Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sea Kayak Symposia

I've been invited to teach at the Storm Gathering USA in March, 2015. It's an rough water sea kayaking symposium organized by my good friends Helen Wilson and Mark Tozar at Greenland or Bust. I've had the honor to coach at several great sea kayaking symposiums in the past, and since they seem to be growing in popularity I thought I'd share a little bit about what I think are the true benefits of such events.

There are different types of symposiums out there, but I'm focusing on educational events - ones with a selection of classes over several days taught by instructors from beyond the local area. This is quite different from your paddlefest type of events, where an outfitter, or group of outfitters, have a bunch of demo boats and run people through short clinics or discussions. Those can be valuable too, but they're not the focus of this discussion.

The most obvious benefit of taking classes are the things you'll learn in those classes. I'll just assume that people agree that learning in a class can be valuable (though it's fine to learn through other means as well). But you could probably take the classes through your local retailer, or find a private instructor, or just a skilled mentor willing to guide you. You could often do it cheaper, break it up over convenient weekends, and maybe at a closer location. What makes it better at a symposium?


While learning anything takes time, and physical skills in particular take much practice and repetition, there's a certain psychological advantage to immersing yourself in something for an extended period of time. It can be tiring, both physically and mentally, but the blending, combining and reiteration of ideas you get from back to back courses really helps. It will take time after a symposium for the material learned to sink in, but there's an efficiency to getting so much information downloaded at once. It allows you to draw from a bigger base of knowledge when working to improve. It primes you for more learning and lasts longer.

Variety of Instructors

Lumpy Waters
The truth is, there are a lot of skilled kayak instructors out there. Wherever you are, I bet there are some excellent and inspiring local instructors who could teach you anything you wanted to learn. But any one teacher, any small group of instructors, is limited. We all have our own styles and preferences, our own beliefs and approaches. The more of these you see as a student, the more you'll find the way that works best for you.

Symposiums tend to bring in some of the most experienced and well-traveled coaches, who not only bring their personal experience with them, but also the experience of all those people they've interacted with in other places and at other symposiums. Again, the more variety the better. It's something that's hard, if not impossible, to find in any one area of the country.

(Another perk is that these folks tend to bring their stories with them, sometimes even a little video. If you want to be inspired, these are the people that can do it)

Variety of Location


Why is it better to learn someplace new? Because learning is about the new - it's about leaving the familiar behind and taking risks, even if it's just a little pride on the line. Venturing into the unknown changes your mental state and that's good - you want to be a little on edge. It forces a sharper eye and focused mind. As long as you're in an appropriate class, you shouldn't be freaked out about conditions or worried unduly about your safety (that shouldn't happen in any class). But a little bit of concern is good.

If the symposium is happening in your back yard, then maybe the venues won't be new in themselves. But there's a good chance you'll get different venues from one day to the next. Again, it's back to the benefit of variety, the chance to put to use what you learned yesterday in a new context today. It's a new way of looking at a familiar place, and that alone is worth a lot.

Safety Ratios

It might seem like a small thing, and it hopefully won't be an issue at all, but most of the events I've taught at (GGSKS, Lumpy Waters) have great instructor/student ratios. There's often a safety officer and luxuries like motorized boat support that you don't normally get in a kayak class. And it's not uncommon to have additional safety boaters in the more advanced courses. People often push their limits at these symposiums, and the organizers are prepared for it. It doesn't mean you should sign up for things beyond your skill level, but it's nice to know that when you stretch yourself there will be people there to support you.


Perhaps I'm saving the best for last, for quite often the best part of a symposium is not found in the learning at all. It's the chance to meet like-minded people; to immerse yourself with your fellow paddlers; to meet people from diverse and interesting backgrounds; to make contacts with others from near and far. The experience of the event always ends up being something greater than the mere coursework.

