Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Weird Day

A long level 4 paddle is never an endeavor to be taken lightly. Doing a level 4 paddle after three days of training is a recipe for trouble.
Despite the good reasons for not doing a paddle from the Bay Campus to the Narrow River, I decided I would do it anyway. I felt pretty good despite spending the three previous days paddling. I wanted to try out my new strokes with the mighty stick. The weather was perfect.
I showed up to find a much larger group than I expected. I knew it was going to be interesting. BH, RB, and PB showed up looking to play in some rocks. TM wanted to paddle. JS wanted to fish. The other TM wanted to try out his new stick. I just wanted to spend some time on the water and not get hurt.
Things started off great. The water was lively, but not not dangerous. It was enough to play in the rocks and feel like you were living on the edge. Occasionally, there was a stray big wave that carried the potential for mayhem. Early on, PB found himself perched on a rock.
About three quarters of the way down Bonnet Bluffs, a group of us slipped out of a rock slot and got bunched up along a row of low sitting rocks that was hit with a fairly regular four foot breaking wave. I was stuck on the inside and just as the group started breaking up, the wave made an appearance. I had no forward momentum to carry me down the wave and away from the rock wall. Instead, I braced on the wave and rode it into the rocks. Along the way my bow made a loud bang as it danced over the rocks. The wave left me trapped between the incoming swell and the rocky shore. I tried to back out, but got turned breach to the swells. Once I was breach, I was stuck. I tried to get the Q-Boat turned, but it was hopeless.
I got out of the kayak and pushed it out the the waiting pack of rescue kayaks. Then I swam out to them. BH hooked my kayak to a tow to keep it from washing back into the rocks. RC tried to tow me out to my kayak, but he couldn't make any headway. So, I tried to swim to my kayak. In the mean time, BH and my kayak had been blown pretty far down wind. Once it was obvious that I could not catch up to my kayak, BH paddled back with it. Once reunited with my kayak, I was able to get back in pretty quick.
Since I had been in the water for awhile and the Q-Boat was potentially damaged, we decided to stop in Bonnet Cove before continuing on to Narrow River. I rested while CM and BH inspect the Q-Boat's bow. The keel strip was broken in several places and several large patches of gel coat was missing. CM tried to patch it up with some putty to keep it from leaking. The general consensus was that the hull was fine and it wouldn't leak. It was just gel coat.
The paddle from Bonnet Cove to Narrow river was uneventful. PB, RB, and BH played in the rocks along the shore. I stayed clear hoping to avoid any more damage to the Q-Boat. I sensed that the crash was fates way of warning me not to push my luck.
At the Narrow River entrance we rested for a bit. The weather was perfect for some beach lounging. Sadly, I felt a colonic imperative. The nearest modern facility to fulfill the imperative was a 30 minute, or better, walk down the beach and the rest of the group didn't want to wait that long. TM suggested that I sneak into the private beach club just up the beach. I tired, but could not find a proper facility and was quickly identified as an outsider. Left with the options of using the river or my cockpit, I opted for the river. Nature would flush things down river properly....
I was hoping that the paddle back would be uneventful. The mornings activities and the three days of training were catching up to me. My mojo, which was already wobbly, neared instability.
The first sign of trouble was JS blowing a whistle, loudly, for no apparent reason. The group was a little spread out: TM was pretty far in front, PB was in along the shore, BH was rock hunting. However, compared to a normal RICKA paddle we were on top of each other.
Then we made a rest stop well before Bonnet Cove. I had no idea why we stopped. I was a little tired, but just tired enough to want to get home before my tank ran dry. Nobody else in the group seemed distressed or tired. I assumed TM knew something I didn't and just went with the flow.
After the break, I moved to the front of the group and opened the throttle. My tolerance for trouble was nearing its end. I needed to take some space and burn off some of the funk settling over me.
By the time we got past Bonnet Bluffs, JS was way behind the rest of the pack. When I asked what was going on several people mentioned that he was throwing up. When I inquired if he was under tow, people responded that he was not. Two paddlers were keeping an eye on him....
This was not acceptable to me. For one thing he was slowing the group way down and people were getting tired. More importantly, a vomiting paddler is an excellent candidate for drowning in the cockpit. I don't know many people whose balance is not thrown off by nausea.
I paddle out to JS, TM, and RC to get the tow set up and get someone stabilizing JS. By the time I got out them, TM and RC had taken the initiative to hook up a tow. I asked RC to go back and raft with JS and I hooked into to TM's bow to assist in the tow. Two kayaks tow faster than one. Just for fun BH joined the tow also.
Before long, we were at the Endeavor's dock and in sight of the Bay Campus beach. Someone decided it was a good idea to disconnect the tow before we passed the dock, so JS paddled in under his own power.
While any day on the water is better than a day at the office, some days on the water are not as good as days spent sipping coffee in a comfy chair with a good book. Today was one of those days. I was glad I paddled, but just as glad to stop.

