Monday, February 25, 2013

Kayak Review - Jackson Karma first impressions

I've been paddling Jackson creek boats for several years now. First the Rocker and now the Villain S. Their latest creeker is the Karma and I got a chance to try it out last weekend. I only got to paddle it on class II and III, so I can't say how it will do on the hard stuff (though plenty of people have been getting after it in the Karma, so I'm sure it's worthy). Here's my quick thoughts.

The hull on the Karma is taken from the Jackson Zen (my friend Matt's review here) and it feels like it. It's a planing hull that is very fast and quick to accelerate. It has an edge but it is soft when sitting flat but grabs well when edged. The Karma is super stable on its side and carves in a friendly manner.

The Zen is a great learning boat and fun river runner but it's lack of rocker and pointed nose means it tends to go through things instead of over them. It also makes it a little hard to boof unless you have a lot of speed. The Karma has more rocker and more volume in the nose (as well as a squared off tail) that helps it climb up over things and boof well even at slower speeds. I do worry about landing flat off a big drop given how flat the bottom is, but I didn't get a chance to feel that first hand. I was impressed with how well it held a line in swirly/diagonal water while still feeling loose when I wanted to turn it.

The outfitting is Jackson. Some love it, some hate it. I love it. The uni-shock bulkhead is simply the best and safest out there. I've never had the cleats fail me in any way. I do miss the sweet cheeks, but the current Jackson outfitting is just as comfortable as anything else out there. The new backband configuration is a lot higher and firmer, which is what most people have been asking for (I like the older, lower, less supportive style myself). Best of all, it takes about two minutes to adjust it to your body - great if you like to loan your boat out or are just two lazy to spend hours tweaking a boat's fit.
Lindsay putting the Karma through its paces

Jackson is still making the Villain so they have one displacement hull creeker (Villain) and one planing hull (Karma). Most kayak companies have gone to having two creekers and there seems to be a trend towards more planing hulls. Almost all playboats and river runners are now planing hull, so many folks like the planing hull creekers for a consistent feel to what they learned in or what they play in. That's fine, but I still like what you get with a displacement hull (actually, they're all semi-displacement these days). A little write-up I did on the differences is here.

So the Karma is a great boat for those who want that planing hull but all the goodness of a Jackson creeker. It's fast and solid with lots of volume and comes in three sizes. If you're looking at a Burn or Stomper you should definitely try out the Karma as well. Personally, I'll stick with my Villain.

UPDATE: I've had more time in a Karma and I cracked my Villain. So I've now switched to the Karma and I have a more comprehensive review here, and the latest update is here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The value of certification

I stumbled across an older post on the Tsunami Ranger site about certifications today. There's lots of great discussion in the comments so I suggest you go check it out. I have a few things to say on the topic so I thought I'd use my own soapbox to spread my message.

Not only am I a certified kayak instructor, I'm one of those who certifies others (an American Canoe Association Instructor Trainer in the parlance). And since teaching kayaking is how I make my living I have a vested interest in the topic. I also believe my decade of experience and having worked with dozens of the top instructors in many different arenas of the sport gives me a good perspective. So the simple answer is:  yes, certification is a good thing.

There are several asterisks, however. And I do want to be very clear that certification is not a requirement. I've known extraordinary teachers and paddlers who have nary a certification to their name and I've learned much from them. There is no single path or purpose that is right for all comers, and we each should find what works best for ourselves. But that is really where the answer lies.

Let's start with instructor certification and get to paddler certification later. What does certification mean? It means that the one who is certified has been judged to a specific standard by a specified organization. It is a baseline of ability in both hard and soft skills and it is one way in which a perspective student can judge the worth of possible instruction. It's a tool that provides information to the consumer. I believe the more information the better, and this is one more piece.

Certification certainly isn't the only way to judge qualifications. And the certification process isn't perfect. But realistically, what is the other option? The folks who often say that certification isn't necessary tend to present the argument that you can be highly skilled, highly trained, and a great teacher without the certification. Of course you can, but how is anyone supposed to know it? Anyone can say that they are a great teacher (and lots of lousy teachers think they are great). But how is a random person supposed to know if a random instructor is good? Yelp? (anyone out there still trust that?) Sure, you could ask around, but how many random people know someone who has had kayak instruction? And how many of them have had exposure to several different instructors over several years and are knowledgeable enough about the sport to accurately access what information is being taught? Not many.

That's the point. If we all lived in a small community where we knew each other and there were only a few choices and we could trust everyone to fair and honest then we wouldn't need larger organizations and systems to certify anyone. But that's not the world we live in. Even in kayaking, there are just too many people doing it and more every day. That's a good thing, but it requires structure to achieve anything. Structure breeds some inefficiency and cumbersome rules which many kayakers hate. That's just the price that's paid for reaching more people. If you want to live in your small and insular circle of life, that's fine. But it's not the way that society as a whole progresses. Certification is about reaching a broader audience and doing so in the best way possible.

On a similar note, a lot of people will argue that paying for instruction from a professional stranger is not the best way to learn. What works best is to get a mentor. Someone who is skilled, has years of experience, knows how to communicate their knowledge, and apparently has nothing better to do with their time than spend it training you for free. Well, yes, of course that's ideal. If you can find such a person, go for it. For the thousands of people out there for whom that simply is unrealistic? Should they just forget about learning to kayak? Or maybe we should set up a system that will give them some basic training to keep them safe and inspire them to continue to the point where they might be able to find others who can help them out. Just a thought.

