Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whitewater Lessons for Sea Kayakers

Here's some more learnin' for y'all. This is the first in a series of articles I'm working on trying to elucidate how my experiences in one aspect of this sport translate and benefit the other aspects. Again, pictures aren't complete yet but I think you can get the idea.

Part 1 – Lazy Days

A question I often get asked is which do I prefer – whitewater kayaking or sea kayaking? To me that question is irrelevant, I just like kayaking. The more important question is: what is the difference between them - something that most people do not really understand. I feel that pursuing both types of paddling (and others) provides great benefits in each discipline. In particular my whitewater paddling has expanded my skill set on the ocean as well as my comfort level. And even if you choose to never set your boat on a river there are many lessons that ocean paddlers can learn and adapt from their freshwater brethren.

The first lesson, one that I try to pound home in my whitewater students, is that whitewater kayakers are lazy. This, after all, is the great distinction between the sports: sea kayakers have to paddle to get from point A to B whereas river paddlers can do nothing and let the current take them to their destination. In practice it may not work out quite so simply but the mentality will take you far (with little effort). Whitewater kayakers use the minimum amount of work to accomplish their goal. If they can float then they don’t paddle. If there is an obstacle you only need to barely avoid it. If you do need to move your boat, try to use the power of the water and catch a free ride. Let’s take a look at how this can be applied to paddling sea kayaks where there is no current present.

Without current you will have to do some paddling to move your boat. But there are still other factors that can assist you unless you are on perfectly flat water with absolutely no wind. Let’s start with some wave action. Whether you are on ocean swells or a choppy lake waves are simply energy traveling through the water. If you learn to use that energy, or at least to stop fighting it, your effort will be less and your progress easier. While paddling at a steady pace works well for calm waters it is not the most efficient technique for waves. You need to adjust your timing and output to match what the water is giving you: when your stern is lifted by a wave take a quick stroke or two with a little extra power and you will tap into the wave’s energy and get a much greater return on your investment. If the waves are sizable enough they may carry you right along with little or no work on your part – this allows you to use rudder strokes to keep your line instead of forward strokes to propel you.

To accomplish this may require some stroke technique that is not commonplace to many sea kayakers. So once again let us look to the whitewater kayaker to pick up some effective technique that uses the water’s energy instead of our own. Rudder strokes are a key to paddling downwind/downwave and most kayakers misunderstand this stroke on a conceptual level. Watch a good river paddler surf a wave back and forth and you will see what the rudder is supposed to accomplish: it changes the angle of the bow without slowing the forward speed of the boat. To accomplish this the blade must be parallel to the boat – not out at an angle acting as a brake. The key to the technique is to rotate the torso as far as possible to the side the blade is in the water and keeping the upper hand out over the water. The rear hand can push out (stern pry) to turn the bow towards that side or pull in (stern draw) to turn the bow away. This method of steering your kayak uses minimal energy while letting the energy of the waves propel you forward.

But on the other hand, when your bow is lifted by a wave then you are paddling uphill. Any effort you put in at that moment will give you only marginal gain in forward speed. Save your strength and relax and shortly the wave will pass and you can resume your paddling. This is true regardless of wave direction: following seas or head on. Let yourself feel the energy of the ocean and the rise and fall of your boat - try to avoid fighting it but instead tap into it. This means varying both the rate of your stroke and the effort you put forth with each stroke - something that takes practice since most of us develop a steady rate as we first learn to paddle in relatively calm, flat waters. This is why many people feel they can cover less distance on the open ocean than they can in protected waters. But experienced coastal paddlers will often feel the opposite: by following the ocean’s rhythm we can get much farther much faster than we ever could go on our own power alone. As an old sailor once told me: ‘when you dance with the ocean you let her lead’.

Now let’s look a little more at paddling in the wind. The obvious advantage is to paddle downwind. You can help this to happen by choosing your course – maybe paddle from point B to point A. Winds typically rise during the day so if you are going out and back then start by paddling into the wind and the stronger winds on your return will outweigh the early headwinds you faced (not to mention it’s nice to have the tailwind at the end of the day when your strength may be lagging). If your course is set and the wind is not conveniently at your tail you can still minimize its effects. I always avoid paddling straight into strong headwinds. Tacking slightly like a sailboat left then right not only minimizes the resistance you face but will ease the motion of the boat through the water. Trying to plow directly up and over wind waves creates a lot of up and down motion of your boat which wastes a lot of your paddling energy. A slight angle will allow to boat to roll a little more gently with the swells and transfer more of your paddling energy into forward progress.

When facing a crosswind things can get a little trickier. Depending on any additional swell direction it is often easiest to zig-zag once again instead of paddling straight across the wind. Most boats weathercock into the wind and instead of fighting this allow your boat to turn up wind without wasting a lot of energy on sweep strokes to steer. This will result in paddling upwind but don’t take it so far that you are facing a headwind. Before that happens turn your boat downwind and enjoy a ride from both wind and waves. This upwind and downwind combination allows you to focus on forward strokes when paddling upwind and steering strokes when headed downwind with a resulting steady forward progress. Of course for this to be practical you cannot be navigating by compass – you will need visual references (ranges) to make sure you are ultimately heading to the desired location.

