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.