Thursday, July 30, 2009

Leadership and Rescues class

Practicing T-rescues in the Chester River.

On Sunday, we taught a class called Leadership and Rescues. This five-hour workshop was designed to cover the essential assisted and self rescues, including variations appropriate for specific conditions, as well as basic towing techniques. But we also wanted to help students explore each paddler’s role in avoiding an incident, and how we can prevent things from spinning out of control.
Most of the time, we try to get our classes on the water as quickly as possible. After all, students sign up for a kayaking class because they want to paddle, not because they want to stand on the shore listening to us talk about paddling. But in this case, we deliberately spent the first 45 minutes on land, going over some of the basic leadership concepts we’ve learned and the safety and communication issues of which anyone paddling in a group should be aware.
We promised our students that we’d post a synopsis of what we covered during that class—a virtual handout—so this blog entry will do double duty, sharing that material with them as well as with anyone else who’s interested in it.
We bagan with two BCU acronyms we find especially helpful: CLAP and SAFE.
CLAP stands for Communication, Line of sight, Avoidance is better than a cure, and Position of maximum effectiveness. These are considerations group leaders must address before and during and after any paddle. Communication is a huge category that includes everything from whether or not the plan and expectations are clear and agreed upon, to how the group will communicate on the water. Line of sight refers to the need to the leader to keep all members of the group in view at all times. Avoidance is better than a cure is a British way of saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And Position of maximum effectiveness refers to the need for the leader to be where he or she can best control and direct the group.
SAFE stands for Stop, Assess, Formulate, Execute. This helps avoid rash reactions to situations by reminding us to size up the situation and think through our options before acting.
(We have to thank Jeff Allen for introducing these concepts to us. For more in-depth explanations, see the BCU coaching handbook.)
After that, we talked about other essential pre-trip checklist items:
- Appropriate “kit” for the conditions, which should include food and water, first-aid for yourself and your boat, spare clothing, and communication, safety and signaling equipment.
- A medical talk (and how to help others feel comfortable talking about issues that you ought to know about).
- Filing a float plan (and with whom).
On the water, we practiced the basic T-rescue and several variations, including the heel-hook and scramble reentries and the crab. We also worked on several self-rescues: traditional paddle float, cowboy (scramble), and paddle float-assisted reenter and roll.

During the towing segment, we introduced the “psychological tow,” a term Robert Schrack coined for something we do all the time without recognizing that it falls into the towing category. (More on that in the next entry.) We also worked on using tow belts with lines of various lengths, using short tows with the casualty in various positions on the rescuers boat, and contact tows.
Leadership is an enormous topic. In this class, we barely scratched the surface of it. But in the end, we came to feel that communication is the torso rotation of leadership. In other words, it’s the foundation of leadership and successful group paddling, and the earlier in our paddling careers we begin to think about it and act on it, the better.
Before launching, we have to communicate about where we plan to go, at what pace and with what group structure. We also have to communicate about what we’re bringing, how we’re feeling and what the weather and water conditions are. On the water we have to communicate about how we’ll negotiate boat traffic, changes in weather conditions, changes in the plan and surprises that arise. And afterwards, we have to communicate about how things went, what we learned and what we’d change the next time. Communication at the end of a trip helps transform experience into wisdom. It helps us consolidate what we’ve learned as individuals and as a group, making us ever better leaders and paddlers over time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pitch-perfect pitchpole

Setting out into the surf. It didn't look very challenging.

Surf landings are exciting and unpredictable. Yesterday, we practiced launching and landing with our friend Robert Schrack in a tricky shore break near Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware. It wasn't a particularly rough day; in fact, once we punched through the dumping surf, the swell couldn't have been more than a few feet.

Well outside the shore break, the swell was gentle.

This is an unfamiliar phenomenon for Great Lakes paddlers like us. When we have waves, they're wind-driven and come in rapid succession. What you find at the shore is present further out. The breaking waves give way to swell as the water gets deeper, but we simply don't get massive shore break when there's nothing exciting going on a few yards out, and we aren't accustomed to waves that arrive six to ten seconds apart.
Back to yesterday. Launching was the familiar splashy affair, the only difference being salt water instead of fresh water in our faces. But landing was a challenge. The waves were in sets but hardly predictable. The first couple of times went pretty well. We paddled in behind wave crests, back paddled to let them pass us, then chased them again. The last few yards are always dicey, but we mostly landed without broaching, popped our skirts and ran for it.
Then came the final landing before lunch. I (Sharon) watched the sets, timed it as well as I could and headed in. I chased a wave, back paddled while the next crest passed, chased another and so on.
Finally, I caught what I thought was going to be the wave that would propel me all the way in. But I was wrong. As I neared the shore, another wave arrived just behind the one I had put my trust in. I felt my stern rise and rise until I was vertical and several feet in the air. A perfect pitchpole.
Problem was, the water was shallow and landing on my head (or back, assuming a successful tuck), would be painful or worse. Instinctively, I twisted sideways as I fell and landed in what must have been a few inches of water. I immediately knew I was fine.

