Saturday, July 25, 2015

How Writing is like Kayaking

OK, writing isn't really like kayaking at all in the literal sense, aside from the fact that you're normally sitting down when you do either one. But in a much more figurative and existential sense, and definitely in how I relate to both disciplines, they have a lot in common. [For new readers: in addition to this blog and my upcoming memoir, I write fiction under the pen name Blair B. Burke] In fact, I think you can find most of these traits in just about any endeavor as long as you look for them. It's really about enjoying whatever you do.

It's Always Different

One thing you hear from kayakers is that you never paddle the same water twice. The ocean, in particular, is always changing. The same spot might be foggy and moody, bright and dynamic, mellow or challenging - all in the same day as weather changes, tide falls, and swells rise. Rivers are vastly different at different flows. An easy run of rock-dodging at low water turns into big-water play at high flows. Even your local lake changes from winter to summer, afternoon to sunset to moonlight paddle. And even if you managed to keep everything else the same, changing who you're with creates a brand new experience. The constancy of change is what draws us to the same areas time and time again.

Writing offers the same sense of wonder and exploration each and every time I sit down at the computer. Every story is new, the people in it change as it goes. If I'm writing a fight scene it's never the same style as the last one; a meeting between characters changes with their personalities. Even if I have to go back and re-write a scene that wasn't working, a single different word in the first sentence will send me down a new path and into the unknown. The only thing that gets old and repetitive is the editing, but that's the equivalent to practicing rescues. It's not always exciting and fun, but it's where you learn new things through hard work and essential if you want to improve.

It's Completely Absorbing

What draws many people to kayaking and other physical pursuits of a similar nature is the sense of being in the moment. When you're at the lip of the drop or watching the wave start to form behind you - your entire focus is on what you doing right now and what's coming in the next second. The rest of the world falls away. Last week's trials are long gone and Monday's staff meeting is too distant to even acknowledge. It feels like what being alive should feel like and the smart ones are those who bring that feeling into their everyday lives.

When I write I start with a full water bottle and snacks nearby. I know from experience that I can lose myself for hours, so much so that I'll eventually look up and realize the sun has set, I'm parched and starving, and my bladder doesn't care if I finish this chapter. You can pour all your energy into what you're doing and still come out more energized than when you started. That's pure joy.

You Travel Beautiful Places

The sheer granite walls on a high Sierra runs, the rocky coast of my local Mendocino, even a simple sunset on the lake in the middle of town - we kayakers get to see some very special sights, often in a way that no one else can. You learn to appreciate the simple and the magnificent. (One thing I will say kayaking has over writing: the pictures definitely come out better :)

If you think it's nice to travel to someplace rare and beautiful, it's even better to create it. Not all my worlds are pretty - some are grimy, filled with bad people, and lots of bad things happen. But I've gotten to go into space, go back in time, fly like a superhero and live the life of a cat. Writing is exploration, pure and simple, and it's a helluva lot cheaper with fewer security lines. And if the dreariness of a place ever gets me down I can brighten it with a couple choice words.

The People are Like Family

Kayakers are a tribe. I can go anywhere and find folks to paddle with. People I've never met will offer to not only show me the water but also the best burrito in touch and maybe a couch to crash on for the night. If I forgot something they'll lend me their spare. They don't need to know which side of the political fence I'm on, what kind of family life I have, or how often I shower. Kayakers accept each other and form a community that's at once easier and deeper than how we interact with most of the world. The friendships you form might only last for one paddle, or maybe for a lifetime. Either way they really count for something in a world where too often society is filled with bland interactions that accomplish the necessary at the cost of true meaning.

For all that writing is a solo endeavor, it has its communities too. They tend to be virtual - I have writing friends across the country and the globe who I've never met and probably never will. I also made some of my first new friends in Mendocino by joining the writing club in town. They're as diverse as kayakers, from teens just starting out and so excited to be in the club to eighty-year-olds who have written their whole life and are still happy to welcome someone new. Once again, all it takes is the knowledge that we are all involved in the same activity, that we've faced the same challenges and experienced the same joys. We have one thing in common and it's enough to build on.

