Thursday, April 10, 2014

Instructor Certification

First, I wanted to mention that I finally got around to editing and uploading a video from last Fall. It's from a calm day on the Mendocino Coast, from Navarro to Elk, and it's at the bottom of this write up.

I've been rather busy lately with thing other than paddling for the fun of it. But that doesn't mean I haven't been paddling or that my work hasn't been fun. I've taught several ACA Instructor Development/Certification courses across the state. It was interesting to see the differences and the similarities.

I did a Level 2 Certification Workshop in Redding. We got lucky with the weather but the water on Whiskeytown was quite chilly. Luckily we had a heated pool reserved for the rescues and it paid off with lots of time in the water and smiling faces all around. It was also great to meet a new group of folks. Headwaters Adventure Company put together a great crew and they're just getting better.

Then I did a couple of courses on the coast for California Canoe & Kayak. One was down in Half Moon Bay and the other up on Tomales. Slightly different venues that each worked out in its own way. The variety in the coast over a relatively small area is awesome.

But I'm really looking forward to the upcoming course in May through Liquid Fusion Kayaking. The Mendocino Coast really can't be rivaled and it's all within half an hour of my home. These courses normally entail working about fifteen hour days, so being able to head home and sleep in my own bed will be an incredible luxury. There's a few spots left so if you're interested in a Level 4 Certification Workshop you should definitely check it out.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jackson Kayak Karma RG

I don't often do reviews of gear on my blog. There are a few exceptions, sometimes because something new and exciting came across my path, but mostly I talk about gear when it lets me talk about something more general. I don't really feel that one person's opinion of what works for them is particularly enlightening to the consumer. It also gets tricky when you work in the business and half your paddling buddies are sponsored by someone (or work full time for a company/shop). I try to keep the focus on kayaking and not what's used to do it.


Recently I've had the chance to try out a prototype and then the production version of a new boat. It's the Jackson Kayak Karma RG. To me, the interesting thing is not this boat in particular but what it represents. The easiest way to talk about that is to talk about the boat itself, so that's what I'll do.

The Karma RG is meant to be a rock gardening boat. It's based on the Karma Unlimited which was built as a class V whitewater racing boat. The RG version (stand for Rock Garden or River Guide) adds a stern bulkhead/hatch, a retractable skeg, and perimeter deck lines. The mold (and thus basic shape of the boat) is the same for each version.

The idea of using whitewater boats to play in the ocean has been around for quite a while - probably since whitewater boats first were designed by taking sea kayaks to the river. If you combine water and rocks you get the same basic outcome - whitewater. Doesn't matter if there's salt involved or not. So it makes sense that a boat that performs well in one place performs well in the other. Let's look at what makes a good rock garden boat.

Maneuverability. You need to be able to dodge those rocks. This means a boat that handles well: turns quickly, accelerates fast, stops on a dime. What does it take to have that control? Rocker, good secondary stability, not too much width, solid outfitting. That's what creek boats have. The rocker allows for quick turns but it also allows the boat to ride up and over rocks. It allows a boat to boof. The flared and raised sidewall on the Karma also keeps the edge out of the water unless you lean to engage it. This makes it remarkably stable when you need to edge it to turn. Acceleration comes from a planing hull that rises over the water on a wave. And having solid thigh braces, adjustable hip pads, and a easily adaptable foot-brace pillar system makes getting a secure fit easy.

All these things describe the regular Karma (which I reviewed here). But what makes a rock garden boat different? Should it be different?

One of the main differences between the river and the ocean is where you start. On the river, you start on the river and just keep going. You have current to move you towards your destination. On the ocean, the play spots can be a long ways from your access point. You might even have to launch through the surf to get out where you want to go. You do a lot more flat water paddling on the ocean. That's where a skeg comes in handy.

A skeg is a little fin that sticks out from the bottom of the boat. It helps the boat go straight. The problem with creating a maneuverable boat with lots of rocker is that it likes to turn. Paddling a whitewater kayak in a straight line over flat water takes some effort. The skeg reduces the amount of effort required, allowing you to save your energy for the fun stuff. Having a retractable skeg allows you to pull it up out of the way when you do start playing. The best of both worlds.

Another thing that helps with all that flat water paddling is length. Length equals speed. It helps you race on the river, but it helps you get through the surf on the ocean. It also helps you catch less steep waves - the kind you commonly find when playing around rocks on the sea. A normal creek boat is going to be under nine feet long, a rock garden boat will be closer to twelve.

