Monday, September 8, 2014

Surf Forecasts for Sea Kayakers

I had one of those days the other day. Went for a surf session and got a couple nice waves but mostly fought my way in and out, got slammed by closeout sets, and kept chasing a moving takeoff spot all over the place. I shouldn't have been so surprised - the forecast called for a mix of swells, 4 ft. @ 9 sec. from the NW, and 3 ft. @17 sec. from the SSW. So what does all that mean? I'm sure many of you know, but for those who don't, interpreting a surf forecast is an essential skill for anyone who paddles on the ocean (in any type of craft).

Let's start with the basics. Swell is the term for waves that travel long distances across the ocean. They are generated by winds somewhere far away from you, so don't worry about the weather report when trying to understand swell (that's a different topic). Here on the coast of California, our waves come from Hawaii, or Japan, or Alaska, and depend on weather that happened weeks ago. That's one reason we get big waves - they have a long distance to build up steam.

The height of the waves is the number most people pay attention to, but what does a 4 ft. swell actually mean? That can depend on where you are in the world, but here in the U.S. the height reported is measured from crest (top) of a wave to the trough (bottom). For you scientists (and southern hemisphere folks), that's twice the amplitude. It means that if you're standing at the bottom of the valley in between two waves peaks, that's how tall the wave coming at you will be (it also means you can walk on water, so congratulations). That doesn't mean that the surf will be 4 ft., so keep reading.

A couple caveats. Swells forecasts are predictions - they ain't always right. Even a swell report of what is happening right now isn't uniform - waves vary in size from one to the next, so many waves will be smaller and some will be larger. It's also important to note that on the open ocean, swell just goes up and down - it won't break until it gets to shallower water. So even a twenty foot swell is easy to handle in a kayak if you're in deep water - though getting there might be tricky.

Swell turns into surf when it hits the beach. Don't stress about the math, but when the depth of the ocean is approximately 1.3 times the wave height, then the wave will start to break - which means the top will pitch forward and the wave will release it's energy. So a 6 ft. swell will start to break in eight feet of water, but a 3 ft. wave won't break until the depth is four and a half feet. That's why large waves break further out and small waves break closer in. How high that wave is when it breaks is not just dependent on the height of the wave, but also how long that wave is. (And the shape of the bottom, how steep it is, how uniform, and lots of other stuff affect the break, but once again that's a whole 'nother topic - good resource here).

The length of the wave, so important to knowing how big the surf will be, is given by the period. That's the time it takes between one crest and the next - basically how long you have in between waves. A long period  (over 15 seconds) means the waves are further apart; a short period (under 10 seconds) means they will be close together. It can be nice to have a long period because it gives you more time to get in or out between the waves, but that's not what's most important about period. Period also indirectly measures the energy of a wave.

20 ft. @ 20 sec.
Think of it this way: how much stuff can you fit into a box that's 3 ft. tall? You can't actually answer that question unless you know how wide that box is. A longer period means a wider box, and it this case it means that the wave 'holds' more water. That's critical because when a wave breaks, that water is what rises up and crashes down on your head. And it's exponential (sort of). So a 4 ft. wave with a period of 20 sec. has four times the energy of a 4 ft. wave @ 10 sec. and the long period wave might jack up to 8 or 10 ft. in the surf zone, whereas the short period wave might only be 4 or 5. Hopefully you can see how important that is to know if you plan to ride that wave, or even are just trying to paddle through it.

Finally, the swell forecast will also give the direction the waves are coming from. That's useful because it allows you to figure out where will be protected and what locations might be exposed. If a coastline/harbor/cove/inlet faces the south, then it's going to be protected from a NW swell, meaning the waves will be significantly smaller than the forecast (the forecast is for the open, unprotected ocean). But a SW swell would likely slam into that same coastline/harbor/cove/inlet,

All this means that knowing the swell is 3 ft. doesn't really tell you much of anything about what the surf will be like where you're going. Some 3 ft. swells might produce nothing on the beach while others might create seven foot tubes perfect for riding or five foot dumping waves that close out. If you know the period you'll have a much better sense of the energy of the waves. If you know the direction, you'll understand how the waves will interact with your shoreline. There's definitely a lot more to the topic of surf waves, but hopefully these basics will help you get more out of your ocean experiences.

Getting back to where we started - why was my day so rough? Two separates swells coming it at the same time, approximately the same size, created two different surf zones, one atop the other. Sometimes they canceled each other out. Sometimes they just crossed paths and confused each other (and me). Sometimes they added up, a four foot wave on top a three foot wave (with a long period) made for eight foot waves with a whole lot of energy that came out of nowhere. A couple fun rides when I was in the right place; many more good thrashings when I wasn't. It was my first time at that spot, but now I know it much better and will be eager to get back there when the southerly swell comes by itself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Momentum

This is the second 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


When people start paddling on the river they simply want to get where they're going without running into trouble. What separates skilled paddlers, those who move effortlessly around obstacles and paddle with grace, from whose who struggle to survive, is the realization that the battle is won long before the enemy is faced. The strategy to master is the role of momentum.

