Sunday, December 20, 2009

Leadership Styles

TM passed along links to the following posts by Mark Tozer: Styles of Leadership and Tannenbaum & Schmidt’s Leadership Continuum.
The first article describes three basic leadership styles:

  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Laissez-faire
They progress from the leader having total control of the group to the group having total control of the group.
The second article discusses the reality that leadership is practiced along a continuum of styles. Leaders exercise their authority in different ways depending on a variety of conditions. These conditions include the situation, the group, and the leader themselves. In situations where getting things done is imperative, a leader is likely to act more autocratically. In groups where the leader is confident that others will act promptly and correctly, the leader will likely be more democratic. If a leader is feeling insecure or having a bad day, they may be more autocratic. A tired leader may be laissez-fair.
I personally tend to take a more laissez-fair approach when I lead paddles and know that it is rarely the best style in a large group. It works well when I am paddling with TM, PB, and a few others because we are very familiar with how the others think, have similar risk profiles, and similar skill levels. In most club paddles that I've lead, the let the group decide approach rarely works well. Sometimes it is because the group naturally wants someone to be in charge. Sometimes it is because too many cooks ruin the stew. Other times it can lead to paralysis. In all of these cases I move more towards the middle of the continuum, but it is not my "style".
TM, on the other hand, tends to be more of the autocrat. He has the whole trip planned out ahead of time, and wants the group to follow his lead. This also rarely works out and TM typically tends to be more democratic than autocratic.
Other leaders also have default styles. The truth is that in most cases the style that works is somewhere in between dictator and buddy. People want to feel respected and part of the group, but they also want to know that a skilled and competent leader will make the hard decisions.
In a crisis, however, that the autocrat must rule. Only one person should take charge in a rescue. The leader may choose to delegate some authority to others to manage a complex situation, but they must all be on the same page. When the group must act, and act successfully, a benign dictator is the best leader. In a storm, a rescue situation, or blinding fog, there is little time for debate.

Adaptive Expertise

Tm sent me a couple of links yesterday that discuss leadership styles (which I'll ponder in another post) and those links led me to the discovery of two other posts on "Adaptive Expertise" by Mark Tozer. The posts "What is Adaptive Expertise" and "Developing Adaptive Exerptise" introduce the concept and review some of the current literature about it.
They excited me because they finally gave me a name for something I've noticed in talented people for a while.
A buddy of mine in college played guitar with a guy who was technically superior, but was doomed to be a back-up player. Despite his clear technical skills, this guy couldn't work the room. He could do a great job replicating Hendrix's "All along the Watch Tower" but it was always the same. My friend on the other hand could light up a room. He changed up the pace of the songs to fit the vibe of the room. He managed to work the drunks in a bar into the show.
I work with a some talented writers who are superior when writing on their "topic" and with their tools. Assign them to something outside their zone and they fall apart. I know writers who are great at writing programmers' guide but couldn't write a getting started guide to save their lives. Their books are always organized following the same patterns regardless of the presentation medium or the audience.
TM and I have often talked about kayakers who have gone off and chased training and became super skilled, but lacked sea sense. They know all of the tricks, have flawless rolls, and beautiful forward strokes. They can surf like gods, but when things get a little funky they cannot cope as well as they should based on skill levels. They know rescue procedures and follow them slavishly. We also know paddlers who despite a lack of formal training are spot on in crisis situations and make their skills fit the situation.
Some of this can be chalked up to experience, but the idea of adaptive expertise explains why some people are better at it than others. It explains why some people are craftsmen and others are artists. Adaptive expertise allows a person to adapt their skills and knowledge to new situations. Someone who falls back on rote procedure are not using adaptive expertise, but someone who fits their skills together in a new way to solve a new problem is using adaptive expertise.
Tozer's second post talks about someways of developing adaptive expertise. He talks about four conditions. Essentially one needs to be constantly exposed to novel situations, have a community that encourages learning and dialog, and freedom from time constraints. In other words you need to be willing to accept temporary failure and surround yourself with people who are willing to learn from each other.
Adaptive expertise, while valuable in all areas in life, is key to being a good kayaker. The ocean will throw all sorts of novel situations at you. No two groups are the same. You need to be flexible and adaptable to survive and thrive.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bobbing on the Sea

It has been a long time since I've dipped a paddle in the water. The weather, social commitments, and work have been conspiring to keep me from my zen when I could really use it.
Life has tossed me through some choppy waters over the last few weeks. My project at work was getting bogged down in a tangle of rescheduling. Then just after Thanksgiving, we had a major layoff. We lost three members of my team and will likely lose a few more. (The Irish labor laws are forcing the workers in that office to labor away for 30 days knowing they may be made redundant.) While I managed to survive yet another rif, my role is in limbo. I handed off the project I was working on for two years to another writer, and have yet to be given clear marching orders for the future. All I know is that it will be something exciting.
Kayaking has taught me that sometimes all you can do is keep paddling. No matter how big the waves get, how fast the current races, how strong the winds blows you need to keep the paddles moving, the hips lose, and the mind focused on the moment. Eventually, you will find a patch of sand on which to rest.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Coordinating and Picking Paddlers

A post on the RICKA message board got me thinking about if it is appropriate to tell paddlers when they cannot paddle. I personally think that it is appropriate for a person posting a show and go paddle to set expectations for the skill level that is required to participate in the paddle. If I had my drothers, it would be required. An "official" paddle does not get put on the schedule with a level rating.
The difference between a level rating and what usually gets added to a show and go posting is that a level rating describes the trip's difficulty and show and go postings usually describe the paddler's skills. Both are intended to help a paddler decide if the paddle is appropriate for them. However, making statements about the skills paddlers are expected to have smacks of elitism and judgement.
Elitism is poison to a club. It is a well established custom that RICKA paddles are open to all comers and coordinators do not turn participants away. This helps build club membership. It also helps paddlers grow. It also allows a sense of democracy to flourish in the club.
While I understand the reasoning behind it, I'm not a big fan of this custom. It puts a coordinator in the awkward position of either taking paddlers into conditions they are not prepared for or to change a trip to accomodate a weak paddler. It puts the coordinator in a compromised position before leaving the beach. Toning a paddle down for one paddler is not fair to the others on the trip who are expecting certain conditions. It is also not fair to the paddler allowed to participate. It gives them a false sense of their skills.
TM was saying that the coaches at Sea Kayak Georgia's position on this is that the trip leader has the final say on who gets to participate. The leader is the authority from the time paddlers show up on the beach to the time the kayaks are back on the cars.
While I think this draconian approach is the safest approach, it is not realistic for an American paddling club. Very few would be willing to accept the needed level of authority and the associated liability. Even if coordinators did start assuming this authority other paddlers would grow resentful.
How can coordinators find the middle ground? As I said earlier in the post I think people leading a show and go paddle should be upfront about the expected difficulty of the paddle they plan on running. They should be careful not to sound judgmental about people's skills, but they should be firm. They probably need to be prepared to accept that some paddlers on the edge of the envelope will be on the trip and plan accordingly. However, coordinators should turn away people who are clearly incapable of handling the expected conditions.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Rocks and Surf

By Wednesday, it was clear that the weekend weather was going to be perfect for fall outdoor fun. JS posted a surfing paddle for Sunday, but I was hoping for a more traditional paddle. Fortunately, CR couldn't paddle on Sunday and posted a Sakonnet Point paddle for Saturday. Sakonnet Point paddles are usually a combination of rock gardening, blue water paddling, and surfing.
Saturday was the cooler of the two days. It was the first time this year my car had frost on it in the morning. The temperature was supposed to climb throughout the day and the wind was supposed to be minimal. Still, it was cold at the put in.
There was never a question that it was dry suit weather. The only question was how much to wear under the dry suit. I had brought along flannels pants and a pair of fleece pants for the bottom and a collection of long sleeve tops. I opted to go with just the flannel pants and two layers on top. I figured I'd generate plenty of body heat in the morning and as the temperature increased during the day I'd be cool enough. Just in case I packed all the other clothes in the kayak.
We paddled out of the harbor and towards the lighthouse. The seas were a little choppy and promised some nice rock gardening.
After rounding the lighthouse we headed over to the islands to find rocks to dodge. The outside of the islands did not disappoint. The waves were big enough to make things look big and had enough force to make paddling a challenge. There were a few spots that were down right crazy, but for the most part everything was well within our range.
For some reason people did not want to paddle to the mainland to have lunch on a sandy beach. Instead we found a slippery, jumble of rocks to on which to park our kayaks. There was a nice spot to eat, if you could survive the landing and the journey up the "beach." The only plus to the lunch spot was that there was shelter from the wind.
After lunch, the group split up. JS and CM needed to head back early. The rest of the group decided to retrace our steps and take another shot at the rocks along the outside of the islands. The wind and swells had picked up a little, but things were not quite as good on the return trip.
The ride back up the river to the harbor was a blast. The wind had picked up and there was a steady march of wind driven waves marching up river. We surfed the whole way back.
We had a great day on the water. I was more tired than I expected, but rock gardening and surfing are more tiring than open water paddling. This paddle ranks up there as one of the best paddles of the year.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wind Meets Current and Surfing Ensues

