Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking: Awareness/Judgment

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.

Part 2: Technique
Part 3: Rescues and Rolling
Part 4: Surf Zone
Part 5: Forecasts
Part 6: 
Part 7: Seamanship
Part 8: Working With the Water
Part 9: Rock Gardening


The Theory

To see what you want to see, you have to know what you’re looking for. That’s a little trickier than it sounds.

When paddling along a coast there are some obvious things to look for. The beautiful scenery, the ocean waves, your paddling companions. But what are you looking out for? What are the important signs of possible danger? What should you pay attention to and  what do you need to anticipate. How do you spend all your time being aware of hazards and still enjoy yourself?

We all want to have fun when we paddle – that’s the whole point – but in a dynamic and possibly dangerous environment like the open coast you also need to constantly be watching for changes that might put you at risk. You need to know what’s happening, what could happen, and what you and your partners can do to deal with whatever does happen. It’s a general concept, lacking in specifics by its very nature, but it is something you can practice and improve.

You have to be aware, and awareness needs to be a continuous and fluid thing. If you’re trying to follow a checklist or a bunch of rules, you won’t do it as often and you’ll miss out on the beauty that’s around you. Awareness is a state of mind that you have to work at reaching, rather like meditation. Not only does it make you a safer boater but it lets you get more out of your paddling experiences.

In theory you’re paying attention to everyone and everything. That can seem overwhelming. Start by making sure you’re not focused on any one thing. Many people paddle just watching the boat in front of them. Or maybe the birds. Or maybe they get lost in a great conversation with the person next to them. You really can’t afford to do that on the ocean. Always keep looking around. Count the paddlers in your group. Look behind. Look up. Make sure to change your focus frequently and you’ll actually appreciate a lot more of the world around you as well and increase your awareness of risks.

The goal is to see the bad things coming before they arrive. You don’t want to all of a sudden realize the wind is very strong or that wave is very close. The truth is most disasters unfold slowly on the ocean, over a matter of hours. People get cold, conditions deteriorate, the group gets farther and farther from safety. These things start as small problems and grow, but if you see what’s happening when it’s still very manageable you can make small corrections that change the trajectory of the outing. Ask the person next to you if they’re warm enough. Figure out why your boat keeps wanting to go to the left. Stay close to shore if it feels like the skies are darkening. You have to see the problem building in order to cut it off while it’s small. Information is your friend.  

Judgment is what you do with the information you are now aware of. It’s deciding a course of action, a route through the rocks or where to position yourself in the group. Whether to press on or turn back. It’s not always about making the safe choice – the safest thing is to never be out there – but about understanding the consequences of your actions and making sure you can handle the possible outcomes. It’s about balancing risk and reward, exposure and experience.

Without good information you can’t make a good decision. And out on the coast you are constantly making decisions, which is why you have to always be aware. The key is to start making those decisions with conscious thought instead of letting happenstance and habit dictate your actions. Gather the information you need by observing the physical world and consulting your own experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get feedback from your companions, those who might know more and even those who definitely know less. Everyone is a part of the equation.

The hardest part to this for beginners is that they start out letting someone else make their judgments for them. It’s natural. Your instructor has more experience and knowledge so you let them decide. You join a club and head out on a group paddle with a strong leader. You go out with your more experienced friend who got you into the sport in the first place. It’s not only easier to let someone else decide, it allows you to pretend the risk doesn’t even exist. It takes away your responsibility and who wants responsibility when you’re having fun? Eventually that attitude will hold you back and put yourself and others at risk. So start learning how to handle things yourself right from the start.

Start by asking your instructor why they made that decision. Ask them what they see when they look out at the surf. Check your own compass while you’re following the leader. Try to guess if the group will go inside or outside that rock (and guess who’s going do the opposite of everyone else). Even if the decision is up to someone else, make up your own mind and see if it agrees with them. If not, start a discussion (not an argument) to find out why other folks came to a different conclusion. Paddle with your betters but aspire to be their equal. Recognize it takes time and effort to get there.

You don’t need to rely on the ‘experts’. Sometimes very skilled paddlers still have bad judgment. Sometimes they just have a greater comfort with risk. Sometimes they’re not around. If you’re paddling with peers, or maybe you’re the leader of the group, still ask for help. More people means more information, and good leaders take it all in. Ultimately someone needs to make a decision – non-decisions left up to the vagaries of groupthink are almost always bad. Consensus is fine as long as it’s spelled out. You need to know what others are thinking and feeling if you, or anyone, wants to make a good decision for a group. Ultimately someone has to speak the plan or lead the way.

The good paddlers are making these informed decisions constantly. They also keep a flexible frame of mind. Goal-oriented activities are the nemesis of good judgment. If you’re set on launching from a certain beach, traveling a certain distance before calling it a day, or feel a need to prove yourself to your peers, your judgment is likely to be impaired. It is possible to set and reach goals and retain good judgment, but it makes it harder. It helps to build up your judgmental experience by taking the pressure off yourself. Let your sense of what is safe and reasonable decide what your goal should be, not the other way around. Be willing to miss out on a good experience in order to avoid a really bad one.

The theory is to be aware and make conservative decisions. By having that as your goal you are already steps ahead of the pack. Here are some things you can do to get further ahead. 


Start with the big things. You should already know the forecast for the weather (see the previous post in this series), but you need to pay attention to how the weather is changing. Pay attention to the clouds in the sky – puffy white clouds are pretty but a line of grey clouds means something else. Watch the sea state – not only will you see if it’s getting windier but you’ll have a better chance at spotting whale spouts or sea lions popping up for a visit. Feel the swells pass under you – you’ll connect with the ocean and improve your paddling while also learning the pattern of sets for the day.