I know that these symposiums can often seem expensive. It's difficult to take the time off from work, travel to a far off venue, work your body hard for three or more days. And it isn't something you need to do often. But if you've never been to such an event you're missing out. Treat yourself at least once. It's worth it - and you deserve it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Van Damme, the local spot

I've been living on the Mendocino Coast for over a year now, but recently my wife and I moved twenty miles further south, near the town of Little River. We still have easy access to many play spots on one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline in the world. But everyone has their 'local' spot - that place closest to home, that you can revisit time and time again while always having fun. For us, Van Damme is our local spot.

Van Damme State Park is a strip of land just south of the town of Mendocino. It follows Little River from the Pygmy Forest, through Redwood groves, all the way to a well-protected sandy beach. The back entrance to the hiking trails is right down the road from our house; the beach  a little further along that same road. There's plenty of free parking, a gentle surf in all but the biggest seas, and even a beach shower for rinsing off at the end of a paddle. It gets crowded in the summer with tourists and abalone divers, but of the time it's rather peaceful.

Once on the water there are caves and tunnels immediately to the north. The angle of the shore and an outer reef of rocks keeps this area calm most days, often bathtub flat as you pass through long tunnels to emerge into the open sea. Beginners can have the experience of a lifetime within ten minutes of launching their first kayak.

Heading back south passes through the outer rocks, a fun place for advanced paddlers to explore. Pourovers and slots await skilled kayakers, fear level depending upon conditions. There's even a zipper wave on the back side when the swell direction is just right.

Continuing further south, the shoreline opens up with more caves and tunnels, many leading from one protected cove to the next. Emerald green water, lit up by the plentiful afternoon sun, shines through underwater openings and entices one to go just a little further to see what's around the next corner. Mostly it's more rocks to play in and around, but occasionally it's a pocket beach that begs you to take a break and enjoy a lazy lunch on the sand.

I've only gotten in a couple paddles out of Van Damme since our move, and I know there's lots more for me to explore and discover. But I'm looking forward to gaining my local knowledge, and I'm eager to share it with my friends when they visit. Enjoy the little video of one our recent water days:

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Group Management

This is the fourth in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus

Group Management

The Theory

This isn't about being in charge of a group, it's about being part of a group. It's about your responsibilities as an individual member and the roles that must be taken for a group to function safely and efficiently. Even novices have a role, one they're normally not even aware of, but once you've learned enough to no longer call yourself a novice, you need to be aware of what you are doing in relation to the rest of the group.

Awareness is the key word. The most important skill to have when it comes to safety is the simple awareness of what hazards are out there and what everyone is doing to avoid them. That means you need to be aware of where other people in the group are, what they are doing, and how you fit in to the larger picture. It doesn't matter if someone is 'in charge' (whether a paid instructor or just the most experienced paddler), everyone has a responsibility to work with the group. That responsibility could be as simple as doing what you're asked, or it could mean positioning yourself where you could lend aid if needed. If you're not sure what you should do, ask. Ask anyone. You might not get the right answer, but at least it will start the right conversation.

When I teach or lead a group I'm responsible for its management. Complete beginners are too overwhelmed by trying to figure out their paddle, their boat, the river current, remembering technique, listening to my instructions, worrying about their safety - and a load of other things - to give much thought to other people. But my instructions include the simple idea that they should help out if they can do so without putting themselves at risk. I teach them from the start that we are all in this together, and while I'll be there to set safety and explain the risks, every boater should look after themselves first and others second. But it's still too easy for them to get in the habit of letting someone else evaluate the choices and make decisions for them. It's a habit I try to break before it forms, but it's after they leave my class that it really matters.

When people start paddling 'on their own', it's often with a more experienced paddler who takes the role of group leader. But let's look at what what you should do if you're NOT the leader, if someone else has more experience and better skills than you do. First, don't assume your 'leader' is right. Think for yourself and make your own decisions. Not all leaders are capable and even the best sometimes miss things. Speak up if you have questions and be honest in your self-assessments. It's ultimately you, alone in your boat, that runs the rapid (or portages), so never give up your own responsibility for your own safety.