This weekend was one of the big current weekends, so BH was chomping at the bit to play in any tidal races that appeared. Saturday had the added bonus of high winds that would run counter to the currents at least once. Strong wind vs. strong current = standing waves!!
BH really wanted to play at the Charlestown breech way. The wind and current profiles looked perfect for some mayhem. The ocean forecast called for some good sized swells multiply the mayhem. In order to play at the mouth of the breech way safely he wanted at least four paddlers. The mouth of the breech way is narrow and flanked by shallow rocks. The current would wash a swimmer into deeper water, but the wind would push them into the rocks.
As of Friday night, nobody had committed to the breech way plan. I was waiting to see what TM would do since he is the most familiar with the area (and in many ways is may paddling safety blanket). I was also a little concerned that conditions at the breech way would be more than our group was prepared to handle. TM was not planning on paddling since he had spent the last week in Georgia at Sea Kayak Georgia and wanted to spend some quality time with his family.
Since nobody wanted to commit to the breech way, BH proposed plan B: Stone Bridge.
Stone Bridge would be running out in the morning. With the wind pushing against the current, it promised to offer a nicely formed tidal race. Since Stone Bridge offers easy access, plenty of clear water for rescues, and quick exits from the water, we could play hard.
The only downside was the timing. Things were forecast to be at their best between 9am and 11am. That meant getting to Tiverton by 8:30am. That meant leaving Waltham at 7am. That meant getting the kayak on the egg Friday night before it started to rain.
We had a small, but well formed group Saturday morning. We started off with 5 paddlers: BH, PB, JS, CR, and myself.
We took our time getting on the water. At 8:30 things looked pretty calm. By 9am the race was starting to rock and we had all the kayaks in the water.
At first people rushed for the top of the race near the buoys. It looked like a good spot, but JS and I found ourselves at the end of the race. The waves at the tail of the race were pretty good as well. In fact, I think they were more regular. I caught plenty of good rides as I moved up the race.
A piece of advice from the death paddle in Fisher Island Sound came in very handy. One of the British coaches talked about timing waves by waiting for the wave in front of your kayak to start lifting the bow. Once the bow starts lifting, you hit it and catch the wave behind you.
It works amazingly well. I was able to catch most of the waves I wanted to surf using this advice.
I also learned another valuable lesson on the death paddle: use the stick. Despite this being a surf session, I used the mighty stick. I can brace, rudder, and roll just as well with the stick as I can with a lollipop. The only advantage of the lollipop is the bit of initial oomf. The familiarity and comfort of using the stick far outweighs the oomf. I'll continue to switch off and use a lollipop every now and then because I think it helps me be a well rounded paddler, but I'm a stick monkey.
We spent a couple of hours riding the race. I caught a ton of good rides. The most fun were the rides the ones where I nearly stalled out on the back of a wave, but just as the hull started to flounder I pushed the bow over the crest. With a quick transition the bow dropped down and the hull rushed forward.
We did take a short break to help a feckless sailor get his boat out of the water. He tried to take out at the public beach flanking Stone Bridge. The wet sand and lapping waves conspired to trap his boat and his truck. We all helped heave the sailboat onto the trailer where it had a chance of draining. Then, our good deed done, we went back to playing.
Sadly, CR tweaked her back and was forced to call it a day early. Hopefully, she recovers quickly.
The conditions made the early wake up call worth it. It is a rare and wonderful thing when the weather and tides conspire to make a playground for crazy kayakers.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Am I Out of my Mind?

I decided, at the urging of TM, to sign up for one day of Greg Paquin's rough water training camp. Greg brought over Phil Cleg and Harry Whelan from the UK to do some coaching out on the races in Fisher Island Sound. I was really looking forward to playing in some rougher conditions than are usually found in the Bay and getting a chance to paddle with some world class talent.
As the event got closer the weather forecast got scary. The marine forecast was calling for 20 knot winds (with gust up to 25 or 30 knots), seas of 2 to 4 feet, a sixty percent chance of rain, and a high temperature in the fifties. It was the sort of forecast that would get to me consider canceling a paddle that I was coordinating. It was the sort of forecast that would make me skip a club paddle.
This was not a normal paddle. I'd paid money for rough water training with top notch coaches. If the coaches thought the conditions were OK, then I was going.
Then TM called to tell me his back was a mess. He was not going to be able to take the class. It was a good call on his part, but that meant I was going into a melee with a bunch of paddlers I didn't know....
Friday night I packed up the car and packed plenty of extra warm clothes. I set the clock for 6 am and went to bed early. Stonington is a 2 hour drive from Waltham and the training was starting at 9 am. I knew it was going to be a hard day on the water, so I wanted to get plenty of rest.
I checked the forecast before heading out this morning and it had improved a little. The rain and wind looked like it was going to hold off until the afternoon. The morning was only forecast for 15 to 20 knot winds with only a small chance of rain.
I got the Stonington early and wandered over to the meeting place. Greg had rented out an apartment in Stonington as a base of operations. It was a sweet set up.
The early morning weather was raw and cold, but not particularly daunting. The wind seemed calm. The sky was gray, but didn't look ready to dump rain.
At the pre-paddle meeting, Greg introduced the coaches and went over the tentative plan. We would cross over to northern point of Fisher Island and use the tidal races there to practice. The current would be ebbing for most of the day and with the winds, we would have some nice surf. Greg also showed us how to figure out ferry angles that incorporated the currents.
At the launch and in the harbor things seemed pretty calm. Once we passed the breakwater and entered Fisher Island Sound things started looking like it could get out of hand. The tail wind felt like it was at least 15 knots and there was plenty of confused, wind driven swells to surf.
Initially, I enjoyed the surfing. The Q-Boat does pretty well in following seas and I caught plenty of nice rides. I had to do some corrective bracing, but nothing radical.
At some point in the crossing, however, it hit me that the wind was building, the chop was getting bigger, and it was cold. I started anticipating the return trip. I was going to be worn out; the swells were going to be bigger and more confused; the wind would be much stronger; I didn't know any of the other paddlers in the group; I might have already gone for a swim; it was going to be even colder...
I quickly got the anticipatory panic under control using several techniques. I used the Al Fraken method of positive self-talk: You are good enough, smart enough, funny enough, and gosh darn it, people like you. I backed that up with a chant of "Circle of Power." Once the initial shock wore off, I trimmed my focus to my immediate situation: the motion of the kayak, the location of other paddlers, the feel of the blades in the water....
At Fisher Island we took a quick break and split the group into two. One group was going to immediately jump into the race. The group I was part of stayed in a reasonably protected cove to go over kayak handling in wind.
We covered the basics of how wind pushes a kayak around from the rear because that is generally where the hull has the least grip on the water. We covered turning into the wind using strokes at the front of the kayak and turning down wind using strokes at the rear of the kayak. We talked about how to trim the kayak using edging, sitting upright, and rudders when paddling quarter to the wind.
One point that really hit home was how radically the Q-Boat weather cocks. The majority of people in the course paddled Sea Kayaking UK (NDK) kayaks. Like every kayak they weather cocked over time. The Q-Boat on the other hand spun like a top into the wind. A couple of strokes and the bow had twisted straight into the wind. It was pretty dramatic. Fortunately, the Q-Boat can also be corrected fairly easy with a little bit of edging.
Once we had practiced kayak handling in just the wind, we moved out to the race to combine wind and currents. The currents, particularly when surfing, just amplify the forces the wind apply to the kayak. The race had some big wind waves, but they were not setting up particularly nicely. The waves tended to be confused and crossing each other.
I found myself struggling to get the timing down to catch the good rides. A lot of my struggle was due to inexperience. I don't spend a lot of time surfing or in tidal races. I was also using my Euro paddle which threw my timing off a bit. Some of my struggles were mental as well. I really didn't want to get flipped in these conditions. I had horror visions of going over and being washed out to sea, or getting rescued but then succumbing to hypothermia. I didn't want to look stupid or incompetent. There was also the ever present knowledge that I had to keep enough in the tank to get home (without being towed).
The best, and biggest, waves were at the very front of the race. I never did manage to work my way up the very front. Paddling against the wind and current was taxing. I didn't want to expend the fuel and I was a little afraid of getting crushed.
I did manage to keep the fear at bay enough to get into the mix. Over an hour or so in the race, I caught several excellent rides. There were several waves that were 4 or five feet high. I worked on doing some turning in the slop. I really tried to get a feel for the timing needed to catch the good waves. By the end of the session, I was looking forward to spending some time after lunch in the race again.
During lunch the coaches gave us some more pointers on how to catch waves. Phil's approach was to wait until the wave in front of you has lifted the bow of your kayak to its apex and then start digging in. By the time the trailing wave catches up to you, you have the hull speed to catch the wave.
After lunch the plan was to head back out and played in the race for its last 40 minutes before heading back to Stonington. We knew the wind was going to build over the course of the day, but hoped that it was going to cut us a little slack.
Once on the water, it was immediately obvious that the wind was giving us no quarter. It was a steady 20+ knots and blowing straight from Stonington Harbor.
Greg, wisely, pulled the plug. We regrouped in the cove we used before lunch for practice. Greg and the coaches split the group into two again.
One group was going to paddle up the shore of Fishers Island to stay out of the wind as long as possible. Then they would start making the crossing and let the ebb current push them into the harbor. The plan would make the return trip longer, but minimize the effect of the wind.
The other group was going to head straight for Stonington Harbor. It meant a shorter paddle across the sound. However, it also meant paddling straight into the wind for the entire crossing.
I opted for short but hard. I was starting to feel a little bit cool in my drysuit. I also didn't want to take the risk of running out of fuel due to spending more time on the water. The short, but possibly brutal, paddle sounded like it would keep me warm and get me home sooner.
It succeeded in both regards. It also pushed me right to the limits of my endurance. About half way across the sound, I was convinced that I was just going to collapse. My lunch was sitting precariously high in my stomach. My obliques ached. Each drag of the paddle through the water felt like moving a shovel through concrete that was three quarters dry. If someone hooked a tow onto my bow, I would have welcomed it.
Of course, I was not going to ask for help until I was truly at the end of my endurance. Instead, I just kept repeating "Circle of power" and watching my hands pass in front of my face. Place paddle, rotate, let the blade slide out, lift, repeat on the other side. I was even able to have a brief conversation about ferry angles with Greg.
I was glad to be on dry land at the end of the paddle. As TM likes to say: "Sometimes it feels good to stop." I was so pooped that after carrying a few kayaks from the beach to parking lot, I couldn't get my hands to fully open.
Greg ran an excellent course for the day. He took a bunch of paddlers of varying skill levels out on an extreme day, managed to get some good coaching in, and get everyone back home without an incident. I would definitely take another rough water session with Greg at the helm.
The course humbled me, but in a good way. It reminded me of my limits and that there are paddlers from whom I can learn a lot. It got me thinking about how I can up my game to their level.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When is the Paddle is too Big for the Paddler