Not to get too technical, but momentum is a vector, meaning it has a magnitude and a direction, both of which must be controlled to achieve the desired result. The beginner sees a rock and paddles away from it; the intermediate sees open water and steers for it; the zen master floats away from the one and towards the other with hardly a stroke.

Momentum towards the eddy.
The basic concept to start with is this: if you want to get left, start right. Too many people see their downstream goal and try to get there early, not understanding that they will need to have momentum when they arrive and momentum is built upstream. Shooting for an eddy on the left, they start on the left side of the river. When the eddy approaches, they point their nose at it but the river carries them past. They scramble to paddle forward and eventually aim upstream, clawing their way into the bottom of the eddy. They were in the right position at the top of the eddy, but had no momentum to carry them in the direction they wanted to go.

If you start right of the eddy (exact distance will depend on strength of the current and your own speed) and are already moving to the left as you approach the top, your momentum will carry you across the eddy line and into the eddy itself. The same is true of any target - if you want to avoid a rock, one of the best places to be is right above it with momentum heading away; if you want to hug the inside of a river bend, start on the outside and paddle towards where you want to go. It's not enough to know where you want to be, but you also have to know which way your momentum should be carrying you when you get there.

The paddler is headed (and pointed) left and doesn't need
to paddle hard to avoid the hole on his right.
The next level is understanding how your boat interacts with the water to change momentum for you. We've all seen two boaters enter a rapid at the same place and achieve vastly different results. The expert takes a handful of strokes and emerges at the bottom unscathed; the learner battles fiercely to follow the line, blades windmilling and boat turning every which way, only to get pushed off course and fighting to survive. It's the difference between letting the river provide the power, using it's flow to redirect the kayak when needed, and trying to do everything through brute force.

A wave will deflect you in the direction your nose is pointing. A wide stroke against that wave, on the downstream side, will accelerate the change in direction and move the boat across the river. Catching a blade in a passing eddy will slow the boat and allow the water to take the paddler on its path, whereas a driven boat will cross currents with little change in momentum. Sharply edging a boat away from the current increases its affect, while flattening the boat will minimize it. Use these tools to let the water move you from one side to the other, always with an eye far downstream, adjusting to the next goal well before it arrives.

The concrete: the best way to work on understanding and using momentum is to eddy catch your way down a rapid. Pick a long rapid, ideally a step below challenging for you, with lots of rocks on the sides and in the middle. Work your way from right to left and back again, catching as many eddies as you can along the way. Start by spotting the crucial point right before you catch the eddy - where do you need to be, which way should your boat point, and what momentum should you have when you get there.

Once you can hit your target with your desired momentum, try repeating the performance with fewer strokes. The fewer strokes you take to accomplish your goal, the more you'll have to let the water do the work. Play around with edging and boat angle, slow your strokes down and pay attention to the flow of water around the paddle. The same tricks that allow you to leisurely move around on easy rapids are the ones that will let you handle harder rapids when the slots are narrow and the water more powerful.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Technique

This is the first 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


Technique is not something that you learn at your computer. Yeah, videos can be helpful, and breaking down components can give people new ideas to try. But you learn by doing, and learn fastest with feedback from someone who knows what they're talking about. The truth is that if you started with a two-day class from a competent instructor you probably were taught most of the technique you actually need to use even on a class V river. The problem is even those who 'learned' the right technique do very little to practice and improve it. With that, most paddlers on the river have poor technique that gets even worse when under pressure or fatigued. Even most class V paddlers.

That points out a couple things: first, you don't need to have great technique to paddle hard whitewater; second, me talking about technique on a blog isn't likely to change anything. But I'm going to throw this out there anyway, in hopes it might inspire a few folks to do what is needed to improve their technique - and only you can improve your own technique. All it takes is practice. You really just need to want to improve your technique. So why should you?

Technique gives you options. It gives you control, protects your body, increases your safety, extends your career. It's a long term thing. Most people paddle whitewater for the thrill, the sensation of of wildly crashing down a rapid and hoping to make it to the bottom. Technique, in a way, is the antithesis of this. That's why I think beginners give up fairly quickly on technique once they've reached the point that they can survive a rapid upright - they've achieved their short term goal and don't see the need to put in more work. Over time, they learn to handle harder rapids and advance in the sport. That's when the short term thinking eventually catches up.

When you start paddling class IV and class V, the consequences are more severe. Not just the danger of the rapid, but the toll it takes on your body. The rivers are more powerful, moves need to be executed quicker with more precision. The lack of good technique leads to blown lines and blown shoulders. It holds you back, slowing progress and limiting fun. But by the time most people realize this, they're set in their way and think they know what they're doing. It's hard to step back and NOT have fun on the river, to spend time working on technique and admitting that there is more to learn and improvements to be made. So most flounder on, having fun without recognizing that even more enjoyment is just beyond their reach.

