Friday, March 26, 2010


 Will Glacier Gloves finally win us over from pogies?

Gloves vs. pogies. Like so many similar debates (paper vs. plastic, cloth vs. disposable), it probably comes down to personal preference.
The other day, we tested gloves and pogies on a 15-mile paddle. Water temperature: 36 degrees. Air temperature: 40 degrees. Winds: 5 to 10 knots.
We gave gloves their best shot, using Glacier Glove's neoprene Premium Paddling Gloves. We've tried a lot of other gloves, and we've found most to be too thick and inflexible to allow us to use our fingers for much of anything. By contrast, we were impressed by the amount of dexterity we had with these gloves. We were able to put on our spray skirts, take photos, raft up and hold each other's decklines, and even push the tiny toggle on the camera that switches between still shots and movies.
Alec's hands stayed comfortable and warm, even when they didn't stay dry. Sharon's didn't stay as warm; for her, there's no substitute for pogies, which allow the fingers to warm each other. (The obvious downside to pogies, however, is that they leave you with no hand protection during a rescue--a serious problem--or even while taking photos or eating lunch.)
These were, by far, the best gloves we have tried. They are flexible and fit well. (We're also fans of Glacier Glove's neoprene 3/4 dome hat and full dome hood. The latter keeps your neck warm in addition to your head--a definite advantage in seriously cold weather!)

Can a low-frequency horn be heard further than a high-frequency whistle?

On a recent trip to West Marine, we came across this funny-looking low-frequency marine horn. We thought its sound might travel further than the sound of our ordinary marine whistle. So we tested them in the harbor--Alec with the horn, Sharon with the whistle--moving incrementally away from each other.
There are a couple of problems with this experiment, of course. We didn't control for different lung capacity, different hearing ability, or the minimal effect of the light wind in the harbor. Nonetheless, we were able to hear the sound of the marine whistle a little bit further than the marine horn. 
The horn is also much larger than the whistle--too large to stow in a PFD pocket. After today, it may not see much more of Lake Michigan.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sit! Heel! Paddle!

We share a few of our favorite Lake Michigan put-ins with local dog-walkers and their four-legged charges. Today, while we were loading our boats, a man drove up in a minivan full of dogs, including one the size of a small horse.

Hold still. Smile....

 Come back here and show me your pretty face.

Atta boy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A few hours on the water with Justine

With Canoecopia over and a serious case of spring fever afflicting us, and Justine Curgenven visiting before returning home to Wales, we decided to get out on the water with friends Bonnie Perry and Paul Redzimski.

 Paul and....

...Justine stayed warm with a little frisbee.

Justine seemed a little disappointed that there was no more ice on the lake. (She had seen our photos in an earlier blog post.) But that certainly made the put-in easier.

 North Avenue beach, where we could now carry over exposed sand.

With the wind blowing out of the north, we paddled south along the shoreline to Navy Pier. It's calming to be on the water, with the sounds of the city muffled and so much open space around us. We always wonder how visitors like Justine experience our home marine environment.

 As we rounded the Pier, Chicago's skyline came into view.

 Paul explored the sea caves beneath Navy Pier.

We threaded our way through the remains of Dime Pier.

Realizing that we would have to paddle against the wind on our way back (and not to wanting to be responsible for getting Justine to the airport late), we turned around and paddled north. 

 Heading Northeast to the light house. We were the only people on the water.

We stopped to look at the remains of winter ice on the break wall. 

We landed and loaded up, a little colder but certainly happier for having gotten out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

2010: A Canoecopia Odyssey

Canoecopia is the official start of the midwestern paddling season. For those who don't know about Canoecopia, it's a paddlesport exposition--part trade show, part conference-style presentations, part paddling friends reunion--that takes over the Alliant Center in Madison, Wisconsin for three days.
   This year, Canoecopia started early with the arrival of Justine Curgenven, expedition sea kayaker and the adventure filmmaker behind the "This is the Sea" series and now "This is Canoeing." (We will review the Canoeing DVD soon.)

Justine and Hannah Facebook each other from across the table and across the Atlantic.

    The next day, we drove up to Canoecopia, arriving in time to watch the vendors finish setting up their booths. There were boats, paddles, clothing, tents, magazines, outdoor programs, jewelry....pretty much everything that relates to paddlesports and camping and then some.

 The parking lot was filled with cars and boats of all types.

 Eric Jackson demonstrates the hull strength of his boats.

   Justine was happy to see so many DVDs for sale.

Funny, all these stacks seem to be "This is Canoeing!"

   Over time, more and more people arrived. It was enough to cause an otherwise calm mannequin to run away screaming.

 Hey! Get back here with that PFD!

   There seemed to be slightly fewer vendors this year, but interest was high and sales were good. The presentation schedule was packed with a mix of practical and inspiring sessions, and many that managed to be both at once. 
   A few scenes from the exposition:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, part three

 Gordon Brown and Sean Morley, going over the day's plan.