There has been a lot of discussion in our club over the last season about how to deal with paddlers who show up for paddles that are at the very limit of their abilities and endurance. There have been a few times where the conditions have taken unpredictable turns for the worse and turned a paddle that was a stretch for one or more paddlers into paddles that were more than they could safely handle. There have also been a few paddles where paddlers that were slow showed up where the majority of the group were fast.
It is one of the perennial problems with open club paddles. Sometimes the people who show up to paddle are not the people best suited to the trip as planned. Sometimes you get people along for whom the trip is at the upper edge of their skills or endurance. It is not always fun or fair, but it is up to the trip coordinators to either tell the inappropriate people to stay on the beach, change the plan, or deal with any issues as the arise.
Personally, I think the least good solution is telling people to stay on the beach. I know of many paddles that I should have sat out in my first few seasons. If had not been allowed to participate, I would not have grown as a paddler or I would have found a club that was more friendly. There are clear trip levels posted that are designed to help paddlers make wise choices. When a paddler starts showing up for a lot of inappropriate paddles, it is appropriate for someone in a leadership position to gently help them see that they are making poor choices. That approach should be the exception and not the rule and should only be handled by club leadership.
If paddlers want to do particular paddles and be able to set the tone and level of the paddle precisely, they should coordinate paddles outside of the club framework. Then they can have control over who knows about the trip and who gets to participate. If a paddle is coordinated through the club framework, it is a club paddle and the coordinators should be prepared to deal with any and all paddlers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It Blows Big

The morning started off chilly, but calm. By the time I reached Bay Campus the temperature had warmed and the winds remained still. It was looking like a perfect fall kayaking day. After much debate, I decided to wear just a long sleeve shirt. I stowed the paddle jacket in the rear hatch. I didn't want to overheat.
We headed out of Bay Campus towards the Dutch Island Lighthouse. From there we turned towards Beavertail. We were planning on playing on the rocks along the Jamestown shore before heading over to Narrow River to play in the surf. Then we were hoping to play in the rocks along Bonnet Shores on the way home. It was an ambitious plan.
As we passed the pavilion at Ft. Getty, we started to realize our plan may not come together. The forecasted 5 knot wind felt more like 15 knots. The wind was stronger near shore, so we tended to stay a little off the rocks.
As we approached Beavertail, the wind built. The sea state got bigger as well. By the time we got to the point, the wind felt like a sustained 20-25 knots.
Fortunately it was a headwind and not a beam wind. The Q-Boat slices through headwinds without a problem. Once the wind crosses her beam, she weather cocks like a bitch in heat.
Paddling into a steady, strong head wind is draining. I was draining my tank faster than usual due to a couple of things. I haven't been paddling as much this year, so my fitness level is lower than I'd like. I also made the unfortunate choice to leave my stick at home for the day. I was plowing into a brutal wind with a fat Lendal Kinetic Touring blade. I like the Lendal, but in the wind I love my stick.
I may have felt like I was running low on gas, but one of the other paddlers had reached the bottom of his tank. He was looking pale and open mouthed. We decided the best course of action was to put him under tow and tow him directly to Narragansett Beach. He was not given a choice, one of the paddlers hooked him up and started the tow.
We used an I tow to avoid wearing out any of the other paddlers. About half way through the crossing, we swapped towers. TM and I took the second shift. The wind made the long tow a particularly rough haul.
At the beach, the wind was roaring. I was wet from spray and sweating, so I quickly put on my paddle jacket. Once I was snugly in my paddle jacket, I settled in for a nice lunch. H had made me some yummy PB&J.
The return trip started off on sour note. I couldn't get the Q-Boat off the beach. The wind and chop were perfectly aligned to trap me on the beach. Every time I got the nose of the kayak in the water, a wave would push the bow around and I'd be breached on the beach. Eventually I got pushed off the edge of the beach into Narrow River. Once in the water I had to fight the wind and the currents to get turned around so I could paddle out to the open water. I was beat before I got started.
For the first quarter of the return trip the Q-Boat was getting pushed around something fierce. I couldn't seem to keep it under control. A swell would run by, loosen up the back end, and send the kayak off on a new course.
Eventually, I settled in and got things back under control. Once I was back in the groove, the return paddle was a fun ride. The tail wind and following seas made for a quick trip. There was even some opportunities for playing in the rocks.
Once we got back to the Bay Campus everyone piled out their kayaks and started changing. The water temp and the wind made the idea of doing rescue practice unpleasant.
We then headed off to our favorite java joint for some coffee and post paddle chatter. It was great to get out on the water - even if the conditions were less than ideal.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Random Thoughts on Club Paddling

Two things have been rambling around in my head about club paddling recently: trip levels and expectations. They are intertwined and distinct. Trip levels are one way of setting expectations, but often expectations are entirely dependent on people: who you are and who shows up at the launch.
A recent paddle sparked some discussion about retooling the RICKA sea kayaking trip levels. A paddler showed up for a trip that was at the outer edge of their abilities. It was not a problem because the conditions were perfectly boring. The concern, however, was that if conditions changed, this paddler would need assistance. This is not a rare occurrence. Paddlers frequently show up for trips that push their abilities (and some times clearly exceed them). So, there was a proposition to make the levels clearer, a little more stringent, and closer tied to wind/wave conditions. The hope, I think, being that people would make better self selection choices.
I had a hand in writing the current club guidelines so I'm a little biased towards them. They are definitely not perfect, but they do attempt to strike a balance between allowing people to grow and guiding them away from endangering others. The current guidelines were based on a professional guiding outfit's trip levels. This gives them a whiff of authority, but also make them a little problematic for a club. A professional outfit has a greater ability to screen out participants than a club does, so the outfitter can afford a little leeway.
The tricks to developing good trip guidelines for a club are manifold: They need to be realistic, stringent, and clear enough to guide paddlers into avoiding trips that are outside of their range. However, they need to be flexible to allow a paddler to participate in paddles that are at the outer limits of their range. A paddler may be fairly new to the water, but be strong paddler. They can probably handle some of the conditions of a level three paddle, but not the ones at the extremes. Or they may be able to handle the conditions, but be uncomfortable due to lack of exposure.
The guidelines also need to allow for a certain variability in ranges. For example, a paddler may be able to go like gang busters for long distances, but not have a solid roll. Clearly this paddler can participate in long distance paddles, but should avoid rough water paddles even if they are rated at the same level.
The guidelines should be tied to weather and sea conditions since they are factors in trip difficulty. However, they must allow for the unpredictability of the weather as well. If the guidelines said that an intro level trip required waves of a foot or less and winds of 5 knots or less, it would be impossible to schedule an intro level trip. The chances of the conditions exceeding the limits are just too great.
The guidelines also fall pray to the imperfect creatures called paddlers. In general, paddlers tend to over estimate their skills and guidelines need to account for this. Paddlers also tend to come with different shapes, sizes, baggage, and experiences. Trip coordinators always make judgement calls about what the estimated trip level should be when scheduling the trip and often base their estimate on what sort of trip they think they want to lead. Trip coordinators also make all sorts of judgement calls on the day of the paddle about letting paddlers participate or whether to change the trip to accommodate the paddlers planning on participating.
Guideline setting is a messy business and its success or failure requires a lot of vigilance. Coordinators need to pay attention to who is showing up for paddles and provide feedback to the guideline committee. Coordinators also need to make good decisions about screening out inappropriate paddlers or changing the trip to accommodate the group. Sometimes, it means accepting that any set of guidelines cannot address every situation.
Expectations are another sticky widget. I know there are many paddles that I go on and expect to be challenged, or not, and find that the paddle does not live up to my expectations. I know this is my problem, but I think others experience the same thine. Some times the change in expectations is because I just had a crazy idea of the paddle in my head. Other times the change is caused by the weather or the sea state. (You cannot have an epic paddle without wind or waves and cannot relax in six foot swells.) Often times, though it is because the group that shows up for the paddle is not in line with my expectations.
Group makeup defines what a trip will be like. Sometimes an easy level three trip will turn into a crazed, death paddle because a bunch of experienced, skilled, rock hoppers will show up and hijack the trip. Other times what should be an epic, or at least challenging, level four paddle turns into a leisurely cruise because a bunch of scenery seeing, relaxation seekers show up and hijack the trip. Neither outcome is bad for the group since it is a club paddle.
I guess what I've been realizing is that if I want to do a particular type of trip, say bounce around in the swells and rocks, I can either make it a club trip and accept that on the day of the paddle it may turn into a coastal tour, or just put together a group outside the club framework. Some, I suppose, would call this elitism or a similar thing. I, however, think it just makes sense. Club paddles are for the club and that means accepting what the group at large wants to do. Sometimes, paddlers need to have the option of doing something that requires more control over the participants of the group.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Fall Classic

