Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back from Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium

Danny Mongno, Wener Paddles regional sales manager and field marketing coordinator, paddling past sailboats in the Grand Marais harbor.
The Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium (GLSKS) is a venerable event. It's the longest-running sea kayak symposium in the midwest, held annually in Grand Marais, MI, a tiny town (population about 300) that just won $40,000 in the We Hear You America contest to help rebuild its harbor breakwall.

When GLSKS comes to town, Grand Marais explodes with activity. Woodland Park Campground is awash in tents and trailers, the beach is covered in kayaks, and Lake Superior Brewing Company is packed every evening. 

The symposium offers three days of tours along with two and a half days of instruction, both on and off the water. Coaches from around the midwest and far beyond come to teach, present, socialize and compete in the manic kayak race to win rights to wear the ceremonial paisley vest.

An ominous designation for a paddling destination.
We don't mind driving long distances for a good symposium, but we took advantage of the opportunity by adding a visit to Whitefish Point, the "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" and home to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.  With Keith Wilke, we learned about some of the famous and not-so-famous wrecks that lie just offshore--some under just 20 feet of water. Interestingly, wrecks in this area were not solely caused by storms and shoals, as they were in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. Here, many were caused by collisions as shipping traffic converged to move through the relatively narrow channel between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

We couldn't resist getting on the water, of course.

Sharon and Keith prepare to paddle around the tip of Whitefish Point.
The beach, too, looked like a graveyard--of driftwood, not ships.
From there, we drove to Grand Marais. The next day, we led a group on an 18-mile trip along the west side of Grand Island, which is accessible only by ferry or boat. We paddled along the coast, beneath waterfalls and through arches, admiring the clear water and stunning painted cliffs.

A calm day on the west side of Grand Island.
Then the symposium began in earnest, with nonstop classes and activities. For students, this is an opportunity to learn from a variety of coaches; for instructors, it's a chance to work together and learn from each other. For everyone, it's time on the water, which is always good.

Steve Scherrer teaching a course on boat control for wind and waves. 
Each symposium has its own personality. This one's character is highly influenced by Bill Thompson of Downwind Sports, whose enthusiasm, energy and openness make everyone--instructors and students alike--feel welcome and appreciated; and by Kelly Blades, who possesses a unique blend of wackiness and seriousness. Kelly is one of the main proponents of learning through play, but his dedication to students is earnest.

The race course, explained in graphic detail.
The end of the second day featured the kayak race: 23 instructor/student teams, many of them volunteered by "friends" after they left the Werner Paddles wine and cheese social the previous night--just going to show, once again, that kayaking and alcohol are a dangerous combination. The race featured sabotage, arbitrary rules, collisions, confusion and all the other key elements of a successful competitive sport. The contrast between our race and the highly organized and respectable Greenland games--the subject of the presentation by this year's guest, Helen Wilson--was dramatic.

What keeps us coming back, year after year, to symposia like this one? Partly the camaraderie of an amazing community of coaches; partly the opportunity to give back to a sport that's given us so much. And partly because it's inherently rewarding to share the pleasure of paddlesports with people who are as into it as we are.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Choosing new drysuits

Hanging out with our drysuits, old and new.
After six seasons, our drysuits were shot. Seams were leaking; holes were spontaneously appearing. Everything has a lifespan, and after six years of heavy use, our drysuits had reached theirs.

We didn't reflexively choose to purchase Kokatat drysuits again. Before replacing them, we examined the materials and designs of drysuits from various manufacturers and talked to paddlers who own them. But in the end, we chose Kokatat drysuits again because we were happy with our old suits as well as the customer service every time we needed advice or a repair. We liked the front-entry zipper (some manufacturers place the entry zipper in back), the high-quality Goretex, and the option of a front relief zipper for women. And the fit was great. (Kokatat is also willing to customize suits for a reasonable extra charge.)

There are a lot of options beyond manufacturer. Here's what we chose and why:

Style: We chose to go with the GMER again -- the Goretex Meridian drysuit with a tunnel and boots but no hood. For us, this is the best combination: Goretex has a longer lifespan than Tropos; the tunnel is great for keeping water out of the cockpit during rough-water paddling or play; the boots keep your feet dry and eliminate the need for an additional gasket around your ankles; the flap over the zipper protects that essential and expensive part; and we prefer to wear a separate hood, not one that's attached when we need it and when we don't.

Zippers: Men have just two choices: zipper or no zipper. Having no zipper means you have to almost entirely take off the drysuit every time you need to pee, which is a hassle in the best of circumstances and unpleasant in the worst. It means exposing the dry layers beneath to the elements, and also exposing your latex gaskets to sunscreen as you pull them over your face and hands, which hastens the deterioration of the latex.

Women can choose no zipper,  a drop-seat zipper, or a front-relief zipper much like the men's but lower down. (The latter requires the use of a female-to-male adapter, of course.) After trying drysuits with a drop-seat zipper and talking to women who have them, Sharon chose the front-relief zipper, mainly because the drop-seat zipper adds bulk to the suit and isn't any easier for her to use than the front-relief zipper.

Color: Alec chose a mango-colored drysuit again because it's the lightest color available, and therefore least likely to cause him to overheat when paddling hard in cold conditions. (Light colors reflect more heat than darker colors.) Also, mango shows up well on the water. Sharon chose a black suit because she is too cold more often than too warm. And besides, she was sick of mango.

New (left) and old (right). The mango color faded over time. Note the change in the cuff design. The older suit has a Goretex cuff with a Velcro closure over the latex. The new one has a neoprene tube over the latex.
Care: Like all gear, drysuits require some maintenance, so we called Adam Knoeller in Kokatat's design department to ask a few questions about how to help our new drysuits last as long as possible. His advice:

  • Rinse them in clean water to get rid of dirt.
  • Dry them out of direct sunlight.
  • Make sure they are dry before storing.
  • Hang them on wide suit hangers that support the shoulders. Avoid creasing them.
  • Avoid getting sunscreen, lotion and insect repellant on your gaskets.
  • Use 303 Aerospace Protectant on the gaskets periodically.
  • Lubricate the zippers with beeswax.
  • Don't force the zippers; make sure they are aligned before pulling them open or closed.
  • Protect your Goretex boots by wearing something over them at all times.

Just add paddlers. The new design includes a mesh-lined chest pocket. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Always check the weather

Today we intended to go paddling with Hannah and Josh. We gathered our gear at the crack of noon, then looked outside, where the trees were bending in the wind. "If it's that windy here, it has to be nuts on the lake," we said. So we checked the wind speed at the Harrison Street crib.

We knew there was a storm on the other side of the lake, where Keith was hoping to spend the day paddling. 
But a check of the wind speed on this side of the lake confirmed our observations: at 1 p.m., the peak winds were 61 knots.
So we unloaded our gear and headed down to the lake. The sky was ominous, and lightning crackled in the sky over the lake.

The winds were intense, and the waves were washing over the revetments. 

12th Street Beach was closed when we arrived, and numerous would-be bathers gazed longingly at the waves. After awhile, the sky began to brighten and the lightning moved south, so the lifeguards decided to raise the green flag, which meant they needed to launch the row boat.

We felt fortunate to catch the winds at their peak. Since they were out of the southeast, where the fetch is shortest, they died down quickly. It was a good day for watching waves and taking photos. We'll paddle tomorrow instead.