Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can you canoe?

We've enrolled in a Solo Canoe class. Stay tuned for photos and reflections as we seek to answer that question in the affirmative.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting ready for the Inland Sea Kayak Symposium

The Inland Sea Kayak Symposium resumes this year. It's a wildly popular symposium, and the campsite in Washburn fills up quickly. So we arrived early to get a good site.

There was little competition for sites. We got this prime location on our first drive through the campground loop.

Then we discovered we didn't have our tent. So we drove down to the boat launch to paddle.

We leashed and curbed our boat and didn't park. No need to stir up trouble!

That's when we discovered that we also forgot our boats. But the lake beckoned. It was covered in 30 inches of ice, but underneath that, we knew the water was delightful. So we practiced some solid-water rolling.

What's better than dry-land rolling? Solid-water rolling.

Nobody else showed up, and eventually we decided that we had shown up a little bit too early. We'll be back June 18 - 21. See you then!

Monday, February 9, 2009


One thing we appreciate about the way Ronnie and Marsha teach is that they have definite views about how maneuvers and procedures, from strokes to rescues, should be performed and can explain the logic behind their convictions. And yet, if you do something differently and can explain why, they’re open to your ways.
Another thing we came to appreciate was the way Ronnie and Marsha work as a team. We could see their styles rubbing off on each other: Ronnie’s earnestness and Marsha’s playfulness; Ronnie’s attention on the training task at hand and Marsha’s insistence on noticing the dolphins and the clouds; Ronnie’s focus on the skills and Marsha’s attention to the emotions.
And yet, Ronnie can be funny, charmed by his surroundings and sensitive, and Marsha can be serious, fastidious about the fine points of a rescue, and precise in her critiques. And for both, safety and what they term “the duty of care” to students are always front and center.
This morning, we debriefed over breakfast. They critiqued each of us individually, and we had a discussion about the previous four days of training: highs, lows, what we learned, how we felt about our skills as paddlers and instructors. Their observations were stunningly accurate and inspiring, and they reinforced something we’ve come to believe about paddling in general: There is no one scale of skill on which we all fall relative to one another. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our better and worse fits, our moments of brilliance, our blind spots and our areas in which we still need to improve.
We've been inspired by many paddlers over the years and have had an opportunity to train with a handful for a day here or there. This was our first opportunity to spend extended time with two coaches we highly respect, and we came away richer for the experience.

The rewards of returning home: Hannah and Jeremy

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Day four, with towing and surf

Having stayed up late doing night navigation exercises, we inexplicable started early today. The agenda: towing in various conditions.
One of the things we love about teaching is watching the 60-watt light bulbs come on our students. For us, today was full of smaller holiday-light moments. We began with a few contact tow and short-tow exercises designed to reinforce ways to keep the victim’s boat close and secure without compromising the rescuer’s ability to paddle and remain safe. We also worked with our tow belts, in flat conditions and in surf. Lessons learned were mainly tweaks and improvements to what we already knew, but their total wattage added up quickly. They include:
- ensure that the quick-release knot in your short tow doesn’t get bound up with salt and sand (retie your contact-tow set up each time you paddle)
- use a carabiner in your tow bag to divide the full length of the long tow rope in half, then let it slip down to the victim’s boat to extend to full length (we previously used a daisy chain for the half length, and again, the salt and sand could keep it from easily releasing)
- if the person you’re helping through the surf is capable of assisting, you can direct them to back paddle when the waves begin pushing
- when you’re in the surf zone, rescues take on heightened urgency, but taking a moment to help the victim secure his or her spray skirt will aid stability even in a unemptied boat.
- don’t keep your carabiner in your mouth as you approach to start a tow unless you relish a trip to the dentist
- despite the urgency, pick your way in and time your approach so it’s as easy and controlled as possible
As the tide moved in and the waves built a bit, we had opportunities to practice surfing again, as well as read the changing waves and pick our way through rougher areas. But time was quickly running out. We were torn between our desire to stay out and play, and our need to get back and pack our gear. There’s never enough time on the water.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Day three: navigation day and night

Today is all about finding our way and staying out of traffic. The kind of stuff you hope your kids learn by the time they head off for kindergarten, but it’s trickier when you’re in a small boat on big water.
The day began with navigation exercises on land and on the water. We practiced finding bearings and triangulating to determine our position, and then finding a heading to a buoy that took into account the current and wind. We paddled out to the buoy and, once again, were joined by several playful dolphins.

Lyn photographs a dolphin, one of many we would see during the day.

The next step was safely crossing Tybee Road, a major shipping channel where the Savanna River meets the Atlantic Ocean. So we grouped up at a green bell buoy and watched for boats. When the coast seemed clear, we took the shortest route across, to the red buoy. From there we practiced taking bearings and adjusting headings until it was time to cross the channel again. This time, we heard the rumble of something large in the distance. It turned out to be a gambling boat—a windowless, tank-like vehicle that seemed like a symbol of floating desperation. Playing it safe, we waited about 10 minutes until it was at most two minutes from crossing in front of us, then took off across the channel. Our trip took about nine minutes. We might have made it if we hadn’t waited, but who wants to take the chance of being run over by a gambling boat?

Green buoy 17. When we visited it during the day, it was a helpful aid to navigation, marking our position and one side of the shipping channel. When we came back that night, it was a safe haven--a spot where we felt less vulnerable in the darkness and the Saturday night boat traffic.