It Makes the Rest of My Life Better

I'm happier when I write. I bring that joy back with me to my daily activities, and I'm a nicer, kinder, and more supportive person because of it. When life is hard I can daydream about writing. It's a refuge that protects me and a place where I can build back my energy to face the harsh realities. Yes, it can consume my time and draw me away from other people and other activities, but there are so many good things in life that we have to pick and choose of which we'll partake. Kayaking does all those things as well and I feel lucky to have found more than a single thing around which to build my life.

And that's what we all do, kayakers or writers. At least we should. Find the things that bring us joy and spend our time there. Treat everyone we meet like they're part of our community, because whether we know it or not I'm certain we have something in common. One of my kayaking friends, who passed away far too young, had the most diverse group of friends, many of whom were completely unaware that he kayaked (even though he was on the kayak polo national team with me). If there's one thing I learned from Albert, it's that everything you do can and should make you happy. Writing, kayaking, eating, dancing, laughing, working, getting married, raising kids, moving apartments, or simply waking up in the morning. Treat life like you mean it and go out there and do your thing - whatever it is.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking: Surf Zone

This is part of a series of posts covering what it takes to paddle on the open ocean, exposed to swell and away from easy landings. I'll discuss the techniques and ideas I feel are important to understand in order to safely paddle in such a dynamic environment with the focus on how to approach thing instead of simply how to do things. While my intention is to help guide folks who are newer to the sport and possibly neophytes on the ocean, I hope some of the wisdom I share gives even the most seasoned paddler more to think about. This is not meant to teach any specific skills, but rather to inform people on what they should be learning and give some suggestions for going about it. Many of these things are covered in typical classes (some are not), and I highly encourage instruction from a skilled teacher. But I also know many paddlers learn through experience - properly so - and hope these concepts will lead to better learning experiences.

There's a sequence to these posts for a reason, so if something seems unfamiliar try starting at the beginning. Make sure to read the disclaimers and warnings in Part 1: Introduction. And feel free to ask any questions or share your own thoughts in the comments.

The Surf Zone

The Theory

If you can handle the surf you can handle the ocean. It’s a little simplistic but fundamentally true in a way that many people don’t seem to understand. Handling rough water almost always comes back to the skills you learn in the surf zone. The people who are comfortable in breaking waves near the beach are the ones who can paddle in breaking waves off shore. You can get by on the open coast without surf skills if you carefully pick your launch site and get lucky with the weather. But luck runs out. And in an emergency you can’t always choose where to land. If you really want to be an ocean kayaker you have to learn how to deal with the surf.

This doesn’t mean you have to surf. Surfing a kayak is one skill among many in the surf zone – it’s probably the funnest – but it isn’t the important thing to learn for coastal paddling. What you need to learn is how to launch through the surf, how to land with the surf, and most importantly how to brace against a wave.

But let’s step back for a second and talk about what the surf zone is. It’s where the energy of a wave gets released. That's what waves are: energy moving through the water. Most of the time that energy passes under a kayak with nothing but a little up and down motion. The wave continues on it's merry way taking the energy with it. It’s situations where that energy spills out of the wave - when the wave has broken in some way - and comes into contact with your kayak that are important. In the surf zone, the water runs out of room to travel forward (it happens anywhere the water becomes too shallow for the wave to travel freely) and the energy pushes the wave up and then it breaks, spilling the energy forward in whitewater. Learning how to deal with that energy is what it's all about. The surf zone is the best classroom because the release is largely consistent and predictable. When you go to the beach to learn, focus on the energy.

One key thing to understand is how to measure that energy, how to get a sense of the explosive power a wave contains. Everyone looks at how tall the waves are, but just like when you try to figure out how many dishes will pack up into your moving box, you need more than the height. You need the length of the box as well. In waves, that’s measured by the period, the time between one wave and the next. Longer period = larger box = more energy. [I’ll go over this more when I talk about Forecasts]  

It's also important to realize that the energy release can be fast or relatively slow. If the waves runs into a quick ending, meaning a steep beach, it will crash hard. If the slope is gentle, it will slowly spill over the top. Whether you're surfing or transiting the surf zone, you want to avoid being in the spot where the wave crashes. If you can't get outside the wave, then you want to get inside of it, moving forward or backward as the case demands to avoid being right under the wave as it explodes.