But if you do have a leader who is competent, listen to what they have to say. Most importantly, follow the plan, whatever it is. If everyone is going to stop above the rapid, you should too. If people are taking the left channel, don't be the only one to go right (or at least make sure you know what you're doing and so does someone else in the group). The plan doesn't have to be perfect, but if everyone is on the same page it will still work. If different people execute different plans, then none of them will work.

Don't assume anyone will help you. Yes, people should help you, but if you blindly assume it, you're not likely to get it. If you actually ask, your chances of receiving aid are much higher. This might mean something as simple as stating at the start that you don't know the lines. Or if your roll is shaky, maybe telling another paddler that you might need a bow rescue after the drop. And it's much easier for folks to help you if you are nearby, if you're listening to what they say, and pay attention to the river and what's coming up. It seems obvious, but I've paddled with enough newbies who I've had to chase down to inform them of a danger ahead and then repeat myself several times because some of them were busy fiddling with their GoPros when I described the line. Don't expect others to put themselves out to help you - make it easy for them.

Help others when you can. Even if you're the weakest paddler in the group, you can be helpful. Take a rope with you when you portage so you can set safety for those running the rapid. Grab a rock when you're in the eddy so the next person can hold onto you. Relay signals so everyone knows what's happening. Try to lift your focus above your own concerns and pay attention to the bigger picture - not only will it help the group, it will ultimately help your own paddling as well.

What if you are the most experienced paddler in the group? Or have the best roll? Or just know that river better than the others? Are you the LEADER? Not necessarily - it's not really about leaders and followers. If you want to step up, take charge, and direct the group, that's great. But not every trip needs a designated leader, and no one person needs to take all the responsibilities on themselves. But just like adulthood, responsibility isn't something we can avoid, but we do have control over how we experience it. As I mentioned above, everyone has responsibilities, and most important thing is to make sure everyone is aware of that. But if you have more experience, more skills, are familiar with a run, or have newer boaters with you, share your wealth and you'll end up having a better time on the river.

The main thing is to pass along information and make sure everyone is on the same page. You don't have to 'run' the safety meeting, but just call everyone together and start a discussion. Ask people where they're at mentally and physically. Tell people about the tough rapids, or suggest a way for the group to operate (point/sweep, buddy system, free-for-all). You don't have to set a bunch of rules, but if you bring up the subject, maybe offer what you think will work best, chances are everyone will either agree with whatever you want to do, or they'll offer a different solution (thus taking some of the responsibility off your shoulders).

I think a lot of people are afraid of engaging others in this manner because they think it means they have to make all the decisions and look after everyone else. But ignorance is not bliss - if someone swims, you'll still have to help them. But if you know someone has a weak roll and doesn't know the line, perhaps you can tell them the easy route and be there for a bow rescue - saving everyone time and trouble. If you don't want any responsibilities for anyone else in the group, then you're basically paddling on your own - an incredibly risky proposition. Most of us love the camaraderie we find on the river, and part of that is the understanding that we all look out for each other. It's not about everyone contributing equally, but everyone contributing their best. Some days you'll have more to offer, some days you'll receive more help. The more you give back to newer boaters the more you'll find the paddling community giving you what you want.

And what if you are the LEADER (in all capitals)? That's a lot longer discussion and a two day course on the water (as a start). Professionally leading folks down the river is a challenging endeavor that requires lots of hard skills and even more soft skills, more than I can even touch on in a blog post. The truth is that if your group takes responsibility for themselves and everyone has the necessary skills to handle that run, it really shouldn't take much effort to lead them. It's when you're teaching the necessary skills, or everyone just depends on you for their safety, that things become harder. All I'll say is that if you are going to take that role, make sure you have what it takes to handle it. A bad leader is often worse than no leader.

