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!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Taking advantage of conditions

The Mendocino coast is known for its dynamic water. Miles of rock gardens filled with pourovers and slots, surf breaks around every corner, and lots of large swell to fill it all up. But every once in a while the swells go away. We're left with nearly flat ocean conditions. And when it's also sunny and calm, you need to take advantage of it.

This past weekend we had short period swells under three feet. That translated to less than a foot of surf in on some of the beaches. So it was time to explore places you can't normally get to, and time for even the timid to start playing around the rocks.

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.

We still found some nice pourovers and slots. The occasional bigger set would come through and give everyone a little ride and excitement, but it was always gentle and forgiving. I was even able to climb out on the rocks to get some closeup shots.We didn't go very far, but it was a lot of fun.

The next day we went further south. We left the short boats and took our sea kayaks to Navarro. The beach  is steep and dumpy, but with one foot waves it was an easy launch. After Cate dropped some crab pots we headed down towards the town of Elk, playing in every nook and cranny along the way.

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. And finally, after some delay, here's the video of the trip from Navarro to Elk:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Kayak Paddle Review - non specific

My gear reviews tend to get a lot of hits. That makes sense - people like to know what others think of specific gear. But the truth is, most people don't try to understand enough about gear in general. Instead of wondering if the Werner Shogun is the best paddle ever, you would be better off understanding how the different paddle attributes relate to what you paddle, how you paddle, and your goals as a paddler. So in that light, I want to talk about paddles in general (with some specific examples) so that people can make their own decisions instead of worrying so much about what other people think.

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.

Let's start with size since everyone know's that's what really matters :). Paddles come in different lengths. In general, taller people will want longer paddles. But ideal size depends a lot on technique and type of paddling. For dynamic paddling, whether in the ocean or on the river, most people use shorter paddles. Shorter paddles work better with more vertical strokes (which give more power but also use more energy). Longer paddles give more leverage and work better with lower angle technique. Shorter paddles give quicker acceleration while longer paddles often work better for maintaining speed. Bigger is not always better.

[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.]

The other main size consideration is the blade size. I think most people use blades that are too large. A large blade really anchors in the water and it often feels like you get a good grip. But unless you have a lot of strength, or a lot of weight you need to push, that large blade is going to be much harder to pull on. It will accelerate slower and strain your body more. Don't judge a blade on how a few strokes feel - paddle with it for a day and see how your body feels at the end. Again, bigger not always better.

[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
There's also the blade shape to consider. Blade shape should match your paddling style and technique. The simplest way to break it down is that long and skinny blades work for low angle paddling, while shorter, fatter blades work for high angle styles. There has been a big trend for sea kayakers to use high angles paddles, especially those paddling more dynamic water. But the truth is that most of those people, most of the time, are still using a low angle paddling technique. Some paddles work okay for multiple angles, some are more specific in where they work. In whitewater it's almost all high angle designs, with the added option of downturned blades. Downturned blades come from the slalom world and work well for folks with good technique and very high angle strokes. To each their own.

[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.]

Paddles also come in different materials and different weights. The most important thing to understand is that lighter paddles are not as strong as heavier ones. You'd think that would be obvious, but people who snap ultra lightweight sea kayak paddles when playing among the rocks always seem so surprised. There's a reason that whitewater paddles weigh 50% more than sea kayak paddles in spite of being smaller. Carbon does give you a lighter weight for the same strength when compared to fiberglass, but it's also stiffer. A stiffer paddle can be more responsive but it also puts more stress on your joints. Wood is generally heavier than composites, but it also has more flex, more buoyancy in the water, and feels warmer in cold weather. Plastics are heavy and flexible, often to a degree that really impedes their performance. But plastic can be very durable and inexpensive, characteristics of importance to some folks. Lighter isn't always better.