The hatch that's on the Karma RG is also not just about convenience. If the event of an out of boat experience on the ocean, you can't always just swim to shore and drain your boat before climbing in. Any sea kayaker will tell you the quickest rescue (after the roll, of course) is the T rescue. In order for it to work, you need a bulkhead behind the seat that allows the water to drain out when your buddy picks up the front. That makes a ocean worthy boat that is much safer for users at all levels.

The deck rigging is also a convenience/safety twofer. Sure, it's nice to be able to stick some snacks or a chart of the area under the bungies. But in the out of boat experience you also need to be able to hold onto your boat. And so does your rescuer. The Karma RG comes with solid deck lines with piping that make it easy to grab. It's also easy to rig up more lines in back if you want them (I suggest you do). It's these little changes and details that turn a whitewater boat into an ocean going vessel that not only performs well but is designed for the environment.

That's what makes the Karma RG a rock garden boat. But what do I think of it, you ask? I like it. The prototype was too heavy - an unfortunate necessity when prototyping a plastic boat. The production version is much lighter and more responsive. I think it shines when playing around the rocks - catching waves on the corner, running pourovers, charging through tunnels. In pure surf is has great speed and the edges allow for some control, but it still has quite a bit of volume and won't handle like a surfing boat will (check out the Jive to see what I mean). I really like the rigging on the production model, but the hatch leaves a little to be desired in the security department. It would be easy enough to add a strap holding the cover down, and you probably want that if you're going to be playing hard. For most folks it won't be an issue.

I also like the idea of taking the RG on the river, using it as a River Guide boat. I could definitely teach whitewater classes in it since it has the same features, but the speed would help with attainments to get back up to students and the hatch would be great for storing lots of stuff with easy access. It would also make a great boat for multi-day trips, with way more room than a typical whitewater kayak. Bringing the luxury of sea kayak camping to something like a self-support Grand Canyon trip would be heaven.

There area couple other similar boats out there: the Pyranha Fusion, Liquid Logix Remix XP and Stinger, even the Dagger Green Boat. Each started as whitewater boats that were adapted to something else. What stands out most about the Karma RG is that they outfitted it expressly for rock gardening. It's not just a boat you can make do what you want, it's actually designed for it. Let's hope that's a trend that continues.

Here's a video of the brand new production version of the Jackson Kayak Karma RG being put through it's paces on the Mendocino Coast. Sean Morley, legendary sea kayaker and now Jackson Sales Manager, led the charge. Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion Kayaking also lent their expertise. You'll get a taste of what this boat is capable of in the right hands.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Project: A Paddler's Journey

Those who know me know that outside of kayaking my passion is writing. I've been working on a couple of novels for the past few years and I'm in the process of shopping them around for publication. (I write fiction under the name Blair B. Burke). I've long had the idea to combine my two passions and write a book that involves kayaking, but there are several reasons why I've hesitated.

First, there isn't much of a market. Kayaking is a small world, relatively. It's also a very specific world. It's hard to find something that appeals to kayakers and to the general public. So making much money off a kayaking book is unlikely.

I'm not famous. Fame helps with making money. It gets publishers interested in you and gives you a podium from which to announce your book for sale. While I am quite happy that there are people out there who read this blog, and plenty of them by my reckoning, I don't really have a large reach when you look at the large scale necessary to make print runs profitable.

I'm not that special. OK, my mom would argue differently. But my story is not unique. I haven't suffered a life-threatening injury. Kayaking hasn't saved me from a life on the streets. I didn't emigrate from Mozambique and become a professional kayaker. I'm a middle class white kid who grew up in Minnesota and learned to kayak in California. I haven't done any record setting trips and I don't paddle the gnar - I've never had much interest in doing either.

Writing a book is hard. It's not that I'm afraid of the work - I've done it three times now and I enjoy it immensely. But to do it well takes time and effort. I need to spend those commodities on things that may have a return on the investment. Basically, I need to make money like everyone else.

But right now I'm in between other projects. One novel is out on submission. I'm waiting until it sells to begin the sequel. Another novel is out with test readers to provide feedback for editing. Again, it's a waiting game on that. So I've decided to begin writing a kayaking book.