PS I turns out that the Q-Boat did suffer some structural damage. I pulled the damaged part of the keep strip up and discovered that the gel coat was cracked for a solid two feet along the bow. Carl Ladd took a look at it and showed me where the glass was cracked. He fixed it up in about a week for a decent price. She looks almost as good as new. I like having a few scars on the hull. It looks "extreme"....

Saturday, June 27, 2009

BCU 3 Star Training

I know I've said that chasing BCU stars is a little silly for recreational paddlers, but the BCU training framework is world class. The recent revisions to make the 3 star and 4 star training focused on journeying and leadership make it even better for the sorts of paddling I enjoy.
When I heard Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures was offering the new 3 star training with Steve Maynard, I decided to take it. TM was also taking the course. I figured it would be fun and educational.
To make things even more fun I decided to take the course without the mighty stick. I figured Steve was more familiar coaching paddlers with Euro blades and I wanted to get as much out him as possible. I can do the translation between my lollipop and the mighty stick.
The first day of the course we headed out of the Westport Town boat ramp. The current was running pretty strong up river when we launched and they would be running pretty strong down river on the return trip. We were hoping that they would offer us some fun at the mouth of the river before we paddled back.
The first thing we did was play in the eddies created by the three rocks just before the bridge. Like well trained paddlers we picked good angles to enter the eddy, leaned downstream when the boat started to turn, and pulled in behind the rock with a little correcting stroke. Once we were all safely in the eddy behind the first rock the teaching started. Steve wanted us to stop with the bracing and slowing down as we crossed the eddy line. Instead we needed to keep paddling forward and use the eddy lines to navigate the kayak. The forward stroke provides enough lift to keep a paddler upright and the eddy is going to push the kayak around regardless. Instead of trying to overcome the eddy, he wanted us to plan our routes such that the eddies would do most, if not all, of the work in turning the kayaks. He had some great saying about this, which I have completely forgotten.
When I tried doing as told, tentatively at first, I discovered that when you plan properly it is actually much easier to get from point to point. The correcting strokes and bracing take a lot of work that is not needed. Of course, when I miss read the eddy or the amount of speed needed to get the desired turning, things did not go as smoothly. I got pushed over a rock at least once because I didn't pick the right angle to cross the line.
After playing in the currents for a bit, we paddled down river towards the mouth. The paddle was a chance to get some tips on forward strokes. The two most memorable tips were "no yo-yo hands" and the "circle of power."
Yo-yo hands is when your hands move up and down during your forward stroke. They are inefficient and creates an imbalance between the front and back of the shoulder muscles. The fix for yo-yo hands is to keep the top hand in a level horizontal plane as you rotate through the stroke. When the stoke is unwound, lift the bottom hand as the top hand moves down to plant the paddle for the next stroke. Lifting the bottom hand engages the rear part of the shoulder muscles and strengthens the muscles that stabilize the shoulders.
The circle of power describes the shape your arms make as you paddle. Your arms should be slightly bent and your hands should not go above the shoulders. This position is powerful, protects your shoulders, and helps keep your core engaged.
Steve also showed us how to optimize our forward power by sliding the paddle blade out to the sides while unwinding the stroke. Moving the paddle straight back starts the water moving. If the blade keeps moving backwards along the same vertical plane, it quickly goes from moving water to chasing the already moving water. By moving slightly to the side through the stroke, the paddle keeps moving water.
After lunch, Steve showed us a few control strokes that don't kill forward speed. Two of the strokes were pretty familiar: the bow rudder and the side draw. The third stroke was combination stern rudder and hanging draw. The paddle is placed in the stern rudder position, but the stroke draws the stern toward the paddle. The trick is to keep the pressure on the power face of the paddle so the water is pushed under the hull. Using the stroke allows you to steer the kayak from one side of the kayak. The only hitch is that it doesn't offer much in the way of support.
The rest of the afternoon was spent practicing in the little surf along the beach. One of the drills we did was to "kiss the beach." The trick is to get as far up the beach without getting stranded. It helps with kayak control. It also simulates a surf landing because you want to land as far up the beach as possible to minimize the chances of getting whacked by the surf when trying to get out the cockpit.
Day two saw us paddling out of Sakonnet Point in wispy fog. The fog was fine since the day was about navigation. Navigation and rocks. As we paddled down the river towards the lighthouse, the fog thickened up. We did some more navigation exercises using hand-held compasses and a topo map. The hand-held compasses are easier to use with a map to find locations and get bearings. According to Steve that deck compasses is just a pretty hood ornament. The deck compass is good for hold courses, but doesn't sit on a map very well.
The topo map was a fine alternative to a chart. It has sufficient details of the hazards just off the coast and has excellent detail of the land.
One of the rock games we played was hold position near the rock. Then we did swoop in and hook a tow onto the paddler near the rock and drag them away. I swooped in to pull TM out, hooked the tow line onto his kayak, and edged too hard on the turn out. I was under water next to a rock hooked to a tow line. I could see the rock through the bubbles and all thoughts of rolling fled. I pulled the loop. TM's bow was right there. If I had reached up, I could have grabbed it. Anyway, it was a good chance to practice a rescue.
We spent the rest of the day doing drills near the rocks and practicing navigation. It was a good day.
The two days was a good opportunity to practice and get pointers from a world class paddler. I look forward to practicing the strokes in my regular paddling.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Taking the BCU Foundation Safety and Rescue Training