The Practice: CLAP 

There's an acronym we use on the ocean called CLAP. I'm not big on acronyms, but the ideas are simple enough and worth noting and remembering. It starts with Communication. On the river, that starts before you hit the water. People in the group should know if it's your first time on that run, if you have a reliable roll or not, if the difficulty of the run is at your limit, if you have a bad shoulder and can't paddle very hard, anything that might impact the group as a whole. Everyone should know everyone else's background, so they can act accordingly the rest of the trip. If I'm sitting above a hard rapid with someone who's never run it and is doing their first class IV, I'll treat them differently than if it's a hard-core class V boater who's done this stretch a million times. Most people will offer help and support, but only if they know it's needed/wanted.

Communication continues as you put on the river. A good thing to talk about is safety equipment - who has what? Does anyone have a spare paddle? First aid kit? Pin kit? If you have nothing, you might want to stick close to someone who's more prepared (and you might want to learn a thing or two from them).

And you always need to go over signals. Even if everyone knows everyone else and thinks they all use the same signals. There are some pretty standard ones out there, but there are a lot of little variations that are quite useful if everyone knows them and potentially dangerous if folks get confused. Take sixty seconds and review them with the entire group.

The L in CLAP stands for Line of Sight. It doesn't mean that everyone has to be able to see everyone else, but there needs to be a chain so that everyone has some pair of eyes on them. If I can't see Jimmy, I can at least see Suzy and she can see Jimmy.  If something happens to Jimmy, Suzy can pass the word on to me and I can pass it on to others and we can help out as a group. No one should be all alone and out of sight of the group.

A is for Avoidance (or Awareness). The idea is that it's easier to stay out of trouble than it is to get out of trouble. In order to avoid risk, you need to be aware of what it is. The truth is that as kayakers we often put ourselves at risk - that's what running a rapid is - but we need to carefully choose what risks are acceptable and to do that we need to be aware of what all the risks are. Does everyone see that strainer just below the surface on river right? (That's a good time to use your Communication/Line of Sight skills to make sure).

Avoidance goes beyond specific hazards. It also means having the common sense not to put on a swollen river in the rain if no one has done it at a high level. It means not putting yourself at risk by doing something that the rest of the group isn't comfortable with. Think about things before you do them (and think about yourself before blindly following others), and you'll be able to avoid a lot of the dangers before they materialize.

The P to end CLAP is Position. It really refers to the position of most usefullness, and it applies to everyone in the group. It means you need to think about where you are in relation to others and how you could best help if things went wrong. Do you want to be in the lead (yes if you know the run or are a strong paddler, maybe no if it's your first time down). Do you want to be at the rear (sweep)? Do you want to follow that crazy guy in the little playboat? Or do you want watch from shore - ideally with a rope and in a position to throw it if the paddler swims at the big hole. Do you want to catch that small eddy above the lip when three paddlers are following close behind you? Or maybe catch a bigger eddy a little sooner so you can give everyone the line? (or are you so close behind someone that when they catch that little eddy, you have no choice but to run the drop blind). Think about where you are in relation to everyone else, and what you would/could do if something bad were to happen.

If you've Communicated to others about what the plan is, made sure that everyone has a Line of Sight to someone else, are Aware of and Avoiding the hazards, and Positioned yourself in relation to the rest of the group, you're much more likely to have a successful day and a good time together. That's CLAP.

Here's a short video with a couple clips showing how awareness of others on the river can minimize time and trouble.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pleasures of the Pit (River)

California is in the midst of an historic drought that's greatly affected the everyday lives of many people in this state (we've had to move to a new rental 'cause our old place's spring was running dry, and many people have it worse). The lack of rivers to run seems like a small thing in the big picture, but kayaking (or lack of it) can be illustrative of many of the water issues in this state. There are lessons to be learned.

With the snowpack long gone, little rain in the past six months, and temperatures at record highs, I still got out this past weekend to paddle a beautiful river with a solid flow - and it wasn't from draining down a reservoir. The Pit river is fed by a spring (technically the spring creates Fall River, which feeds into the Pit), pumping 1,000 cfs of clear water year round, regardless of the weather. This bounty of nature isn't normally left free to entertain the recreation desires of a few, but normally is re-directed into a series of canals and power stations, providing a reliable and (relatively) cheap source of electricity.