And I'll talk a little about the certifications for paddlers themselves. It's become all the rage to get the BCU star awards to prove your skills. The ACA has followed suit by offering paddler assessments. The training within either program is excellent and it is very useful to give people a clear list of things to learn and a way to measure their progress. I'm all for that. But I never assume anyone paddles at a certain level just because they have a certain award. I judge people based on what I see and hear and on the word of others who I trust to evaluate them. I heartily recommend everyone, 'trained' or not, do the same.

Kayaking is a complicated sport that requires both physical skills and mental abilities. It requires knowledge and experience. It places a high premium on judgment and can severely punish those who paddle beyond their level. There's no system that can truly encompass all that is needed to pursue this endeavor at a high level. But that's not the point. The point is to open up this sport to as many people as want to participate, to share an incredibly joyful activity with others, and to do so in a way that encourages safety and responsibility. I'm proud to be a part of an organization that does that (ACA) in spite of the fact that I frequently complain about the errors in the system. But I don't just sit back and complain - I'm inside trying to make them better, as are most of my fellow certified instructors and instructor trainers.

Anyone who suggests they are better than those certified because they're not a part of the system and are above it is a fool. Likewise, anyone who scoffs at a paddler or instructor for not being certified is equally small-minded. At the end of the day it's about the value we add to the sport and there are many ways to determine that. Certification is one tool among many and the smart craftsman learns to use the appropriate tool for the job.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The North Coast

Sometimes the hardest places to get to are those that are just outside our immediate reach. We visit the areas close to us often; we can get there and back in a day, a weekend is an easy trip. We make extensive plans to visit the far away lands that require flights and days devoted to travel. But the places that are in between, those where the travel time is half a day, get easily get overlooked. The north coast of California is one of those areas for me.

I've been there before, and enjoyed myself every time, but it's just hard to make the trip on an average weekend and not quite exotic enough to block out a week's worth of vacation time. But this time a three day weekend proved to be perfect.

A 4am departure time got us to Arcata while still morning. Early enough to paddle, but late enough that the winds had arisen. We decided that a hike would make for a more enjoyable afternoon and set out from one lagoon up and over to another. From a windswept beach, up and over through the redwoods, to a sheltered lunch spot and back. It's a beautiful landscape that's different than the rest of the state.

The next day we paddled. An early start got us to Trinidad before the wind and we enjoyed a loop around bay, out to an exposed rock in big swells, back into slightly protected rocks for some play, and out to the dubiously famous smackwall to get some more bouncing. With several other groups on the water people came and went, finding their own fun and passing each other with friendly greetings.

Having a third day ahead of us allowed us to enjoy a peaceful sunset on the second day, as well as some fine vegan  dining in Arcata and a starlit walk to end the day. It's often the non-paddling portions of a trip that turn it from a great adventure into a great time. There was as much fun had on dry land as on the water.

The third day arrived and we started with a surf session inside the harbor, with swells big enough to generate eight foot faces spilling and fading for a quarter mile. An ebb tide would have helped since we had to fight the flood to get back to the lineup, but it was rather nice to catch such long and fast rides with little consequence.

We even managed to split up the drive back with a short downriver session on the Sacramento river in Redding, catching dinner with even more friends. It made for a very full and very fun weekend; three days of sun, surf, and soaring vistas. The in between is worth a visit.

A few more pictures:

Monday, February 4, 2013

Stop. Break it down.

The Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium has come and gone. Another success and another really fun time. I was the safety officer this year so I was a little disappointed I didn't get to coach, but I did get to ride around on the power boat and watch the other great coaches at work (and take some pictures). And I still got to hang out with everyone which is really the best part of the event for me.

As a bonus, I got to hang out with some of my good friends for a few extra days after the event. Jeff and Cate from Liquid Fusion were there and invited some of us back to their haunting grounds, so we went north a few hours to the Mendocino Coast. Not only did they show us a good time on the water, but they  put us up in their humble abode and stuffed us with great food (some of which we gathered ourselves). A good time was had by all.

One of the highlights of the paddling was a chance to test out a new kayak by P&H. Team paddler Paul Kuthe was along with strict instructions to see what it can do. It's called the Hammer, and it's meant to be a dedicated ocean playboat. Their Delphin has been a great success (at least half the coaches/students at GGSKS were in them) as a playful sea kayak that is still very versatile and easy for beginners. Their Fusion crossover was designed to handle rivers and lakes but has been popular for rock gardening (I'm not claiming to be the first to use it on the ocean, but here's a link to some footage of what I did with it as soon as it came out in 2009: ). The Hammer is meant to combine the best of both.

The Hammer has been protyped for a while and is almost ready to go to production. We had the final prototype that comes from the production mold, so only a few tweaks will be made before it hits showroom floors. We all took turns in it and compared notes. The consensus it that it's awesome! It's super playful among the rocks, surfs like a whitewater kayak, and still has enough flatwater speed to go on short tours. It doesn't have the speed and storage to work as a traditional sea kayak, but for those just looking to play it's the right tool for the job.

We also had the new Valley Gemini SP along for the fun. It's a composite boat that's designed to be super playful. I've paddled it on flatwater but didn't get a chance to get any ocean time in it on this trip. It's a little more of a full sea kayak than the Hammer (Gemini = 15'; Hammer = 13'), and the composite nature make you want to be a little gentler on it, but it was a great surfer and the lighter weight was handy both on and off the water. There's rumor of a coming plastic version which I would be super excited about. It's cool to see how boat designs are matching the trend for more adventurous paddling - ocean water with river skills.

In the video the Hammer is the orange boat that has a rounded nose (there's also an orange Delphin that pops up occasionally). The Gemini is the all black boat (it's the 'Black Pearl' boat that's been down the Grand Canyon). Paddlers kept switching so it can be a little hard to see who is in what, but I'm sure most of you just want to enjoy the pretty scenes. There's also more pictures of the boats on my Picasa page.