Be it wind or waves, Nature provides us with a lot of energy. If we learn to use that energy we will be able to paddle further, faster and with less effort. But like many aspects of kayaking this does not always come intuitively. It takes mental effort to figure out how to minimize physical effort. So go ahead and work your gray cells a little and learn how to be lazy like the folks in the little boats on the river – your body will thank you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Fordyce is fun!

It's 10pm on a Friday night and I just go back from a long day on Fordyce creek. It was a great day with lots of fun rapids and a fair amount of good luck - most especially the opportune free shuttle we got when we pulled up to the put in and found a group of boy scouts getting off the lake after a three day backpack/canoe trip. One of their leaders was only too happy to drive my truck out so they could have a little extra room in their one vehicle for all twelve people. And he decided to drive it all the way to the take out (we only asked if he could get it back to the freeway) and he refused to take any money for it (we offered cash first thing). The shuttle road is steep 4-wheel drive only and since our shuttle vehicle was a Jetta we had planned on doing a combo car/bike shuttle which would have been a killer workout on top of a long day of paddling.

This was my first time down Fordyce and it was a great run. There are some really nice slides and drops, some big falls and a fair bit of mank at this low water level. But even better than the paddling was the scenery - smooth granite everywhere you looked. Huge walls of the stuff that you only get in the High Sierra. It was just Matt and I and he was leading the whole day since he's done the run a few times. When he fired off Fordyce Falls (pictured left) I just had to follow him. When he ran Split Falls I wasn't as sure but I still followed and all went well. And when we made it to the paddle across the lake at the end of the day we only had a nice cool breeze and a setting sun instead of the usual killer headwind and struggle to finish before dark.

I'll get to editing the video next week - teaching again this weekend. Hopefully the big drops came out well...
UPDATE: video is here:

Monday, July 5, 2010

They're classics for a reason

There are a few rivers out there that have a special reputation. They really bring together all the elements that draw us to whitewater kayaking: challenging drops, beautiful scenery, little grunt work and non-stop fun. Runs like Cherry Creek (on the Tuolumne), Forks of the Kern, Middle Feather and my current favorite: 49 to Bridgeport on the South Yuba. They aren't necessarily the hardest whitewater out there, but that is part of their appeal - they are accessible to ordinary paddlers; they challenge without terrifying; they delight without damaging. That's what makes these rivers classic and the ones we return to paddle again and again.

This past weekend my friend Alex drove up from LA for a weekend of boating. Our plans kept changing throughout the week as river flows kept dropping (the snow's finally running out). We had talked about getting in to do Giant Gap at a reasonable flow to make up for the epic Alex had in there at high flows. But it dropped too low. We were looking at maybe repeating our Middle Feather trip from last year. But it dropped too low. South Silver was on the list but word was it was still too high (turns out it had dropped to a nice low level). The one run we really wanted to get in was 49 to Bridgeport. It is an absolutely classic run that unfortunately doesn't get water that often since most of it is taken out by the maze of dams and diversions up stream. But it was holding on for the weekend and we got on it just before it dropped out. The flow was low but it made a perfect level for Alex's first time down. And getting to paddle it in the warm summer sun was a special treat for me - my introduction to the run came during a winter rain storm.

The next day we grabbed our friend Emily and headed down to the Mokelumne to do the Devil's Nose. We did the run but flows had dropped out - below the levels that the utilities reported they would provide for the weekend. So while it was still a good day paddling with friends we had to portage a few rocky rapids and the day went slow with the lower flows. More than once Alex pointed out how it is runs like this that really make you appreciate the classics. So true.

Here's some video of 49 to Bridgeport:

Saturday, July 3, 2010

We walked it

Sometimes you see a rapid and think "I can do that but I don't want to". It's not always about the difficulty but more about the consequences. My buddy Matt and I went up to paddle the Silver Fork (South Fork American tributary) the other day. At the put in the very first thing was an incredibly ugly rock sieve - huge boulders blocking the river with water flowing under and through them with no possible way to fit anything the size of a kayak (or person) through. The walls of the little gorge were also undercut. We could easily put in below that but we decided to hike down a little ways and try to get the character of the river. It turns out it was more of the same - lots of sieves and undercuts, lots of boulder jumble rapids with rocks sticking up in bad places.

So we decided to walk. Not just that first rapid but the whole river. We had already set shuttle and the stretch was only four miles long so we decided we would leave the boats on the car and just hike it. There was a trail at first but it wasn't long before we were bushwacking along the river, trying to stay at river level as much as possible so we could see what was going on in there. It took a few hours but it was a great hike - an absolutely beautiful river through crumbly granite rock. But filled the whole way with undercuts and messy drops. You could definitely kayak it (it's been done many times) but I didn't really see why I would want to. We got to enjoy the beauty of the river and never felt like our lives were in extreme danger. Sometimes it's better to just walk it.