One of the things I enjoy most about kayaking is that you can paddle the same route hundreds of times and it always different.
Today I paddled the Pier 5 to Harbor of Refuge route again. When H, TM, and I did this route earlier in the season it challenged us. The swells were big, pushy, and constant. There were breaking waves along most of the route and we surfed into the harbor. The winds had a chill and the skies threatened rain.
Today the ocean was calm. The wind was warm. The skies were sunny. It was perfect late summer conditions.
I could really stretch out and cruise. There was a slight cross wind pushing the Q's stern around, so I also got a chance to work on effective corrective strokes. I would slip a stern rudder onto the end of a stroke occasionally. I'd just let the blade linger at the end of the stroke. I also tried to incorporate the stern draw. The stern draw is finicky. Sometimes I would catch the wrong face of the paddle. Sometimes the stern wouldn't move. Sometimes the stern would move, but not enough to straighten the kayak. Sometimes the whole kayak would draw to the side. On very few occasions did it actually work properly. I need to keep practicing.
While playing in the rocks and rough conditions is exciting, sometime a nice open water run is perfect. It lets me blow the carbon out of the cylinders.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Letting the Wind Pass

Now that the high season for power boating has passed, it is a great time to kayak in Boston Harbor. The weather and water is still warm and the number of boats clogging the channels is manageable.
I was going to lead a RICKA paddle to the outer islands yesterday. I was excited to share one of my local resources with my RI friends. Sadly, the wind forecast was extreme. 15 to 20 in the outer harbor is a little rough, but 30 knt gusts are crazy. So, I decided to cancel the paddle.
Fortunately, the winds were forecasted to die over night. 5 knt winds are perfect for a late fall paddle. So, I decided to reschedule the paddle for today.
The morning was bright, but chilly. The day was looking like a great day to paddle.
The only anxiety was about who would show up for the paddle. I knew most of the regular crew would not show up. They all had other commitments. The absolute worst that could happen was the H and I would have to enjoy the water by ourselves. You know life is good when the absolute worst outcome is spending the day paddling with your favorite person.
On the way to Hull we spotted at least two familiar kayaks. Once at the put-in we discovered six more paddlers. There were two familiar faces, two faces I hadn't seen in a long time, and four new faces. The group seemed to gel before we even got on the water.
The plan for the day was to paddle out to Little Brewster and check out the light house. Then we'd island hop over to Green Island for lunch. After lunch, we'd island hop over to Georges Island to check out Ft. Warren. Then we'd return to Hull.
This was a great plan based on us launching at mid-tide on an out going tide. Sadly, I'd gotten the tides backwards. We'd have the currents against us all day.
To make the crossing to the light house we paddled out to Allerton Point. From there we crossed the channel on a steep ferry angle. The incoming tide pushed us down the channel as we aimed our kayaks out of the harbor. We managed to pick the perfect angle and ended up along Little Brewster. We landed to take a tour of the light house, but it is being repaired. We were allowed to walk the grounds. It was a quick tour because the tide was raising fast. We didn't have much time before our kayaks were heading to Green Island without us.
We got to Green about 40 minutes before high tide. We paddled the island looking for the beach to land and have lunch. I knew it was there because I had lunched there this past winter... We must have landed there closer to low tide in Febuary because the beach was a tiny patch of rocks.
The best we could find for lunch was a disappearing pile of rocks between Green and Little Calf. We had an authentic sea kayaking lunch hunkered down watching the tide wash over our beach.
After lunch, we paddled over to Georges Island. Crossing the channel was exciting. There was a surprising amount of boat traffic.
At Georges Island, we took an extended break. Some people explored the fort, some people napped, and some just hung out on the beach.
From Georges Island, we made our way back to Hull. We had a long channel crossing and the Hull Gut to contend with before we were home. The current was against us and running at full strength.
For the crossing, the current was no big deal. However, the Gut was a challenge. The current was stacking up with a row of standing waves. These were confused by the boat traffic plying the Gut. Sticking close to shore would keep us out of the worst of the current. Sadly, none of us stayed close to shore. H nearly went over. I got spun around once. It was a lot of fun.
Despite the less than ideal planning, we had a nice time. The weather was perfect and the group was excellent. It goes to show that waiting a day for the wind to blow over is a good idea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday on the Water

After some confusion about if there was going to be a paddle on the weekend, TM finally settled things by coordinating a paddle out of Wickford. His plan was a long trip that would appeal to level two paddlers.
The day started out a little chilly, but got progressively warmer. The wind was minimal. It was idyllic late summer weather.
We paddled down past the Jamestown Bridge and had lunch on Dutch Island. Then paddled back to Wickford with a quick detour into the bay behind Rome Point.
I did get a chance to play with some different paddles. I tried out RB's Werner paddle. It is very nice, but it foiled me in rolling. I managed a roll on one side, but not the other. TM seems to think that it is just that I'm not used to the blade shape....
I think TM is just trying to make me feel better.
It was a great chance to spend some time on the water with just the expectation of relaxing.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Banging Around for Labour Day

H, PB, and I wanted to do a camping trip in Maine before the warm weather ended. We tried to get something together last weekend, but the weather and schedules didn't corporate. Since this weekend was a three day end of summer celebration and the forecast was reasonable, we managed to get something together.
It was a small group since a number of people had other plans. It included PB, EB, H, and myself.
Since H already had Friday off from work, she decided that the plan would be to turn our three day weekend into a Friday through Sunday affair. We would miss most of the traffic and still have a day off from work to lounge about the house and clean off our camping gear.
Friday morning didn't start off with a bang. H and I had troubles getting our acts in gear. Everything just took longer than we anticipated. We also had to make an unplanned stop at West Marine to try and order a new battery for my VHF. The connectors on the current battery corroded to the point where one of them just fell off. Even the West Marine stop took forever. It seems that West Marine does not carry spare batteries, or the AA battery pack accessory, for the VHF radios they sell. They can, however, special order them. The very nice kid at the desk took the special order, but was either new or "special" orders are so special they are rarely executed....
Once on the road we made excellent time to the put in at Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, ME. PB and EB were there well ahead of us since they had gotten on the road at the planned time. We didn't hold the show up too long though. H and I made quick work of getting the kayaks loaded.
We had discussed several possible islands for camping including Whaleboat, Bangs, and possibly Jewel. Our first choice was the camp site on the NE tip of Bangs. It has views of both sunrise and sunset, a sandy (for ME) beach for the kayaks and fires, and flat tent spots. All of the options, except for Jewell, were short paddles so we figured that we would go for the first choice and if we got skunked we could easily find another decent spot before dark.
To our delight, our first choice was available. We set up camp and immediately settled into island time. PB set out to collect fire wood. The rest of us sort of wandered about gazing at the scenery and moving towards dinner. Our eventual dinner was quite nice.
Eventually, we got our acts together enough to go on a moonlight paddle. The full moon spread silvery light over the landscape. We hardly needed extra lights. The moonlit island and water was lovely. We saw a heron that sat in place as we paddled by at a very close distance. The landscape was so transformed that we paddled right by our beach the first time.
On the way back, I decided to be cute and paddle backwards. As H chastised me, and I joked about how it doesn't matter that I was paddling backwards since I could see anyway, I backed onto a rock.... Fortunately, the keel strip took the brunt of the contact.
Once back at the campsite we got a fire going. The rest of the evening was spent basking in the glow of fire and friendly conversation.
The only tension was the slow march of water towards the fire. When the water finally snuffed the fire, we headed to our tents.
Saturday broke sunny and fresh. We again spent a good part of the morning meandering around. We eventually decided on an excursion to Admiral Peary's Eagle Island. The island is a Maine Historical Site. The original house has been turned into a museum and the grounds have been preserved for public viewing. The house is well preserved and full of interesting relics. One strange thing is that they make visitors put on plastic booties before entering the house. According to the caretakers, the booties keeps the salt on people's shoes from corroding the floor planks.
After Eagle Island we started over to Whaleboat Island to check out the campsites. The current and the wind were against us on the crossing. At first we didn't really notice how strong the current was working against us. The lobster buoys were sitting straight in the water, so there were no visual clues. Eventually, however, the current took its toll on our strength. We decided to abandon our push to Whaleboat and retreat back to the comfort of camp.
We spent our second night at camp the same way we spent our first. Sitting around a fire. Instead of doing a moonlight paddle, we watched as the tide slowly lifted a grounded sailboat out of its muddy trap. Actually, the real show was the stream of boats that motored out the sailboat, circled it, and returned home.
On our final morning, we did a quick search for the campsites on the opposite side of Bangs Island from ours. We scoured the coast from our kayaks for sign of them. We even checked the shore line by foot for signs, but found very little. There was a nice beach and a number of cairns marking the spot where the camp sites should have been. However, we couldn't find anything that looked like a tent site on the shore and there were no obvious paths into the woods.
After a quick lunch and repacking our kayaks, we decided to head home via Whaleboat island. We really wanted to find the campsites on that island for future trips. This time we were successful. The first set of sites we found are in the woods of the western shore of the island. They have a nice beach and plenty of shelter. We considered, briefly, extending our trip for a day and staying the night here. Sadly, we couldn't muster the energy to unpack the kayaks and reestablish camp.
So we headed back to Dolphin Marina. On the crossing from Whaleboat to South Harpswell, the water can play little tricks on your vision. The passage between the point of South Harpswell and the islands off of it can be hard to judge. I knew roughly where it was and headed straight for it. The rest of the group decided to trust their eyes and took a wider course. We never lost sight of each other, but it was fun watching them paddle out to sea for a while before realizing that I knew what I was doing.
It was a great weekend. As PB mentioned on the paddle home, the islands in Casco Bay are treasures that need to be preserved.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


