Thursday, December 29, 2011

How to become a better paddler

No matter what your passion, there's a point at which you're likely to plateau. That may be OK; perhaps you've become proficient enough to accomplish everything you desire. But for those who are dedicated to continued improvement and have ambitions as coaches, expeditioners or higher-level paddlers, plateaus aren't acceptable. We aren't content to see our skills and knowledge top out. We want to become better paddlers.

Leon practicing rescue maneuvers.

While we were on Orcas Island with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme, we talked about the path to becoming an expert. It is, to paraphrase them, a function of hard work, deliberate practice, and guidance from a coach who offers constructive, honest feedback.

They shared with us an 2007 article from the Harvard Business Review, "The Making of an Expert" by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely, which summarizes research supporting the idea that outstanding performance is not so much a function of innate talent as it is a product of methodical, challenging practice and thoughtful, critical coaching.

Shawna challenges herself by surfing a wave while sitting on her deck.
For higher-level coaches like Shawna and Leon, this means finding hard things to work on and seeking out mentors who point out their weaknesses, even when that type of feedback is uncomfortable. The same is true for all of us, no matter what our level. We'd often prefer to keep working on the skills we already have and hear others affirm our accomplishments. But that's not the path to improvement.

While we were at Deception Pass, we saw this approach in action. After allowing us to warm on an eddy line, they suggested we try increasingly challenging moves as we crossed over into the current: edging without bracing, exiting with a cross-deck rudder, returning to the eddy as quickly as possible, rolling and static bracing on the eddy line, and self and assisted rescues in the current and whirlpools. They gave different challenges to each of us, ratcheting up the difficulty as we demonstrated we were ready for more.

Seth exits an eddy with a cross-deck rudder.

According to Ericcson, Prietula and Cokely:

  • "Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have an improving the reach and range of your skills." 
  • "Genuine experts not only practice deliberately, but they also think deliberately...they continuously work to eliminate their weaknesses."
  • "The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback."
This is true for becoming a more skillful and knowledgeable paddler as well as becoming a better coach or guide. Improvement is less a matter of innate ability than it is about willingness to work hard, seek challenges, and accept and act on knowledgeable critiques.

Alec and Sharon practicing deliberately.

"Before practice, opportunity, and luck can combine to create expertise, the would-be expert needs to demythologize the achievement of top-level performance because the notion that genius is born, not made, is deeply ingrained." --Ericcson, Prietula and Cokely

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Feeling like the Maiden of Deception Pass

The Maiden of Deception Pass, after her transformation.
There's a Salish legend about the Maiden of Deception Pass, who encounters a handsome (though "damp and chilly") young man who lives in the depths of the ocean. Every time she goes to the shore, he reaches out and holds her hand. Long story short: After many such encounters (and disapproval from her family, which later yields), she agrees to move in with him.

Every time we visit the Pacific Northwest, we feel likewise torn between our roots in the midwest and the many allures of this area. We are tugged by the beauty of the land, the profundity of the ocean, the phenomenal paddling opportunities, and our wonderful friends in the area.

Jeremy on a hike around Mountain Lake in Moran State Park on Orcas Island.

Lunch with Shawna and Leon during a day paddle through the Wasp Islands.

Trees, water, trails....sigh.


Toto, we aren't in Chicago anymore.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back at Body Boat Blade, Part 1: Deception Pass

We're back at Body Boat Blade, on Orcas Island, Wash. with our friends Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme. Shawna and Leon recently released a new Sea Kayak Rescues DVD, filmed by Bryan Smith, a dramatic and instructive guide to assisted- and self-rescues in flat, dynamic and rough water. Some of the filming was done in Deception Pass, a place we've long heard about and were looked forward to visiting. 

The Orcas Island ferry dock before dawn.
Getting there meant catching the 6:45 a.m. ferry so that we could arrive during slack tide. The day's max ebb was going to be 7.1 knots at 1:08 p.m., and we wanted to have time to play in the building current before experiencing the full force of the ebb. 

