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.

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