We had the RICKA BBQ today.
In the past RICKA would have a holiday party as an annual gathering. It was a good time, but there is something off about a bunch of kayakers dressed all pretty having a sit down meal in the middle of the winter.
This year it was decided that a BBQ in the summer would be a more natural fit. I think it was a smashing success. There were paddles that went out in the morning. One trip went out to the mouth of the Bay. Another trip went around Dutch Island.
After the kayaking, we had a great BBQ meal at the Fort Getty Pavilion. After food, there was a brief awards ceremony and plenty of lawn golf.
The people who coordinated the event did a great job putting it all together. I cannot wait until next year's outing.

Bill Barely

I always have mixed feelings about paddling in hurricane swells. There is the natural concern for my own safety, the anticipation of pitting myself against nature, the anxiety of pushing my skills to the edge, the fear that the conditions will be too extreme to play in or, worse, disappointingly calm. Since today was also a club paddle, there was the added concern that the conditions would be present but the group would be unwilling or unable to take advantage of them.
When we got to Fort Getty to launch, it looked like the conditions were going to disappoint. The water looked as it does on any normal day. The swells just didn't impress.
Fortunately, as we worked out way down the Jamestown coast towards the mouth of the Bay conditions grew steadily more intense. The swell got bigger and the water's power made itself felt. Paddling near the shore was an adrenaline rush.
Close to Beavertail getting near to the rocks was nigh impossible. With some deft timing, a paddler could dart in and do some quick playing and slip out before a swell shattered them against the rocks.
The waves sweeping around the head stood a good eight feet tall.
The lead group of kayaks started heading out to the channel marker just past Beavertail. I'm not sure there was a clear plan as to what we were going to do out there, but the siren song was upon us. Just bobbing in the swells at the mouth would have been exciting. I'm sure there could have been some excellent open water surfing as well.
Then a whistle blew and broke the spell. People were concerned that the group was spreading out and there was no clear plan. Some members of the group were uncomfortable with the idea of heading out the marker before making the crossing to Whale Rock.
The group decided making a beeline to Whale Rock was the best plan. While not as exciting as heading out into the really big swells, the crossing was plenty exciting. The swells, while not epic, were big. They were also not particularly steep. It made for a nice elevator ride.
At Whale Rock we watched the ruins take a nice pounding. It was not the worst pounding we'd ever seen, but it was pretty big. I managed to find the perfect spot to get crushed by a wave. (It was a little deja vu from last year's hurricane paddle.) I was taking pictures and someone yelled for me to lookout. Fortunately, I managed to get out of the way before a big wave broke on my head.
We paddled up the Bay a good distance off shore. The swells were big enough to make getting in close tricky. With some keen observation, it was possible. The swells were pretty far apart and very regular. There was time to get in, play around, and get back out between sets.
BH, who got in pretty close, said that the water near the rocks was more like a river than the ocean. He wanted to get in closer, but had a newbie shadowing him. He decided discretion was best. If he goofed up his timing, we'd need to rescue two boats instead of just one...
All in all it was a nice day on the water. We had a little excitement and got to see some big swells up close. It was not, however, an epic day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Hot Day in Newport

Halfday Tony was scheduled to lead level 4 trip out of Ft. Wetherill today. This usually means lots of rocks and some surf. His last level 4 trip out of Wetherill was the stuff of legends: high winds, rough seas, rescues, paddlers needing cab rides back to their cars. Being a sound leader Tony manages to keep the group safe and sound despite the conditions.
Regardless of Tony's prowess as a leader, H was not keen on going on the planned trip for the day. Tony had advertised the itinerary early in the week to get people prepared. He intended to paddle along the coast to Beavertail, cross the West Passage to Whale rock, and lunch at the mouth of the Narrow River. The entire route offers plenty of opportunity for rock gardening and the Narrow River usually offers some nice surf. None of these things hold any allure for H. She likes to paddle, not risk life and limb.
I suggested that instead of doing the level 4 paddle, we could offer a more low key level 3 option. We would paddle over to Newport, explore the harbor, lunch on Gould Island, and then return along the Jamestown coast. We would still be able to visit with friends before and after the paddle without any undue stress. It would also expand the opportunities for other club members to get on the water.
When we showed up at Ft. Wetherill, H and I discovered that we were on our own. The conditions along the coast were calm and everyone else wanted to do the level 4 paddle. TM tried to convince H to go along with the crowd, but she held firm in her decision to do the Newport route. I was a little surprised and a little disappointed. TM is usually very persuasive and it would have been fun to paddle with a bigger group. I was, however, 100% behind H's decision. She'd gone on a few stressful paddles, and missed a few days on the water, for my benefit. The least I could do was spend a sunny summer day on the water doing a paddle she wanted to do.
Once out of the cove at Ft. Wetherill we were graced with a pleasant breeze. It knocked some of the edge off the heat without making paddling difficult. The crossing to Newport was easy.
Sadly, once in Newport Harbor we were sheltered from the breeze. The heat settled on us. Fortunately, paddling in the harbor is not a strenuous activity.
Newport Harbor was not full of cruise ships like it was last year. There were, however, loads of megayachts. Some of these ships are big enough to be cruise liners. We saw ships that had bays for auxiliary speed boats and jet skis. We even saw one that had a helicopter sitting on deck. (I'd still prefer my kayak.)
Gould Island greeted us with a stench and a view of two unloading ore ships. We managed to find a spot where the breeze masked the heat and the stench. It was relaxing to just sit in the sun and munch on left overs knowing the return trip was going to be easy.
While the return trip didn't pose any real challenges, it was the most exciting part of the day. As we crossed Potter's Cove two ruffians on a barely controlled personal water craft nearly skidded us into Davey Jones' locker. Once we crossed under the Newport Bridge, the wind picked up and the seas got lively. We bounced our way back to Ft. Wetherill.
We weren't really ready to call it a day, so we decided to paddle along the coast towards Beavertail for a short bit. We figured the other group would be at least another hour, so we figured that we'd still beat them off the water...
Within minutes of deciding to continue on, we spotted the other group. They had paddled in largely calm water all day. The only excitement they saw was PB leading a landing party onto Whale Rock.
Since it was early, and I was still smarting from not passing the 2 star assessment, we decided to do a little skill practice in the cove. It was a perfect spot since there was some swells running into the cove, so the water was not quite quiet. I felt good running through the paces of rolls, sculling for support, sweep turns, and low brace turns.
Although the day was largely perfect, it ended on a sad note. I was practicing a sweep turn when I felt the mighty stick give way. I found myself upside down with a compromised paddle. I tried to roll, but the mighty stick finished splitting before I could even get a breath. RB rescued me promptly and I limped my way back to shore.
We will contact the manufacturer, Wolfgang Brink, since the paddle split doing a turn in deep water and it split along the repair he made to the paddle when it failed last year (also in deep water). I know paddles break, but I baby the mighty stick. I never use it as a lever to stabilize the kayak when getting into the cockpit, I never use it to push of the bottom, and I'm always careful not to put too much stress on it when it is not in the water. I have a Cricket paddle that has held firm through six years of abuse including all the things I do not do with the mighty stick. I also ran the Cricket paddle over with my car once....

