Several studies are showing that time spent in nature increase in people the sense of community and belonging. Imagine the impact when the activity you partake in also has that effect. Imagine how connected it may make you feel. That’s exactly what Benjamin Fontenot found when a few years ago, he discovered sea kayaking.
“I started with my cousins. They received sea kayaks for Christmas one year. I thought it was so cool. We would go out and kayak on this little pond in the middle of nowhere 30 minutes away… I was hooked. They lent me some money so that I could buy mine. I went to a store and found a really old beater Wilderness Systems Sealution. It came with this super routy nylon spray deck that the liner was pealing out of, a vest and a paddle, that I broke almost immediately.”
With his own gear, Benjamin started going on more excursions, in love with the ability to go out and discover Savannah’s natural surroundings. Soon enough, he started connecting with some of the local paddlers who took him under their wings and helped him grow his skills.
“The community here is what really helped me get into it. Meeting other paddlers who had already been doing it and also were interested in surfing was awesome. The moment I got into may boat and went in waves, I thought it was so cool and wanted to keep doing it. I already knew how to roll but they showed me how to brace so I didn’t get trashed in the waves all the time.”
On top of skills sharing, paddling with experienced boaters allowed Benjamin to quickly discover more about the routes, tides, conditions and surf specific to the area. His love for kayaking grew as fast as he was learning about the sport, but it was also competing with his first passion.
“At that time, I was really trying to make music work. I had been playing bass for years. A few months into kayaking, I remember saying to my buddy that played drums, who had no interest in kayaking, how I was having a really hard time balancing the two. I felt like I was either focused all on kayaking or all on music. I think I knew at that point that kayaking was going to take over. Experiences of being immersed in nature and the conditions that we have here and places you can go, I was just in love with it.”
First a recreational sea kayaker, Benjamin started focussing on surfing waves in his kayak, but something else caught his attention, Greenland paddles. He would watch paddlers online who could perform crazy rolls with this small 3.5 inches wide blade and thought that if he could master this tool, he’d be able to paddle in any situation and condition. When the paddle he was using broke, he thought of it as the perfect excuse to try and make his own Greenland paddle.
“I picked out a 2×4 that was behind my cousin’s house and widdled it away with a chisel. Man that thing was nasty. It did not look anything like the current paddles that I make, but it was a start. It’s just a rewarding feeling to take it out and use it and know that is something you just made with your own hands. From there, I just kept making paddles, using better tools and before I knew it, people were requesting me to make some for them. Now I also teach workshop so people can learn how to make their own and also give roll lessons.”
Kayaking was the central point in his life, both personal and professional. He was encouraged to get his ACA certifications, got a job at Savannah Canoe & Kayak where he’d work the store and as a guide, his passion for Greenland paddles turned into a business opportunity and he’s spend all his spare time in his boat, on the water. Quite the change for a wedding cake baker trying to make it as a musician. But what was the draw? What made paddling so special to him? First, There is Savannah and it’s beautiful coastline.
“We have, in 100 miles of coastline, 14 outer coast barrier islands and four of those islands are developed, leaving the rest either extremely undeveloped or wild life refuge or federally protected. That makes this area pristine and almost un-manipulated coastline that’s incredibly beautiful. Paddling brought me closer to nature. It allowed me to connect to and appreciate it more. We all feel as though this is ours. We all feel a little bit of ownership and a little bit of responsibility over this area that we all enjoy and love so much.”
But above and beyond how fun the sport is and how amazing it is to get out in this beautiful environment, Benjamin found with sea kayaking a caring community that he could and wanted to relate to.
“When I first started looking at kayaks, I had this vision of me going out by myself, but I soon realized that it wasn’t nearly as much fun. Finding other people who shared that interest, I ended up going paddling with other people from the community more so than ever going out by myself. It was always better to share that experience with other people. I feel really welcome in the community of paddlers. From those I’ve know for a while now to the ones I just meet on travels. I just feel so involved with everything and to me, that makes me feel important, wanted. It brings me a sense of being and that’s important.”
At sea, Benjamin has found a passion, a community and personal meaning. That’s what happens when nature and people meet, or is it just what happens when mankind understands the essence of nature?