In general, avoidance is your goal. The most successful paddlers in the surf are the ones who have learned to read the ocean (same is true for those who want to play and surf the waves – the ones who pick the best waves have the best rides). Spend time watching and evaluating. See if different parts of the beach act differently. Learn how to spot rip currents and why they can be your friend. Wait for a few sets to see a pattern. Note whether the energy gets released in a thunderous crash all at once, or if the waves spill more gently farther out.I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at a beach with a group and seen people charge in and get demolished. By picking the right spot and waiting for the right time, I often land or launch without getting wet. Patience is your friend.

To be honest, the only physical skills you need to get through the surf zone properly are a good forward stroke and strong reverse stroke. Couple with good timing and that’s all there is to it. But that’s in a perfect world. In the real world you have to learn how to handle a wave when your timing is off or the surf zone is too big to make it through between waves. You have to deal with that energy. That means bracing.

I don’t want to focus on the minutia of technique but make sure you get the principle. You brace against the energy that the wave is releasing at you. Same as if someone were trying to push you over, you lean into the push. What the paddle does is secondary. How much do you lean? Do you edge the kayak or lean your whole body? Depends on how strong the push is – the more energy that hits you the more you need to lean into it. What happens if you lean too far? You fall over. So learning to brace means learning to balance.

That’s the most valuable thing you’ll learn in the surf zone. If you can get comfortable in breaking waves, learn how to anticipate the energy coming at you, how to react even if it’s unexpected, and how to balance yourself against it you will be ready to paddle in rough water on the open ocean. When the sea gets confused from wind against swell or waves reflect off a cliff or a hidden reef causes a big set to break – that’s when you need to stay upright and keep paddling. That’s what the surf zone teaches you.

It won’t come instantly. It won’t come if you just paddle in and out of the surf zone. It won’t come while you’re surfing the wave. It comes when the wave has broken, the energy released, and you’re left side surfing and riding it out. The more time spent doing that the better a paddler you’ll be.

The Practice

Some things are fine to learn on your own. It might take a little longer, you might get a few bumps, but you can figure it out. Surf zone isn’t one of those. Even if you’ve spent time in the surf on a board or swimming, playing in a kayak is vastly different. Sitting inside a rigid kayak and holding onto a solid chunk of fiberglass with ends designed to catch water raises the stakes and complexity dramatically. What you get out of a one-day surf class from a skilled instructor will save you years on the learning curve and greatly reduce your chance of serious injury – and make no mistake, all that energy we’re talking about can cause some big-time injuries. So start out with a class. There will be plenty of time to spend practicing in the surf again and again.

That being said, here are some thoughts on what to do in that class and what to do after.

Swim. Yeah, I know I said it’s different than being in a kayak, but if you’ve never really experienced surf then it’s best to start without the boat. You can learn about energy in a direct manner that takes a lot of the complication out of the picture. And later, when you haven’t mastered your balance and you flip over and your roll fails because you were so eager to get out paddling that you didn’t spend enough time practicing in the pool – that’s when you’ll appreciate knowing how to swim in the surf.

In class you’ll probably work on launching and landing, because those are good and important skills. But make sure you spend time talking about the waves and the beach. Get some insight from someone with more experience. Spend time in the soup zone – the small, broken waves near shore which have already spent most of their energy. A good instructor will have a number of tools to help you work on your balance and bracing. Don’t think of this as time spent practicing a last-ditch effort to survive. Recognize it as the essence of coastal paddling.

Like any class, what you really learn is determined by what you practice afterwards. So plan on spending lots of time in the surf. Start small. If a beach has a lot of surfers it’s probably bad for two reasons: too much energy for a learning environment and too many hazards in your way. Try to find a beach that looks boring. What most people don’t realize is that on the ocean it’s not the whole wave that breaks. You might have twenty foot swells but in deep water it’s only the top couple of feet that are spilling over because of the wind. In the surf zone you have the whole wave breaking because it’s run out of space. A two foot surf zone gives you plenty of energy to practice with if rough water paddling is your goal.