Ultimately it feeds into Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, where it is held with other rivers (Sacramento, McCloud) until released to create more electricity and irrigate the Central Valley of the state, the breadbasket of the country (read this article to be impressed and perhaps terrified of the importance of the area: NY Times/Everyone Eats There). This water is the lifeblood of our state, our country, and kayaking seems like a small need of it's power.

But there's more power in kayaking than one might imagine. The flow on the Pit over the weekend was a scheduled release, the electric utility agreeing to let the water resume it's normal course for forty-eight hours so a few dozen people could come play. But we did more than play, and the power of the river that we soaked up lasts far longer than our time on the water.

Dave taking a well-deserved reward for his hard work
I had the pleasure to meet and boat with Dave Steindorf, the California Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, the nation's leading river-recreation advocacy group. AW had negotiated the release from the Pit, as they have negotiated many releases that provide kayaking opportunities in dry times. But these releases also provide water to the fish and moisture to the riparian corridors along the riverbeds. The create commercial rafting opportunities that generate millions of dollars in revenue for small communities and family owned businesses. They instill a love and appreciation of the power of the river and value of the water, and that is, perhaps, the most valuable thing we can take away.

As a kayaker I could narrowly look at the river and see only how it serves me in my rather silly hobby. But dam releases help me see a bigger picture. I see the struggle to secure the public's right to that water; the demand of the farms for the most crucial ingredient to all other foods; the importance of the dam itself for generating electricity that we need and providing drinking water to the most populous state in America. I see beyond that, to the futility of relying on a desert to grow our food, to the long-term dilemma of sediment build-up and ever-increasing maintenance costs that hide the true cost of 'renewable' energy. I fear man's folly of taking water from its source to places that were not meant to have it, our false belief that we can always get around the rules of nature and thinking short-term solutions will eliminate the problem. Water conservation and use is a large and complicated subject, worthy of much philosophical musing and en-depth study, and the joy of paddling a dam release leads one into an area of far greater impact on society. It's a trip worth taking.

On the lighter side, the paddling was scenic and fun, the people as warm and friendly as the temperature, and the sense of river community held strong throughout. I had seen many pictures of the Falls, but felt no need to try the 30-footer, as easy at it looked. But the 'sneak' routes, both right and left, put a smile on my face. The fun class III-IV rapids, especially the quarter-mile long one after the Falls, kept me happy the entire run. It's a great river that will be going again in a couple weeks - get on it if you can and thank AW for one more opportunity to kayak (and all the others as well).

Here's a little video of our two days on the Pit:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: On or Across the Water

This is the third in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus

On or Across the Water

The Theory

My last post talked about momentum and its role in whitewater kayaking, a common theme among coaches. Another way of looking at things has served me well, though it's harder to summarize and not something that I've heard from others. When paddling, you want to move on the water or across it, never against it.

Every drop of water in the river is moving somewhere, including the water beneath your boat, and you want to follow it or flee from it. To know which, you have to look downstream, to watch the little bubbles and swirls in the water that tell you which piece leads where, and decide accordingly. This is what the great ones do when they scout, seeing every line, knowing where the water that flows cleanly through the carnage begins its route. Some even toss in a stick or leaves to help the reading. It's an art dictated by science, a skill worth time and practice.

The paddler's riding the water that skirts the hole, but also
pointing downstream to move across the water when it turns
sharply to drop into the second hole.
Seeing the water you want is the first step, but once you are are on it you are not done. To stay with it requires constant adjustment of boat and momentum, sometimes matching its speed but often moving a little faster and a little sooner to stay one step ahead. Move left before the water hits the rock and moves left; drive forward to accelerate just before the water falls off the lip of the drop. Find the safe route down by following the safe water.

But more often than not, there is no single piece of water that will guide you safely through an entire rapid, or even a single move. Quite often, the water that is in the perfect place is not headed in the right direction. You need to pass over that water, moving across it in the direction of your goal.  This requires moving across the water, for fighting against it will gain you nothing. The key lies in knowing when and how to disengage from the current..

