Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking: Technique

This is part of a series of posts covering what it takes to paddle on the open ocean, exposed to swell and away from easy landings. I'll discuss the techniques and ideas I feel are important to understand in order to safely paddle in such a dynamic environment with the focus on how to approach thing instead of simply how to do things. While my intention is to help guide folks who are newer to the sport and possibly neophytes on the ocean, I hope some of the wisdom I share gives even the most seasoned paddler more to think about. Many of these things are covered in typical classes (some are not), and I highly encourage instruction from a skilled teacher. But I also know many paddlers learn through experience - properly so - and hope these concepts will lead to better experiences.

There's a sequence to these posts for a reason, so if something seems unfamiliar try starting at the beginning. Make sure to read the disclaimers and warnings in Part 1: Introduction. And feel free to ask any questions or share your own thoughts in the comments.

Part 2: Technique
Part 3: Rescues and Rolling
Part 4: Surf Zone
Part 5: Awareness/Judgment
Part 6: Forecasts
Part 7: Seamanship
Part 8: Working With the Water
Part 9: Rock Gardening


The Theory

As with whitewater, we start with technique. What is really required for ocean paddling? First and foremost is the forward stroke. The vast majority of paddlers work much harder than they have to and are not nearly as efficient or fast as they could be. You’ll spend 90% of your time paddling using your forward stroke; you’ll take one thousand strokes for every mile you cover. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have a racer’s form, but if you apply the basics of torso rotation you’ll be ahead of the crowd (quite literally).

That’s really what’s important: the basics. There’s a million little points and tweaks that will help eke out a tiny bit more speed, but all most people need are the fundamental concepts that you learn in your first day of kayaking. The power comes from your torso – make sure to wind up before planting the blade in the water. Get the blade in the water early (by your toes) and make sure it’s fully submerged. Once the blade is anchored, unwind your torso, keeping your top arm level (somewhere around chin height – high angle or low angle isn’t that important; you’ll find what feels most comfortable to you). Take the blade out at your hip – you lose efficiency when the stroke goes behind you. This should leave you wound up for the next stroke, and you repeat on the other side. The strength comes from your core, even using your legs to push on the same side as the stroke to help your rotation.

Here's a quick article and video from my friend Sean Morley that lays it out beautifully:

One thing worth mentioning is that many folks with good technique in the harbor lose it when they hit the swells and bumpy conditions of open water. But a strong forward stroke is actually one of the best ways to brace on the water – the power and support that comes from good technique will make you much more stable. Spend more time practicing on flat water and it will help you when things get rough.

To prepare for that rough water, people often spend a lot of time on bracing. Truth is, I hardly ever brace while paddling. You shouldn’t have to. But it’s in the learning how to brace that you discover the skills you really need: edge control and loose hips. Learning how to put your kayak on edge, and more importantly how to paddle and do whatever you need while your kayak is on edge is a necessity for paddling in rough waters. Controlling your edge gives you more directional control, but even more importantly it teaches you how to let your kayak lean with the waves and how to bring it back upright when you need to. The ability to disconnect your upper body from your lower allows the kayak to roll (slightly) and respond to the waves while your upper body stays relaxed and your center of gravity stays over your boat.

Like most things, it’s easiest to start in flat water. A lot of folks think of edging with their knees – pushing up on one and down on the other - or maybe using their hips. That’s fine, but also concentrate on using your body weight. Try to make one cheek heavier than the other. Use as little muscle as possible – the more relaxed you are the more stable the boat becomes.
So I’m not even going to talk about bracing technique (yet – we’ll visit the topic when we reach the surf zone). But definitely DO practice your bracing, just make sure the focus is on the lower body and the kayak, not the blade.

There are some other techniques that are good to know. In addition to the bracing I mentioned, there’s different rescues and rolling. They’re worth their own full discussion, which I’ll get to shortly, so I’ll just mention here that I believe if you paddle on the ocean you need to have a solid solo rescue option. Assisted rescues are great – normally faster and easier – but don’t count on your friends out there. They might be too busy trying to save their own ass to help you out. Be realistic and make sure you can take care of yourself.