That same mode of thought applies to deciding where to go. When you look at the rocks, notice how the waves roll over them or deflect around them. It’s fascinating to see the interaction of water and stone, and also very informative to see how different size sets behave differently. Just like in the surf zone, patience is your friend as you evaluate ocean features.

Feel the wind on your face when you look around to pinpoint the direction it’s coming from. Look at the sky in that direction since it’s headed your way. Count the whitecaps you see – are their more where you’re headed? That means it’s windier over there.

Outside of the physical environment, the most important thing to keep watching are your friends. Where are they going? What are they doing? Are they all still here and upright? Checking in early allows you easy opportunities to avoid future difficulties. Offer that chilly person an extra warm hat or a snickers bar before they get hypothermic. Stop and fix the footpeg instead of constantly doing sweep strokes until your arm tires out. Notice your buddy’s stern is riding low and realize the hatch cover isn’t on tight while you’re still close enough to shore to make it back if you can’t fix it on the water. Some things are hard to see but if you ask a few questions you’ll learn a lot. And what you didn’t notice someone else might have. The strength of any group is their combined skills, awareness included.

Aside from the physical, learn to consider the psychological – it’s an important part of group dynamics and the key to smoothly functioning paddle trips. Is everyone comfortable with the route and conditions? Does everyone have the skills to deal with what might be faced? Communication is the key to group decision-making and getting everyone involved early is necessary to facilitate making the tough calls when things go sideways. In the end, someone needs to speak the plan and you'll get more agreement (and a better plan) if everyone has contributed and feels free to share their thoughts.

There are many ways to arrive at a decision. Some people suggest formulas, like the bulls-eye method developed by Body Boat Blade, which is good when making big decisions like deciding whether or not to launch (brief overview here). But you won’t constantly be pulling out a chart every time you need to decide whether to go through the rocks or around them, or whether to paddle next to Bob or up front with Mary. I think you need something a little simpler and quicker for the majority of small decisions that get made every time out on the water.

The way I like to approach things is with a focus on PROBABILITY and CONSEQUENCE. Whenever I consider what could go wrong I also give it a likelihood. I could get attacked by a Great White at any time, but I know the odds are very remote so I don’t do much to adjust my behavior (though I don’t do rescue practice next to a rookery in the fall). A large set coming in after a lull is much more likely. If I paddle behind that rock how often does a wave big enough to break come by? Is it common for winds to pick up in the afternoon (yes!)? I use my past experience to estimate the likelihood of typical problems on the water and make my best guess as to what could happen. It isn’t perfect, but it isn’t random.

Once aware of what can happen and how likely it is, you need to consider how bad it will be. If I do get hit by that big wave, would I be able to brace and ride it out or does it slam into more rocks? If something is likely to flip me, will I be able to roll up? If I end up swimming, how cold is the water, how warm am I dressed, how far would I have to go? If Jimmy gets tired or someone blows out a shoulder, do we have enough strong paddlers to tow them to safety? Do we have communication gear to call for help? While a lot can go wrong, most of it can be dealt with as long as you have the proper equipment and training. So when I see a risk I don’t have to automatically avoid it. I can choose to take it if I feel the reward is worth it and the consequences are acceptable.

I don’t have a magic formula, but if there’s a high risk of something going wrong I still might try it if the negative outcome isn’t all that bad. Swimming into the beach on a sunny day certainly won’t ruin a surf session. But I stay away from low risk situations if the outcome is something I really don’t want to deal with, even if it’s unlikely. I stay away from rocks if I’m in my friend’s new composite kayak. I don’t go around that point if I know a squall could blow the group out to sea and it’s already getting late in the day. If it’s just me and my wife I’m much more conservative in my play, but with a larger group of skilled paddlers I know there are simply more resources to deal with whatever happens.

You can practice this judgment in retrospect. While that includes looking at situations that went wrong, it’s just as important to review when things went right. Too many people assume that a lack of disaster indicates good decisions were made. That’s simply not true. If you survived the first round of Russian roulette, it hardly proves your thought process is sound and definitely doesn’t suggest the second round will be equally as successful.

After every paddle take some time to consider the choices you made and think about how things turned out. Did you turn back in time? Was your route a good one? Did everyone have fun on the trip? Do you realize now that you would have been in real trouble if a large set came while you were exploring that cave? Reflection is the key to growth.

If you can, include others in the review. A fine time to do this is with a beer in your hand after a large and satisfying meal (on the other hand, a bad time to do this is after several beers and one too many roadside tacos). It doesn’t have to be formal or structured, but pay attention to those who have more experience and listen to those who don’t say much. We all have war stories to share and most of them have a useful lesson buried in there somewhere. It’s fun and educational at the same time. 


 You can normally spot the paddlers who are aware by watching their head. It swivels. They take in the whole 360. They’re the ones who saw the harbor porpoise, noticed Frank has a new paddle, and found the coolest slot to run. They’re having the most fun and make you want to paddle with them. That’s the paddler you want to be.

The ones who always leave the decisions to others. The ones who are up for anything but often end up needing help. The ones who are surprised by what the ocean brings. Those are the paddlers you want to avoid.

It’s an attitude. A choice. Being aware and making good judgments are skills to develop and practice. They go right along with a solid roll and the ability to back surf; with helping others carry boats and having extra chocolate at the lunch break. All things very much needed in this sport.

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