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Natural Born Adventure, New Smyrna Beach

One gorgeous Florida day spent with Captain Don Draper and his family will resonate for a lifetime. It was obvious from the start; Don Draper has a passion, a passion for life. A passion especially for life in the ocean! “My first ocean excursion was when I was just 2 weeks old, so I’ve been told. I don’t remember learning how to swim. I grew up at the Jersey shore in the water and around our boats. I had wonderful experiences at the U.S. Navy Base in Philadelphia and various Coast Guard Bases. This was thanks to my grandfather, an architect for the Navy and professor at Temple University,” Don says.

Membership with the Oceanic Society in high school, Commercial Diving School and EMT certification after high school came next for Don. The harsh environments and encounters with pollution up north in commercial dives were distracting, but, nevertheless, a fantastic learning experience for Don. Perhaps they were even life changing for this ocean lover. A move to Florida afforded him the environment he needed to live his passion, and inspire others through his spirited efforts at education and outdoor adventure leadership. “Upon my arrival in Florida I found some substantial differences. The waters were clean. The ecosystems were beautiful and teaming with life. The reefs were vibrant and pristine,” explains Don.

Teaching scuba certification courses, obtaining a Merchant Marine Ocean Master’s License, and moving on to the field of education, Don has stayed very busy over the years. As a faculty member at the University of Central Florida Don taught scuba for the universities’ Academic Dive Program. Today, Don teaches biology and physical science at a high school near Daytona, Florida and is working on obtaining a PhD in Environmental Science. In addition, Don certifies individuals and families in scuba diving, and conducts environmentally sensitive adventure tours in Central Florida, New Smyrna Beach, and Daytona Beach Florida. “I didn’t know anything could be like that. Its off the chain,” shouts Mike Chio, a past scuba student of one of Don’s ocean dives.

I met up with Don, his wife, and his son that breezy, sunny morning. Although I had never visited the city, and the experience was going to be a first, I immediately felt as if I was in the company of long-time friends. That’s just the way they are, a personable bunch. My day with Don entailed a personal sea kayaking instruction and 3-hour excursion off the shore of New Smyrna Beach; near Daytona Beach Florida, a full day of sun and fun!

Once planted on the beach, we moved into a brief yet thorough course on sea kayaking. I tried to keep up as Don explained the equipment we were going to use; the kayak – a Scrambler XT, the paddles – Mohawk brand, made for Don as needed, and the back rest – adjustable. Okay, so far so good, I thought. Don explained that he maintains 6 single kayaks and 2 double ocean kayaks, a perfect fleet for touring families.

Don proceeded to show me how to hold and rotate the paddles from side to side.

Soon we were smothered in sun block and dragging the kayaks down to the water, as my stomach churned a bit. Yes, I admit, I was a bit nervous. I imagined sharks, wind, rain, and lighting. Then, I remembered, this is an adventure! That’s what I’m here for! Besides, Don assured my safety. He’s a certified lifeguard, and his wife, Karen, is a registered nurse, an assuring combination that encouraged me to keep moving towards the water.

“We’re kayaking out to the green buoy,” Don says. “How far is that?” I ask. “About a mile,” Don says. “Okay. I can do that,” I say under my breath.

I got in the kayak, without grace. Don had me practice tilting to one side and to the other to test how far I could lean before falling out. Thanks to the mild surf we were able to begin paddling close to shore.

The world seemed to stop rotating while I was floating 1 mile off shore. It was quiet. Peace prevailed. I surrendered to the ocean swells. I empathized with the various fish that could be swimming right beneath me, in the 15-foot deep water.

We paddled, and paddled, and paddled. An hour later I found myself scanning the horizon for that green buoy. I found it…about a 1/2 mile away still. Ah, the wind! It picked up while we were off shore. I fought to keep the kayak moving north to the buoy. I resisted the temptation of Don’s invitation to tow me. I had a goal in sight – that elusive green buoy. It was nice to speak with Don while we were paddling. It helped to keep my mind off the achy feeling I started to experience in my shoulder, elbow, and back. Those muscles I hadn’t used in a while were awakened. Don explained that the yellow buoy, about 1.5 miles from shore, is the start of the “shark shoal”, as ancient surfers titled it years ago. I paddled hard to move in the opposite direction of that yellow buoy!

Finally, we had victory, as we slowly approached the green buoy. I felt a tremendous sense of achievement! On our way back to shore, we witnessed two dolphins swimming nearby. We hoped to welcome them beside our kayaks. No luck, though. The adventure pumped up as we approached the surf breaks. The week prior Don surfed breakers that began about 1 mile off shore. I, on the other hand, caught a tiny wave on my way in. I “braced” for the break, remained stable for about 5 seconds and then tumbled over onto the scratchy sand in the clear shallow waters along shore.

Exuberantly exhausted and hungry I dragged my kayak onto the sand and went to have lunch with Don and his family. We spent the next hour and 1/2 chatting about Don’s business, the environment, and life in general. I can, with much enthusiasm say that this was the icing on my cake that day. What a great family! They are the kind of people you just don’t forget.
Don and his wife are naturals. You will, as I did, experience their natural ways with the water, and with personal relations. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Don, his family, and his sea kayaks in New Smyrna Beach.

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