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.