Cross-bow draws, low brace turns, side-slips – all those advanced strokes are great but not a single one is necessary for paddling in open water. Learn them, have fun with them, but if your goal is to get out on the ocean, use them to develop boat control and body control so you can stay relaxed and comfortable while the ocean does its thing. You’ll get more use out of your basic sweep strokes.

One steering stroke that’s worth mentioning is the stern rudder. It’s quite easy and very efficient, especially paddling down wind or down-wave, but so many people do it poorly and end up avoiding it. The key to an efficient rudder is getting the blade parallel to the boat. It’s not a reverse sweep. Rotate your body, get the whole paddle on one side with the back blade fully submerged and vertical. Simply extend your back hand while keeping the front one still at shoulder height. The faster you’re moving the more powerful the stroke is, and done properly it takes little effort and produces almost no drag.

More important than any single technique is the simple attitude of trying to improve. If you make a conscious effort and spend some time dedicated to improving how you do things, you will find that it makes a difference as to where you can do things. The more you want to paddle in rough water, the more you want to visit exposed coastlines, especially if you want to play around the rocks, solid fundamentals will get you much further than anything else. If you want to get to Carnegie Hall…

The Practice

I’ve taught a number of forward stroke workshops, where people spend an entire day just working on their forward stroke technique, and I’ve assisted some of the best instructors out there, world champion racers and high level coaches. Such courses are great, and I see people make quick improvements during the day, but when I go paddling with people it’s not the ones who’ve taken the most classes that lead the pack – it’s the ones who’ve practiced. A half-way decent forward stroke, done consistently and on a regular basis, will beat out that top-notch technique you accomplished for a brief period while supervised and never seen again. And it’s so easy to practice – you’re going to be using the stroke anyway so why not try to improve it? All you have to do is put a little mental effort into paying attention to what you’re doing every time you go out.

Your best practice will come when your body is relaxed and you feel comfortable in your boat, so work on your stroke at the start of your paddle, maybe while in protected waters or before the wind comes up. At the end of the day, when you’re tired and just want to get home, it’s a little harder to focus on form. Be aware that something new always feels different – so don’t expect improvement to immediately feel better. What you want to focus on is that the feeling is correct – that you feel your core muscles activating, that your arms seem fairly relaxed without a lot of pushing or pulling, that the blade feels anchored in the water, not sliding through it. Know what your body and the boat should be doing, and even if it feels a little odd keep with it. You’ll soon feel the difference in your speed and have more energy at the end of the paddle.

Flat water is also where to start with your edging. Stationary drills are alright, but try to focus on moving and doing other things while you edge. Simply holding the edge and paddling a serpentine course is a great way to work on skill and control while still heading towards your destination. Use some stern rudders to help change direction. See how they combine with sweeps. When one thing feels comfortable, try blending it into another: sweep stroke into a bow draw; forward stroke form while holding an edge. Combine things and see what happens.

And here’s where I think working on those ‘advanced’ strokes really pays off – you’ll never need to do a cross-bow draw, but the skill it takes to pull one off requires a fair bit of boat control so as you practice one thing you’re really learning several. Same for sculling braces. Go ahead and play around a little.

When you’re ready to try things out in a little more realistic conditions, start easy. Pick a windy day to go paddle in some chop. Find a marina where you can poke out around the breakwall to find swells but just as easily duck back in when you want. The best way to discover what you can handle and what you like is to try it a little bit at a time. Be prepared for some discomfort (or worse: seasickness) the first time you really paddle in swell. A simple part of practice is to experience the general conditions you ultimately want to handle while giving yourself an easy option to escape if things are a little too much for any reason.

