An all too common tale of beginner sea kayakers that got into trouble crossed my desk the other day. The particulars aren't important because it is all too common. Since some of my readers might be new to the sport, I thought I'd take a little time to analyze why people make errors in judgment. While this focuses on the beginner kayaker, I think there are lessons that apply to paddlers at all levels.
When people start something brand new, they are in a state called unconscious incompetence. That basically means they don't know what they don't know. In such a case, they will make decisions based on something other than their own judgment in the situation. That can be a problem but doesn't have to be.
But people often don't want to ask others. They think they can figure it out. How hard can kayaking be, right? I'll just hop down to Walmart, pick out a boat, and I'm good to go. There's often a reluctance to appear incompetent or a desire to save money. Ironically, it's the effort to save things (face, money) that generally costs more (time, health, life). Spending a little money on the right equipment, listening to those who know more, learning some basics, all will make everything easier in the long run. And as I said, people in this sport are happy to help.
What I think is an even greater danger to beginner kayakers (and those not so beginner) is the faulty sense of experience. It's natural human behavior to believe that if things went well in the past they will go well in the future. The problem is that kayaking is a dynamic sport - the future is always different than the past, even when you don't expect it. Weather changes things, temperature changes things, equipment changes things. Most people get in trouble when something is not quite the same as what it was before. Even a small change can lead to huge difference in outcome.
Another common place that experience gives a false sense of security is the river. The idea that we made it through this rapid before so we can do it again. Change one little thing and everything can be different. Let's take a group of new kayakers. Maybe they're running the Gorge on the South Fork American River. It's a relatively easy class III that many people get to in their first year of boating. So they probably have done the run a couple times with a bunch of more experienced folks and all went well. Maybe a swim or two at the big rapids, but no problem. Now it's November. It's still fairly warm weather. They just did the class II stretch above it and the water is still releasing so they decide to just keep going.
Both of these situations have actually happened multiple times. Why? Because new kayakers will always make the mistake of relying on their own experience to make decisions, but that experience is lacking. They know some things, but still don't know what they don't know. How do you fix this? You listen to those who've been there. Learning through experience is overrated when it comes to safety. Learning through the experience of others is the way to do it. Put your ego in check and ask some questions, even if you think you know the answers. Instead of assuming this time will be just like last time, think through what could happen if something changes - because it always will.
I've had to hike out of several rivers. I've had to wait out the weather while cold and miserable. I've had to take friends to the hospital. Some of it was preventable, some of it wasn't. There are risks in this sport and we can't avoid them all. But I've learned from each of those incidents (here are some good ones: Rubicon, South Silver, Channel Islands), and I've shared my hard won experience with others so they don't have to live it themselves. I continue to listen to others' tales so that I might have less exciting stories to tell in the future. I never assume that the next time will be just like the last.
So if you're reading this and you're new to kayaking. Or if you've been doing this a while and are pushing into new territory. Or even if you think you've seen and done it all. Take a moment to think about the consequences the next time you go for a paddle. Make sure you are prepared. Make sure you do have the knowledge to make good judgments. If not, seek out that wisdom before it's too late to find it. Have fun and be safe out there!
Monday, November 25, 2013
On Saturday we went to Russian Gulch with a group of friends from the Sacramento Sea Kayakers. Most people were in short boats - some for the first time - and we got the chance to play around the outer rocks. Heading north towards Caspar is a series of tunnels and arches that allow you to explore while being protected from the swells. That protection comes from a line of outside rocks and take the energy of the day. Since this day had such little wave energy, we could actually explore the outside rocks, going wherever we wanted.
And there were lots of nooks to explore. Lots of tunnels that went through to secret lagoons, lots of caves that disappeared in darkness, and more rocks to paddle around then we had time for. There were multiple rocks with multiple arches and again, plenty of sunshine to see it by. The visibility in the water was just as good, and almost the whole time we got to watch the garden of the sea pass under us as we made our way along the coast. It's a beautiful stretch and normally requires a lot of work to reach, but this day was a walk in the park.
We finished the weekend with some fresh caught abalone (thanks, love!) and lots of gear cleanup. I'm sure we'll be getting more winter storms soon, and we'll enjoy the surf and excitement that comes with them. But it will be nice to hold the memory of a warm, flat weekend and the special places along the coast that are seldom visited.
More pictures of Russian Gulch HERE. Navarro to Elk HERE.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Like all paddling gear, paddles have competing characteristics. What makes it good at one aspect of paddling is exactly what makes it bad at another. So understanding what you want in a paddle is the first step in getting the correct paddle. I'm going to stick with the basics and the more common Euro paddles - I'll leave Greenland sticks and Wing paddles for another time.
[I'm 6' tall with the same arm span. I use a 220cm paddle for touring, anything where I'm going to cover lots of distance and use mostly forward strokes. On the river I use a 197cm paddle. When I play in a sea kayak I use a 205cm paddle - sea kayaks often sit you up higher and don't respond as quickly as a WW boat, so the extra length helps out with leverage. For surfing I have a 193cm paddler, allows for a faster turnover rate and quick acceleration. For polo I use a 200cm paddle - it balances acceleration with the ability to block the goal if necessary.]
[I use a moderately large WW blade - I'm fairly strong and paddle a lot. I use a medium blade for most sea kayaking and a smaller blade for surfing. I don't have a lot of weight to pull through the water (170 lbs.) so I don't need the largest blades out there, even though I have the strength to use them. I can accelerate quicker and feel better using a medium blade for most things. I like a larger blade on the river so I can get max power out of it on those few occasions where it's really necessary. But I don't need it when teaching or running class IV or lower.]
|left: low angle touring|
right: downturned whitewater
[I like downturned blades for whitewater and surf - I have fairly good technique with lots of verticality in my strokes. For long distance paddles I definitely am a low angle paddler so I like a longer, skinnier blade.]