We were attracted to the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium by the high-level coaching, the venue, and the diversity of sea conditions that were virtually guaranteed. (OK, and the opportunity to leave Chicago in February.)
   The hard part was choosing among the offerings. In the end, it came down to selecting classes that took advantage of the current, surf and rocks, or attending the revised BCU 4-star training. After much consideration, Alec chose the 4-star, based on the location, last year’s description, and the fact that Gordon Brown and Tom Bergh would be leading the class. Sharon chose a “master class” on boat handling with Gordon Brown, rock gardening, and a class on riding the tides.
   In this, our last post from the GGSKS 2010, we’ll write about some of what we did and what we learned.
Warning: long post ahead.
From Alec:
   The new 4-star is a leadership award. This means that beyond having to demonstrate a defined list of personal paddling skills, you are able to safely lead a group of four 3-star paddlers in specified conditions.  Gordon and Tom emphasized the gravity of the responsibility you take on by choosing to lead a group onto the water. The 4-star assessment also requires completion of a BCU-approved navigation class, a two-day leadership training and 2 day approved first aid class with CPR.
   My first day involved a the full-day classroom-based navigation class, taught by Tom Bergh and Rob Avery. It was tough to travel all the way to San Francisco and spend a full day on dry land, although the weather made it a bit easier. The class was engaging and interactive, and covered a full syllabus of basic navigation skills, weather formation, rules of the road and buoyage. We created trip routes taking into account tidal currents, wind and as many other factors as we could glean from the charts and pilots. Though we stayed dry ourselves, the content was anything but.
 The four-star training included group management under the Golden Gate Bridge.

   Day two began the 4-star leadership training. After warming up and practicing some group management exercises on the water, we headed out to a point just below the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ebbing current created an eddy line that grew  stronger by the minute. Crossing the eddy line wasn’t that different from what I’ve done on river trips ( larger for sure), but we also had swell to contend with and the consequences of missing the eddy were serious: being pushed out under the bridge and into the busy  shipping channel there.  Our group of 10 gathered in the eddy near the base of the bridge and watched as another class played in the current. Then, one at a time, we broke out and paddled up current along the shore. The savvier paddlers waited for the swell and took advantage of the push it gave them, make the break-out easier. My timing wasn’t perfect, so I had to use a fair amount of muscle to keep my kayak pointed into the current. I know how I’ll try to do it next time.
   Throughout the day, we explored strategies for managing a group in various situations. We were encouraged to think for ourselves and consider options as a group. We weren’t given “correct” answers, but told to always have a plan for what to do “if…” and to check every 20 seconds to be sure we knew where every member of our group was. (A swiveling head is key.)
 Tom Berge watches as the four-star trainees leave the harbor.

   Day three promised  the best weather of the weekend: partly sunny, moderate winds, and diminishing swell off Point Bonita, the last tip of land leading from the entrance to the bay. (The waves there had been 20 feet the previous day.) But there was a  tsunami warning predicted for 1:10 p.m., which caused some concern within our group and divided opinions about what this would mean inside the bay and what actions would be appropriate. In the end, we agreed to paddle out past the gate and explore along the Marin Headland, with the understanding that we would keep our activities within the remit of a 4-star ( up to 2 knots  of current, within 1 mile of shore, up to 1-meter waves or surf and no more than a 2-mile crossing) and return before the tsunami’s predicted arrival. As we headed out, Gordon had us pair up for what he called the “anxiety exercise”-- rating how much anxiety an activity created for us each. First we did an activity on our own. Next our “buddy “ closed his eyes while we directed him through the same activity. Then we rated how much personal anxiety we had versus how much we felt for the person we were guiding.  We traded places and did it again. Overall, we found that when we guided someone else, we tended to transfer concern for ourselves to the person we were guiding. A light-bulb moment.
   The paddle out past the gate was beautiful. We saw swell crashing among the rocks, creating wonderful play spots( beyond the remit we were allowed to paddle this day), and landed on a small beach with nice 3-foot waves. We returned on a flooding tide before the tsunami arrived. After lunch we finished our last day on the bay practicing rescues in an eddyline just around the corner from the harbor.

 Towing against the current during the four-star training.

   I ended up feeling good about the skills I have honed predominantly on the Great Lakes. That being able to paddle in such a dynamic environment as the San Fransisco Bay was challenging, stimulating and left me wanting more.
From Sharon:
I chose to take classes that promised exposure to top-notch coaches, to conditions I hadn’t experienced, or both.
   The course I chose for day one, “Master Class with Gordon Brown,” was (no surprise) oversubscribed. Nineteen people signed up for it—a ratio far beyond reasonable—so the class was divided in three and we rotated between Gordon, Steve Scherrer and Ben Lawry. The weather also imposed restrictions. Twenty- to 30-knot winds gusted to 45 at times, flipping unprepared paddlers before they knew what was happening. Rain pelted us for at least four hours, and at one point we were pretty sure we felt hail. So we stayed in the harbor and used the opportunity to explore basic principles of boat control using mostly the sweep stroke and from the perspective of these three phenomenal coaches.
   What fascinated me most was that each had his own way of focusing students on the essentials of boat control. While Steve emphasized factors like upper- and lower-body separation and the way a paddle either slips or grips in the water, Ben emphasized the placement of the paddler’s knees and seat, and Gordon (who taught during the fiercest winds of the day) mostly had us experimenting with bow rudder placement. All three reinforced two things I’ve been working on in my teaching: encouraging students to explore what happens instead of telling them what to do; and reducing the arc of a sweep stroke to ensure that students never get outside the “paddler’s box.” (This last item has taken some work. Just two years ago, it was common practice to demonstrate a full 180-degree sweep stroke, which is both unnecessary and potentially injurious if combined with the concept of looking where you're going.)

