Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sticking with It

I've always been someone that takes to new things like a fish to water. I develop new skills in quantum leaps and quickly reach high-levels.
This is a comfortable delusion.... The memory of the struggles and missteps compress into blurs. The failures are forgotten or rationalized into a dislike. I don't avoid volleyball (or golf, baseball, basketball, dancing, ...) because I'm bad at it and never quite mastered the skills. I avoid it because it is a stupid waste of time.
Kayaking started off as a skill I picked up quickly. The basics-forward stroke, sweep turn, stern rudder, bracing-developed effortlessly. It was as if all I had to do was put the paddle in my hand and some genetic memory blossomed. Within weeks of getting my first sea kayak-a yellow Perception Vizcaya-I was conquering the mighty seas on any beginner trip I could find. By the end of my first season, I was able to hold my own on intermediate trips - as long as things didn't get too rough.
Full of confidence, and a little bravado, I was ready to take it to the "next level" in season two. I figured by the end of season two I'd be rolling like a kid on a grassy hill, surfing like the Big Kahoona, and have the kayak dancing like Fred Astair. I figured it would take a little practice with the skills to perfect them, but only a little.
So, I started trying some of the skills in the book I had gotten. The first new skills on the docket were draw strokes and edged turns. The first few weeks I practiced, on a small lake near my house, I became an expert at wet exits and paddle float rescues. I'd either lean the kayak too much and flip, or, which to my mind was worse, not lean enough for an edged turn to be effective. Sometimes the kayak would even turn the wrong way!!!
If I was not already hooked on sea kayaking and committed to doing some of the more challenging trips, I would have likely decided that my skill-level was sufficient and learning new skills was for kayak weenies and show offs. Fortunately, I was hooked and struggled through. Eventually, I got to the point where I could execute a draw stroke and an edged turn with a better than 50% chance of success. I still need to practice and refine them after years of work.
After the draw and the edged turns, I decided to learn how to roll. I'd spent enough time wet exiting to get over my fear of capsizing and to appreciate the amount of effort it takes to do a self-rescue. It was near the end of the season, but I figured I'd just get it....
I got the first half down pretty quickly. Over the winter I took a rolling class and just about got it. Then I waited until May to try again... I had to start over again. Every weekend, I'd try to get pointers and do some practice. Sometime near the end of my third season I could occasionally roll the kayak.
The beginning of the fourth season saw me in a new kayak, the trusty Endeavor, and ready to master the roll. I even took another class. Yet, it was back to the drawing board. It took less time to have an occasional roll, but I stalled out there.
Then I started using a stick. That sent the roll, as well as a number of other skills, back to square two. By the end of the fourth season I could roll about 50%. I'd also figured out, with a lot of flips, how to use a bow rudder. I still spent a large amount of time in the water helping the group practice rescues.
It was sometime during season five that my roll, along with the bow rudder, finally got to the point where it was consistent. The edged turn and draw strokes were useful in rough conditions. I was actually doing more rescues than being rescued. Surfing was still a little dodgy, but I tend to avoid surf.
I spent the first half of the season swapping around between different types of paddles. That slowed down progress, but ultimately helped. Once I figured out the motion, I didn't have to rely on the paddle so much.
Six seasons later, I still have a ton to learn and plenty of skill refinement ahead. The pool sessions this winter have been a great opportunity to try out new skills and bone up on old stuff. I'm still dedicated to doing at least one roll every time I paddle. Even on a beginner level trip I always look for ways to practice kayak control.
One of the things I love about kayaking on the ocean is that there is always a new skill or a little trick to learn. Like the ocean itself, the well of skills and knowledge is vast and deep. The ocean is a harsh mistress and we must always work to master the ways of enjoying her company.
Paul also has a good post about this here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Quest for a Kayak

