Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sea Kayak Symposia

I've been invited to teach at the Storm Gathering USA in March, 2015. It's an rough water sea kayaking symposium organized by my good friends Helen Wilson and Mark Tozar at Greenland or Bust. I've had the honor to coach at several great sea kayaking symposiums in the past, and since they seem to be growing in popularity I thought I'd share a little bit about what I think are the true benefits of such events.

There are different types of symposiums out there, but I'm focusing on educational events - ones with a selection of classes over several days taught by instructors from beyond the local area. This is quite different from your paddlefest type of events, where an outfitter, or group of outfitters, have a bunch of demo boats and run people through short clinics or discussions. Those can be valuable too, but they're not the focus of this discussion.

The most obvious benefit of taking classes are the things you'll learn in those classes. I'll just assume that people agree that learning in a class can be valuable (though it's fine to learn through other means as well). But you could probably take the classes through your local retailer, or find a private instructor, or just a skilled mentor willing to guide you. You could often do it cheaper, break it up over convenient weekends, and maybe at a closer location. What makes it better at a symposium?


While learning anything takes time, and physical skills in particular take much practice and repetition, there's a certain psychological advantage to immersing yourself in something for an extended period of time. It can be tiring, both physically and mentally, but the blending, combining and reiteration of ideas you get from back to back courses really helps. It will take time after a symposium for the material learned to sink in, but there's an efficiency to getting so much information downloaded at once. It allows you to draw from a bigger base of knowledge when working to improve. It primes you for more learning and lasts longer.

Variety of Instructors

Lumpy Waters
The truth is, there are a lot of skilled kayak instructors out there. Wherever you are, I bet there are some excellent and inspiring local instructors who could teach you anything you wanted to learn. But any one teacher, any small group of instructors, is limited. We all have our own styles and preferences, our own beliefs and approaches. The more of these you see as a student, the more you'll find the way that works best for you.

Symposiums tend to bring in some of the most experienced and well-traveled coaches, who not only bring their personal experience with them, but also the experience of all those people they've interacted with in other places and at other symposiums. Again, the more variety the better. It's something that's hard, if not impossible, to find in any one area of the country.

(Another perk is that these folks tend to bring their stories with them, sometimes even a little video. If you want to be inspired, these are the people that can do it)

Variety of Location


Why is it better to learn someplace new? Because learning is about the new - it's about leaving the familiar behind and taking risks, even if it's just a little pride on the line. Venturing into the unknown changes your mental state and that's good - you want to be a little on edge. It forces a sharper eye and focused mind. As long as you're in an appropriate class, you shouldn't be freaked out about conditions or worried unduly about your safety (that shouldn't happen in any class). But a little bit of concern is good.

If the symposium is happening in your back yard, then maybe the venues won't be new in themselves. But there's a good chance you'll get different venues from one day to the next. Again, it's back to the benefit of variety, the chance to put to use what you learned yesterday in a new context today. It's a new way of looking at a familiar place, and that alone is worth a lot.

Safety Ratios

It might seem like a small thing, and it hopefully won't be an issue at all, but most of the events I've taught at (GGSKS, Lumpy Waters) have great instructor/student ratios. There's often a safety officer and luxuries like motorized boat support that you don't normally get in a kayak class. And it's not uncommon to have additional safety boaters in the more advanced courses. People often push their limits at these symposiums, and the organizers are prepared for it. It doesn't mean you should sign up for things beyond your skill level, but it's nice to know that when you stretch yourself there will be people there to support you.


Perhaps I'm saving the best for last, for quite often the best part of a symposium is not found in the learning at all. It's the chance to meet like-minded people; to immerse yourself with your fellow paddlers; to meet people from diverse and interesting backgrounds; to make contacts with others from near and far. The experience of the event always ends up being something greater than the mere coursework.

I know that these symposiums can often seem expensive. It's difficult to take the time off from work, travel to a far off venue, work your body hard for three or more days. And it isn't something you need to do often. But if you've never been to such an event you're missing out. Treat yourself at least once. It's worth it - and you deserve it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Van Damme, the local spot

I've been living on the Mendocino Coast for over a year now, but recently my wife and I moved twenty miles further south, near the town of Little River. We still have easy access to many play spots on one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline in the world. But everyone has their 'local' spot - that place closest to home, that you can revisit time and time again while always having fun. For us, Van Damme is our local spot.

Van Damme State Park is a strip of land just south of the town of Mendocino. It follows Little River from the Pygmy Forest, through Redwood groves, all the way to a well-protected sandy beach. The back entrance to the hiking trails is right down the road from our house; the beach  a little further along that same road. There's plenty of free parking, a gentle surf in all but the biggest seas, and even a beach shower for rinsing off at the end of a paddle. It gets crowded in the summer with tourists and abalone divers, but of the time it's rather peaceful.

