Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Swell Day

Last week TM e-mailed myself, PB, and JG to ask if we could help out on his BCU 4 Star Leader evaluation. Needless to say I eagerly agreed to help. TM has taught me, and many members of the club, an enormous amount about paddling and being comfortable on the ocean. TM has been working on attaining this certification for a while now and based on the leadership and skills he regularly shows on club trips, I thought he had has what it takes to pass the evaluation.
TM's plan was to lead the PB, JG, and myself from Bay Campus to Narrow River and back while John Carmody assessed. It is a good route that offers a diversity of conditions and obstacles.
As the day approached, I grew concerned about my ability to be a helpful participant. My back was a sheet of pain, my stomach was unsettled, and my energy level was in the sub-basement. Having a new baby is not good for staying in kayak shape.
When I checked the weather this morning, my concerns dissipated. I felt good and the forecast was benign: light winds and calm seas. I could tough it out in those conditions and not be a sea anchor on the group.
When I got to Bay Campus, last of course, the water was glass. Everyone was going about getting ready for an easy day on the water. When TM gathered us together for the pre-paddle briefing, I immediately realized I was missing some key information.
TM prepped us for paddling in big, powerful swells and big surf on Narragansett Beach. Everyone else knew about the condition and talked about six to eight foot swells along Bonnet Shore bluffs. I missed the part of the forecast that talked about big swells at the mouth of the bay because I'd only read the quick synopsis. I mentioned my back pains to TM and figured in for a penny in for a pound. Big swells are no big deal....
Once we got to the bluffs, the size and strength of the water was obvious. TM had me take point along the bluffs. I asked how he wanted me to run it, inside near the rocks or outside in the swells. I hoped he would say outside. The swells were breaking with hull crushing force along the rocks and I have a very limited repair budget this year. Fortunately, TM didn't see any reason to take crazy risks.
I forged a path that was close to the bluffs, but outside the breakers. TM did have to slow me down though. I was feeling pretty good and settled into a rhythm that was a little too fast for everyone.
When we got to the edge of Bonnet Cove, TM scoped out the possibility for tucking in behind the rock just off the bluffs to get some shelter. At first glance it looked possible. There was a good size window between the swells that broke along the rock. It also looked like the big refracting wave on the inside of the rock was a kayak length beyond the rock. After a observing for a few minutes, TM decided it was a no go. The inside wave was too big and closer than it initially appeared. It was possible to get between the rock and the bluff and not be crushed by the return wave, but not probable.
It was the first of many good judgement calls on TM's part. The second good call was not trying to sneak through the rocks and into the Narrow River. It was another situation where if we did everything perfectly and the ocean cooperated, we would all have landed safely on the beach with ease. It was more likely that the group would have been split up or a kayak (or two) would have needed repairs.
Instead, we paddled along the coast looking for a place where we could land without battling 6 foot dumping waves. We knew that Pier 5 was a definite safety spot if we got stuck. As we paddled we discussed options for landing in these conditions if we had no choice but land. We came up with two: 1) a very well timed surf landing where you made sure to come in on the back of a wave and quickly got out of the kayak before the next wave dumped on top of you, 2) get out of the kayak and swim it in.
As we worked our way south it became obvious that a safe landing on the beach was not in the cards. At this point John Carmody asked if we needed to land. We did not need to land. He then asked if the risk of dumping surf was worth having lunch on this beach. It was not. So, TM turned us around and we headed for our usual Outer West Passage lunch spot.
Paddling with the swell behind us was faster than paddling into the swell. However, it is just as tiring. Going into the swells you can see what they are doing. Going with the swells means they sneak up behind you. Fortunately, everyone in our group was comfortable with following seas.
PB and I were the lead kayaks between Narragansett and Bonnet. We picked a line that split the distance between the coastline and Whale Rock. The swells were breaking a good distance out from the rocks along the coast and pounding Whale Rock.
After lunch John wanted to see TM bring a group into a surf beach, so we paddled over to Bonnet Shore Beach. The surf along the beach wasn't huge, but it was enough to make landing a little tricky. TM found us a good spot along the northern end of the beach. The waves were small, predictable, and not dumpy. He then lead us all safely to shore.
John Carmody wanted to get some surfing in before heading back home, so he decided to run an impromptu surf clinic. He asked each of us what frustrated the most about surfing and gave us one thing to work on while playing. For me it was timing the wave better so that I could get up enough speed to catch the wave without getting to far in front of it. For TM it was looking at where he was on the wave once he caught the wave.
As we worked in the surf, John would give us other little pointers to polish our control. He gave us one tip that really helped: when you catch the wave make sure the stern of the kayak is sticking out the back of the wave. If the stern is buried in the wave, the wave is in control and rudder strokes become ineffective. If the stern is sticking out, the rudder strokes are more effective.
Once safely back at the beach, TM was told that he passed the assessment with flying colors. It is a well deserved achievement. TM has long been one of the best (if not the best) trip leaders and teachers in the club. We have all learned a great deal from him.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Follow the Leader

Today we took a good group from Third Beach in Newport across the river to Little Compton to paddle along the rocky coast. The trip was pleasant and relaxing. It also offered a good lesson in giving directions that are too specific.
TM gave the group a compass bearing to follow when we crossed the river. He then promptly decided not to stick with the bearing. Conditions were different enough to require adjustments.
The result was that the group drifted apart. Half the group followed TM. The other half followed TM's directions.
Once I realized what was happening, I started corralling the direction followers. Each one said the same thing: "TM said to following a bearing of 340." I couldn't argue the point, he had given the directions. So, I made some joke about TM being too old to read the tiny compass numbers and got them to slide in with the rest of the group.
It is a classic question when reality and directions don't match. Do you follow the directions or the reality? When it comes to kayaking in a group, I usually default to following the leader and not the leader's directions. Plans change for reasons that are not always obvious and on the water communication is imperfect at best.
Of course, I'm not much for following directions at the best of times. (Not even the ones I write myself.)
So, when in doubt stick with the leader unless the rest of the group has also abandoned the leader. Then stick with safety in numbers.