Last summer there was a fit of kayak purchasing going around. I know at least six people who got into new kayaks in '06. One of the purchases was a needed upgrade, one was a not so needed upgrade, one was to replace a lost friend. One went badly, one is still in process. One was an attempt to find the right fit. I'm sure that there were other purchases and that each had its own rationale.
How does one know when to buy a new kayak? How does one choose the right one from the myriad of choices?
When to buy is the easy question to answer. You'll know when it is time to buy a new kayak. The one you are using will break, stop fitting you the way it should, get to heavy, or get stolen. You may just get tired of the old kayak. Your paddling needs may change. Maybe you've just got the money and your not sure if you will have it later. You'll know when its time to buy.
Knowing what to buy is always the tricky part. There are hundreds of kayak models on the market. Even if you limit your quest to strictly "sea kayaks" there are more choices than you face at the Starbuck's counter. They all look pretty similar. The difference in handling is a matter of feel. Ask 10 kayakers and you'll get twenty opinions about which kayak is the right one.
Before you go shopping you should ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How much do you want to spend?
    A new kayak can run anywhere from $1200-$5000 dollars. Knowing your price range can narrow the field. For under $2000 you can get a new plastic kayak or a used fibreglass kayak, so there is no reason to think that you must spend a ton of money.

  2. What is your skill level? Realistically?
    The skill levels that manufacturers place on their kayaks are usually crap. However, they do point out a truism. Some kayaks are more forgiving than others. Some feel more stable than others. Typically, more forgiving and more stable mean less maneuverable. Everything about kayak design involves trade offs.

  3. What types of kayaking are you planning on using the kayak for?
    Kayaks are specialty vehicles. While you can camp out of a kayak that is built for dancing around rock gardens for a day tour, it is not always fun. Expedition kayaks can be dragged through rock gardens, but would you enjoy trying to race a Winnebago on a Grand Prix track? Everything about kayak design involves trade offs. Long kayaks go fast in a straight line, but are hard to turn. Short kayaks turn nicely, but are slower and don't always track well.

  4. How much can you lift over your head comfortably?
    At some point you will need to get the kayak on or off the roof of your car. Kayaks can be as light as 3 pounds. There are also systems out there that make the chore of getting the kayak on the car easier, but they cost money that should be factored into the price of the new kayak.
H tried out kayaks for months. The kayaks she tried were a little too big, a little too tippy, a little too slow, a little too stable.... Until she settled on the Capella 161 which is near to perfect for her.
I too tried out a number of kayaks before getting the Q. I tried a Nordkapp, a Greenlander Pro, an Explorer, a Bayiha, the Q, and several others. I wanted something more "high-performance" than the Endeavor. The new kayak needed to be a platform for me to "go to the next level." These are not the criteria to take into a kayak store. They are wispy slogans with the illumination of wet match. I needed to figure out what I really wanted before I could even begin to evaluate.
As it turned out, I wanted something that could maneuver nimbly in both calm and rough water. I didn't, however, want to sacrifice too much speed. Armed with real criteria I was ready to really shop.
Each kayak I tried out was a champ at certain things and in many cases the differences were negligible.
  • The Explorer is the most sought after kayak for a reason. It was more nimble than the Endeavor, had plenty of speed, and is good in rough water.
  • The Nordkapp has many of the same characteristics, but is a little less stable and a little less nimble.
  • The Greenlander Pro was a rocket ship and I could get it too play around with ease in flat water.
  • The Q was incredibly nimble even in less than perfect conditions, had decent speed, but tended to weather cock. It also has limited space for expeditioning.
  • The Bahiya was, for me, not even a real contender. It had no stability for someone of my build and skills. In a straight line, on calmish water, it was a rocket. Turning it required a decent amount of lean and I usually ended up eating sea weed.
Using my criteria as a guide, the Q was the best choice. It did what I wanted it to do, with aplomb, was appropriate for my skills, fit my price range, and I could lift it onto the car.
Even knowing what I wanted, getting the right kayak involved a touch of luck. The mill pond you try the kayak out in is not the ocean you will paddle it in....

Friday, February 16, 2007

Why we kayak?