[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
Another material question is foam core blades. Foam cores give paddle blades more buoyancy and that results in a lighter swing weight (what you feel while paddling). They can also help (minimally) when rolling or bracing in aerated water. But the thicker blade does have a different feel in the water - I've found that they don't 'grip' as well until they're fully submerged. That's not an issue if you have good technique and are taking purposeful strokes, but that's not always the case in real dynamic environments. The other thing to be aware of is that foam cores are not quite as tough as solid composites - they can be punctured and while they are stiff they lose a little strength. Pick your poison.

top: foam core; bottom: plain carbon
[I now use a full foam core blade on whitewater and it took some getting used to. I appreciate the extra buoyancy and can still get what I need out of it but I have to be a little more careful to use good technique and fully engage the blade. For ocean play I use a partial foam core that has a thinner edge like a traditional paddle. I really like the combination of a little extra buoyancy with a nice sharp bite on the edge. I think foam core is the way to go for touring but the worries over durability have kept me away from them since I tend to to end up using my gear hard no matter what it's purpose.]

Between the blades lies the shaft. Lets talk about straight vs. bent. The idea behind bent shaft paddles is to put your wrists in a more neutral position. That's undoubtedly a good thing. If you have wrist or forearm problems, the bent shaft can reduce strain and ease carpal tunnel syndromes. But some people don't need it. A straight shaft is lighter and stronger (and cheaper). The main thing to know is that switching from one to the other will take some adjustment time. Give yourself several paddles to decide what works best. And realize that not all bent shafts are the same - some just feel better than others. Test 'em out to find your fit.

[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.]

Finally, lets talk thickness. My thoughts have evolved on this. Standard thought is that smaller hands should use a thinner shaft - less strain on the hand. But I had an interesting discussion with a paddle designer who said the research says there is less muscle strain when hands grip an object that fills up the hand compared to smaller diameters. After trying his paddle for a couple days (it being thicker than what I'm use to) I had to agree. I was surprised, but I actually felt less fatigue. This is another instance where first impressions often fail - the larger paddle always feels a little awkward when I first grab it, but after a few minutes of use I forget about it and at the end of the day my hands feel better. Don't be afraid of the large.

[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

Hardcore sea kayaking - or not

Looks hardcore but really just got left behind when the wave receded.
I had a student recently who said that he was interested in joining the local paddling club but he wasn't ready. He said they were hardcore. I held back my laughter. But it was funny on many levels.

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.
So why are so many people intimidated by clubs? My student is not the first to express this opinion. It often comes from the fact that the most experienced members of a club are often the most socially active on forums/message boards/email lists. Everyone likes to talk about their biggest and baddest adventures. Or talk about other people's big, bad adventures. It skews the chatter away from being a true representative of the club and the sport in general. And I think it's getting worse.

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.
So if you want to be hardcore, that's okay. But the next time you post to your club or talk to a beginner, let them know that's it's also okay to not be hardcore. In fact, maybe even go out of your way celebrate easier paddling. Sea kayaking means many different things to different people. What's important is that people are having fun, doing it safely, and no one is left out. Hardcore or not.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lumpy Waters 2013

Once again, the Lumpy Waters Sea Kayak Symposium put on by Alder Creek was an incredible event and tons of fun. You never quite know what you're going to get for weather in mid October on the Oregon coast, but this year was better than anyone could have imagined. Last year had rain, wind, big swell, and cold temperatures (read about it HERE). This year was sunny and warm, mostly light breezes and small swells. Perfect teaching conditions.

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.

On Friday I taught an edging and bracing class with 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.

On Saturday I taught a rescue class and then an intro surf zone class. We didn't really have much rough water for the rescues but the plentiful sunshine allowed for lots of in water practice and people came away with some new ideas and a couple a-ha moments. The surf zone was great with more swimming and playing out of the boats to get used to the waves. The students got in their boats while once again the instructors stayed in the water to assist. Everyone did a great job at holding position and going in and out of the surf. Everyone also had a good wipeout while trying to surf - good to learn how to handle that early on since crashing is a big part of surfing.