Once on the water there are caves and tunnels immediately to the north. The angle of the shore and an outer reef of rocks keeps this area calm most days, often bathtub flat as you pass through long tunnels to emerge into the open sea. Beginners can have the experience of a lifetime within ten minutes of launching their first kayak.

Heading back south passes through the outer rocks, a fun place for advanced paddlers to explore. Pourovers and slots await skilled kayakers, fear level depending upon conditions. There's even a zipper wave on the back side when the swell direction is just right.

Continuing further south, the shoreline opens up with more caves and tunnels, many leading from one protected cove to the next. Emerald green water, lit up by the plentiful afternoon sun, shines through underwater openings and entices one to go just a little further to see what's around the next corner. Mostly it's more rocks to play in and around, but occasionally it's a pocket beach that begs you to take a break and enjoy a lazy lunch on the sand.

I've only gotten in a couple paddles out of Van Damme since our move, and I know there's lots more for me to explore and discover. But I'm looking forward to gaining my local knowledge, and I'm eager to share it with my friends when they visit. Enjoy the little video of one our recent water days:

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Group Management

This is the fourth in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management

Group Management

The Theory

This isn't about being in charge of a group, it's about being part of a group. It's about your responsibilities as an individual member and the roles that must be taken for a group to function safely and efficiently. Even novices have a role, one they're normally not even aware of, but once you've learned enough to no longer call yourself a novice, you need to be aware of what you are doing in relation to the rest of the group.

Awareness is the key word. The most important skill to have when it comes to safety is the simple awareness of what hazards are out there and what everyone is doing to avoid them. That means you need to be aware of where other people in the group are, what they are doing, and how you fit in to the larger picture. It doesn't matter if someone is 'in charge' (whether a paid instructor or just the most experienced paddler), everyone has a responsibility to work with the group. That responsibility could be as simple as doing what you're asked, or it could mean positioning yourself where you could lend aid if needed. If you're not sure what you should do, ask. Ask anyone. You might not get the right answer, but at least it will start the right conversation.

When I teach or lead a group I'm responsible for its management. Complete beginners are too overwhelmed by trying to figure out their paddle, their boat, the river current, remembering technique, listening to my instructions, worrying about their safety - and a load of other things - to give much thought to other people. But my instructions include the simple idea that they should help out if they can do so without putting themselves at risk. I teach them from the start that we are all in this together, and while I'll be there to set safety and explain the risks, every boater should look after themselves first and others second. But it's still too easy for them to get in the habit of letting someone else evaluate the choices and make decisions for them. It's a habit I try to break before it forms, but it's after they leave my class that it really matters.

When people start paddling 'on their own', it's often with a more experienced paddler who takes the role of group leader. But let's look at what what you should do if you're NOT the leader, if someone else has more experience and better skills than you do. First, don't assume your 'leader' is right. Think for yourself and make your own decisions. Not all leaders are capable and even the best sometimes miss things. Speak up if you have questions and be honest in your self-assessments. It's ultimately you, alone in your boat, that runs the rapid (or portages), so never give up your own responsibility for your own safety.

But if you do have a leader who is competent, listen to what they have to say. Most importantly, follow the plan, whatever it is. If everyone is going to stop above the rapid, you should too. If people are taking the left channel, don't be the only one to go right (or at least make sure you know what you're doing and so does someone else in the group). The plan doesn't have to be perfect, but if everyone is on the same page it will still work. If different people execute different plans, then none of them will work.

Don't assume anyone will help you. Yes, people should help you, but if you blindly assume it, you're not likely to get it. If you actually ask, your chances of receiving aid are much higher. This might mean something as simple as stating at the start that you don't know the lines. Or if your roll is shaky, maybe telling another paddler that you might need a bow rescue after the drop. And it's much easier for folks to help you if you are nearby, if you're listening to what they say, and pay attention to the river and what's coming up. It seems obvious, but I've paddled with enough newbies who I've had to chase down to inform them of a danger ahead and then repeat myself several times because some of them were busy fiddling with their GoPros when I described the line. Don't expect others to put themselves out to help you - make it easy for them.

Help others when you can. Even if you're the weakest paddler in the group, you can be helpful. Take a rope with you when you portage so you can set safety for those running the rapid. Grab a rock when you're in the eddy so the next person can hold onto you. Relay signals so everyone knows what's happening. Try to lift your focus above your own concerns and pay attention to the bigger picture - not only will it help the group, it will ultimately help your own paddling as well.