Saturday, August 08, 2009

2 Star Training

Greg Paquin, owner and operator of Kayak Waveology, offered a couple of BCU 2 Star training for RIC/KA members. I missed the first class, but it got rave reviews.
H and I, with encouragement from TM, decided to take the class the second time it was offered. You can never get enough coaching and work on polishing up your skills. I also, despite my previous statements about how silly chasing stars is for non-professional paddlers, thought it would be neat to get a couple of stars.
Greg enlisted the help of his partner Paula for the day. We were a fairly large group with eight paddlers - four boys and four girls. Greg and Paula make a great team. One will demo the skill and the other will offer refinements. They also do a great job of circulating around the group offering pointers.
We covered all of the basics: reverse paddling, reverse sweep strokes, draws, sculling draws, moving draws, forward sweep strokes, low braces, bow rudders, low brace turns, and rescues. Part of the fun was the drills: to practice draws we lined up in a series of parallel lines and tried to catch each other using only draw strokes. Another drill involved paddling, backwards, in a line.
They showed us one new rescue called the ladder rescue. It starts off like a regular T-rescue. After emptying out the swimmer's kayak, the rescuer keeps it across his cockpit. The swimmer then climbs up the deck of their kayak, like in a cowboy rescue, and gets in the cockpit. Once everyone is sealed and has their paddle, the swimmer is launched back into the water. It sounds weird, but it is a stable rescue.
At the end of the day PB and I did the assessment. It involved several drills to show mastery of the skills: a reverse figure 8, turning the kayak 360 degrees in place using forward and reverse sweeps, recovering from a capsize using a low brace, etc..
I figured I'd skate right through the assessment. I use most of the skills on a regular basis and in ocean conditions.
When Greg had me do a hanging draw, I knew I was in trouble. The Q-boat's stern drifted out. Instead of gracefully sliding sideways, it just turned sideways without changing course. Greg gave me one more chance and it got a little better. The reverse figure 8 didn't go so well either. I tried turning on the wrong edge... I did manage to recover but what little confidence I had was gone. The draw strokes further doomed me. The sculling draw was fine, but the actual draw stroke was a joke. The Q-boat moved backwards and twisted in the (non)wind. Greg let me keep going until I got it right. After that I was tanked. My braces were half-hearted and my low brace turn was just a sweep and coast turn.
The only bright spot was my bow rudder. It is a thing of beauty.
Needless to say, I did not get the award. I was pretty upset, but not with Greg. For whatever reason, I did not demonstrate proficiency during the assessment.
It could be argued that Greg should have just given it to me because he has seen me control my kayak in rough conditions, but I would have thought less of him if he did that. It could also be argued that if I had used a Euro blade and a more Explorerish kayak, I would have sailed through with ease, but those are not the paddle nor the kayak I regularly use.
I want to pass because I earned it during the assessment and using my own gear.
Greg was very nice about failing me. He gave me pointers on what to work on and encouragement.
Now that I did not get the award, it is a mission. I will polish up the things that Greg pointed out, and I will pass the assessment using a stick and a Q-boat.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


While we were off gallivanting around Canada, TM was in Booth Bay getting his BCU 3 star and taking the BCU 4 star training. Because he is an excellent all around guy, TM freely shares his knowledge with the rest of the club. On our trip to Harbor of Refuge, he shared CLAP with us:

  • C - Communication

  • L - Line of sight

  • A - Avoidance (or Assessment depending on who you ask)

  • P - Position of most usefulness

They are the four things members of a group, particularly the leader (or coordinator if you prefer), need to think about.
Always keep the lines of communication in the group open. Pay attention to paddle signals and whistles. As a leader, you need to keep the group informed of the plan and any changes to the plan. As a group member, you need to communicate any issues to the leader.
Make sure you can see the other members of the group and any potential threats. As a leader, you need to be able to see the whole group. As a group member, you should also be able to see the other members of the group. You should also always be watching the surroundings.
Asses conditions to avoid endangering the group. As a leader, you need to take the entire group's skills in conditions into consideration when making decisions. Some times, the decision is between the lesser of two dangers. But your job is to keep the group as safe as possible. As a group member, you need to asses your own ability to handle conditions and also asses if your behavior could potentially endanger the group. Sometimes this means not playing in the rocks even if your not worried about personal safety.
Always attempt to be in a position to be useful to the group. In a situation, where do your skills fit the best? Should you rush in and do a rescue if you are better suited to being a tower? Which members of the group need the support of an experienced paddler? If you have a sea sick paddler, who should be in the raft and who should tow? When playing in a tidal race, where is a capsized paddler likely to get dragged? Should someone rush into the rocks to rescue a capsized paddler?

I Don't Remember It Being THIS Rough

After spending several days in a car driving through the wilds of Canada and Maine, I needed to do some paddling. TM was more than obliging to offer up a trip. He suggested paddling from Pier 5 in Narragansett to the Harbor of Refuge. It is roughly a seven mile paddle along the outer western shore of Narragansett Bay. It is exposed to open ocean swells that can get big and offers some places to play in rocks. It also offers a couple of easy outs if needed.
In my memory, the trip was a nice intermediate paddle with a taste of open ocean feel. There was not any really funky conditions or breaking water. Given my memory of the trip, I figured it would be a good chance for H to get out as well. She would be close to the edge of her comfort zone, but still inside it. She would get to see a new section of the RI coast, spend a nice day on the water, and gain some confidence. A threefur of sorts.
We met TM at Pier 5 in the morning and things looked perfect for the paddle. There was a small chance of thunder showers later in the day and it was humid, but the seas looked calm and the winds were low. The threat of showers and humidity seemed like a bonus to me because it made it less likely that there would a lot of boat traffic.
Once around the end of Pier 5 the water got lumpy and confused. This is normal for this section of the coast, but the water seemed more powerful than normal. H questioned TM about this, but seemed OK when he said it was normal. We chatted and enjoyed the challenge.
Around Scarborough Beach the water flattened out and I could see H relax. Then we spotted the white caps along Money Point....
The swells were breaking in waves off shore and then again closer to shore. I knew H could handle the conditions, but I also knew she wouldn't be happy about it. TM moved closer to shore to pick his way through the breakers. I knew H was not going in close to shore, but also didn't want to swing too far out from shore. Going far enough out to completely avoid the breaks would have made getting into the harbor that much more of an ordeal because it meant bigish following seas for a long time. So I tried to pick a course through the outer break and the inner break.
We easily slipped through the break zone. H was visibly nervous, but doing an excellent job of holding it together. At the entry to harbor TM took a line in close to the sea wall. There was a nice calm spot in close. I didn't think I was going to get H to move in close to the sea wall, so I told her to take a line to the right of the channel. It meant she would have to ride some big swells into the entrance, but would not need to worry about rocks. Her and her Capella are a great combination in following seas, so I was pretty certain she'd fly through the swells and into the harbor easily. If she did happen to go over, she'd get washed into the calm water of the harbor in deep water where TM or I could easily get her back in the kayak.
As expected, she rode the swells into the harbor like a champ. She really is pretty darn good despite her anxiety.
During lunch, H decided that she was not going to paddle back to Pier 5. She knew she could handle the conditions, but didn't want to needlessly suffer the anxiety of paddling another hour and a half in them. TM and I could paddle back, get the cars, and pick her up at the beach without any trouble. TM and I tried to talk her into to completing the trip, but did not push too hard. It was better that she was safe and happy.
Once we were out of the harbor, it was obvious that H had made a good call. Conditions were about the same as they were on the way down the coast: lumpy, strong swells.
TM and I took a much tighter path on the way back to Pier 5, so we could play a little bit more. It felt good to open up the stroke a little bit in rough conditions. The Q's tail was wandering a bit more than I'd have liked, but it was easy enough to control. For a long while I used the stern draw stroke I learned on the 3 star training to do course corrections. Then I switched to tossing in a little sweep stroke ever few strokes. Towards the end, I took the easy way out and dropped the skeg.
We made excellent time on the return trip. We covered the seven or so miles in an hour and a half. At the put in we did some rolling and bracing practice before reloading the cars. Once we were cleaned up and packed, we headed back to Pt. Judith to retrieve H.
It was an excellent day overall. H got some more exposure to big water. For the first time in a few months, I felt like my mojo was coming back.

Friday, July 31, 2009


After our adventures on Cape Breton, H and I headed to PEI for a little more civilized fun. We traded our tent for a room in a B&B, the middle of nowhere for the middle of a city.
First we had to get from Cape Breton to Charlottetown, PEI. Our initial plan called for a six hour drive and an hour ferry ride. Instead of following the GPS directions, however, we decided to take the scenic route. H wanted to check out a Celtic Music Museum and eat at a place called the Red Shoe. This added about an hour to our plan. We got stuck behind two asphalt trucks in the mountains. Then we got to the ferry and had to wait for an hour before we could board. We finally arrived at the B&B around 9 pm.
The Snapdragon B&B is a great little place in Charlottetown. We stayed in the Fitzroy Room on the second floor. It was a great room. The breakfasts were also top notch. We had pancakes twice. They were light and tasty.

Our first day on PEI was overcast and misty. We decided that we would do indoors activities. On the north western tip of the island there is a large wind farm that H wanted to check out. There is also a Seaweed Pie Cafe that sounded interesting. So, we got into the car and drove the hour and a half to Tignish.
The wind farm has a nice restaurant in the visitor center. I got an excellent burger. There is also a small, but informative, museum at the visitor center. We watched some seaweed farmers collect Irish moss.

