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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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The Michelin Man Goes Paddling

By Tamia Nelson

June 5, 2007

The Michelin Man has slimmed down over the years, even if he still carries quite a few spare tires around with him. He's in pretty good shape for his age, though. And just how old is he? Do the math. He was born back in 1898, when Édouard Michelin observed to his brother (and partner) André that a stack of bicycle tires in different sizes looked remarkably like a human figure. Édouard thought this was exactly the sort of corporate image the brothers needed in their ads. It was a good call. Before long, the Michelin Man was a familiar sight around the globe. He was soon christened Bibendum, from the Latin toast Nunc est bibendum, or "Down the hatch," supposedly because of Michelin tires' ability to "drink up" bits of glass and sharp metal that stopped other makers' tires cold. In any event, Bibendum is now one of the world's most widely recognized trademarks.

What does all this have to do with canoeing and kayaking? That's easy. I'll bet I'm not the only paddler who's gotten a mental picture of Bibendum when squeezing into a wetsuit or paddling jacket at the start of the season. Have you ever wondered what causes your clothes to shrink over the winter? Me, too. But the phenomenon of "closet shrinkage" hasn't gotten much attention from scientists, though I don't suppose we need to wait for this mystery to be solved. Paddling is a one-size-fits-all sport. When you're on the water, your boat carries the load. You still have to paddle, however, so you're not exactly going along for the ride. Exercise without exhaustion — it's the perfect combination. And what happens if the work of paddling your own canoe sometimes gets hot and heavy? What then? No problem. When you're in your boat, you're almost never more than a few minutes from a cooling dip.

This is good news indeed for Michelin Men (and Women) everywhere. But the word doesn't seem to be getting out. For one thing, the paddlers in the catalog photos usually have the lean and hungry look of world-class athletes. There's not a Michelin Man to be seen anywhere. Maybe that's why we get letters from folks who are no longer lean (and who may not have gone hungry for a while, either), wondering if they can get into — or get back to — paddling. It's always a pleasure to reply. In a world filled with intractable problems, this is a happy exception. If you can hold a paddle, and if your doctor has no objection, you're good to go. Moreover, if you paddle often enough, for long enough, you may just discover that the image in your bathroom mirror no longer resembles Bibendum. I'd call that a win-win scenario, wouldn't you?

Want a real-world example? Take Joe. If he'd lived in the late 19th century, he could have been the model for the original Michelin Man. In other words, he was no lightweight. But he was also one of the best whitewater canoeists I've ever known. When he was starting out, he couldn't find a kayak he could squeeze into. So he bought a short, beamy, highly rockered canoe, instead: one of the early banana boats. Then he filled the ends with float bags, clipped a big bailer to a thwart, and went paddling. And he didn't stay on Golden Pond. Joe joined up with a pack of gonzo boaters. They were on the water from ice-out to freeze-up, challenging the gnarliest drops in New York and New England. Most of them were kayakers. In fact, Joe's canoe was often the only open boat in the bunch. But that didn't matter to him. He was an engineer. The way he saw it, problems were just unrealized opportunities. When he couldn't find a wetsuit big enough in any of the catalogs he looked at, he had one made to order — and added half a dozen little touches that the readymade suits didn't have. Soon he was paddling year-round, running everything the hardcore hardshell boys ran. And before long he was leading the pack.

Luckily for me, that was exactly what he was doing one day in the Hudson River Gorge when Farwell and I fell afoul of Nemesis. It might well have been my last trip. But thanks to Joe and his buddies, it was just another capsize. I owe my life to the Michelin Man, in other words.


OK. How about it? Has your wardrobe suffered closet shrinkage over the years? Is fear of fat keeping you off the water? Then take a hint from Joe: Problems are just unrealized opportunities. Go for it. But …

Don't Go It Alone!

Joe didn't, after all. Neither should you. Solo paddling is for experts only, and even experts sometimes make costly mistakes. If you're just starting out — or if you're getting back into paddling after a long time off the water, and you're not in the best of condition — you won't want to go by yourself. Whitewater, in particular, is no place for a solitary beginner. So before you get your feet wet, hook up with some experienced paddlers. If you're lucky, you'll find paddling companions among the people you work with, or among your friends or family. If not, however, you'll have to look further afield. Paddling shops and outfitters are an obvious first stop. Canoeing and kayaking clubs are another possibility. Some clubs offer instructional weekends for non-members. Ask. There's no better way to get acquainted. And then there are colleges and universities, many of which have noncredit courses in canoeing or kayaking. can help, too. Check out the "Getting Together & Going Paddling" message board.


Found some buddies? Good. Then you're ready to buy …

The Second Most Important Piece of Paddling Gear

What's the most important piece? A functioning brain-housing group, combining a healthy stock of common sense, a minimum of ego, and a maximum of critical judgment. Unfortunately, you can't buy any of this. You can buy a life vest, however, and you should. To Coast Guard bureaucrats, it's a Personal Flotation Device, or PFD, but to paddlers it's a life vest (or life jacket). The reason should be obvious, and every paddler needs one. It's your most personal piece of gear, your second skin on and in the water: paddling, lining, tracking, and wading. You'll even need to wear it when you scout a river from shore. More than one paddler has slipped into the water while leaning out over a drop. And you'll want it to fit like a second skin, too. Back when Joe was starting out, Michelin Men and Women had few choices other than the bulky Type I "Mae West" or the clumsy "horse-collar" (Type II PFD). Times have changed, however. Today, Bibendum himself could find a life vest that fits.