What if you are the most experienced paddler in the group? Or have the best roll? Or just know that river better than the others? Are you the LEADER? Not necessarily - it's not really about leaders and followers. If you want to step up, take charge, and direct the group, that's great. But not every trip needs a designated leader, and no one person needs to take all the responsibilities on themselves. But just like adulthood, responsibility isn't something we can avoid, but we do have control over how we experience it. As I mentioned above, everyone has responsibilities, and most important thing is to make sure everyone is aware of that. But if you have more experience, more skills, are familiar with a run, or have newer boaters with you, share your wealth and you'll end up having a better time on the river.

The main thing is to pass along information and make sure everyone is on the same page. You don't have to 'run' the safety meeting, but just call everyone together and start a discussion. Ask people where they're at mentally and physically. Tell people about the tough rapids, or suggest a way for the group to operate (point/sweep, buddy system, free-for-all). You don't have to set a bunch of rules, but if you bring up the subject, maybe offer what you think will work best, chances are everyone will either agree with whatever you want to do, or they'll offer a different solution (thus taking some of the responsibility off your shoulders).

I think a lot of people are afraid of engaging others in this manner because they think it means they have to make all the decisions and look after everyone else. But ignorance is not bliss - if someone swims, you'll still have to help them. But if you know someone has a weak roll and doesn't know the line, perhaps you can tell them the easy route and be there for a bow rescue - saving everyone time and trouble. If you don't want any responsibilities for anyone else in the group, then you're basically paddling on your own - an incredibly risky proposition. Most of us love the camaraderie we find on the river, and part of that is the understanding that we all look out for each other. It's not about everyone contributing equally, but everyone contributing their best. Some days you'll have more to offer, some days you'll receive more help. The more you give back to newer boaters the more you'll find the paddling community giving you what you want.

And what if you are the LEADER (in all capitals)? That's a lot longer discussion and a two day course on the water (as a start). Professionally leading folks down the river is a challenging endeavor that requires lots of hard skills and even more soft skills, more than I can even touch on in a blog post. The truth is that if your group takes responsibility for themselves and everyone has the necessary skills to handle that run, it really shouldn't take much effort to lead them. It's when you're teaching the necessary skills, or everyone just depends on you for their safety, that things become harder. All I'll say is that if you are going to take that role, make sure you have what it takes to handle it. A bad leader is often worse than no leader.

The Practice: CLAP 

There's an acronym we use on the ocean called CLAP. I'm not big on acronyms, but the ideas are simple enough and worth noting and remembering. It starts with Communication. On the river, that starts before you hit the water. People in the group should know if it's your first time on that run, if you have a reliable roll or not, if the difficulty of the run is at your limit, if you have a bad shoulder and can't paddle very hard, anything that might impact the group as a whole. Everyone should know everyone else's background, so they can act accordingly the rest of the trip. If I'm sitting above a hard rapid with someone who's never run it and is doing their first class IV, I'll treat them differently than if it's a hard-core class V boater who's done this stretch a million times. Most people will offer help and support, but only if they know it's needed/wanted.

Communication continues as you put on the river. A good thing to talk about is safety equipment - who has what? Does anyone have a spare paddle? First aid kit? Pin kit? If you have nothing, you might want to stick close to someone who's more prepared (and you might want to learn a thing or two from them).

And you always need to go over signals. Even if everyone knows everyone else and thinks they all use the same signals. There are some pretty standard ones out there, but there are a lot of little variations that are quite useful if everyone knows them and potentially dangerous if folks get confused. Take sixty seconds and review them with the entire group.

The L in CLAP stands for Line of Sight. It doesn't mean that everyone has to be able to see everyone else, but there needs to be a chain so that everyone has some pair of eyes on them. If I can't see Jimmy, I can at least see Suzy and she can see Jimmy.  If something happens to Jimmy, Suzy can pass the word on to me and I can pass it on to others and we can help out as a group. No one should be all alone and out of sight of the group.

A is for Avoidance (or Awareness). The idea is that it's easier to stay out of trouble than it is to get out of trouble. In order to avoid risk, you need to be aware of what it is. The truth is that as kayakers we often put ourselves at risk - that's what running a rapid is - but we need to carefully choose what risks are acceptable and to do that we need to be aware of what all the risks are. Does everyone see that strainer just below the surface on river right? (That's a good time to use your Communication/Line of Sight skills to make sure).