This connects to the idea of momentum, where I said that in order to get right you have to start on the left. You start moving right by disengaging your boat from the current you are in. Change your momentum by turning your boat away from the flow, edge away if necessary, and paddling. This may take one stroke or many, a slight edge or a hard lean, all depending on how far you wish to move and the strength of the current you are in. Spot the new current you want to reach and continue to drive until you get there. Match its flow, its angle, and follow it for as long as it takes you in the right direction.

Just like with momentum, the key is to start upstream. If you wait until you reach the point where you want to be disengaged, then it's too late by the time your boat is moving across the current. You need to get your boat unstuck from the current upstream in order to be able to make a quick movement across the current when needed. The stronger the current the earlier you need to escape it.

The paddler is sliding across tongue to avoid the rooster tail.
There's a few different ways in which this all goes down. The simplest example of staying on the water is a tongue that leads you through the rapid. Start early and get on that tongue, matching it's movement, and ride it out. As you step up in the difficulty of rapids, it's less likely that a single tongue will get you all the way through. It might take you halfway through the rapid, or even more, but at some point you'll need to get off and find new water. In this case, you don't want to simple float on the water, you want to separated from that current. That means that your speed and/or direction should be different than the tongue - ideally moving across it in the direction you ultimately want to go, but it could also mean paddling faster, or even slower. Any difference will help raise your boat out of the water and make it more responsive to changes that you make.

Another key place where the idea of separating from the water comes up is on boofs, or any significantly vertical drop. The reason we don't want to get stuck with the water is that it normally lands in a hole and recirculates. Once again, our goal is to separate ourselves from this and going across the water is often the best way. When approaching a lip, have a slight angle in the direction you want to go on your landing, or if that's not possible, accelerate to separate yourself from the current. This will make the actual boof easier and allow you to launch clear or the hole at the bottom.

When the vertical drop gets higher, and boofing the waterfall a bad idea, we return to the concept of being on the water. Match it's speed and direction as you go over, plugging the drop and staying with the water that goes under the hole, popping up beyond the recirculation.

The Practice

Start by just noticing the difference in flat water between floating along and paddling across the water. Feel the difference when you try to move left - how much easier is it if you already where sliding in that direction, or if you were moving faster than the current, compared to when you floated on the water.

Find your favorite boof and try it with different approach vectors. Launch from the same spot, but see if it's easier coming from one side or the other; see if you go further when you come in with speed instead of relying on the last boof stroke; see what happens if you plug it (caveat - make sure you know the landing is deep and safe before you try any plugging).

When you're scouting a rapid, watch the water carefully and see where it goes. Start at the bottom and follow a bubble line upstream until it runs into trouble, then see what other line you'd want to be on at that point. Work the whole rapid backwards, and then follow it forwards, maybe even tossing in a leaf at different points to see where the water takes it. Plan your transitions from on the current, to across it, to back on again. It's a positive way of looking at the water on how to move on it, instead of watching the hazards and worrying about avoiding them. And whitewater kayaking should always be a positive experience.

Here's a little video that shows more of this in action:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Paddler's Journey - book update

I finished off a rough draft of my kayaking memoir, A PADDLER'S JOURNEY, a few months ago now. Since then I've sent it out to a number of folks to read and review and I've gotten some very encouraging and helpful feedback. I'm still waiting to hear back from some people, but the consensus is that it's fun and accurate, though a few folks thought it could be a little more personal. I've been busy pitching my novel to agents, but now I'm ready to get back to the memoir. I've got some good ideas for revisions and hope to be able to complete them in the next month or two.

For me it's a tough to balance the personal information with the kayaking information. I want stories that are fun to read, understandable to non-kayakers, and contain a little of the wisdom gained through the experience. It seems a little silly, but I don't want it to be all about me. My whole point is that my experiences may be unique in their particulars, but my experience in general is typical. The book is about what all paddlers get out of the sport and I want people to see themselves in the adventures and relate to what I've gone through. I don't want to impress people with how cool I am and what great things I've accomplished. At the same time, people do like to learn about the author and be invested in their story. They  like an insight into another person's world. Like I said, it's a tough balance.