But if you find you can handle the conditions, do more than just paddle – get back to practicing. See how different it is when you go downwind versus across it. Same with swell. You’ll find a good forward stroke does wonders for paddling into the wind, and solid edge control and an efficient rudder will let you fly ahead of your companions when traveling with the elements. If you’re too busy trying to survive to spare any thought or energy to your technique then you need to scale back and spend more time in mellower waters. It’s fine to occasionally push it, and even essential for improvement, but if that’s all you ever do you’ll find it takes longer to advance, and for most people it’s less fun-time and more fear-control.

At the end of the day, what you practice isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you do practice. Putting some conscious thought into your actions and doing so on a regular basis. It helps greatly if you have some fun while doing it (this is all supposed to be fun, remember?) and even better if your paddling buddies join in. There’s an old expression that it takes time in the seat to get better. True. But the rate of improvement depends greatly upon what you’re actually doing while in that seat. You don’t need to charge right out into the gnarliest conditions you can handle. It’s attitude, dedication, and persistence that pay off at the end of the day. 


While the better your technique the more you can get out of paddling, and sometimes the safer you’ll be as you do it, technique alone isn’t what makes a good paddler. What goes on in your head is much more important than what your body can do. I start with technique because it’s something you can work on as you start your career. There’s no need to wait, no experience needed before you can begin practicing. And the sooner you start, the more you work on it, the more it will give back.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking

People seemed to enjoy my Art of Whitewater, so I thought I'd give the same treatment to ocean paddling. This is the start of a series of posts covering what it takes to paddle on the open ocean. I'll discuss the techniques and ideas I feel are important to understand in order to safely paddle in exposed areas. Many of these things are covered in typical classes, some are not, but I know that lots of paddlers learn through experience. That's great, but it's still a good idea to know what you should be learning beforehand instead of merely learning in hindsight. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Technique
Part 3: Rescues and Rolling
Part 4: Surf Zone
Part 5: Awareness/Judgment
Part 6: Forecasts
Part 7: Seamanship
Part 8: Working With the Water
Part 9: Rock Gardening


The Theory

Once again, these posts are primarily aimed at an intermediate crowd, designed to relate what skills, and more importantly what knowledge and awareness I feel is required to paddle on the open ocean. I’m going to assume people know their basic rescues (solo and assisted) and strokes, and have some time paddling in protected waters. If you're just starting out in this sport: take a class, a full day introductory class that includes practicing rescues in the water. That will get you going, then spend some time paddling on small lakes, calm harbors, or flat bays with no current. Then come back and read more. This series will focus on getting more out of your paddling, being safe on the water, and ways to continue to develop and improve.

A few words of warning before getting into things: the ocean can be dangerous. In whitewater, people start knowing the river can be dangerous and this naturally leads to some caution as they advance. The ocean can fool ya – it often looks as calm and gentle as the peaceful lake you’re used to. Beginners often head out in conditions that are well within their abilities. But the ocean is fickle. Winds can rise dramatically, currents can form out of nowhere, swells can increase in the blink of an eye. Don’t venture out into the open ocean unless you can handle the worst that could come your way. Have the skills I’m talking about here, or go with someone who does and is capable of assisting you. In any given conditions it takes more skill to help someone else than merely take care of yourself, so choose your paddling partners wisely.

How do you find the right people to paddle with? There are lots of great clubs across the country, so look up your local group and check them out. Don't assume because someone is in a club that they are a skilled and knowledgeable paddler (especially if you found them on Meet-up). There isn't safety in numbers - there's safety in safe numbers. A large group of unskilled people is just a larger disaster waiting to happen. Talk to people before you paddle with them, find out about their experience, ask others in the group about who initiates paddles and what their reputation is. Your safety is your responsibility and never hand it off to someone without knowing who you're giving it to.