Avoidance goes beyond specific hazards. It also means having the common sense not to put on a swollen river in the rain if no one has done it at a high level. It means not putting yourself at risk by doing something that the rest of the group isn't comfortable with. Think about things before you do them (and think about yourself before blindly following others), and you'll be able to avoid a lot of the dangers before they materialize.

The P to end CLAP is Position. It really refers to the position of most usefullness, and it applies to everyone in the group. It means you need to think about where you are in relation to others and how you could best help if things went wrong. Do you want to be in the lead (yes if you know the run or are a strong paddler, maybe no if it's your first time down). Do you want to be at the rear (sweep)? Do you want to follow that crazy guy in the little playboat? Or do you want watch from shore - ideally with a rope and in a position to throw it if the paddler swims at the big hole. Do you want to catch that small eddy above the lip when three paddlers are following close behind you? Or maybe catch a bigger eddy a little sooner so you can give everyone the line? (or are you so close behind someone that when they catch that little eddy, you have no choice but to run the drop blind). Think about where you are in relation to everyone else, and what you would/could do if something bad were to happen.

If you've Communicated to others about what the plan is, made sure that everyone has a Line of Sight to someone else, are Aware of and Avoiding the hazards, and Positioned yourself in relation to the rest of the group, you're much more likely to have a successful day and a good time together. That's CLAP.

Here's a short video with a couple clips showing how awareness of others on the river can minimize time and trouble.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pleasures of the Pit (River)

California is in the midst of an historic drought that's greatly affected the everyday lives of many people in this state (we've had to move to a new rental 'cause our old place's spring was running dry, and many people have it worse). The lack of rivers to run seems like a small thing in the big picture, but kayaking (or lack of it) can be illustrative of many of the water issues in this state. There are lessons to be learned.

With the snowpack long gone, little rain in the past six months, and temperatures at record highs, I still got out this past weekend to paddle a beautiful river with a solid flow - and it wasn't from draining down a reservoir. The Pit river is fed by a spring (technically the spring creates Fall River, which feeds into the Pit), pumping 1,000 cfs of clear water year round, regardless of the weather. This bounty of nature isn't normally left free to entertain the recreation desires of a few, but normally is re-directed into a series of canals and power stations, providing a reliable and (relatively) cheap source of electricity.

Ultimately it feeds into Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, where it is held with other rivers (Sacramento, McCloud) until released to create more electricity and irrigate the Central Valley of the state, the breadbasket of the country (read this article to be impressed and perhaps terrified of the importance of the area: NY Times/Everyone Eats There). This water is the lifeblood of our state, our country, and kayaking seems like a small need of it's power.

But there's more power in kayaking than one might imagine. The flow on the Pit over the weekend was a scheduled release, the electric utility agreeing to let the water resume it's normal course for forty-eight hours so a few dozen people could come play. But we did more than play, and the power of the river that we soaked up lasts far longer than our time on the water.

Dave taking a well-deserved reward for his hard work
I had the pleasure to meet and boat with Dave Steindorf, the California Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, the nation's leading river-recreation advocacy group. AW had negotiated the release from the Pit, as they have negotiated many releases that provide kayaking opportunities in dry times. But these releases also provide water to the fish and moisture to the riparian corridors along the riverbeds. The create commercial rafting opportunities that generate millions of dollars in revenue for small communities and family owned businesses. They instill a love and appreciation of the power of the river and value of the water, and that is, perhaps, the most valuable thing we can take away.

As a kayaker I could narrowly look at the river and see only how it serves me in my rather silly hobby. But dam releases help me see a bigger picture. I see the struggle to secure the public's right to that water; the demand of the farms for the most crucial ingredient to all other foods; the importance of the dam itself for generating electricity that we need and providing drinking water to the most populous state in America. I see beyond that, to the futility of relying on a desert to grow our food, to the long-term dilemma of sediment build-up and ever-increasing maintenance costs that hide the true cost of 'renewable' energy. I fear man's folly of taking water from its source to places that were not meant to have it, our false belief that we can always get around the rules of nature and thinking short-term solutions will eliminate the problem. Water conservation and use is a large and complicated subject, worthy of much philosophical musing and en-depth study, and the joy of paddling a dam release leads one into an area of far greater impact on society. It's a trip worth taking.

On the lighter side, the paddling was scenic and fun, the people as warm and friendly as the temperature, and the sense of river community held strong throughout. I had seen many pictures of the Falls, but felt no need to try the 30-footer, as easy at it looked. But the 'sneak' routes, both right and left, put a smile on my face. The fun class III-IV rapids, especially the quarter-mile long one after the Falls, kept me happy the entire run. It's a great river that will be going again in a couple weeks - get on it if you can and thank AW for one more opportunity to kayak (and all the others as well).