I know I've said that chasing stars is a fools errand, but the BCU training framework is one of the premier kayak instruction systems in the world. So when I heard that Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures had arranged for Steve Maynard to give three days of training, I jumped at the chance.
The first day was the Foundation Safety and Rescue Training. It is a basic safety course that covers rescues and towing in sheltered water. The group I paddle with regularly practices rescues and towing, but they are skills that can never be too familiar. When a paddler really needs the skills they should be automatic. They are also skills that can benefit from constant refinement and added options.
We started the day off with a couple of interesting boat handling drills. Steve had us arrange the kayaks in a star pattern with bows centered. He then had us move the star left and right. Then we exploded the star and brought it back together. Once we did this bows centered, we redid the exercise stern centered. The drill helped with both basic boat control and group paddling awareness.
We followed the boat control drill with t-rescues. The t-rescue is pretty basic: t the kayaks off, drain the capsized kayak, hold the victim's kayak while they climb into the cockpit.
Steve had a few refinements on the basics:

  • He does not approach the victim's kayak until the swimmer has flipped it onto its hull. This shows that the swimmer is able to communicate and is cooperative. A cooperative swimmer is far less likely to endanger the rescuer.

  • He has the swimmer hold onto either the cockpit of their kayak or just behind the cockpit of his kayak. The standard wisdom of having the swimmer help in lifting the bow of their kayak is outweighed by the danger to the swimmer. The stern of a kayak is pointy, hard, and bouncy in most rescue situations. It is harder for a swimmer to hold onto and likely to bonk them in the head.

  • A rescue should take about 30 seconds from start to finish. A minute is the upper limit.

One point he made very clear during the day was the identity of the most important person in a rescue: you. It doesn't matter what your role in the rescue is (swimmer, rescuer, bystander, etc.), you need to keep your own safety as a top priority. Rescuers shouldn't rush into dangerous situations. Swimmers should be active participants in the process. Bystanders should stay out of more trouble.
After rescues we worked on towing. It was pretty standard stuff. One thing that was repeated was that it is best to start a tow before it becomes necessary. The person being put into the tow should not be given the right of refusal. Steve also mentioned that it is often appropriate to tow a slow paddler if their lack of speed is becoming a drag on the group. There are times where speed equals safety. The longer a group is on the water, the more chances there are for trouble. It also means that everyone is burning through their energy reserves for a longer period of time.
In addition to towing single kayaks with a towline, we also practiced contact tows and towing rafts. In both of these cases it is important to keep the leading ends of the two kayaks in the raft close together. When using a tow line, one way to accomplish this is to run the tow line through the deck lines of both kayaks. (While "perfect form" is to lock the carabiner onto the "victim's" kayak, it is more important that both kayaks are locked into the tow.) When doing a contact tow, the best solution is to get the "victim" to lay across the tower's deck. This will push the ends of the kayaks together.
Steve didn't speak highly of the use of short lines for use in contact tows. It was just one more piece of gear to fiddle with.
After lunch, we reviewed what a kayak should have for safety gear:
  1. Something to fix people.

