Monday, October 28, 2013

Hardcore sea kayaking - or not

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

First, this was in an advanced class - rough water rescues. The student in question had solid rescues - quick T rescues and scrambles in confused four foot swells bouncing off rocks. That puts him far ahead of many club members and many experienced paddlers. He also had a roll. Not completely reliable yet, but a solid roll that worked when he needed it. I know quite a few paddlers who venture out on the ocean in fairly rough conditions without knowing how to roll. Once again, my student was well ahead of the game.

Second, the club isn't really hardcore. I've never seen a club that is. That isn't to say that there aren't some very skilled paddlers in the club, and some that do gnarly paddling. But clubs always consist of a wide variety of paddlers. I would venture to say that the majority of any sea kayaking club are people who go no further than well protected ocean paddler. Many never experience swells. And that's great - there's so much beauty, fun, and variety to be had on flat water paddles. Any club that has open membership is going to end up with a range of members and that diversity means the club as a whole is not hardcore. Individual members may vary.
Looks cold but the air temp was 50 deg. and we had dinner at a nice restaurant after.

The third reason the statement was funny is that hardcore is a silly term. What's it mean? Do you have to paddle near rocks? Or in really big waves? Does it mean you launch before dawn? Or does paddling without any chocolate count as hardcore? Everyone's going to have a different opinion and all of them are valid so all of them are slightly meaningless. We can probably agree that circumnavigating Australia is hard core. Anything less becomes arguable.

In the end I highly encouraged my student to go ahead and join the club already. Like most paddling clubs, it's filled with friendly people of all levels who enjoy new members. Joining a club is a great way to meet people at your level and it's a great way to start paddling with people at a higher level - that's how you improve. Hardcore is not a prerequisite and isn't even a goal for most people. Clubs wouldn't survive if they didn't welcome newcomers and transfer knowledge.

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

While this 'hardcore' talk is natural, and everyone wants to excel in their sport, I think the mindset of many folks is a bit off. I've seen more and more people getting into rock gardening, more people getting into rough water play. I think that's great. But it's not necessarily hardcore. To be honest, it often isn't even advanced paddling. It's fun. Some of it requires good skills. But lots of it just requires solid rescue skills (which should learned early on in one's paddling career) and good judgment. I've seen plenty of people doing 'hardcore' stuff who have limited skills and experience, sometimes even limited judgment. I don't think that makes you hardcore.

Those of us who enjoy rock garden paddling, especially those with advanced skills and lots of experience, should be more aware of the perception we create. Without meaning to, we can easily disregard the other aspects of the sport in favor of our exciting stories. I know I talk about my adventures a lot - right here on the blog. But I also write up my flat water paddles. I also share the simple things I do. I celebrate all levels of paddling and appreciate those who don't want thrills but merely enjoyment. I know quite a few truly hardcore paddlers and they feel the same way. The 'hardest' paddlers out there tend talk up the fun and play down the danger.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Lumpy Waters 2013

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

This was also the first year that I ended up teaching what I was assigned. There were the usual changes - students switching classes, class offerings changing to suit the conditions, instructors moving around to cover things - but I somehow escaped all that. It was nice to be able to follow through on my game plan for once.

On Friday I taught an edging and bracing class with Rob Yates. With the smallest swells of the weekend, we  were able to get right into the surf zone and have the students practice the skills in the environment where they'll need them. Rob had folks working without paddles and the instructors took turns standing chest deep in the cold water while the students practiced going in and out and doing some side surfing. Everyone was nervous at first but by the end they felt almost more comfortable bracing without a paddle than with it. Lots of smiles all around.

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

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

I enjoy teaching at these symposiums but another reason I love to go is to catch up with friends. It was great to see my Pacific Northwest friends like Paul Kuthe, Matt Nelson, Shawna and Leon, and others. I even got to catch up with some of my California friends who are a little farther away now that I live in Fort Bragg. It even seemed like I needed to catch up with my neighbors Jeff and Cate since they've been working so much lately we haven't had time to go out and play. It all went by too quickly but I know we'll do it again next year (Oct 10-12, 2014). In the meantime, it's time to start thinking about the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium in January.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kayak Polo - U.S. National Championships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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