When we returned to the same beach after dark, everything looked different. Lights blinked on the water, calling out their identities with their color and frequency. Estimating distances was tough. At one point, the residential lights more than five miles away on Hilton Head Island looked like bioluminescence about half a mile away. We used a red light to read our chart and compasses because red light doesn't compromise night vision, only to discover that the color made it difficult to tell one side of the bearing compass needle from the other or immediately see the color of buoys on the chart. Everything took longer and felt more uncertain in the dark.

Checking the chart and choosing a heading was harder on land in the dark, and even more so on the water.

When we got on the water, strong swells and a pushy current immediately rendered our intended heading obsolete. We paddled out to the buoy while watching a large freighter cruise up Tybee Road. The dolphins must have been asleep beneath us, one eye open, one eye closed. It was beautiful and magical being out at night. By the time we arrived at the buoy, we felt the full two knots of current pushing us out toward the ocean. That's when a motor boat sped by a little too close for comfort, reminding us how vulnerable we were.
Lessons learned include:
- practice with all your night gear before you really need to use it
- plan ahead on shore as much as possible (which is true night or day)
- don't let advance planning keep you from adjusting when you get on the water and feel the real conditions (or as Marsha says, "Get your brain off the paper.")
- pack before it gets dark, if possible
- secure anything you can't afford to lose (we used paddle leashes)
- realize that you may be far less visible on the water than you think.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Day two, complete with dolphins

If you’ve ever checked the online weather forecast and then set out without an umbrella only to immediately get drenched, you would appreciate our first navigation lesson of the day: look around. We checked the Tide Log, so we knew that the high tide had been at 4:43 a.m. and the low would be at 11:25. We knew that the ebb tide would peak at 2.1 knots, so using the 50/90 rule, we figured that the current at 9:30 a.m. was about 90 percent of that. So when Ronnie told us to choose a bearing across Tybee Creek in order to reach a specific heading, we chose bearings well upriver.
It’s a testimony to our honesty that we continued on despite immediate feedback from the water that it wasn’t flowing at anything like the 1.9 knots we had estimated. It certainly didn’t look like it was, either, but we had chosen to let what we thought we knew overrule what our senses told us. Lesson learned.
Ronnie and Marsha excel at demystifying things. Next, they had us paddle backward in current and wind. We dutifully did, correcting as we went with long sweep strokes on one side. Ronnie stopped us to point out something obvious we hadn’t considered: the first half of a reverse sweep stroke propels more than it turns; the second half turns more than it propels. So in windy conditions, the best way to correct is to only use the second half of the reverse sweep stroke on the side to which you’re turning. We knew that, but we had never applied it.
The rest of the day was full of other demystifying moments like these., including a lunchtime navigation exercise about simple ways to locate yourself on a chart and navigate while on the water.

We also surfed a bit and marveled at how different ocean waves are from Lake Michigan waves. We got long rides on waves that had longer period and came in actual sets. And at one point, while paddling in the offshore swells, we were joined by four dolphins, who slowed down and stayed with us for several minutes. We also paddled through the marsh at high tide, where we saw oyster catchers and other shore birds. The sun was setting across Tybee Creek as we loaded our boats. It was day that satisfied all three of our goals.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Day one, shivers and all

It’s a humbling experience for cold-weather denizens like us to come to a warm-weather locale like this and admit that we’re freezing. But we overcame our pride and acknowledged that today. The water was in the low 50s, the air didn’t break 40 and the wind never stopped.
We asked Ronnie and Marsha to coach us on several levels simultaneously: as paddlers, as instructors and as out-of-town visitors. Today was a mix of all three, with critiques of our techniques and teaching peppered with unfamiliar vistas and conditions. We saw jellyfish, barnacles and fish; marshes and hammocks; gulls and an eagle.
The opportunity to experience the tides and currents we’ve mostly only read about is a boon for Great Lakes paddlers like us. We also got some practice surfing waves that weren’t wind-generated.
Today was a relatively calm day. Even the famous and sometimes feared “triangle” was in a gentle mood. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Training with Ronnie and Marsha

During our three-month blogging hiatus, we didn’t hang up the paddles and mothball the kayaks. We were teaching for the Chicago Whitewater Association at the local YMCA, paddling on Wednesday nights in the huge UIC pool, and reading and thinking a lot about kayaking. But somehow, we didn’t feel compelled to write too much about it. There’s something about the indoor season that doesn’t lend itself to that sort of reflection.
All that should change now, at least for a few days. We arrived last night at Tybee Island, Georgia, with Lyn for four days of training with Ronnie Kemp and Marsha Henson of Sea Kayak Georgia. After our white-knuckle flight, we settled into the two-bedroom apartment attached to Marsha and Ronnie’s house, which is perfectly set up for paddlers. In addition to the basics (furnished kitchen, comfy beds, wi-fi), it has an outdoor shower for rinsing saltwater off gear, a bookshelf full of local guidebooks and paddling books and magazines, and a DVD cabinet full of paddling films. The brightly colored walls feature Marsha’s artwork, and the sun pours in through the large windows in the morning. It’s almost enough to make us want to sit around reading and listening to music, except that it’s blocks away from the water, and the reason we came is more compelling than the comfort indoors. We’re here to paddle.
It’s bitter cold here, at least by local standards: 26 degrees. That’s about 25 degrees higher than it is back home, but we probably wouldn’t be dressing for paddling outdoors if we were there and not here. Check back later for observations and images from our first day on the water here.

Signs of a bumpy time ahead?

One of Marsha's paintings hangs in a well-lit spot.

The apartment is on the left; Ronnie and Marsha live on the right.