Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Paddling vs. Kayaker

There's a difference between someone who paddles and a kayaker. Someone who paddles rents a boat and goes out on the lake for a couple hours for fun. They buy a boat at Costco to take out when the grandkids visit. They use 'oars' to slowly float down the river. A kayaker is someone who is enthusiastic and dedicated to the sport.
Don't get me wrong - people who paddle are great. I love to see the family taking a canoe out for a day of fun; the vacationers trying out a pedal drive boat for a couple hours; even some kids riding rec boats in through the small surf on a nice sandy beach. But I'm in the business of creating kayakers. When I go paddling that's who I want to paddle with. I want to sit around the campfire and talk paddling with those who want to understand what it means to kayak. Kayakers are a separate group from the general population and we share a connection that you don't get from just going out for a paddle now and then.

So what exactly makes someone a kayaker? That can be hard to define but the other night I was working with some ladies on sea kayak rescues and was struck by the thought that rescue practice is a defining activity. Real kayakers, whether flat water or ocean, learn and practice their rescues. That shows an understanding and commitment to the sport. Without rescue skills you are either confined to benign environments or you are a risk to yourself and others. You don't have to know how to roll, you don't have to be able to do a paddle-float rescue in under 30 seconds. You just have to be aware enough to know that you need to learn some way to get back in your boat and you need to try to get better at doing so.

On the river it's a little different. Whitewater has a convenient rating system. But you don't need to paddle class III (or IV or V) to be a kayaker. And again you don't need to have any specific rescue skill (rolls are good but I don't think they define you). For me, what makes you a kayaker on the river is the ability to lead a rapid. To be out in front and find your own way down, whether an easy class II or challenging class IV. You don't have to lead every rapid - we all follow people at times. But to take the personal responsibility to scout and rapid and find your own line is what kayaking is about. Those who can only follow others down the river are really just out for a paddle.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Hole story

The latest issue of Rapid (click the link for the FREE online version) magazine has an article of mine on how to escape from holes. It's a short, 5 point summary of some methods to get out of a sticky hole. My original article was much longer but it didn't fit the magazine's format. At first the idea of cutting my article down so much seemed a little daunting and hard to take. But after seeing the final product I think the editor was on to something - it comes across well and I think it's just the right amount of information. But that being said, I still want to share the original article in all its unnecessary length and with a couple awesome illustrations by my friend Alex Horangic.

The Hole Story
Tips for getting out of those sticky situations
By Bryant Burkhardt
In whitewater kayaking you’re taught right at the start to avoid holes.  “Just go around them”.  Or if you can’t miss them, “just hit them head on and paddle through.  If they flip you you’ll flush out.”
 And that works for beginners - most of the time.  But eventually you’re going to hit that big monster of a hole that you should have avoided, you won’t have time to square up to it and once it flips you you won’t flush out.  To prepare for this eventuality you need to know some strategies to get yourself out.
Quick review:  a hole is a hydraulic feature where the water on the surface is re-circulating upstream.  It’s the re-circulating surface level water that pushes you and your boat upstream, essentially holding you in the hole.  But underneath the upstream current the deeper water flows downstream – in large holes that downstream flow may be quite a ways below the surface. 
Drawing by Alex Horangic
OK, you’re in a hole
Here’s the situation:  you hit a hole, flip and stick.  What do you do now? The first thing to do when stuck in a hole is to keep your wits about you - and stay in your boat.  Swimming is an option but a safer and generally smarter strategy is to first try to get out of the hole while staying in the boat.  The ability to think clearly and use specific techniques to escape the hole often makes the difference between a short surf and an epic swim.  Begin your exit strategy by tucking tight with your paddle in a set up position for the roll – this will protect your shoulders.  That re-circulating water we talked about earlier can be your friend – it’s circular, meaning that it will actually help roll your kayak back up if you go with the flow of the water.  Don’t just throw out a roll attempt – work slowly and feel the direction the water wants to roll you and go with it using a small paddle motion and hip flick.  This motion should bring you up sideways in the hole leading to a side surf.  To stay upright in this side surf make sure you lean downstream as much as possible to keep the water that is pouring into the hole from catching you and flipping you again (and again and again – something referred to as window-shading).

Surf it sideways
From the side surf you can make your first and safest attempt at getting out by paddling or ‘surfing’ your kayak to the side of the hole and escaping.  Holes are generally weakest on the side so if you can make your way over there you might just wash out.  Use your brace (high or low depending on what you’re most comfortable with and what the environment is like) to move yourself forward or backward to get to the side.  Make sure to try both sides – if you can’t get out forwards don’t forget to try going backwards.  If you can get yourself to the side of the hole don’t be afraid to reach for the water flowing by with your paddle – it will help to pull you out.  Side surfing takes some practice and the best place for that is the ocean surf.  If you don’t live near an ocean find a small hole that you know will release you and practice with that.  

Surf it straight up
If the side surf isn’t working – you can’t make it to the side or once there you can’t break out - then you have to be prepared to surf the hole straight up.  Point your nose upstream into the hole and drive forward.  This will take you into the current of water that pours into the hole and hopefully that water will drive you and your boat down deep and take you under the hole with the downstream current.  Yes, this action will likely flip you - so get a big breath and hold it before you dive in.

Rodeo away
If you’ve tried to surf you way into the heart of the hole and it didn’t spit you out then you are most likely going to begin a rodeo session whether you like it or not.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Try to ‘throw down’: get the ends of your boat into the current as much as you can, potentially getting your boat into a vertical position.  Often a vertical boat (especially a creek boat) will be sticking down into the water far enough to catch that downstream current.  Many a boater has done a tail stand going through a hole and washed out the bottom still vertical.  By rodeoing the hole the same motion can work to get you out after you’ve gotten stuck.