One of my recent journeys
Since I don't expect to make money I get to write the book I want, without worrying about market considerations. So I'm going to tell my story. I want to write about my journey from a newbie kayaker in a sit on top off the coast of Southern California to becoming a professional instructor and class V whitewater kayaker. I plan to share the interesting stories that always come up when a group of paddlers are sitting around the campfire. Epic trips like the Rubicon and Channel Islands, scary stories like my swim on Royal Flush on the Kern. Fun times like winning the Kayak Polo National Championships.

While I've written up a lot of these trips for this blog, I aim to include a little more. What I want to share is not just the fun kayaking stories that we all like to tell. I want to share what the experiences really meant to me, what I've learned from them. The last fifteen years of my life has centered around kayaking and it's had a profound impact on who I am. Again, that's not unique. I'm actually counting on the fact that other people have had a similar experience in this sport. Maybe their journey was different than mine, but kayaking has taken a lot of people to places they never thought they'd go. I want to share my trip with the thought that others will recognize their own in the themes it contains.

So over the next few months I'll be sharing my progress. I'll post some excerpts as the stories develop. At the end of it all, I'll be putting out a book in both electronic and print formats. Hopefully you'll want to check it out. If not, I'll keep blogging anyway.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Teaching Philosophy

I just got back from teaching at the Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium. It was a blast as always. Catching up with old friends, seeing past students, making new friends, even meeting Facebook friends in person for the first time. The spirit at these events is awesome and the diversity of folks makes for great discussions. It's also interesting to get to work with coaches from all over the country and the world and see how different people do things differently.

I have noticed a bit of a trend in some of the instruction and it's something that I've been thinking about for a while. A little moment during one of my classes helped crystallize my thoughts, so I thought I would share them.

For me, teaching is about the students. It's about helping them achieve their goals in the best way possible. I don't think that's very controversial; all the great teachers I've worked with strive to find the way that works best for the students. The problem is that each student is different and their goals are different. Heck, most students don't even realize what they need to learn to reach their goals. So how do you teach to a variety of students who learn in a variety of ways and end up reaching different end results?

The trend I've noticed is one of experiential education. The idea that students learn best when they discover the concept on their own. Instead of telling them what to do, you tell them what to try and let them figure out the lesson. The instructor guides this discovery by focusing the tasks or asking questions to make the student aware of what to focus on. It's a great way to learn many things, and I definitely believe that students will retain what they learn this way more than any other teaching style. But I don't believe it's the only way to learn - or teach.

During a lunch break in one of my classes, a student remarked that they thought it was great that they had learned so much even though the instructor never demonstrated anything. The instructor responded, "That's what's wrong with the American Canoe Association. They're all about demonstration." Now, I'm an ACA Instructor Trainer. I train others on how to teach in the ACA style. I politely disagreed with the comment but didn't get into a discussion that would have been pointless and distracting to the students. But I feel the statement is wrong on many levels.

First, the ACA is not all about demonstration. It's one of the tools we use to teach. I believe it's a particularly useful and powerful tool, but it's one among many. The ACA (and myself and all the ACA instructors I know) also use guided discovery. Sometimes you use lecture, sometimes you use reciprocal learning. To dismiss the ACA because it believes instructors should have the ability to properly demonstrate the techniques and concepts that they teach seems downright silly to me.

After lunch I watched that very same instructor struggle when trying to explain a specific technique point to a student who was having trouble. The words weren't getting through. So the instructor did a quick demonstration of what he was describing and the student immediately understood. And that's the thing about discovery - it can take a while. It can also be frustrating and even lead to the wrong result. Sometimes it's better to save the student the pain and suffering and give them the answer.

It's such a situational thing. We were working with experienced paddlers on the finer aspects of technique. They already have a wealth of experience to draw from. Give them a little idea and they're capable of playing with it and expanding it. But for beginners? The ones with no context? They need much more guidance, and demonstration is a crucial part of that. So is explanation. So are goal-oriented tasks. The principle thought behind ACA style is to try to hit students with multiple approaches so that each one can grasp the idea in the way that works best for them. Then you can also focus in on an individual and their learning style and give them specific feedback in the manner that works best.