Here's a little video of our two days on the Pit:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: On or Across the Water

This is the third in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management

On or Across the Water

The Theory

My last post talked about momentum and its role in whitewater kayaking, a common theme among coaches. Another way of looking at things has served me well, though it's harder to summarize and not something that I've heard from others. When paddling, you want to move on the water or across it, never against it.

Every drop of water in the river is moving somewhere, including the water beneath your boat, and you want to follow it or flee from it. To know which, you have to look downstream, to watch the little bubbles and swirls in the water that tell you which piece leads where, and decide accordingly. This is what the great ones do when they scout, seeing every line, knowing where the water that flows cleanly through the carnage begins its route. Some even toss in a stick or leaves to help the reading. It's an art dictated by science, a skill worth time and practice.

The paddler's riding the water that skirts the hole, but also
pointing downstream to move across the water when it turns
sharply to drop into the second hole.
Seeing the water you want is the first step, but once you are are on it you are not done. To stay with it requires constant adjustment of boat and momentum, sometimes matching its speed but often moving a little faster and a little sooner to stay one step ahead. Move left before the water hits the rock and moves left; drive forward to accelerate just before the water falls off the lip of the drop. Find the safe route down by following the safe water.

But more often than not, there is no single piece of water that will guide you safely through an entire rapid, or even a single move. Quite often, the water that is in the perfect place is not headed in the right direction. You need to pass over that water, moving across it in the direction of your goal.  This requires moving across the water, for fighting against it will gain you nothing. The key lies in knowing when and how to disengage from the current..

This connects to the idea of momentum, where I said that in order to get right you have to start on the left. You start moving right by disengaging your boat from the current you are in. Change your momentum by turning your boat away from the flow, edge away if necessary, and paddling. This may take one stroke or many, a slight edge or a hard lean, all depending on how far you wish to move and the strength of the current you are in. Spot the new current you want to reach and continue to drive until you get there. Match its flow, its angle, and follow it for as long as it takes you in the right direction.

Just like with momentum, the key is to start upstream. If you wait until you reach the point where you want to be disengaged, then it's too late by the time your boat is moving across the current. You need to get your boat unstuck from the current upstream in order to be able to make a quick movement across the current when needed. The stronger the current the earlier you need to escape it.

The paddler is sliding across tongue to avoid the rooster tail.
There's a few different ways in which this all goes down. The simplest example of staying on the water is a tongue that leads you through the rapid. Start early and get on that tongue, matching it's movement, and ride it out. As you step up in the difficulty of rapids, it's less likely that a single tongue will get you all the way through. It might take you halfway through the rapid, or even more, but at some point you'll need to get off and find new water. In this case, you don't want to simple float on the water, you want to separated from that current. That means that your speed and/or direction should be different than the tongue - ideally moving across it in the direction you ultimately want to go, but it could also mean paddling faster, or even slower. Any difference will help raise your boat out of the water and make it more responsive to changes that you make.

Another key place where the idea of separating from the water comes up is on boofs, or any significantly vertical drop. The reason we don't want to get stuck with the water is that it normally lands in a hole and recirculates. Once again, our goal is to separate ourselves from this and going across the water is often the best way. When approaching a lip, have a slight angle in the direction you want to go on your landing, or if that's not possible, accelerate to separate yourself from the current. This will make the actual boof easier and allow you to launch clear or the hole at the bottom.

When the vertical drop gets higher, and boofing the waterfall a bad idea, we return to the concept of being on the water. Match it's speed and direction as you go over, plugging the drop and staying with the water that goes under the hole, popping up beyond the recirculation.

The Practice

Start by just noticing the difference in flat water between floating along and paddling across the water. Feel the difference when you try to move left - how much easier is it if you already where sliding in that direction, or if you were moving faster than the current, compared to when you floated on the water.

Find your favorite boof and try it with different approach vectors. Launch from the same spot, but see if it's easier coming from one side or the other; see if you go further when you come in with speed instead of relying on the last boof stroke; see what happens if you plug it (caveat - make sure you know the landing is deep and safe before you try any plugging).

When you're scouting a rapid, watch the water carefully and see where it goes. Start at the bottom and follow a bubble line upstream until it runs into trouble, then see what other line you'd want to be on at that point. Work the whole rapid backwards, and then follow it forwards, maybe even tossing in a leaf at different points to see where the water takes it. Plan your transitions from on the current, to across it, to back on again. It's a positive way of looking at the water on how to move on it, instead of watching the hazards and worrying about avoiding them. And whitewater kayaking should always be a positive experience.

Here's a little video that shows more of this in action: