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.


Haris said...

Thanks for sharing! What a treat the symposium must have been. SF Bay is truly a magical place. One of the things I still smell is the eucalyptus forests.

I will also never forget the 'virgin' run under the Golden Gate Bridge. I don't know how fast the flood was coming but it took me at least a couple of minutes to cross the width of the bridge paddling a fast boat at full power.

A note, as of fall 2009 in an ACA IDW/ICE I was taught to demo the complete 180 degrees of rotation when teaching the sweep stroke. Would love to hear more detail on the thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic and why it is considered inefficient. Risk of injury I can understand but seems to me that the very beginning and the very end of the stroke should be the most efficient with the middle portion providing only the forward thrust.

bpfamily said...

This seems to be one of many evolving concepts, but to put it most concisely: If you are looking where you're going (as you should be) while doing a sweep stroke, then the last third of the sweep places your shoulder way past the safe zone. (And as you note, the middle third propels you forward, not around.) Much more efficient to move on to the stroke you're using the sweep to initiate or, if needed, throw in another small sweep. That's it in a nutshell; the best way to understand it, however, is by experimenting and seeing how it works in conditions! --Sharon