On Sunday I got to stay in my boat for an Intro to Rock Garden Safety class. Some students were tuckered out from the previous two days and called it a weekend early, so we ended up with almost as many instructors as students and divided up into two groups. We paddled out of the Salmon River mouth to play at Cascade Head - truly one of the most beautiful spots on a very beautiful coast. We had to get through some breaking waves on a sand bar and my pod made it fine. Several other classes did as well. But the other group of Intro students had the misfortune of hitting the biggest set of the day. A boat on boat collision led to some carnage and a number of swimmers. Everyone was okay and they regrouped on shore and decided to stay inside. My gang got to work around the arches and explore a deep cave before heading back in on a higher tide that created gentler surf. We stopped at the beach for a well deserved break before the flat paddle back to the launch.

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.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kayak Polo - U.S. National Championships

I used to play kayak polo rather seriously. In fact, it pretty much became the only paddling I did. That was back in 2006 when I was on the U.S. National Team and preparing for the World Championships. It was at those championships that I hurt my shoulder and after which I decided to retire. I also moved to a location that didn't have any kayak polo so giving up the game was a de facto necessity as much as a choice. But every once in a while I find a good reason to come out of retirement and play a little polo.

This year San Francisco hosted the National Championships for the first time. It's close enough to make it a long weekend trip without a lot of expense. I knew I was going to go but wasn't sure who I would end up playing with. I starting training (a little) and doing some boat repair (a lot). I wasn't sure what to expect.

The weekend started on Friday with a one day 'Open' tournament. The Championship is for U.S. clubs and there are rules that govern who can play (have to be living in the U.S.) and how teams can be formed (you can't form an all-star team from different cities). That's as it should be, but it's a shame to waste a chance to play high level polo when the best players in the country are all going to be in the same place. Not to mention some of the best players from Canada who come down looking for some good competition. So the Open division is designed to allow any teams to enter. This year there were four teams: the U.S. National team; a Canadian all-star team; a New York squad who all just flew out a day early for some extra California sun; and a mixed team of former and current U.S. Squad members (that would include me).

My Open team had some experience going for it and we also had some youth on our side. But we didn't have any subs and we had never played together. I hadn't even met one of the guys before we suited up. And we started against the Canadians who we all expected to be the top team. But it turned out that we won the game. Rather handily. Won the next one, too. We ended up winning the whole division by playing some great team polo. It was great to find a group that worked so well together without a lot of time or practice. No drama or fighting, no one hogging the spotlight or trying to be the big man. Just good, honest teamwork. It was one of the funnest days of polo I've had and the result was just the icing on the cake.

The next day was the start of the club championships and it was a completely different team and different competition. I would once again be representing the UCLA club that I had been a member of when it was first formed back in 2001. Even though I no longer lived anywhere close, without a local team I was allowed to play with my old club under the tournament rules. Many of my previous teammates were still around so we tried to put the band back together. We couldn't get all of the old guard but instead recruited some new blood. Always a good thing in the long run but it creates some doubts for the present. Can we gel in time? Are the newbies over their heads? Are the old timers just plain old? I really wasn't sure how it would go.

This time we started against New York who had some strong players but wasn't expected to be challenging for the title. We planned on keeping things simple and played conservatively as the new guys who hadn't played in the Open division got their legs under them (so to speak). We came out with a win and were feeling pretty good. It didn't last long. Our second game was against Austin, the two-time defending champs, and they thrashed us pretty good. Our lack of experience together and some fitness issues were evident. But the most important thing was that we stayed tight as a team. Everyone took responsibilities for their mistakes (we all made them) and everyone was supportive of each other as we got ready for our next game.

UCLA Men (l to r): Me, Ge, Danny, Patrick, Rob
The Canadians were next. The same team that had finished second in the Open division, but with the addition of another strong player. We just wanted to play a good game but didn't have any high expectations. But that teamwork vibe that brought us together after our loss now held us together during the game. Facing younger, stronger, more skilled players we worked together to hold them off and fought them to a tie. It would turn out to be the only game they didn't win in the tournament.