[I use mostly carbon paddles. As I'm getting older (aren't we all) I find myself shifting away from the peak performance to find things that are easier on my body. I now use a wood shaft/carbon blade paddle for ocean play and will probably switch to that on the river soon. I use a light weight carbon paddle for touring and don't expect to change that - those ounces really add up over long distances.]
|Top to bottom:|
partial; full foam, no foam
|top: foam core; bottom: plain carbon|
[I always try to use bent shaft. I paddle a lot and I type even more, so my wrists/forearms get a lot of stress. Bent shafts make a noticeable difference for me. The only straight shaft paddles I use are in polo - just too much moving the hands around and doing other things with the paddle to make a bent shaft work.]
[I mostly use standard size paddle shafts even though my hands are on the small side. My newest paddle has a thicker shaft and I love it. One of my polo paddles has a thinner shaft and it always gave me more grip fatigue issues but I figured it was from the hard use or the straight shaft. I think I'll stick to thicker shafts from now on.]
There is more to talk about with paddles, more material/shape/swing-weight issues. But I've rambled enough. This should get you started. If you have any specific questions on paddle design please leave it in the comments. If you're curious, others out there will be as well.
Monday, October 28, 2013
|Looks hardcore but really just got left behind when the wave receded.|
First, this was in an advanced class - rough water rescues. The student in question had solid rescues - quick T rescues and scrambles in confused four foot swells bouncing off rocks. That puts him far ahead of many club members and many experienced paddlers. He also had a roll. Not completely reliable yet, but a solid roll that worked when he needed it. I know quite a few paddlers who venture out on the ocean in fairly rough conditions without knowing how to roll. Once again, my student was well ahead of the game.
Second, the club isn't really hardcore. I've never seen a club that is. That isn't to say that there aren't some very skilled paddlers in the club, and some that do gnarly paddling. But clubs always consist of a wide variety of paddlers. I would venture to say that the majority of any sea kayaking club are people who go no further than well protected ocean paddler. Many never experience swells. And that's great - there's so much beauty, fun, and variety to be had on flat water paddles. Any club that has open membership is going to end up with a range of members and that diversity means the club as a whole is not hardcore. Individual members may vary.
|Looks cold but the air temp was 50 deg. and we had dinner at a nice restaurant after.|
The third reason the statement was funny is that hardcore is a silly term. What's it mean? Do you have to paddle near rocks? Or in really big waves? Does it mean you launch before dawn? Or does paddling without any chocolate count as hardcore? Everyone's going to have a different opinion and all of them are valid so all of them are slightly meaningless. We can probably agree that circumnavigating Australia is hard core. Anything less becomes arguable.
In the end I highly encouraged my student to go ahead and join the club already. Like most paddling clubs, it's filled with friendly people of all levels who enjoy new members. Joining a club is a great way to meet people at your level and it's a great way to start paddling with people at a higher level - that's how you improve. Hardcore is not a prerequisite and isn't even a goal for most people. Clubs wouldn't survive if they didn't welcome newcomers and transfer knowledge.
|The wave is all foam and dies out in ten feet.|
While this 'hardcore' talk is natural, and everyone wants to excel in their sport, I think the mindset of many folks is a bit off. I've seen more and more people getting into rock gardening, more people getting into rough water play. I think that's great. But it's not necessarily hardcore. To be honest, it often isn't even advanced paddling. It's fun. Some of it requires good skills. But lots of it just requires solid rescue skills (which should learned early on in one's paddling career) and good judgment. I've seen plenty of people doing 'hardcore' stuff who have limited skills and experience, sometimes even limited judgment. I don't think that makes you hardcore.
Those of us who enjoy rock garden paddling, especially those with advanced skills and lots of experience, should be more aware of the perception we create. Without meaning to, we can easily disregard the other aspects of the sport in favor of our exciting stories. I know I talk about my adventures a lot - right here on the blog. But I also write up my flat water paddles. I also share the simple things I do. I celebrate all levels of paddling and appreciate those who don't want thrills but merely enjoyment. I know quite a few truly hardcore paddlers and they feel the same way. The 'hardest' paddlers out there tend talk up the fun and play down the danger.
|As easy as it looks.|
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
This was also the first year that I ended up teaching what I was assigned. There were the usual changes - students switching classes, class offerings changing to suit the conditions, instructors moving around to cover things - but I somehow escaped all that. It was nice to be able to follow through on my game plan for once.
Rob Yates. With the smallest swells of the weekend, we were able to get right into the surf zone and have the students practice the skills in the environment where they'll need them. Rob had folks working without paddles and the instructors took turns standing chest deep in the cold water while the students practiced going in and out and doing some side surfing. Everyone was nervous at first but by the end they felt almost more comfortable bracing without a paddle than with it. Lots of smiles all around.
I enjoy teaching at these symposiums but another reason I love to go is to catch up with friends. It was great to see my Pacific Northwest friends like Paul Kuthe, Matt Nelson, Shawna and Leon, and others. I even got to catch up with some of my California friends who are a little farther away now that I live in Fort Bragg. It even seemed like I needed to catch up with my neighbors Jeff and Cate since they've been working so much lately we haven't had time to go out and play. It all went by too quickly but I know we'll do it again next year (Oct 10-12, 2014). In the meantime, it's time to start thinking about the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium in January.