Just what defines a proper fit? A life vest should be snug, but not so snug that you can't breathe. (A good vest will permit some adjustment, so you'll be able to wear it over a wetsuit, fleece top, and paddling jacket or anorak in spring, then tighten it down for summer.) And it doesn't bind or chafe. Anywhere. Paddling is an active sport. You need to be able to swing your arms, twist your trunk, and turn your head — all without restriction. A properly fitted life vest also stays put when you're in the water. You want your life vest to support you, after all, and not go off on its own at the first opportunity. If your vest floats up over your ears, it won't help you keep your head above water when you need it most. As you can imagine, these sometimes conflicting requirements make getting a good fit pretty tricky. You can try on vests in a store, but the real test comes on (and in) the water. So if you're buying from a catalog, check the seller's return policy first. Or if you're buying from a retail store, ask before you open your wallet. Either way, take your time making your choice.

This is good advice for all your "softwear," in fact. Rainwear, wetsuits, drysuits, paddling jackets, and fleece outerwear should all fit without flopping, but also without binding. And don't forget your feet. Your footwear needs to survive repeated dunkings without weighing you down. It also has to keep your feet warm in ice-cold water.


Are you suited up? Then you can turn your mind to …


Notwithstanding the feats of marathon swimmers, most of us can't float far without a boat. But buying a boat ought to come fairly late in your paddling apprenticeship. Do a little homework first. Ask your buddies about their boats. It's a rare canoeist or kayaker who can't talk for an hour or more about her boat — and who won't welcome the chance to do so! Read the online reviews for any boat that catches your eye. Rent or borrow different boats whenever you can. And don't be afraid to think outside the box. If you can't find a hard-shell kayak that fits you, give a SOT (aka "sit-on-top"), inflatable, or folding boat a try. Better yet, paddle representatives of all three types. Inflatables and folders give you a hidden bonus, too. Not only can you keep one of these boats-in-a-bag in a small apartment, but you'll save the money you'd spend on a car rack, as well. You can even haul one behind a bike. Or are canoes more your style? If so, consider a tandem, especially if you'll be paddling with a more experienced partner. (Most tandem canoes can also be paddled solo. There's probably no other boat that's so versatile.) Want the best of both worlds? Then check out folding canoes.

Confused? I'm not surprised. While it's true that some boats are better than others for specialized tasks — only the truly adventurous (or foolhardy) would take a sea kayak down a steep mountain creek, for instance — truly bad canoes and kayaks are mercifully rare. But why hurry? Play the field. The more time you take to make your choice, the more likely you are to find exactly what you're looking for. In the meantime, talk to your canoeing and kayaking friends and read everything you can. You'll find a lot of food for thought in the In the Same Boat archives alone. If you're a linear thinker, begin with "Answers to Questions New Paddlers Ask" and then follow up with "Moving On." Or just browse as your fancy takes you. Don't stop there, however. Canoeing and kayaking aren't armchair sports. Paddle as many different boats as you can, as often as you can. That's not hard advice to follow, is it?


And it yields dividends. Some Michelin Men are happy as they are. But others would be glad to shed a few pounds and rediscover the thin man trapped inside them. For these folks — and there are Michelin Women, too, obviously — there's …

No Better Prescription Than Paddling

Why work out on a treadmill when you could be outdoors, after all? Hour for hour, vigorous paddling is the equal of jogging. It's a lot easier on the knees, though, and that's a very good thing. Still, not everyone has a lake or river on her doorstep. This is where cycling comes in. A river may not run through the suburban subdivision where you live, but a road almost certainly does. So when you can't paddle, just get on your bike. Paddling and pedaling have a lot in common. They both take you through the landscape at a human pace, opening your eyes to things you've probably passed by a hundred times before and never seen. And they're natural complements, to boot. Paddling exercises your arms and trunk, while cycling strengthens your legs and butt. (It also helps some paddlers cope with chronic back pain, as well.) Who know? You might like the combination so much that you start planning self-powered amphibious adventures. Of course, nothing comes of nothing. You'll need to gear up for cycling just like you geared up for paddling, beginning with a bike and trailer. But at least the money you'll save on gas will help offset the cost — and the trip to the put-in will now be part of the adventure!


Adventure. That's the key. On the water or on the road, Job Number One is …

Enjoying Yourself

But I don't need to tell you that, do I? If you want to lose your spare tire, you won't find a more enjoyable way than canoeing or kayaking. On the other hand, if you see no reason to pare so much as a pound from your frame, so much the better. There's magic in water. And a paddle is the only wand you'll need to cast the spell.


Are you feeling a little like the Michelin Man? No matter. You, too, can canoe. Or kayak, if that's your preference. It's never been easier. So go for it. Join a club, take a class, or ask a buddy. Then paddle away. Nunc est bibendum! The water is waiting for you. There's no better time to drink deep.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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