In that vein, here's a little excerpt from the book about my experience as a beginner on the river. Even though I had a roll and plenty of surf zone experience, my learning curve in whitewater was steep and challenging, the same as everyone's, My first weekend involved lots of rolling and an injured shoulder - I wasn't sure I wanted to come back for more. This is what happened on my third day on whitewater:

Once everyone was on the water and headed down river, I noticed two things that were different from my previous river paddles. First, this wasn’t a class. Gilbert gave me some guidance, knowing every rock in the river like the layout in his pantry, but I wasn’t expected to blindly follow him. Everyone else was busy having fun and zipping around. It wasn’t about learning anything particular or practicing skills; it was paddling for its own sake. People looked out for me but only in the way they looked out for each other, not the way an instructor hovers over a student. I could do what I want; if I screwed up, no big deal.

Second, the scenery was beautiful. The run started in a quiet campground with a min-gorge of white granite walls, and while the road was nearby, it was always out of site. The river wound through a deep canyon, with riparian forest at the river’s edge giving way to brown, grassy hillsides above. This was kayaking in the wilderness, and once I felt comfortable enough to look up from the whitewater, I enjoyed every minute of it. I was hooked.

Another thing that greatly eased my mind was the fact that I wasn’t the only person flipping over. Even the most skilled members of the group were playing around, sliding up rocks and trying to get their kayaks vertical. In the process they frequently failed and flipped over. It was a part of the sport, nothing to be ashamed of. I played around too and flipped over more. Sometimes we rolled just because it was so damn hot. In the first big rapid I collided with one of the other guys and we both flipped over and rolled up laughing. This was fun.

At the end of the day I still sucked as a whitewater boater. It felt unnatural and I often leaned the wrong way or reacted too slow. It didn’t matter—I enjoyed it all. I lacked the skill to help in any significant way, but I hadn’t been a burden. I did what I could and had fun with the rest of them. That’s all they expected of me, that’s all anyone wants on an adventure. Maybe I did belong on the river. Too bad the season was over.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Surf Forecasts for Sea Kayakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Momentum

This is the second in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus


The Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practice

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

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Art of Whitewater: Technique

This is the first in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus


The Theory

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

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

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

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

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

The Practice

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Kayaking South of the Mendocino Headlands

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kayaking the Isle of Skye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Paddler's Journey - book update: rough draft finished!

Finishing a rough draft is a bittersweet moment. There's a sense of triumph in having completed a project, more so when it's an entire book, fifty-four thousands words strung together to hopefully form some coherent picture. But there's also the realization that you are far from finished, that the joy of creation now turns into the pain of revision.

I'm really happy with the first draft of A Paddler's Journey. I like the balance I struck with paddling details and general story telling. Some humor breaks up serious moments, and deep thoughts and insights flow directly from the action. Non-paddlers can easily follow along while kayakers will undoubtedly remember their own similar experiences. There's adventure and beauty and characters and carnage. Just like real life.

Now I'm going back over it line by line, choosing the best words, checking constructions and descriptions, making everything flow and fit together. Once it's cleaned up I'll send it out to beta readers to get feedback from a wide variety of sources, then blend that all together to revise the whole thing as much as necessary to make it the best book possible. It takes time and is a frustrating process, but in the end it results in a better product and something that I know I'll be proud of.

In the meantime, here's a little excerpt from the end. Let me know if you like it.

We woke with the sun but took our time over breakfast and breaking camp, no one eager for the day’s conclusion. The bigger rapids lay below us, still packing enough punch to make folks nervous. I portaged Vortex with Norman, not out of fear but simple solidarity. I ran Carson’s Falls for much the same reason, taking more pleasure from Norman’s ugly but successful run than my own graceful line. No one had anything to prove but everyone took their shot, nothing but smiles on the downstream side regardless of the result. I finished up as happy and excited as the first time I completed the Forks without swimming. Pat and I drove back through the Sierra, scouting potential creeks and marveling at the beauty in the world.