After the wind farm, we drove to the Seaweed Pie Cafe. The Cafe is also a museum about Irish moss harvesting. Irish moss is a form of sea weed that is the primary source of carrageen. Carrageen is a food additive that is used to thicken and stabilize milk products like ice cream. As part of the "tour" we enjoyed a piece of Seaweed Pie - a sponge cake with a light green whipped topping made using Irish moss.
The second day in PEI was our big adventure day. A couple we ran into several times on Cape Breton told us that the section of the Confederation Trail (The Confederation Trail is a gravel paved bike trail that runs the length of PEI. The province recycled the defunct railway routes to make the trail.) along St. Peter's Bay was the prettiest part of the trail. We also wanted to see the parabolic dunes and the PEI Vodka distillery.
So, we drove about 45 minutes to the National Park HQ in Greenwich. From there we road our bikes along the road back into St. Peter's where we could pick up the Confederation Trail. From St. Peter's the trail follows St. Peter's Bay into Morell where there is supposedly a great bakery (which is closed on Sundays when H and I want to get pastry after a bike ride). The views along the trail are pure pastoral prettiness. It is the most scenic bike trial I've ever ridden. The ride to Morell and back was about 25 miles.

After finishing the bike ride, we had a quick lunch. Then we headed out to see the parabolic dunes. The trail is well marked and goes through a combination of forest, coastal beach, and marshland. It takes about an hour an a half to complete the walk, but it is worth it.
After getting back from our walk we hopped in the car and drove to Hermanville to tour the Prince Edward Distillery. It is the only Canadian distiller of potato vodka. It is a small place and the tour ($10 a person) is short. To make the price palatable, they offer tastings of the potato vodka and the blueberry rye vodka. Both are very good. The potato vodka has a smooth, creamy taste. The blueberry vodka has a hint of blueberry flavor.

On the way back to Charlottetown, we grabbed dinner at a gas station. The Sheltered Harbour Cafe in Fortune Bridge is part of a gas station. We were a little skeptical of stopping, but the parking lot was full. Once inside, we were glad we stopped. The food was excellent and reasonably priced.
Our final day on PEI was a lounging day. We spent the morning strolling around Charlottetown. It is a small city, so there is not much to see. The waterfront is nice and the mall is oddly happening. There are a bunch of little shops.
In the afternoon we headed out to Cardigan for another bike ride and to visit a little craft center. This offshoot of the Confederation trail is also scenic as it runs along the Brudnell River, but it is not as pretty as the section along St. Peter's Bay.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cape North

I got up to use the outhouse around 5:30 and the rain was still falling. This was doubly sad: I was awake at 5:30am and rain meant that the paddle around Cape North was in jeapordy.
I woke up a few hours later and the sky was clear. The paddle was a go!
Mike, our guide from Eagle North Kayaking, wanted to get an early start, so we had to be quick about eating and gathering our gear. We were supposed to check in with him at 9am.
He drove by the camp site around 8:15 to tell us we would meet at Eagle North in a half hour. We scurried about and got down there in plenty of time.
We launched out of Bay St. Lawrence on the west side of Cape North. It is the only place after Pleasant Bay on the cape that offered reasonable kayak access. The next possible extraction point along the coast was our eventual take out 15 miles away. The coast between the two points offered a few pebbly beaches that could offer a respite in calm conditions and one haul out that was possible in rough conditions.
Fortunately, the weather looked like it would be kind to us. The ocean also looked kind.
Given the extreme exposure and possibility of nasty conditions, H decided to sit the paddle out and enjoy a placid, sunny day at camp. Mike tried to coax her into going along to offer some level of sanity to the group. I think we made him a little nervous. (As he later explained, he has seen plenty of paddlers show up with nice kayaks and big talk. Once he gets them out on the water he realizes that they can barely stay upright in ocean swells.) H was firm in her decision and decided to stay behind.
Once beyond the harbor sea wall, we were in the open ocean. The swells were not big, but they were powerful. It was perfect conditions.
The conditions also convinced me that H had made a good call. She could have handled the conditions with ease, but she would have been anxious the whole time. Based on Mike's description of the route, it would have been 15 miles of torture for her. For the rest of us (the crazy ones) it would be 15 miles of heaven.

The shoreline was tall rugged cliffs pocked with waterfalls. There were plenty of rocks to play in and plenty of swell to ride.
Over the course of the morning Mike seemed to relax and started playing more than guiding. That was perfect as far as I was concerned. We had hired him because we wanted his knowledge of the area, not because we needed to be babysat. Paddles are more fun when everyone is enjoying themselves.

We stopped for lunch just the main point on a beach that looked like it could offer some protection from a storm. It was a long hike over the mountains to get back to a road though. Mike told us that 30 odd years ago a freighter carrying dried peas floundered on this beach and as the sea water flooded the cargo hold, the peas expanded bursting the hull and turning the ocean green for many days. To lend credence to his story, the beach was littered with flotsam.

After lunch we explored a couple of large sea caves and played in the rocks some more. BH nearly died several times, but always made a beautiful escape.
I played a little bit. My mojo is still off this season though. Everything seemed to be slightly off. So I didn't push too hard.
It was an awesome trip. Mike did a fantastic job pointing out stuff to us and telling us stories about the area. I was glad he enjoyed himself. I definitely enjoyed the trip.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rain Day

Our fourth day on Cape Breton was the worst. It started raining sometime over night so by the time we were ready for breakfast the camp site was already soggy. I was all for going out to get breakfast, but the rest of the group was hardier than I. H lit the stove and made us a nice meal. The big screen tent worked surprisingly well as a rain shelter for our meal.
Once we ate and cleaned up, we decided that we would drive over to Cheticamp and check out the scene. H's Lonely Planet guide made it sound pretty interesting.
The drive from Dingwall to Cheticamp is rough. The Cabot Trail, which is the only road, goes over two steep mountains. In good weather the drive is challenging due to the crazy switchbacks and lack of shoulder. In the wind and rain it is miserable.
I cannot imagine doing the same drive on a motorcycle or a bicycle. We did, however, see multiple people on motorcycles and bicycles. The bicyclists looked the most miserable pedalling like mad to drag all your clothes and camping gear over a mountain. We didn't see any bicyclists going down hill, but I imagine they changed from miserable to terrified as they careened down the switchbacks with water slicked brakes.
Cheticamp is a big town for Cape Breton. The main drag had a number of shops and restaurants. We ate at a traditional Acadian joint that doubled as a gift shop and a rug hooking museum. The food was good but did not make up for the wait.
On they way back to camp we stopped back at Eagle North for a weather check and to see if Cape North was a possibility for the next day. The forecast predicted that the rain would end over night and the winds would die down. Mike seemed pretty upbeat about our chances of doing the trip.
For dinner we drove over to Neil's Harbor to check out the Chowder House. H got a bowl of seafood chowder that earned rave reviews. The rest of us got fish and chips that were excellent. The fish was fresh and not too oily.
The day ended with a furious thunder storm. It was the rains final fury.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


On the advice of Jen at Eagle North Kayaking, we decided that our second kayaking trip in Cape Breton would be out of Pleasant Bay. This is where most of the whale boats launch because whales are most common along the eastern shore of Cape Breton. Most of the tours guarantee that passengers will see a whale.
Jen's advice to us about finding whales was to follow the whale tour boats.

The books say, and Jen concurred, that there is a launch fee to use the ramp at Pleasant Bay. However, there is no obvious place to pay the fee and nobody tries too hard to collect it. We used the ramp and the parking lot without any trouble or any fee. Since Pleasant Bay is a working harbor, we were advised to make sure our cars were parked out of the way. The lot is very large and it was not an issue to park off to the side. Besides we are used to being deferential to power boaters at the ramps back home.

Five minutes out of the harbor H spotted two pods of whales. The pods were a good distance off shore, but we didn't care about being too far off shore. We wanted to paddle with whales.
A whale tour was heading toward the whales. Whale fever was in control.

We reached the whales just after the tour boat, but in plenty of time to see the whales. I took out my camera and started just pointing and clicking without really paying much attention to what the camera picked up. I wanted to enjoy watching the whales, and figured if I took enough pictures I'd get at least one good one.
The pod breached all around us for a good five minutes. On several occasions they surfaced within feet of a kayak. The whole experience was indescribable.
Once the pod began moving out to deeper water, we decided it was time to let them be. We had our fun. We all joked that we could just paddle back to Pleasant Bay, break camp, and head home. Our vacation was complete.
We did begin paddling toward shore, but not in the direction of Pleasant Bay. Instead we continued down the coast toward Fishing Cove. The coastline was rugged cliffs that offered few places to land even in calm conditions. The few beaches we saw were steep, shallow patches of round pebbles with dumping surf. Storm swells-really any swell over two or three feet-would make landing difficult and staying dry impossible. The waves would cover the beaches and wash a camper out.
We did stop for lunch on the best beach we could find before Fishing Cove. It was deeper than the rest and sheltered slightly by some shallow rocks that broke up the surf. Still you could see that the sea frequently pounded the rocks. They were carved into round inverse wave patterns. One piece of granite had a perfect wave pattern etched into it's side where a harder white vein of rock held fast.
After lunch we headed a little further towards Fishing Cove. H was concerned that we might get back too late to discuss our Cape North trip with Mike at Eagle North if we continued, but the rest of us wanted to go around the next headland to see if we could find Fishing Cove.
Surprisingly enough, our navigation skills using a terrible map were spot on. Fishing Cove was just around the next headland. Fishing Cove is a tiny protected hamlet tucked into a notch among the mountains. You can either hike in from the Cabot Trail or kayak in from either Pleasant Bay or Cheticamp.
We didn't spend much time exploring the cove. H really wanted to get back. She did not want to get back to Eagle North, or camp, too late and it was already five in the afternoon. We had at least an hours return paddle and a thirty minute drive back to Eagle North.
We hightailed it back to Pleasant Bay. I think our average speed was close to four MPH.
Sadly, when we got to Eagle North Mike told us that the forecast for the next day called for high winds and rain. The trip around Cape North would have to wait at least one more day.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Coastal Trail