Start by paddling with new people in places and conditions where you feel comfortable and are not relying upon them. The best place and time to find out what you and your paddling partners will do when something goes wrong is before it happens. That simply means practicing. If it's a club, make sure that people have regular practice sessions (and maybe attend a couple). If it's a new group of paddlers you're joining, ask when was the last time they did rescues. People who don't practice, people who say they never fall in, are the ones most likely to be in serious danger when a minor incident happens. Don't be one of those people. Practice what you learned in that first class.

The Practice

For now, let's say that you need to practice the basics. The simple stroke technique that you learn in that one-day class is enough to keep most people growing and improving for several months. The rescues need to be done a dozen times before they're solid and familiar enough to perform when needed. So start with the simple mindset that if you want to paddle more challenging waters and in rougher conditions, you need to work at it. I'll cover more of exactly what skills you need to practice as the series continues, but for now let's talk a bit about what equipment you'll need if your goal is coastal paddling. 

To begin with, dress appropriately. Unlike the river or most lakes, swimming to shore isn’t always an option. Even on a warm, sunny day, most ocean waters are well below human body temperatures, and hypothermia is a serious risk even in seventy-degree water. The most common sea kayak tragedies involve people starting out in fine weather, getting caught in changing conditions, and getting too cold due to poor clothing choices to save themselves or survive until rescued. Dress for immersion. (Here's a website with good information on what cold water does and how to prepare for it: National Center for Cold Water Safety)

The right gear goes beyond clothing and includes what you're paddling and what you bring with you. Rec boats are designed for protected water, sea kayaks are designed for the sea. These days there's some blurring between the categories, but there are a few things any ocean-going boat should have, starting with flotation. Whether it's internal bulkheads that create a front and stern air chamber, or inflated airbags that fill up all the space, your boat needs to stay reasonably buoyant on both ends even if it fills with water. It should also have deck lines - something strong for you to grab onto to climb back aboard - as well as toggles at both ends - to help you swim the boat if you're in the water and need to get yourself and your ride to someplace safer before you get back in. Before you head out always make sure that there are no major leaks, that hatch covers are on tight or floatbags are fully inflated. The sinking feeling you get when your boat is sinking is not a pleasant one, especially if you're miles out to sea. (Here's a post I wrote a while ago on different boat types: Calkayakl)

In addition to the basics of paddle, PFD and sprayskirt, there are some additional items that should be with you when you're going out farther. Take a light/headlamp, even if you're sure you'll be back well before sunset. Take some flares - it's a requirement if you're a mile off shore but a good idea no matter how far you go. The cheap pencil flares are pretty much worthless, so splurge for a parachute flare which really works. A VHF radio is another essential safety item, especially one with the new DCS emergency beacon feature which transmits your GPS location to rescuers automatically. And people often overlook it, but a simple whistle on your PFD that's always ready is probably the emergency signal that is used the most - so make sure you have one (it's another Coast Guard requirement anyway).

A few other pieces of kit that can come in really handy: a spare paddle, extra clothing, food and water (a thermos full of warm soup can literally be a life saver), a tow rope, GPS/Satelite Tracker, first aid kit, repair kit, and a helmet if you're going to be paddling near any rocks. I know it can seem like a long list, but I have a drybag filled with most of those items and I simply toss it in my hatch every time I go out, even if it's just a short paddle, even if I'm sure I won't need it. You don't have to go very far to be in serious trouble if you break a paddle or crack a boat, and the difference between having what you need to deal with the situation and struggling to get back home can be hours and serious danger levels.

The open ocean is an incredible and beautiful place. I think pretty much any type of kayaker will enjoy the experiences you can find out there - if you are prepared and know where to look. Hopefully this series will help you get there. As usual, let me know if you have any questions or thoughts on the topic.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Inspirational Words from Brian Shulz

Brian Shulz
Sometimes I have things to say, and sometimes they've already been said by better people in better ways. Brian Shulz of Cape Falcon Kayaks is a friend of mine who designs and builds wonderful skin-on-frame kayaks. He also writes beautifully about kayaking, adventures, organic farming, and life in general. He's faced some serious medical adversity in the past couple of years. His words and attitude really inspire me, and I would just like to encourage anyone who gets any pleasure out of reading my blog to check out his latest post. It's kind of heavy - his medical situation is not good - but it's also a great testament to his spirit and something that I think most paddlers can relate to. We all should be so lucky to live lives as full as his.