I barely paddled in the six months that followed. My father passed away that summer after two months in the hospital, never regaining full consciousness after a car accident. I wrote a novel and began the long and arduous path towards its publication. When a friend called and needed a last minute assistant for a kayak class, I returned to paddling and met my future wife on the water, beginning a new stage of life while experiencing the sport through the eyes of another.

I am very much a kayaker these days and always will be, no matter how long between paddles or how much my skills deteriorate. Kayaking is a part of who I am. It’s the part that carries boats for those who can’t lift them and waits at the top of a rapid to guide down the less experienced. It’s the drive to be the best and test yourself against forces you cannot overcome but only hope to ride. It shares sorrows and joys with friends and strangers, the only requirements to join are a desire to try and the willingness to fail. In many ways kayaking is the best part of me, and I hope I give it my best in return.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Teaching on the River

I'm back in the Coloma area for a few weeks, teaching on the river and enjoying my old neighborhood. Since I moved to the coast a year ago, I haven't had much opportunity to teach whitewater kayaking, so it's nice to get back out there. The ocean presents challenges in a way that allows you to choose whether or not you want to take them on. The river is much more committing, especially as a beginner. The challenges are a fundamental part of the progression and can't be avoided. It changes the mindset of student and teacher.

On the river, I find it very important to manage expectations. People need to understand that they are going to face the rapids and flipping is a likely occurrence during the learning process. They might be afraid, nervous, excited, and exhausted, all at the same time. There's a million things they need to remember - good posture, loose hips, steady strokes, torso rotation, watch the current, edge the boat, look downstream, follow my signals - while trying to stay upright.

I break it down into simple concepts, trying to keep their brains as free from clutter as possible. It's a process of loading information into the mind and the body over the course of a lesson, slowly letting parts sink in until they no longer need to be consciously remembered. When it all comes together at the end of the lesson, and they paddle the toughest rapid of the day with the best form and arrive successfully at the bottom, I know that I've done them right. The smiles tell me so.

It's good to be back, if only for a little while.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kayaking the Mendocino Headlands

I'm about to run off for a few weeks of teaching on the river, but before I had to get in a little coastal paddling before leaving our beautiful home. The weather had been beautiful on shore, with temps in the seventies and plenty of sunshine, but high winds and 10' @ 10 sec swells haven't made for the best paddling. With plans to launch at the always protected Van Damme, we stopped to look at Big River and decided conditions were fine for a trip out the river and around the Mendocino Headlands.

Gearing up in drysuits and helmets, we got plenty of strange looks from the folks in shorts and tee shirts riding their sit-on-tops or rented outrigger canoes up river. Be we rode the ebb, passed under the Highway One bridge, and dodged the sandbar at the mouth to punch through small surf and be free on the ocean.

The tunnels start immediately on the rocks fifty yards offshore and continue all the way around the headland. One right below the main street in the village of Mendocino has a collapsed ceiling, creating a skylight as you pass through the tunnel. Tourists gathered around the wooden railing and watch with awe as we paddled through.

Around the headland it took a little timing and care to sneak in behind the reef and find the protection of the outer islands. Tunnels appeared at every turn, allowing us to pass through point after point, until we reached the north side where the waves had direct access and made things bumpy. We retreated to a nice beach, needing to strip off the drysuits for a moment to cool down - it was hot out of the wind!

After the brief break we suited up and headed back around, more tourists watching from above, undoubtedly jealous of the beaches and arches you can only enjoy by kayak. More tunnels offered more options, a parallel but different route to once again return to the mouth of the river. The current still ebbed and the sandbar had grown on the falling tide, standing the waves up steeply. I rushed in and caught a ride that ended dangerously close to a pirouette on the sand, but turned at the last moment to merely windowshade on the wave and continue on my merry way. A great way to remember the coast as the warm temperatures and cold water of the Sierra foothills await.

More tunnel pictures here.