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A growing number of people are looking to the water to socially distance amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s good news for the boat industry, which has seen a dramatic increase in sales. (Aug. 11) AP Domestic

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I finally understand what Moana, Disney's greatest heroine, was going on about.

The line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me, too, as an escape to the constant stress spiral that is a pandemic summer. 

Now, instead of feeling isolated indoors, I lead a freer, more amphibious lifestyle with a portion of my days spent on the Margate City, N.J. bay (where I've been staying for much of the summer). It has proven to be a healthy change and one I'm not alone in adapting.

This summer, I paddleboard several times a week. The activity allows me to smile widely in the direction of boaters as I float by. I try to be close enough for them to see me grin, but far enough to be safe. Strangers can’t help but return the goofy expression, which makes me feel connected with a humanity I'm otherwise isolated from. (Though I should note when I'm giving a "thumbs down" gesture, that is meant to indicate that they should slow down in a no-wake zone. New boaters, I'm talking to you.)

This month, wakeboarding has become my new favorite hobby. Why? Precisely because gliding on water seems like something a person shouldn't physically be able to do, which makes doing so feel like a superpower. That's a much better feeling than powerlessness.

I'm not a superhuman just yet, since I spend much more time crashing into the water than I do upright on my board. I should note: I'm currently taking a break from the board as I await the arrival of my new water sport helmet after a major wipeout. But even just floating in my life jacket or sitting on the dock watching seagulls dive for fish (my birdwatching hobby is still going strong) is pleasant.

Clearly, I enjoy the water. Would you believe it took a pandemic to make me appreciate it as a regular part of my lifestyle? 

Staying Apart, Together:A newsletter about how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic

Although I’m part of the 95% of Americans who live within an hour’s drive of a navigable body of water (per the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) 2017 data), it was only this year that I set phone alarms for high tide, invested in wakesport gear for myself and became fully immersed in marine life. 

There are myriad ways for people to soak up water sports as a means of solace, whether it's renting jet skis at the bay, taking a kayaking tour of the bayou or paddleboarding at a man-made lake.

According to NPD Group, sales of rafts and stand-up paddleboards grew 71% and 49%, respectively, May through July. During the same time last year, sales of those items were trending downward.   

"I think in hindsight it was a very logical response to people having to stay at home a lot and looking for activities that are socially distant friendly," says Dirk Sorenson, an analyst who covers sports at NPD Group. 

And so a new crop of wakeboarding newbies, like myself, emerged in 2020. The NMMA Discover Boating page about “How to Get Up on a Wakeboard” has gotten 651% more traffic May 1 through August 1, compared to the same time in 2019. 

“People are being tourists in their own backyard," says Ellen Bradley, chief brand officer for NMMA. "And they’re doing it for the stress relief.”

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols has a term for that calm, meditative state that can be achieved by being close to water: Blue mind. Being near or in water can lower stress and anxiety, he told USA TODAY in a 2017 interview about his book on the topic.

"I just want it to be common knowledge that sitting by the water quietly is really good for you," he said. "And I want parents and teachers to teach our young people that ... and tell them if you are having a bad day, get to the water and you will feel much better."

My personal findings are consistent with Nichols'. I can quickly go from being anxious indoors about the state of the world, to having my worries melt into the bay. When I return to shore, I feel more empowered to take on the day.

And so I shall continue to channel my inner Moana and answer the ocean’s call.

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