretty decent lightning storm ensued with me still in the middle of the marsh and no reasonable landing locations in sight. Did I mention that it was almost pitch dark at this point or that my glasses were hopelessly steamed up, to the point where I had to remove them to be able to see anything at all? It was then that the iPhone redeemed itself gloriously. As I said, it was almost completely dark, still raining hard with me (unfortunately) pretty damned nearsighted, trying to navigate through shallow water (under which is mud that will suck your pants off if you let it) and in a literal maze of marsh grasses. Long story short, I was able to backtrack on my outward-bound path with only the use of my iPhone screen – since I could by now only just barely see past the end of my boat. I’m fairly certain that without this assistance I would never have been able to find the location of the boat ramp or my car on the dark shore, and it would have taken me a long, long time to wind my way through the marsh grass to find a suitable landing site – and almost certainly nowhere near my car. With this help I tracked back to my initial GPS starting point and was barely able to see the car’s reflectors with my headlamp and still nearly unusable glasses. In the end I was able to load up and get on my way almost an hour and a half after sunset, dead-tired, soaking wet, but no worse for the wear and with a story that for a more capable writer would make a hell of a good blog article.

End of (true) fable… insert your own moral in the comments field. Of course just as a good joke should not be explained, neither should a fable, but here’s my take: When paddling around on College Creek, the same great technology that makes your life easier when used properly can just as quickly put you between a rock and a very hard place if you don’t understand its limitations or have a “Plan B” on hand when the technology fails.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.


  1. Berni Kenney says:

    Plan B: Check regional radar maps before putting in. Famous last words from a paddler who has been there. Most of us have a similar story to tell. I smirked, empathically, through every line.