Do yourself a favor and read a little of his fine writing. Enjoy his beautiful pictures. Look around and appreciate his world for a moment. Maybe even leave him a comment - you don't have to know someone to thank them for sharing something beautiful with the world. Brian has shared a lot over the years - he's opened his home to me on more than one occasion, and he puts his whole heart into everything he does. There are few people who I look up to more. A simple thank you would brighten his day and that's definitely worth your time. Thank you for your time.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Focus

This is the seventh 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, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus


The Theory

"Start left to right, cut hard left after the big boulder, boof the hole, and pick your way through the run-out."

OK. Little splashes. Small curler. Left stroke. Follow Bob. Bright Sunlight. Small hole - dig hard. Water in face. Straighten out. Where'd Bob go? Is that a strainer on the right? Another wave. More water. Brace. Straighten out. Boulder. THE boulder? Holes, rocks, water, sunlight, shadow. Paddle hard. Ledge. Paddle harder. Underwater. Light. Dark. Bubbles. Spinning. Tuck. Roll. Roll NOW! Air. Water. Spinning. ROLL! Air. Kayak. Leslie. Rock. Brace. Turn. Paddle Hard. Right. Left. Sunlight. Flat water. Bob. Breathe.

There's a lot going on in whitewater kayaking and it can be really hard to keep track of everything and do what you're supposed to. One of the most important survival skills is to learn to focus. But what exactly do you focus on, and how do you do it? It's not a simple answer, but one that helps differentiate those comfortable and in control on the river versus those trying to survive. You can't focus on everything, but you can't lose track of the big picture. You have to focus on the immediate and the future, the near and the far.

You have to be aware of what's right in front of you and what comes first, otherwise you'll never make it to the big scary part down the road. It's natural to think about the crux of the rapid (or the crux of the day), but you have to take care of the business at hand and that means to be aware of your immediate surroundings and each and every move you need to do to get where you want to go. When I stop in an eddy with beginners and point out where we're going next, I always end the discussion by reminding them how to do a peel out to exit. If they flip on the eddy line, any other planning is out the window. You need to pay attention to eddy lines, side currents, small holes and river waves. Know what strokes you are taking and what you'll need to take next to put yourself into the position you want to be in. Take it one step at a time.

But you also need to have the big picture in your head. If you just look at what's right in front of you, you aren't calculating for the big hole and you'll go wherever the water takes you. The other common error for beginners running a rapid (and often advanced paddlers when they're stepping up) is tunnel vision. Their paddling becomes about reacting, and the problem with that is many challenging rapids are hard because they involve multiple moves. You have to keep your head up and maintain an image of where you want to get to next and how one move leads to another, far enough in advance to put yourself in the proper position for the crux when it comes. Even the hardest rapids are a lot easier when you're in the right place.

The Practice

First things first: the immediate. The key to handling what's right in front of you without losing the big picture is to be very comfortable with what you need to do. If you're paddling your first class IV, there's a good chance the rapid starts with class III water and moves. If you're still stressed and working hard in class III, you might not be ready for class IV. So spend more time in class III. Spend time going through class III features. Let yourself get offline, take the big hole to the face, make that hard eddy without paddling hard, work it until class III is easy enough that it doesn't consume all your mental energy. Then you'll find that class IV is a whole lot easier because most of the rapid IS easy for you. You need the skills and confidence to handle what's right in front of you without too much effort. If you're paddling at your edge the whole time you will never be able to look downstream.