What I remember.

As I stood onshore, a surfer who had watched my landing came over to congratulate me. "Wow, I've surfed all over and I've never seen anything like that," he exclaimed, giving me a high-five. "That was impressive! You must have been up 12 feet!"
It was an amazing experience. I was surprised by the amount of time I had between my realization that I was vertical and my return to horizontality. It was enough time to consider the dangers, decide what to do and act on it.
Unfortunately, I was carrying the camera, so we don't have a photo of my in-air pirouette and I'm not planning to do it again. So for now, this description will have to suffice.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Those aren't white sand beaches

A couple of weeks ago, we spent some time camping at Newport State Park on the Door County Peninsula. Our hike-in site was also a paddle-in site, so we were able to take a variety of day paddles from our campsite.
One day, we did the 25-mile round-trip to Washington Island, with stops at the Northport ferry landing and the former Coast Guard station on Plum Island. As we rounded the tip of Door County, we saw piles of what appeared to be white sand along the shore. Upon closer inspection, we realized they were mounds of zebra mussel shells. This Great Lakes invader has made the water clearer, but with an unfortunate side effect: More sunlight now penetrates deeper into the lake, encouraging the growth of cladophora algae, which washes into shallow areas and smells disgusting.

Cladophora algae on a Door County beach.

It was a sad aspect of an otherwise delightul discovery: Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, Door County still boasts some beautiful, sparsely visited natural areas. You can catch the sunrise from one side of the peninsula and the sunset from the other. You can paddle all day and see very few boats. You can pop into town for a latte, or retreat to your campsite and feel like you're far away from civilization.

Cooking breakfast at our campsite.

Dining alfresco. Two forks up!

Bear with us....literally

We just left the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where we camped on a small island in Lower Saranac Lake and spent the days paddling and hiking. At night, we hung our food from trees--standard practice for avoiding messy visits from bears, racoons and other local residents.
During one visit to a paddling outfitter in the town of Saranac Lake, we learned about the bear-proof containers that are popular among backcountry campers in this area. Then we read this in today's New York Times.
Too bad Yellow-Yellow wasn't around when we couldn't pry open one of our front hatch covers....

Washing dishes on Hocum Island, where we were camping.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reentering the blogosphere

Our failure to post anything for the past few months doesn't reflect inactivity. Quite to the contrary, we've been teaching and training on the water, and reflecting and planning off the water. We just haven't been writing about it.
The season has just begun, and in addition to our personal paddling and a few local classes we've taught, we've been involved in:
  • The West Michigan Coastal Kayakers Symposium, including a coach training with Jeff Allen, co-owner of Sea Kayak Cornwall. If you want to read about it, check out Keith Wikle's wonderful blog, Go Kayak Now.
  • BCU Coach 1 training and assessment. Four days of intensive training and scrutiny with BCUNA administrator Bill Lozano (owner of Atlantic Kayak Tours), midwest RCO Kelly Blades, and Geneva Kayak's own Scott Fairty. Yeah, we passed. (wOOt!)
  • The Windy City Kayak Symposium, now in its third year, which featured Peter Jones from North Wales, Ben Lowry, Steve and Cindy Scherer, and a host of talented local coaches.
  • The inaugural Burnham to Marquette Sea Kayak Expedition, sponsored by the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association. Tom Bamonte provided a nice write-up on the CASKA blog.
  • The biannual Inland Sea Kayak Symposium, based in Washburn, Wisconsin near the Apostle Islands. This year's featured guest was Nigel Dennis.
We hope to reflect on some of those events in upcoming posts, but at the moment we're feeling like lazy letter-writers who have delayed corresponding to the point of embarrassment. So instead, we'll reenter the blogophere in the present tense in the coming days and weeks. Thanks for your patience!