Shawna and Seth paddling toward the bridge.
Compared to Chicago, the air and water were warm--both in the mid- to upper 40s. We paddled past cliffs and barnacle-covered rocks, noticing how the bull kelp indicated the direction of the current. We stopped in an eddy near the bridge, where the eddyline was growing stronger by the moment. 

The group arrives in the eddy.
We spent the better part of the day here, practicing eddy turns and ferries as well as rescues in the current. As the current built, so did whirlpools and overfalls downstream. We tried to ride the upstream tails of the whirlpools to reattain lost ground, and sometimes just rode them around in circles. 

Shawna spins on the eddyline.

Seth uses a crossbow rudder to turn as he reaches the green water.

Sharon rides the wave at the top of the eddy.

Leon executes the "deep diggity dig."

Alec rides a wave.
We spent most of the day in this one spot. As the current diminished, the features changed. Eventually it was time to return to our cars, load up and head for Anacortes, the town with the ferry dock and plenty of pubs. 

Back at the beach at the end of the day.
There's a quote from Isak Dinesen in the Body Boat Blade shop: "The cure for everything is salt water...sweat, tears, or the sea." As we traveled back to Orcas in the dark, we felt cured indeed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Complications of cold-weather paddling

Facility closed; lake wide open.
Yesterday, we met our friend Keith Wikle at Portage, Ind. for a paddle along a portion of Indiana's notorious heavy industrial shoreline. The air was below 20 degrees and the winds were forecast to remain 15 to 20 knots out of the southwest, so we dressed and planned accordingly. Our kit reflected a sense of caution.

Cold-weather kit includes items we always carry -- food, water,  first aid, boat repair, cag, blanket, VHF radio, cell phone, spare paddle -- as well as tea, hot water, spare clothing, emergency shelter, pogies, and a deck light.
Nonetheless, we questioned how long we'd stay on the lake. We felt the cold through our drysuits and thermal layers, and it was nearly impossible to keep our toes warm.

After assessing the risks and doing a calorie-to-fun calculation--a mode of decision-making we learned from Scott Fairty of Geneva Kayak Center--we got on the water and paddled out onto the lake. As soon as we were moving, we kept warm. The winds were more or less at our backs, so we planned to turn around less than half way through our four or so hours of time on the water. The rocky breakwall was just beginning to ice over for the winter.

Rock meets ice meets water.
We reached the power plant just west of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, where the warm water outflow raised the temperature of the nearshore water from the high 30s to what felt like about 70 degrees. Steam rose eerily from the surface.

Steam rising where warm water from the power plant meets cold air. 
A few wave sets rolled in, allowing us a rare warm-water surfing opportunity on an otherwise cold day and lake.

Keith paddles back out after a ride to the shore. 
We turned around here, expecting a longer trip back to Portage. The winds had picked up, gusting now to 26 knots. Although the air temperature was at its peak -- about 23 degrees -- the wind chill was about 10 degrees, and we felt it. Our gear began to ice up. Our spare paddle blades, short tow and deck lines, and spray skirts were coated with ice. Icicles hung from our hat brims; ice clumps dotted our drysuits. Things that were formerly pliable became stiff. We were confident in these conditions, but we talked about how hard it would be to execute an efficient rescue with our slippery boats, chilly fingers and ice-encrusted safety gear. 

Things that are usually pliable, like this neoprene spray skirt, were stiff with ice.
The final stretch was less than pleasant. The wind had picked up; the sun was lower on the horizon; the wind chill made it feel as though the temperature had dropped. We were determined to get off the water before dark, and we knew we would feel even colder if we stopped paddling hard.

Dry land and cold fingers.
Over dinner, we reflected on our day. We were glad we went out. The lake was beautiful. We had assessed the risks and planned accordingly, allowing us to push our limits without getting into trouble. But we decided this was as cold as it would be safe for us to paddle. Between the hazard of hypothermia and the  difficulty of doing otherwise simple rescues, even benign conditions are potentially hazardous when the weather gets this cold.