As your skills build your desire to face bigger waves will grow with it. That’s fine, but give yourself an out. I’ve said before how harbor mouths can be a great place to work on skills in rough water without too much exposure. Well, the harbor jetty often protects a section of beach – or perhaps it the natural curve of the coast or outer reef that does it. Either way, find a beach that transitions from protected to exposed with waves that start small and get bigger. You can move along the beach as your success (or failure) dictates.

In those bigger waves you will inevitably decide to surf some of them. Like I said, that’s the funnest part so go for it. You’ll learn a lot from riding a wave and even more when the ride ends. Most people go kayak surfing for the enjoyment, not the learning. Most people happen to learn more when they’re enjoying themselves than when they’re working hard. Go out and have fun and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your bracing improves.

But even while having fun, keep your mind engaged. You need to stay active in the surf zone, both physically and mentally. If you’re sitting still you’re at the mercy of the water (and the sea isn't merciful). That’s all right if you’re aware of what’s coming and are ready for it, but it helps if you’re moving, avoiding the worst of the energy and controlling when and where you meet it. When launching and landing you want to be moving forward or backward, fast or slow, and always ready to change direction or accelerate quickly.

Another thing that surf zone practice will help with is your roll. If it wasn’t solid before you started you’ll get motivated quickly. You might even see the advantage of practicing in a controlled environment like a pool. You’ll definitely see the benefit to staying calm and collected while the energy spills around your upside-down body and you roll up after it’s passed. Better yet, you’ll learn how to tap into the energy of the water to do the work of rolling for you. It’s very hard to get to be a good surfer without being a good roller.

The surf zone can be intimidating. It will be humbling. But it’s where you pay your dues. Running a program I often saw folks who looked at the series of classes and checked off one after the other. That’s not how it works. You might be able to jump from SK1 to SK2, but you don’t jump from surf zone to the advanced courses that come after it. It takes time to learn all that the surf has to offer. Time spent deliberately practicing as well as playing around. 


If you want to paddle on the coast the surf zone is where it starts. It’s what you need to get through to reach the open water, it’s what you need to go through to get back home safely, and it’s where you turn all those flatwater skills into rough-water capabilities. It’s all that and a bag of chips.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Paddler's Journey Launches August 2nd!

I'm almost there! After a year of work, with plenty of distractions and full-time jobs getting in the way, my kayak memoir A Paddler's Journey is almost ready to be published. It will be available in paperback and multiple eBook formats. I'm excited and nervous, but I'm happy with how the book came out and in the end that's what matters most to me.

I know I have a lot of friends and readers out there who are looking to support me in this endeavor, so I thought I'd let you know what you can do to help. Don't worry, most of it is painless and involves very little work on your part. You might even find some of it fun.

Buy the Book

OK, this is obvious. But there are different ways to buy the book, so I thought I'd explain them a little to point out which way helps me the most. First, start on my website. I've completely redesigned it (you can check it out now but the book-buying page isn't live yet). If you buy the book directly through the links there I get more money. I'll also be offering a discount on the paperback - so you'll actually save money too. And I'm going to be selling signed copies of the paperback directly through the site. These will cost a little more, but that's because it takes me more time to sign and package them and pay for the shipping. But direct purchases do give me the highest profit margins.

[To be transparent, here's a little more info on those 'profits'. I've easily spent over a 1,000 hours working on this project. I make from one to five dollars on each book I sell, depending on the format and location. I'll be really lucky to sell a couple thousand copies - most self-published books sell a couple of hundred. Again, being wildly optimistic, I'll make a few thousand dollars. That's about $2/hr. You don't have to worry that giving your money to some rich dude who's sitting back and raking in the dough.]

It also helps out if you all buy the book at once. That pushes the book higher in the rankings at sites like Amazon which helps get the book more visibility and encourages other people to buy it. So if you plan to buy the book at sometime, you might as well dive right in and buy it when it launches on August 2nd.

Review the Book

This is how books get sold these days - through reader reviews. Again, there's more effective and less effective ways to do this. First, be honest. Tell people what you really thought, what you liked, what you didn't. Friends and family raving about the book doesn't do anyone any good. If doesn't have to be long, but even a couple of quick sentences really count for more than merely given it a star rating.

