Sunday, August 08, 2021

The Reefs and Paddling with Intention

 When the currents are right, the reefs off of Stonington offer one of the best playgrounds in the area. Despite some rain, today looked like it would be a promising day for fun and some learning.

Tim G. and Nick Shade volunteered to take a group of us out to the reefs and share some of their expertise.

Before setting out, we all talked about what we hoped to get out of the day. A common theme was accelerating onto the waves. It seems like such an easy thing to do: just dig deep and paddle fast. If only....

One the way out Nick asked me to do my best three strokes to get up to speed. I leaned a bit forward in the cockpit, stood the paddle up high, and speared the water. I got a nice little boost. Then Nick asked a bunch of pointed questions trying tease out what it was about the stroke that made it work. How was it different than a cruising stroke; where in the stroke was the power coming from; what could be done to optimize it? In the moment, the questions were a little frustrating because I didn't feel like I had good answers. With some time to reflect, I don't think having ready answers was the point; thinking about the stroke was the point and it was definitely helpful to get the brain engaged.

We stopped on Wiccopesett rock for a quick lunch to watch the race form up and talk about how to best experience it. Nick explained to us, in amazingly detailed, yet simple, terms what was happening with the water and how our kayaks behaved in relationship to the water.

What I took away from it was that it was all about controlled falling. When a kayak surfs a race it is falling down waves that are created by wind pushing against water falling in the other direction. The other thing I took away from the talk was that in a tide race, waves don't move because they are the result of features on the ocean floor. You need to see where the waves are and find the best path through to get a good ride.

When I got back on the water I tried to put the lessons into action.

I payed attention to how my power strokes felt and how to get the most out of them. For me, it is a lot like spearing the water by knees with the paddle face flat and transitioning to a more normal stroke as the blade passes by hip. It takes me more strokes to accelerate onto the waves with a stick then with a normal paddled - maybe three strokes instead of one. This just means I need to plan a little better and maybe wait for the wave behind the wave.

I also started watching where the waves were on the race and trying to "hop" from one to the next; use the wave I was on to fall into the next wave to link together long rides. It took a long time to figure out what how to string the rides together. The waves don't set up in a straight line and even if they did keeping the Aries surfing in a straight line takes work.

My bow seemed to be constantly getting pushed to the right (this could be a loading issue, the wind, the waves, or just bad technique). My first thing to do was get better control of the kayak on the wave. Tim had a nice tip for doing this; instead of hitting a hard stern rudder and trying to pry the bow in the right direction, he suggested using a seen rudder on the other side to arrest the bows movement and then using a forward stroke to correct direction. You loose less speed and keep more active control over the kayak. (I could be totally misremembering what Tim said, so ask him about this personally.) For me the takeaway was the "active" part. Instead of using ruder strokes that killed forward momentum, which with the stick was hard to regain, I needed to use more active control strokes that would keep my forward momentum as much as possible. More sweep turns, more edging. more using my feet to guide the kayak, and more maneuvering using strokes at the bow. In general, it seemed to work and I was better able get where I wanted to go.

The next trick was getting from wave to wave. As Nick pointed out, this involved looking not at the next wave, but three waves down the line. As I rode each wave through the field, I had to adjust my course to be in the right place to catch the next ride. Looking one wave at a time just didn't work for getting through the full race. It would get me maybe three rides, but then I'd be in the wrong place to keep going and need to paddle through the slop to the next position. Plotting a few waves out allowed me to make corrections on each wave so that I was much more likely to be in the right place at the right time for longer.

The forward planning was particularly important when starting from the very back of the races. The back edge of the races were always more chaotic than the front of the race. Nick explained the physics of why this happens, but I cannot remember it.

After some playing we headed in for quick bite to eat and decided that instead of heading all the way down the reefs to sugar reef, we would do a short play on the other side of Wiccopesett and head back.

We spent some more time surfing, and the post such session was just as fun. I really felt like I was starting to get the hang of things. It has been a long time since I've had a chance to really feel confident in my kayak while having so much fun.

I even got to do some "rough" water rescue practice. One member of the group got breached by a wave and I happened to be the closest paddler. At first I was a little nervous, but glided right in and took control of things. The swimmer was excellent as they knew how to handle themselves, which always makes a rescue easier. We got them back in the kayak without issue and get them back to Wiccopesett for a rest.

We spent a little longer surfing before regrouping and paddling back into the harbor.

It was a great day on the water. I learned a lot and had fun doing it - paddle with intention.

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