One of the problems I have with this open-ended discovery approach is that it's heavy on the conceptual and light on the practical. I've heard several instructors argue that the important thing is not what they learn that day in class, but what they end up knowing as they continue to develop their skills in the future. That's all well and good if students keep trying to learn. My experience and observation of hundreds of students over the past decade is that most kayakers go kayaking to have fun. Relatively few work to learn new things outside of a formal classroom environment. I see students at symposiums all the time who've been paddling for years, attending several symposiums, are taking advanced classes, but have very basic technique deficiencies that hold them back.

I do try to take a long term approach. I want ultimate success for my students, not just a short term fix that makes them feel good that day. It's why I teach a sweep roll that takes time to get right. It's why I focus on the basics even when they think they're ready for the advanced stuff. It's why I focus on proper technique for safety and self-sufficiency. But I also want to make sure students leave the class with something tangible and solid that they can point to and say: I'm doing this better now. Because I know there's a very good chance they're not going to do drills or put in the time to work on exercises on their own. It's a reality that I have to deal with.

I'm not trying to say that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. The people I'm talking about are highly successful coaches who have earned a lot of respect through making a lot of students happy. Seeing different styles has made me think more about what I do. I've questioned what I've been taught and I feel I've changed and developed my own style and techniques based on what I've seen work and what doesn't. Over the years I've shifted to saying (and doing) less and letting students learn more on their own - with my guidance. But I do feel that at some point there needs to be the concrete. It's not all questions and trying things out. At some point, on some topics, you need to give the details and show them what their goal should be. That's how I teach. I'll continue to learn from others and try new things, but right now I feel pretty good about how things work for me - judged by my students' success.

I'd love to hear from others out there on their teaching philosophies. Or what's worked best for you as a student. Fill up the comments and let the discussion commence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kayak Beginner Naivete

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.

If we lack the knowledge to make good decisions, the wisest course of action is to rely on someone who has the information. This is when people take an introductory class. They learn from a (hopefully) knowledgeable instructor. Or maybe they just go to their local kayak shop and ask questions about what to buy and where to paddle. Even a friend who's been kayaking for several years is a possible source of information. While not every source will be the best, the truth is that in the sport of kayaking most people are genuinely helpful and offer good advice. It's one of the great parts of the sport.

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.

Let me give some specific examples of how this takes place and how we can mitigate it. Let's imagine we want to go paddling in San Francisco Bay. We've kayaked in Richardson Bay several times where the current is minimal. It's often sunny and warm. Maybe we even paddled over to Angel Island one time on a clear day without a problem. That makes us think we can do it again. So we set out on a bright summer day with all the confidence in the world. We get to the island and have lunch; it's so warm we take a nap on the beach. Eventually we decide to start back. But the tide is ebbing and there's a 3 knot current between us and where we launched. The afternoon winds have kicked up to a steady 25 knots. The water is rough and choppy and sailboats are flying in both directions. We start across and are quickly pulled into the roughest patch. Trying to avoid getting run over we turn sideways to the wave and our leaky sprayskirt quickly lets in lots of water. The boat becomes unstable and we end up in the 52 deg. water. The wind pushes the boat away from us faster than we can swim. If someone doesn't come along to help, we'll float all the way under the Golden Gate Bridge and towards the Farallon (where they do Great White Shark research). Not a good 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.

But they don't really realize that they're at the tail end of the release. They're fine as they float down the easy start, but they have a swim when they enter the Gorge proper. No problem, they still recover the boat, it just takes a while. But now they're behind the bubble of water and everything's getting shallower. The rapids are different. There are more swims at Satans and boats go further downstream. There are no rafts to help out and even the photographers have gone home for the day. By the time everyone's sorted out it's starting to get dark. There are still more class III rapids to go and everyone is cold and hungry. Most of the people decide to walk the hard rapids but that slows them down more. The best paddler in the group (who hasn't swam yet) decides it will be faster to just run it. When he flips and misses his roll because he's in shallow water there's no one around to help. His boat is gone as he crawls to shore. It's cold now. He's on the other side of the river, the one without the trail. What to do?

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.

For those of us that are experienced, how we share information is also important. Don't try to scare people, don't try to tell them what to do. Focus on informing them of the risks. Share some stories that they can relate to, let them know that you were once less skilled and made mistakes. Let them know that it's okay to screw up when the consequences are small but not when they are life threatening. Putting the situation in context will allow them to make the judgment for themselves but with the strength of your experience. We are each ultimately responsible for ourselves, and that's another great thing about this sport.

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!