On our second day in Cape Breton the group decided to hike. After much discussion we settled on doing the Coastal Trail. It is a 7km hike along the coast near Neil's Harbor. It also offers what looked like a few interesting side trips.
Getting to the trail turned into a mini adventure. The trail head is on the Cabot Trail, so it was easy enough to find. As we were donning our boots, I noticed a big hole in H's kayak. The rear hatch cover had blown off between the campground and the trail head. After a brief, but intense, moment of panic, we retraced our route. Fortunately, the cover was sitting in the road a few km away. BH ran into the road, and retrieved it.
With H's kayak back in one piece, we hit the trail. It starts off easy and leads down to a sandy beach. After the beach, however, it becomes more challenging. There is a section through woods that is steep. This is followed by a stretch along the shore that is broken up by round stone beaches.
The views along the shore are beautiful. The beaches are great for strengthening ankles and balance. The ocean has ground the rocks until they are rounded. Crossing the beaches are like an obstacle course out of ABC's Wipeout.
After the hike we found a local swimming hole a short distance from the trail head. Across from the actual trail head a path leads into the woods along a stream. A 100 meters up the path the stream runs through a rocky area and forms several big pools. We took advantage of this to cool down before driving back to camp.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Testing the Waters

Sunday morning we started scoping out paddle locations.
The campground owners told us about a put in adjacent to the campground that provided access to the Aspy River and Middle Harbor. The put in was a little rough and the road access was questionable. If we had a real 4x4 truck we could easily manage. With the Forester and the Box we'd be asking for a tow.
Our second stop was Eagle North Kayaking. Jen, the propriatress, gave us a few charts and enough information about the area to get in trouble. Eagle North also has a nice put in along South Harbor.
We decided that paddling out of Eagle North, through South Harbor, and along the coast heading north was a good first day outing. The probability of trouble was low. The entire trip is along sandy, surf-free beaches and ends at a waterfall. The only tricky part of the paddle was getting from the harbor to the ocean. The barrier beach is cut by a narrow, constantly shifting channel that is often choked with sand.
South Harbor was flat and uninteresting. We found the outlet without much trouble. There was a little surf, but nothing to worry about.
We paddled north along the beach at a slow pace and checked out the shore. There was a long beach that was split by a good sized cliff. After South Harbor was Middle Harbor, and then Dingwall Harbor.
Along the way we spotted a storm cloud of gannets flow out from the cliffs. They started circling about a half mile off shore. Suddenly a number of the birds fell out of the sky like darts. From our vantage it looked like a rain storm of gannets. The view was made even more spectacular by the a angle of the sun. It hit the diving birds such that their wings shimmered as they fell into the water.
We decided to lunch in Dingwall, so we slipped into the harbor through the stone breach way. We found a nice sandy beach and set up camp. H was starting to get a headache so she wanted to rest a bit. CC and BH hopped the causeway to look for sea glass. I started to get antsy.
Eventually, I roused H and convinced her to explore Dingwall with me. There is not much to see in Dingwall. It is a small fishing harbor lined with rundown buildings.
After out brief tour of Dingwall, we regrouped and headed home. Getting back into South Harbor was a little more tricky than getting out. The surf was still small, but it was pushy. CC found the narrow path through the surf. H got caught by a wave and was pushed into the beach. She did a great job riding the wave in and just carried over the beach.
Once back in South Harbor we were back on flat water. The paddle back to the put in was uneventful.
Back at Eagle North we talked to the Jen's husband, Mike, about doing a day tour around Cape North-the roughest portion of the coast. He was game to do it later in the week.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Late Night Dinning in Cape Breton

It was 7:30 before CC and BH had there tents set up and were ready to eat dinner. We were all hungry, but unwilling to drive very far. This meant that the larger towns like Neil's Harbor and Igonish were not an option.
The first place we saw was Angie's place. It was a small hole in the wall, but the menu looked fine. I was ready to grab a seat when H told me we were leaving. BH noticed that a number of people had that desperately waiting for food look.
So we set off down the road to Dingwall. We came across the Celtic Lodge pizza place but decided against stopping. Celtic and pizza don't sound like a good combination. Dingwall also has a nice fried fish and ice cream shack that is open late. The desolate parking lot where the shack sits scared us a little bit.
Eventually we ended up back at Angie's. It is the only place open past nine in the Dingwall area. As it turned out the food was pretty good and the service was fairly prompt. It would be decent even if it wasn't the only game in town.

Driving to Cape Breton

When planning our vacation to Cape Breton, we figured that could do the drive in two moderate days. H planned on leaving at 9am Friday morning. We'd arrive at our first stop, the Stuart House B&B near Amherst Nova Scotia early in the evening. Saturday we'd have a leisurly six hour drive to Hideaway Campground near Dingwall. If all went according to plan we'd be set up in time for an early dinner.
Friday morning we got on the road around 10am. We were moving slow and everything was difficult. The bike rack was uncooperative. The last minute items were well hidden and multiplied like rabbits.
We had to make a planned stop in Portsmouth, NH to return a bike bag. We figured that we'd make a "quick" stop at Kittery Trading Post because it was right up the road. The return went smoothly. The Kittery Trading Post stop was, as expected, not quick. I couldn't decide on which dry bag to buy. I was distracted by the shiny helmets. I couldn't find the Five Fingers. H looked for knives. She also started a quest for brown, dressy, casual sandles that didn't look too gramma'ish.
After escaping the Trading Post we went in search of a transmitter to make the iPod play through the car stereo (We took H's car on this trip because Egg 2.0 cannot support a trunk-mount bike rack). This search lead us to a Clarke's outlet (yes no connection but there are brown sandals!). We also made a stop a Brookstone. Neither stop produced any results. We left Kittery with two new dry bags and a stainless steel water bottle, but without an iPod adapter or sandles.
By now it was after noon and we'd traveled about an hour and a half....
H declared that there would be no more stops-not even at L. L. Bean to look for Five Fingers or a camp stove. We did pretty well until Portland. I had to make a relief stop. We found a Subway that happened to be near a Radio Shack and a hardware store. While I relieved myself H went to the Radio Shack and secured us iPod integration. Then we stopped at the hardware store to look at knives, or scissors, to replace H's kayaking knife. The hardware store was a bust.
Finally, we were on the road to stay. It was pretty smooth sailing. H only triple checked the GPS directions a few times. Traffic was light.
The ease on this leg could not make up for the lost time earlier in the day. We didn't get to the border crossing at Calias Maine until 6pm. We called the B&B to tell them we'd be later than expected but not too late. Then we waited in line to cross the border for 40 minutes. Then we hit heavy fog. H drove through pretty heavy fog until St. John's.
We stopped to grab food and regroup at a McDonalds in St. John's. Our new plan was to call the B&B and cancel our reservations if the fog held. We could find a motel along the way.
The man at the B&B was very nice. He suggested that we drive to Moncton before we made up our minds. There were plenty of places to stay in Moncton and it was about half way between St. Johns and Amherst.
Ten minutes out of St. Johns the fog cleared. We cruised to Moncton where we called the B&B. We told them that we were still coming and that we would be there in about an hour. It was 9:30, so we didn't feel too bad about keeping the inn keeper up until 10:30...
I don't know why but I asked H if we had changed time zones. She was pretty sure that we hadn't. I was pretty sure we had. So she checked the cell phone to see what time the cell network thought it was. The cell phone said it was 10:30. The time zone changes at the border. Now we felt like jack asses. Not only were keeping the inn keeper up until almost midnight, we were too stupid to know it until it was too late. There was no way we were going to call a fourth time and make matters even worse.
Fortunately the drive from Moncton was uneventful. We did get caught in a random police check point on a desolate country road, but that was it.
When we arrived at Stuart House the inn keepers were very nice. They were used to Americans. Another family from MA had arrived just a half hour before us after a day of sightseeing.
The inn was lovely. Our room was large and quaint. The bed was a little soft and the shower was a little whimpy. The breakfast, however, made up for everything. The muffins, rolls, and farmer's breakfast were divine.
Our drive from Stuart House to Cape Breton was uneventful, but longer than anticipated. We stopped at Heather Beach to get a picture of H with the sign. We also took an unexpected little ferry ride at Englishtown.
The GPS said to turn left when the only thing to the left was water. At the last minute a small road appeared. At the bottom was a small ferry that shuttled cars across a 100 yard wide channel.
We arrived at Hideaway Campground around 5:30pm. We got two nice tent sites with spectacular views of South Aspy Pond.