  2. Something to fix gear.

  3. Something to communicate with others.

  4. Something to locate yourself.

The first two can be covered using duct tape in a pinch. However, it is pretty easy to carry a basic first aid kit and a basic repair kit. One neat piece of gear that Steve carries is a large float bag with a long stem. He uses it to keep fully compromised compartments afloat. For example, if a kayaker lost a hatch (or punched a hole) in the front of their kayak, the float bag would allow them to keep paddling long enough to get to shore.
We then goofed around in open canoes for a little while. It was fun. The mechanics of open canoe rescue is similar to kayak rescues. The realities of doing it are completely different.
Once we stowed the canoes, we headed back out in our kayaks to practice scoop rescues, hand of god rescues, and Eskimo rescues.
For scoop rescues, Steve had us place the victim in the kayak so that they were laying face down on their stern deck instead of sitting upright in their cockpits. This does two things:
  • It makes it easier to right the kayak because the weight is closer to the deck.

  • It limits the chances of doing further injury in the case of a back or neck injury.
For hand of god rescues, Steve showed us that by applying a little pressure on the victim's hull, we can reduce the effort needed to get them righted.
For Eskimo rescues, Steve had us stop aiming for that perfect bow to hand shot. He had us approach the upturned kayak like it was a regular rescue. We could then slide the bow of our kayak into position along the length of the swimmer's kayak. If the swimmer missed the bow, we would quickly be in position to offer them the paddle shaft. It made getting there much quicker. Instead of a 12 inch target we had an 18 foot target.
Along with all of the hands on practice, we also talked about strategies for handling emergency situations. How do you decide who rafts up with an unstable paddler? When do you put someone into a tow? How do you handle a situation where a paddler is out of their kayak in surf or rocks? What are the signs of hypothermia? These are the little things that are big deals.
For rocks and surf, the answer is that in most cases it is best to have the swimmer push their kayak out of the rocks/surf and swim out to where a safe rescue can be done. Why put two kayaks in danger? Besides the rescuing kayak is often a bigger danger to the swimmer than the rocks and surf.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Outer West Passage

The outer west passage of Narragansett Bay is one of my favorite places to paddle. We have a well worn route that we paddle several times a year. It offers a multitude of environments that can be experienced by beginners and enjoyed by experienced paddlers.
Today was the "official" outer west passage paddle for RIC/KA. It is the 2nd ocean paddle in TM's paddle series. It is the first paddle in the series to offer some open water.
The weather promised an easy, almost boring paddle. It was so nice I decided to leave the paddle jacket in the car. The wind was minimal, the water was calm, and the sun was warm.
Once on the water I realized that leaving the paddle jacket behind was not such a great idea. The temperature on the water was much cooler. The water is still in the 50s. If I found myself swimming, my polypro t-shirt wasn't going to offer much warmth. It was also a little windier on the water.
The first part of the paddle is along the Jamestown shore heading out to the mouth of the Bay. TM led most of the group well off shore to take advantage of the outgoing tidal current and avoid the rocks. A few of us, however, decided it was more fun to hug the shore. The sea was too calm to make the rocks challenging and the reverse current was negligible.
As we neared Beavertail, the swells got a little bigger and a lot choppier. Some of the newer paddlers starting getting a little unsettled, so TM decided to alter the route a little. We typically paddle out past Beavertail to the channel marker before making a turn towards Whale Rock. TM decided to make the turn at Beavertail and head straight to Whale Rock.
The crossing from Beavertail to Whale Rock is always interesting. The swells come in from the open ocean and get constricted as they enter the Bay. Today the swells were being chopped up by the light wind and the outgoing current. I enjoyed the bouncy ride because it was just enough to keep me awake. Others, however, were not so happy. I remember the first time I did the crossing - I was mildly terrified.
The fun didn't stop at Whale Rock. The section of the paddle between Whale Rock and lunch was all following seas. For me following seas equals free speed. For some of the other paddlers, following seas were unnerving. Following seas require that a paddler relinquish a little part of the illusion of control. The swells sneak up and push the kayak around. The swells can also give a paddler some nice rides.
After a nice lunch we paddled back to Bay Campus along the Bonnet Shore bluffs. The rocks along this section of the paddle can offer some nice playing when the swells are right. Today, however, the action was minimal. I did manage a near death moment. I was spotting a section of rocks for the other paddlers and a stray swell washed in and pushed my bow right into the rock. Luckily, the swell was big enough to wash me over the rock without a nick.
We all arrived back at the put in safely and having enjoyed ourselves. The taste of open water paddling has awakened the slumber desire for open water paddling. I'm looking forward to the more adventurous paddles coming up in the next few weeks.