Go deep
This approach is generally a last resort since it puts your shoulders under strain.  Since we know that the water underneath the hole is going downstream we can go down there and grab it.  The first step is to flip upside down.  Again, take that big breath before if you can.  Once upside down start in a safe tucked position and slowly reach a paddle blade over your head (this means reaching towards the bottom of the river).  Try to keep your elbows in as close to your body as possible but for really big holes you may have to extend your arms quite a ways.  Once the downstream water grabs your blade you need to hang on and let it pull you and your boat downstream and out of the hole.
Drawing by Alex Horangic

Getting wet
Sometimes you just can’t reach that downstream water while you are in the boat.  That boat, after all, is just a huge plastic balloon full of air that floats on the surface.  So one final trick is to let the air out – go ahead of pull your skirt.  The boat will flood and sink below the surface – if you manage to stay in the boat you can catch the downstream current and ride it out.  Most boats have enough flotation to bring you back up to the surface once past the hole and you will then have the fun task of paddling a kayak full of water to the shore.  Not easy or graceful but it helps keep you with your gear.  Another advantage to this technique is that it is also the first step in the final option:

During all these techniques you will be flipping and spinning and underwater at times.  While it is generally good to stay in your boat sometimes it makes sense to wet exit while you still have some air in your lungs.  The exact timing of when you decide to swim is a judgment call but the more you can mentally focus and remain calm the better your decisions will be.  If you do exit your boat and find yourself still in the hole you will need to swim towards the downstream current once again.  Most of the same techniques you tried in your boat can be tried without a boat.  As you get pushed back upstream into the falling water tuck yourself into a ball and go as deep as you can and let that water carry you under and out the hole.

With all these techniques you will most likely come out of the hole upside down.  Don’t forget to roll up.  I’ve seen many folks fight a hole and make it out but then pull their skirt because they weren’t aware they had escaped.  It all comes back to keeping your wits about you.  One of the best ways to work on your mental control is to do some playboating – working on your physical control.  Practice in friendly situations so you will be prepared for the less friendly ones.  Remember:  knowing is half the battle.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Back in the saddle

I officially retired from playing kayak polo after the world championships back in '06. Since then I have played occasionally - random tournaments or visits back down to LA where my old club still plays. But those occasions have been getting less frequent and I honestly don't remember the last time I played hard polo with a group of experienced players. But yesterday the guys in the San Francisco club were having a one-day training camp to get ready for Nationals next month. They needed some extra bodies to scrimmage against and they asked me to drive down for the day to play with them. While not my club, there is no other club that I have spent more time with in the polo world - from playing against them for years in local comps or playing with most of them on the national team. So I rinsed the cobwebs out of my boat, patched up one of my broken paddles and headed out for a long day of polo in the sun.

The good news is that I can still play. I wasn't as sharp as I used to be - my aim was a little off, my reactions a little slow - but I felt like I kept up with the guys just fine. The not so good news is that fitness is a very specific thing. I've mostly been paddling rivers lately, with the one exception being my Lost Coast trip, and I've been biking and working out. So I feel quite strong. But polo is a different beast - it involves lots of quick sprints, constant maneuvering and fighting hard for position. During the warm up I hurt my elbow blocking a shot on goal - just a super stiff paddle transferring the shock of impact to my joint. Before long my forearms were pumped from gripping the paddle so hard (a light, easy grip doesn't work in this sport). By the end of the day most of my body was sore and I barely stayed awake for the lat night drive home.

But the day was really fun. I do miss the camaraderie of playing on a team. With the SF guys it's like an old family out there - everyone knows each other a little too well; there's lots of jokes at each others' expense and there's some bickering and complaining, but mostly we just get on with it. Kayaking is largely an indiviualistic sport even if you don't normally do it alone. But when you're part of a team it completely changes the dynamic of you and your boat. It's something more paddlers should experience.

No pictures or video from the day - we didn't have any extra bodies to shoot it. But here's a clip the Nationals a couple years back for those who don't know what the heck I'm talking about:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mind over matters

A couple of days ago I got the news that a paddler I know died on Upper Cherry Creek. His name was Allen Satcher and I only got to paddle with him a few times. Like most paddlers he was very open and friendly on the river; he also seemed to be a very thoughtful person who willfully chose to be a positive force beyond the paddling world. He kept inviting me to go paddling even though my work schedule and personal lack of motivation to paddle hard stuff made me turn him down. He was out there paddling the rivers that I should have been paddling this season, with Upper Cherry being the number one run on my list for the past several years. I'm confident that if I had expressed interest in running it this year Allen would have been the first to invite me along. But mentally and physically I was not ready for the trip and didn't even try to go.

Paddling class V whitewater is a tricky thing and many folks have written about why we do it and how we accept the risk and what it means for us. Personally I don't have any deep thoughts or profound wisdom at the moment, maybe that will come later. I just see the pain left behind by the early loss of a great person. I've been taking a break from paddling class V since my own beat down earlier this summer. That break will definitely continue until my head is in a space where I really want to get back out there. I'm sure that time will come but until then I will paddle easier waters, spend time with my friends and focus on life off the water. Focus on the things that truly matter to me.

Here is a short clip of Allen (green boat/helmet) from our run down Slab Creek earlier this summer. He will be missed.