If you want to get more out of your kayaking, and you want to do it for many years to come, find yourself a good instructor, get a one day lesson on a river a grade or two easier than you normally paddle, and learn how to do things properly. Then spend lots of time working on technique every time you paddle. Practice, it's that simple.

That's the philosophy, here's some concrete:
A good forward stroke will vastly improve your ability to avoid hazards. It will give you more return for less effort, saving you energy and allowing you to paddle safely as you age and lose strength. Most people have crappy forward strokes. I'm not going to try to teach the keys to an efficient forward stroke here, but I will say that a good way to learn what works and what doesn't is to do attainments. And slalom practice - that's always a good one for technique.

A good brace (technique-wise) is the difference between staying upright and flipping over with an injured shoulder. If you work on the other lessons you shouldn't need to have to brace much, but when you do it's essential that you have safe form.

Eddy catching. There are lots of techniques to catch an eddy - bow draws, low braces, duffeks, gliding stern draws, etc. What dialing in the varieties and proper form will give you is the ability to catch the important eddies - the small ones near rocks, the hard ones with fast current right above the drop - and the right way to leave that eddy and enter the drop. I tell my students all the time that eddy catching is the most important skill they will learn for running hard stuff and I stick by my words.

As I said, you don't need to have good technique to have fun. But I do believe that the better your technique, the more potential for fun you will have. Isn't that worth it?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Kayaking South of the Mendocino Headlands

A few months ago I wrote up a little paddle we did around the Mendocino Headlands, exploring the many caves and tunnels. Starting from the same place, Big River, this time we headed south. The rock is similar in quality, creating many caves and tunnels again, but it seems like the rock is a little weaker on this side of the bay, with more collapsed ceilings and portholes in the walls.

It was a quick and easy paddle, and this time I shot video instead of stills. Enjoy:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kayaking the Isle of Skye

I'm just returned from my honeymoon in Scotland, three weeks of sight seeing, hill walking and a little kayaking. Thanks to the gracious Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures, my wife and I had boats and gear for four days of paddling on the Isle of Skye, the largest island in Scotland, just off the west coast.

Skye is a beautiful place with some of the most rugged mountains in the country (the Cuillins), as well as rolling green hills, glacier carved valleys, volcanic rock cliffs, and protected water wherever the weather is coming from. It's really hard to beat as a paddling destination and our four days provided only the shallowest of introductions to this spectacular land.

The first couple of days had high winds and we took it easy, sticking close to protected shorelines on the south and west side of the island. The scenery wasn't dramatic but simply the calm beauty of Scotland - green hills, lots of sheep, and castle ruins from several hundred years ago. Coming from America, the sense of history and spirit of the past that linger in the land always gives me a moment's pause, soaking in the fact that countless generations of people have plied the land and fished the waters. Kayaking among the remnants of ages long past adds to the peaceful feeling of the place.

With a break in the wind, we moved on to Staffin Bay on the northeast end the island. It was strange to paddle on an exposed coast with no discernible swell, the water as flat as a Sierra lake with a steady sprinkling of rain. The rocks here are old, basalt columns created when lava flows cooled and condensed, leaving a colonade of sharp angles and cracks that time has worn into caves and tunnels on a scale much greater than our little boats. Poking our noses in lead to giants caverns rising way beyond our heads with multiple entrances and exits, rock garden heaven.

The calm water made it easy to explore, but the rain made picture taking a challenge, often forcing me to shoot from inside the cave where I was protected from the elements. We spent hours exploring the rocky coast, but I'm afraid my pictures don't do it justice. It really deserves to be seen in person.

Our last day of paddling took us back south, the the bottom on the island and most dramatic landscape yet. Launching from the little town of Elgol, we crossed the bay (or loch, as they call it. Lakes, bays, harbors - they're all called lochs in Scotland) to land at the foot of the Black Cuillin, not the tallest but the sharpest of mountain ranges in the country. This is where the great climbers from Scotland learned their trade, fighting their way up to the jagged peaks in miserable weather on crumbling rock.

Against this backdrop we landed on a small beach for a short hike to Loch Coruisk, a tiny lake nestled between the waterfall covered hills and the granite shoreline at their base. Unfortunately the rain hit once again and the clouds swallowed up the view as they so often do in the island - Skye is actually from the Norse and means 'island of the clouds'. But it was still a beautiful paddle and amazing place, the water running freely down the steep green slopes and blue skies breaking through on our return to Elgol.

We could have happily spent another week paddling in new locations on the island and only scratched the surface. Returning our boats to Gordon, he talked about the other nearby islands and all they have to offer, lighting up even more when discussing the further options like St. Kilda and the Outer Hebrides. I still feel that California has some of the best kayaking coastline in the world, but with the hundreds of islands, large and small, round and jagged, Scotland clearly has more variety and more options, all in less space. There are many places I would like to go paddle, but I think I could spend a lifetime exploring Scotland and never do the same route twice.