We had one more loss, then one more win and one more tie. At the end of the round robin play we were tied with Carolina for third - only the top three advanced and Carolina had the advantage over us in goal differential so they moved on while we were done. Once again, UCLA finished off the podium. But I have to say that I was very happy with the tournament. While the result in the Club division didn't match that of the Open, the fun was in the attempt. We played as a team, we played good polo, we did as well as could be expected against strong competition. It was the tightest Nationals I've been at and we were right in the mix. That's all you can ask for and it's enough for me.

Now that it's all over, I'm back to being a retired kayak polo player. My shoulder survived the weekend but it didn't enjoy it at all. My recent move has also put me even further from any club to play with. So I'll go back to the ocean and the rivers. But I'll keep the polo gear clean and ready for the next occasion that pulls me back in.

And congratulations to all the winners at the U.S. Kayak Polo National Championships:
Open: USA 1 (my team)
Club A: Austin Aquabats
Women: Unstoppable Unicorns (mostly California girls)
Club B: Bat Shot Crazy (I think from Texas)

If you have no idea what kayak polo is like, this is a little introductory video:

And here's some action from the 2009 U.S. National Championships:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kayak Review - Necky Jive

Aqua Jive in the foreground, yellow Pyranha Z.One in back
The Necky Jive isn't exactly a new kayak. It's been out of production for several years. In fact, Necky no longer makes whitewater kayaks at all. So why is this boat worth a review? Because it surfs. Really well.

Now that I'm back to living on the coast I plan to get in a lot more surfing. It's one of the things that really hooked me on kayaking when I started - surfing in a whitewater kayak. In fact, that was why I bought my first kayak. A Prijon Fly. It was pretty much the same thing as the Dagger RPM. A great design for its time but really not the best ocean surfing boat. My surfing buddy had a Jive and always was getting more and better rides. Over the years I've had the chance to paddle Jives on the ocean and the river. Recently I was lucky enough to pick up a used Jive in great shape and after one river session and one surf session it has reminded me why it's such a great surf boat. So what makes a good surfing boat, you ask? Let's look at the Jive and find out.

The Jive has good speed. It's fairly long (I paddle the 8'10" version, there's also an 8'3" version). It doesn't have that much rocker - the ends are fairly flat so it has a long water line. It's also noticeably more narrow than most modern whitewater boats. But that stuff matters on flat water, when you're trying to catch the wave. Once you're on a wave and gravity is doing the acceleration the Jive starts to plane. It has a very flat bottom that starts to skip on top of the surface. This allows it to reach speeds much faster than you could by just paddling. All boats can plane, but the wide, flat bottom of a boat like the Jive make it easier. So the Jive has good speed when catching waves and then great speed when it's on the wave. Speed is fun.

But speed isn't everything. You also want control. A nice hard edge allows you to dig into the water and turn on the wave. The Jive has a hard chine that allows it to steer with a little body lean. Performance surf kayaks will have a really shard rail that carves great turns - sometimes when you don't want it to. The Jive has a good balance of edges that dig in when you want but stay loose enough when the boat is flat (in the picture you can see the slight double chine that softens it up a bit). That's more helpful on a river where you get mixed currents, but it gives the Jive a little bit of forgiveness which can also be nice in the surf.

Another important characteristic for kayaks is the volume distribution. You want to have some volume, especially upfront, so that you don't get buried in the water. But not too much, especially in the stern, that you can't slice into the water when you need it. The Jive strikes a nice balance in both areas. Both ends are fairly thin and pointed but there's plenty of volume around your knees that help keep the bow from getting buried. This also helps it work well as a river runner, the volume giving it some stability in bigger/harder water.

Overall the Jive is a bit like a longboard. It's great speed allows you to catch smaller/less steep waves and have fun riding them. Even more, when things get really big and you want to scream down the line and get out of the tube before it collapses - that's when you want a Jive. (OK, you really would prefer a composite surf kayak at that point, but that's not what we're talking about here). On the medium waves it isn't as loose and fun as some of the newer boats - we also have a Pyranha Z.One in the quiver that is great for that - but the Jive still gives you the thrill of speed.