 A friendly blow hole just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

   Day two was supposed to be “rock gardening,” but two things conspired against that plan: bigger-than-expected wind and swell, and a glass boat that I was terrified to damage. (I had rented an Avocet LV from Rob Avery, and it turned out to be a Kevlar beauty.) Our group paddled out to Angel Island, where we were able to do some limited rock gardening along with some wonderful sight-seeing. It’s hard to complain about going for an all-day paddle with good people in a beautiful place. And I was on the water when the remains of the tsunami rolled through: three perfect 8- to 10-foot waves, gentle to ride but unnerving in their connection to the destruction in Chile.
   This left me yearning to learn something new on day three—a desire I confessed to Steve Scherrer, who was leading one of the classes on riding the tide.
   This time I was not disappointed. Steve talked about the types of flow: the laminar flow of unobstructed water, the helical flow of water that encounters an obstacle, and the up-and-down flow of water that mainly stays in place behind an obstruction.
   Then we went out and explored what this meant for how our boats move. We learned which blow-holes we could get up close and personal with, and which required us to keep some distance; we played in some currents and gentle overfalls. Then we headed over to the tidal race near Yellow Bluff, where the ebbing tide over a constriction creates standing, surfable waves.
   I had never before been in a tidal race. I paddled hard and caught a wave, riding it for what seemed like forever. I felt like I was covering a lot of distance until I looked over my shoulder at the bluff and realized that I was, if anything, moving backwards. The waves weren’t big enough to challenge my paddling skill, but they were emotionally draining. It’s good, sometimes, to go back to being a novice and recall how tiring it is to learn new things.

   One of the rock gardening spots on Angel Island, seen from a distance.

   I wrapped up the day in the same place I spent my first day: the harbor. Mark Pecot and I hung out for some time, talking and rolling and generally trying to avoid the fact that the symposium was over.
   In the end, I also felt that my Great Lakes paddling skills had served me well, but the power of the ocean is categorically different. Lake Michigan waves, created entirely by the wind, can be big, but they’re steep and close together and lack the power of ocean waves. Four-knot currents are at the limit of what I can paddle against and even hold my position, but the ebb current under the Golden Gate Bridge was often more than five knots. I could easily have been swept out into the open ocean if I didn’t know what the water was doing. There’s a lot to learn out here and I hope to be back next year.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, part two

The weather was great for  fans of gnarly conditions. The first day's forecast called for 100% chance of precipitation and winds of 20 to 30 knots gusting to 45. That turned out to be accurate. There was even some hail.

Gordon Brown, at home in typical Scottish weather.
That didn't keep the classes off the water, however. But considering the winds, the especially strong currents and the waves of 18 to 20 feet, nobody ventured out of the San Francisco Bay and several of the classes stayed in the harbor all day, tucking in beside the walls during the strongest gusts. Only the participants in the navigation class stayed indoors--offering a better definition of a dry class.

Rob Avery demonstrates a tactical navigation technique.

Toward the end of the afternoon, the low-pressure system causing all that wind and rain moved on and the sun came out. That evening, we ventured down to Point Bonita with the home team (Bonnie Perry, Kelly Blades and Mark Pecot) to marvel at the mammoth waves. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, part one

We just returned from the second annual Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium and we're still processing the experience and the photos. This was an unusual symposium for us because we attended as students, not as instructors. Alec took the BCU four-star training with Gordon Brown and Tom Burgh, while Sharon chose courses that would give her more experience paddling Pacific coast features like rock gardens and tidal races.
We've always loved Marin County, where the symposium was based. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands were almost developed in the 1960s but saved by a lawsuit and protected instead as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Coaches and participants stayed at the Marin Headlands Hostel, a former US Army base now converted into a hostel and arts center, and classes were based in Horseshoe Cove near Sausalito.

An aerial view of Horseshoe Cove.
We've visited this area more than a dozen times over the past two decades to hike the hills, explore the historic fortifications, and collect driftwood from the beaches. It's long been a favorite vacation destination, but we never paddled in the Pacific ocean or the San Francisco Bay. Until now.

 Sharon, gearing up for a day on the water.

The symposium featured an all-star cast of coaches from around the world. (Check the website for the complete list.) But we were also drawn by the opportunity to meet many of the excellent but lesser-known west coast coaches who were the backbone of this successful event. We weren't disappointed.
Cindy Scherrer isn't a lesser-known west coast coach, but she is one of our favorites.

Ironically, we also spent considerable time with midwestern coaches Kelly Blades (an old friend) and Mark Pecot (a new friend). How odd to go 2,000 miles to hang with your home team.
 Kelly Blades, always on.
Check back tomorrow for more about the courses we took and the things we learned.