Second, review it where you got it. Places like Amazon generally don't weight reviews if they don't think you've read the book, and they don't believe you read it if you didn't buy it from them. That does bring up a little hick-up because if you buy it direct from me (which I hope you do), any Amazon review won't be 'verified' even though you have bought a book made by them (I'm using Createspace to print the books and it's an Amazon subsidiary). I'm still working on how to solve this problem. I might throw in a code to get the eBook for free if you buy directly from me. That way not only will you get it signed, but you can 'buy' the eBook and leave a review. Once again, I ask that you only leave a review after you read the book and are honest about it. I'm not trying to game the system but to help everyone get real information.

Spread the Word

Feel free to talk about my book. To everyone. Everywhere. Maybe your friends who don't paddle would like it - it's written for everyone to enjoy, not just die-hard kayakers. They might even understand a little more about why we all love this sport so much. If you belong to a kayak club or forum on the web, maybe those people would be interested in the book. Feel free to loan out the book (but also encourage those who can afford it to buy their own copy).

In addition to reviews, it's social media word-of-mouth that helps to sell books. Facebook is still the big one and where I spend my time, but if you're on snapchat, instagram, tumblr, wherever, feel free to spread the word there. Again, be honest. If you don't think other people would enjoy it, don't twist their arm. My goal is to get my book to people who want to read it, even if they might not think they want to at first.

Let Me Know

It makes me feel all warm and tingly to know that people out there enjoyed reading something I wrote. Leave a comment, send an email, drop me a message on Facebook. If you like this blog, I really think you'll like the book. While each chapter is its own paddling story, the book format allowed me to connect them in a way that the blog doesn't. There's a theme and progression that goes from one to the next, and in the end they all add up to something more than just kayak adventures. You can simply enjoy the antics as I learn the sport through mistakes and setbacks, but if you want you can look closer and get something deeper out of it. Either way, it will be here soon and I hope you're all as excited as I am.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

When friends come to town - Kayaking Caspar

One of the dangers of living on such a beautiful coast is that you start to take it for granted. It's easy to sit at work watching waves crash over the rocks and think that it's nice but feel no urgency to rush out and experience it directly. That's why it's nice when people travel for hours to get here and spend several days paddling, super excited about being on the coast and blown away by the water and environment that we have. Their enthusiasm rubs off and it's a good excuse to rinse the dust off the boat and get out there.

This last weekend a big group (fifteen) showed up to play in the rock gardens. Busy with work, Lindsay and I could only join them for one day. They were camping at Russian Gulch and had paddled out of there a few times. They wanted to try somewhere new and suggested launching out of Caspar. I've paddled out of there a bunch, often to surf or do a quick lap around the harbor. I've thoroughly explored the stretch heading south down to Russian Gulch, but I've never gone north in conditions small enough to play in the many rocks that are there. We had a good forecast and decided to check it out.

I have to say it really impressed me. It's not easy to stand out in Mendocino, where every place you look has stunning vistas and the shoreline is filled with caves, tunnels, and intricate rock gardens. But Caspar North was pretty remarkable. It's definitely more exposed and on a typical day it would probably be too scary to do much playing. But in 3-4' swell it's a blast!

We had pour-overs galore and a number of really fun slots. We found some technical sections that were quite challenging on the bigger sets but also lots of forgiving features that could handle the silliness of the group. There was even a little cove with some surf waves - as long as you could dodge the rocks at the end.

And getting to enjoy it all with old friends, and to make new ones as well, was a huge bonus. Afterwards we were treated to a bountiful dinner at the campground, happy to contribute some fresh caught abalone that Lindsay got the day before. On the one hand, it felt a little silly to see everyone sitting in camp chairs, laptops out as  they reviewed pictures and video from the day. But seeing someone smile as they watched themselves go big, maybe the first time they really ran a large pour-over in this remarkable setting - you can't help but feel good at that.

The other drawback of being busy working and writing about paddling instead of doing it: I'm out of shape. After a full day of paddling and playing in my Jive, which really needs some attention to the backband, is that my back totally locked up the next day and I hobbled around the house like I'm twice my age. But I did manage to update my website to get ready for my book launch. A Paddler's Journey will be out soon and hopefully I'll get back to creating new adventures instead of merely recounting them.

More pictures from the day are at my Picasa Page.