Part of this comfort comes with technique practice. You shouldn't need to watch your paddle in order to get in a powerful stroke. Braces should be automatic, allowing you to react physically while keeping some mental distance. Practice skills on easy water, flat water even, and they will come to you quicker when they're needed in the rough stuff. Those physical skills will help you relax and your mental state of mind is probably the most important thing to get right when pushing your limits.

Another way to help accomplish this is with scouting, particularly from shore. The more you know what's coming, the more you've already seen the whole rapid and know where the hard parts are and where it's easy, the less you'll worry about the unknown. This helps you relax a little more in the easy part, allowing you to trust that it IS easy, so you can save your energy for where it's needed.  For crucial moves, sometimes you even want to map out exactly which strokes you're going to take where (though don't get too carried away with this - paddling is dynamic and every plan goes to hell almost immediately, so be ready for plan B - or C or D or Q).

Scouting also helps you keep a mental map of where you're trying to go and what it takes to get there. That's key for the big picture. As I mentioned, plans often go awry, but you still need to avoid the big hole and be aware of key dangers like sieves and strainers. Maybe that little waves turns you when you hit it - is it OK to get pushed a little right or do you need to immediately correct and charge hard left? Know the big points and keep them in your head so you can react properly instead of instinctively.

This all requires heads up paddling. It's a concept most are taught in driver's ed: look further down the road to see what's happening instead of just watching the bumper in front of you. It takes awareness, and awareness requires a fully functioning mind. Some of this comes back to the ideas covered in dealing with fear - fear takes away deliberate thought and forces us to focus on one thing: what which we're afraid of. So before you start that big rapid of the day, take a deep breath, get a clear picture of the whole thing, and relax a little bit. This is fun - focus on that :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Photo from Kokatat's blog: Destination Torngat
I recently had the privilege of watching a screener for Ben Stookesberry's new film, Destination Torngat. If you're a whitewater kayaker you've probably seen some of Ben's films; if you're not, you should still check them out. I've seen his film-making evolve over the years and the best thing about the recent ones is that they really tell a story - a story that is about more than incredible whitewater shots. It tells about the people and the adventure and contains truths that relate to everyone in many aspects of life.

But his lates film made me think even more about the lessons of kayaking relating to life. The film centered on an expedition to a remote part of Canado to kayak a river with amazing waterfalls and difficult rapids. The paddling required phenomenal skill, but the grueling nature of the approach impressed me the most. The team hiked for hundreds of miles, carrying hundred-plus pounds of kayak and gear on their shoulders, through mosquito infected arctic tundra, up and down hills, video-ing the action all the while. It was bad-ass.

It didn't look especially fun. They looked miserable during the hikes. There were comments about being more tired than ever before and hating life and the bugs that ate them up. All for some whitewater to kayak. Don't get me wrong, the kayaking looked amazing, but I live in California and there's some pretty amazing kayaking just up the road, whatever road you end up on. I certainly haven't done a lot of the high sierra classics, but I know that they match up to anything in the world. So why spend all that time and effort, why face all that pain and agony, just to kayak some similar but slightly different rivers?

Because the pain is part of the pleasure. Most of us enjoy something a little more when we have to work for it. The effort sharpens our appetite and adds to the flavor. For most of us, this combination is best taken in moderation. We love a cold beer after a hot paddle, a ice cream sundae after an evening run, a bonus for an extra effort at work. We want to know the world rewards hard work and a sense of self-satisfaction is hard-wired by evolution. It's part of what makes us human and is a very good thing because it's the source of much that is great in the world.

For some people, this balance tips to the extreme. They constantly seek greater and greater reward through greater challenge. It's the spirit of adventure, and it puts them out in front of the crowd, where the wind is fresher and it carries a little salt - be it sea, sweat, or tears. I don't need to ask why people climb the mountain (or kayak down it) - I see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice (and it comes across very well on the screen). They're bad-ass, and I'm thankful they exist. And now I'm off to do a few push-ups before indulging in some chocolate.