Derrick of KayakQuixotica has a great post today about why he sea kayaks:
being there

I won't say any more because he says it so well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Rolling Rationale

Over the weekend I was talking to a fellow kayaker about how strange it is that modern day sea kayakers strive so hard to learn a number of different types of rolls. After all it is unlikely that any of of will ever need to roll up while one of our arms is pinned to our body by fishing line. It is also unlikely that using a Euro paddle and one of the modern sea kayak designs such a roll has a prayer of working. Once you've got a solid roll, both on-side and off-side, why not just be happy and move on?
Aside from the obvious fact that learning new things is a challenge and kayakers, for the most part, like to challenge themselves, there is the "cool" factor. Being able to do a bunch of different rolls looks pretty darn cool. Doing a one armed roll will most certainly get you more beer than a regular old C-to-C roll.
The best reason is that as you learn new rolls you gain two things:

  1. confidence

  2. a feel for the balance of your kayak.

Most of the Greenland rolls rely on using the buoyancy of your body to roll the kayak back under you. Each time you try a new roll you feel the subtle shifts in the relationship between your kayak, your body, and the water. For instance to make a butterfly roll work you really need to extend the paddle away from the kayak to make the most of the buoyancy that is needed to bring the kayak around. A little too far out and you cannot shift you weight back over the kayak. A little too close and you do not get enough lift. Either way, you are back at the beginning.
A teacher once told me that the real trick of learning to use a traditional paddle is understanding the interface between the air and the water. Knowing how your body shifts the balance of the kayak makes you more sea worthy. Unlike a boat, or a ship, a kayak relies on its paddler for its ultimate stability in rough water. Kayak and paddler are one on the water.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Rolling We Will Go

RIC/KA is in the middle of its four rolling sessions. H went to the first two looking to gain some more confidence when capsizing and hopefully learn to roll. I went along to help out and offer moral support. It was a great experience.
A number of generous paddlers offered their time and expertise to people looking to learn. H benefited from the thoughtful tutelage of four people who were all able to point out little things and guide her through. Sharing knowledge is one of the great things about kayaking as part of a club. Others are always willing to help another paddler gain in skills so that the whole group gains.
Listening to H and trying to help others at the pool session reminded me of just how complicated a skill rolling is and also how unnatural a skill it is. Like many aspects of kayaking, rolling is as much a body thing as it is a mind thing. There are a ton of tiny little things to master and integrate to roll the kayak upright and keep it that way. Keep your head down, make sure the leading blade is parallel to the surface, don't pull too soon or too late, hip snap, use a brace to recover, tuck and unwind, move quickly but not too quickly, don't panic... Oh and do all of this when you are upside down and underwater.
Demonstrating a roll to a bystander is hard because you either have to show it upside down or have an underwater, slow motion camera to capture all of the important parts of the roll. From the surface you cannot see how the body unwinds, what the torso does, where to keep your eyes. From the surface all you can see is the blade slide across the water and, if all goes according to plan, the kayak roll under the paddler.
That an Inuit hunting in freezing water with kayak made of seal hide and drift wood and paddling with a stick ever figured out how to roll seems miraculous. That he was able to transmit the skill to his peers seems even more miraculous. How hard is it to convince non-kayakers that rolling isn't crazy?
Once you get it, a roll is still a delicate thing that takes practice. It is not at all like riding a bike. Every season, if you don't practice over the winter, you wonder if your roll will still work the first few tries. When the roll does come back, it is rusty and needs to be practiced a few times. Learning an offside roll can cost a paddler their onside roll. Getting tossed badly in the surf and blowing a roll can turn a solid roll into mush, or distant memory, for a long time afterwards.
H didn't quite master her roll. However, she did get all of the pieces down. I remember my frustration when learning to roll. For a long time I had all of the parts, but couldn't quite get the whole thing together. Partially it was a lack of practicing. I'd just about get my roll sorted out and then the season would end. The next spring/summer I'd have to start over again. The season of many paddles--I switched from a stick, to a Tooksook, to a Kinetic Touring, and back to a stick--didn't feel like it helped me master my roll either. With each new paddle, I took a few steps backwards before starting forward again.
Ultimately, with practice and patience--mostly with myself--I did "master" at least one style of roll. I used quotes because I'm not convinced you ever really master a roll. The long tribulations were worth the result. Not only did I earn a solid roll, I gained confidence, I gained composure when capsizing, and I gained knowledge of how my movements effect the buoyancy of the kayak. If I'd "gotten" my roll quickly I'd have had the skill without the experience.