On the river things have evolved. Modern kayaks are designed for doing tricks on waves more than surfing them. Boats have more rocker which is more forgiving and most long boats have a lot of volume to help provide stability. The Jive really doesn't compete with modern river runners or playboats. The general outfitting, the grab handles in particular, really aren't up to today's standards. But that's not why you buy a ten year old plastic boat (the Jives are very heavy 'cause they were made with lots of plastic - a great thing when you want to slide a boat over rocks repeatedly). You buy it for the old school speed, old school surfing. That's what the Jive is and it's hard to find anything better.

Here's a little video of me surfing in a different Jive.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Location, Location, Location - Fort Bragg, CA

I started this blog not long after I moved to Northern California from Southern California. More specifically, I moved from Los Angeles to Folsom. I learned to kayak when I was down in L.A. It's actually a great place to learn how to paddle. I started in the ocean, enjoying the relatively calm and warm waters. I learned to love sea caves out on the Channel Islands - I also learned to love long distance paddling to get out to them. I also got into surf kayaking going regularly to Topanga Canyon. I started kayak polo through my affiliation with UCLA and that also lead to whitewater kayaking on the Kern River. Lots of great places to paddle.

When I moved to Folsom it was for a job running a kayak program for California Canoe & Kayak. The store is in a Sacramento suburb and I taught flat water paddling on Lake Natoma just minutes from my house. Our whitewater program is on the South Fork American River about 20 miles away in Coloma - the center of the whitewater world in California. I was also plugged into the ocean, teaching ACA courses down in Half Moon Bay and often paddling out the Golden Gate or playing in San Francisco Bay. Once again, lots of great places to paddle. But still a little ways away.

I have just recently moved to Fort Bragg. For those who don't know California geography, it's on the coast a few hours north of San Francisco. It's the Mendocino coast. It's sea kayaking heaven. It has the most beautiful coastline with everything you could want. Sea caves, rock gardens, pourovers, protected bays, world class surf, tidal river mouths - it's all here. Right here. Within fifteen minutes here.

I've paddled in the area before and it was always one of my favorite spots to visit. Now that I live here I am looking forward to exploring it on a level that you can only get by spending serious time. I have years of poking my boat into every nook and cranny, finding the best waves and soaking up the beauty of the redwoods. My good friends Jeff and Cate are now my neighbors and I expect that I'll have plenty of folks looking to stop by for a visit (and paddle).

The irony is that in the short term I have lots of pre-made plans on the weekends that are taking me away from my new home in the short term. But now I can go out any day - over lunch, after work, dawn patrol. And I'll keep filming and taking pictures and sharing it on this blog. After all, it's still California and I'm still paddling.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Yoga for Outdoor People with Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer

Click HERE to go right to the ordering info for the DVD

I met Helen Wilson several years ago when we were both teaching at the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium. She had been teaching Greenland Rolling classes but had to take off early the last day and couldn't teach a full class. So she sat in on a class I was teaching and was super fun and very helpful. Shortly after that she contacted me about filming a rolling DVD - she had seen my Paddle California DVD and thought that our similar backgrounds might make for a good working collaboration. The result was Simplifying the Roll, a video we shot and edited very quickly with a small budget that turned out great (judging by the sales and happy customers we've racked up).

Helen and I have been friends ever since and Helen often talked about shooting a yoga for paddlers DVD as a follow up. In addition to being a Greenland rolling champion and professional kayak coach, she's also a certified yoga instructor. It was a good idea but the timing never worked out for our schedules. And while I had tried yoga at the time and thought it a good thing, I really didn't know much about the practice.

This past year, again at GGSKS, we were chatting about how I was now practicing yoga regularly and was no longer working full time so my schedule was flexible. Helen again brought up the yoga DVD idea, this time with her husband Mark Tozer on board. Mark is another professional kayak instructor but also teaches rock climbing and practices yoga. We all had some time open in the spring and the plan to film Yoga for Outdoor People was launched.

