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.

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