Friday, November 01, 2019

The Gales Claim a Mighty Stick

I love Greg Paquin's Autumn Gales event. He brings in some great coaches and provides a great forum for allowing paddlers to push themselves in conditions. I always try to do one day of three day event. (I love the kid dearly, but she makes it hard to spend three days paddling....)
Being in November, the weather is always interesting. Most years the winds are blowing or the rain is coming down. This year we had the remnants of a hurricane blowing in and I wasn't even sure there would be paddling on my day... Not that a little wind or rain was going to stop me from attending.
The morning planning session offered a few interesting options that were safely in my box and one crazy option that was on the edge of my box. Two groups were going to reasonably protected areas to work on skills with one of the two groups getting a little more exposure. A third group, that was all coaches and 5 star paddlers, was going in the belly of the beast for a nice long paddle. I did actually pause and talk to Greg before deciding to saddle up and ride out into the worst of it. I don't get many chances to really paddle. I have been taking (mostly reasonable) risks all summer in a vain attempt to prove to myself that I am not turning into some soft in the middle old guy (which I am). If I was going to get into trouble being surrounded by 5 star paddlers is a pretty safe to be.
We paddled SE out of the harbor to the far side of the inner sea wall. In the harbor the swell was a few feet high and making forward progress was tough. The seeds of doubt were beginning to creep in, but I kept them at bay. This was nothing I hadn't paddled in many times before - granted it usually wasn't in November when I needed a jacket to keep from getting cold....
When we got to the sea wall wave were breaking over the top of it. The only "safe" place was directly behind the wall. The space between the wall and the point was a surf zone with particularly nasty breakers near to the wall. Beyond the wall was giant swells that often became breakers. I was definitely questioning the sanity of my decision, but it was too late to turn back....
I paddled out beyond the wall, sure to stay out of the roughest of the surf near the wall to test out the conditions. It was big and scary, but not too bad. I worked on hold my position, doing some basic boat control stuff, and then caught a decent ride back inside the wall to a spot where it was easy to get out of the surf. There was one small moment where I saw myself breaking into pieces on some rocks, but I managed to steer the Aries out of danger.
Feeling a little more confident, I headed out for another round. I figured by lunch I might work my way up to trying the big stuff near the wall. I got out beyond the wall into some big swells, started to turn the Aries into position to catch a wave, and went to use a quick low brace to stabilize myself against a swell. Then SNAP. I was paddling with two sticks when I should have had just one... DON'T PANIC... TAKE A BREATH... ASSESS THE SITUATION... DETERMINE A COURSE OF ACTION.. The brace worked well enough to keep me upright and the larger piece of the stick was big enough to be useful for bracing and possibly enough to mange a surf ride inside the wall. If I went over it was unlikely that I would be able to execute a roll. I did not have enough leverage with the stick pieces to do any significant maneuvering in the wind and swells. A coach was within earshot. I shouted for help which was quick to arrive. We pulled out and assembled my spare Lendal. Then we stowed the remnants of the stick and separated since I now had a fully functional paddle. How was the coach supposed to know that the last time I had used this paddle in anything more serious than level two trip on a windless day was a fading memory or that when I last used it in a pool rolling session the results were hardly consistent....
DON'T PANIC... TAKE A BREATH... TAKE A STROKE... FEEL HOW THE PADDLE MOVES IN THE WATER... REMEMBER THAT KAYAKING IS ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE PADDLE... THIS IS JUST A STICK OF A DIFFERENT SORT... I managed to get myself settled and the Aries under control. I paddled around in the big swells a bit, lined up for and then backed off a few surf waves. Then I just went for it and surfed into the safer zone inside the wall.
It took a while for me to work my way back up to venturing into the big zone again. I took some time inside the wall to reacquaint myself with my old friend the Lendal Kinetic Touring (which is IMHO the best Euro paddle ever designed). There were some smaller waves to catch inside the wall.
After some goading from the others in the group, I did make my way out past the wall again. It was hard to catch rides because the surf was not clean unless you were in tight to the sea wall and that was not where I was going. It was an excellent test of my skills. I didn't catch any spectacular waves or do any awesome rolls in monster swells. I managed to stay upright and in control of my kayak in big conditions with an unfamiliar paddle. It was enough.
The coaches were doing some spectacular stuff near the wall. They were catching big waves and taking monster runs. There was also plenty of rolling up when a surf run went bad. It was a sight to behold.
As always Greg offered just the right little pointers and words of encouragement. He noticed that I was not punching through the top of my stroke as much as I could. After he pointed it out and had me focus on it, I definitely had more power for punching through the swells without using much more energy. It probably gave me the edge I needed to make it through the day.
After lunch the conditions evened out. They were still big, but more predictable. We played in the surf a bit more. Then we headed out beyond the sea wall towards the western end. From there we crossed over to sandy island. It was interesting going. Behind the wall things were choppy and bouncy. The crossing to sandy island was mostly big following seas which required a lot of energy but provided a lot of nice long rides.
The paddle down sandy island and back to the put in was a slog. The back side of the island was shallow water and the wind was in our face the whole time. I couldn't get a good grip on the water and the wind had plenty of grip on the big lollipop paddle I was swinging. Once we turned and headed back into the harbor the wind was not so bad. It was a strong quartering wind, but the shore blunted a good bit of its force.
Back at the launch I had the usual conflicted feelings. I was pooped and ready to get out of the boat, but still reluctant to set foot on land and call it a day. Being back on shore always feels like a small loss; an ending of some small moments of joy and the return to the real world of work and the small everyday indignities. If I could just stay in the boat I could continue being the guy who had pushed the envelope of skill set and survived in the face of difficulty.
Of course, the loss is not real and I am still the guy who pushed through a tough challenge. The small indignities of life are all just challenges that must be faced and pushed through. It is just that on the water they feel bigger and more heroic.
So, the Gales lived up to its name and once again gave me a forum to push myself surrounded by excellent coaches. It also gives me a chance to upgrade my stick.