One hiccup that turned into a blessing was that Mark was in Wales - he's a Brit and all his family is over there. Helen loved the idea of filming the video with the beautiful backdrop that is northern Wales, so an overseas filming trip was planned. We had a great time filming all over the countryside and in spite of some chilly and rainy weather we managed to squeeze in some sunny yoga shoots between paddling and climbing days.

Since then we've been busy editing and tweaking the videos to produce something that will be really helpful to people. The DVD has three different yoga sequences, two full length and one short standing sequence. The full length sequences are great for a regular home practice, giving you some variety and concentrating on moves that will help out with paddling, climbing, hiking - generally moving about. The standing sequence is great in that once you have it down you can use it as a warm up wherever you find yourself getting ready to go - you don't need a mat or anything.

Each of the sequences includes a voice-over by Helen that talks you through the poses as they appear on screen. This helps you get into the proper position and makes it easier to focus on exactly what you need to be doing. Yoga is as mental as it is physical and if you've ever taken a class you know that the instructors words and guidance not only help you achieve the proper pose but also creates a rhythm and flow to the practice that can approach a meditative state. Helen's words are very relaxing and she gives the right balance of instruction and silence to make the routines easy to follow while getting in a good workout.

There's also an Asana Breakdown section on the DVD. Helen and Mark break down the more complicated poses and show some variations that you can do. From my own practice I've learned how important it is to get the small details right and that can be hard to do when you're just watching someone and trying to copy them. This breakdown gives you pointers on technique so you can learn the poses properly and makes the DVD suitable for a complete novice who's never practiced yoga before. At the same time, the advanced variations allow the sequences to still be challenging and rewarding for those who already practice regularly.

I'm so excited that the project is finally done and the DVD's are almost ready to ship out. Helen has started taking pre-orders for shipments starting on September 18th, 2013. Here's the link to Helen's site: GreenlandorBust.org. And here's a little trailer I put together that gives you an idea of what it all looks like.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Whitewater Park Paddling

One thing that I really enjoy about whitewater kayaking is the exploration. I love going down a new river and finding out what's around the bend. Figuring out how to run a rapid, just drifting along and getting to place you can't reach in any other way. I don't playboat and I don't park 'n play. So on the surface of it, a whitewater park is the antithesis of why I kayak. It's about creating a specific place that stays the same, with features designed just for playing.

But I love whitewater parks! Not so much for me, but what they represent. They represent access. They are an easy way to get out on a river and have fun. They are often in urban environments and make a great way for people to see our sport. They are a great way to get introduced to the sport and offer some key aspects that help learning.

I was recently in Idaho at the tail end of a long roadtrip and got to do a little paddling. One of the highlights was a session at Kelly's Whitewater Park in Cascade. It was a great park with several features that made it the perfect spot to learn surfing and playing. There was a side channel with two beginner waves - perfect for first time surf lessons. There was a middle channel that had a more retentive wave that opened things up for playboaters - it also was great to learn sidesurfing. There was a bigger hole/wave that looked intimidating but was a great place to learn how to deal with bigger features and how to escape a hole. There was also an advanced wave for the skilled playboaters who wanted to push things.

That variety in one place is one of the special features of a play park. On the American river where I teach I know a great beginner wave that I try to incorporate into our 101 classes. There's also a bigger wave that we get to in our 201 classes but it's a little too much for people at that point. Upstream on the class III section there's a fast wave great for surfing long boats and a steep wave that's great for advanced paddlers. But these things are miles apart and on different runs. The play park lets you just get out and walk over to the next feature. You can do what you want and play as long as you want. That convenience allows learning to progress at a much faster pace.

Here in California we don't have any play parks. Our laws and regulations make it extremely difficult to get anything built, though we do have a couple projects that are in process. It's a shame because we have places that could really use them (L.A. and the S.F. Bay Area both have multiple areas where they would work). While I doubt I would ever be a regular user, I'd be happy to see more whitewater parks built for the joy and benefit they offer to others. If you love the sport of paddling then I think you should want them, too.