Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

However you celebrate this holiday season I hope it is happy and healthy. Maybe you will find a kayak under the tree. And speaking of trees....

happyholidays2010 from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The first boat has arrived

For several people doing the Alaska trip with me, one of the biggest hurdles is the fact that either they don't currently own a kayak, or they own several kayaks that aren't suitable for this kind of trip. This is one of the bigger challenges. It is hard enough to buy a kayak, but add to that fact, that they are going to be sitting in it for nearly a month straight. It not only has to fit well, but the kayak needs to hold a lot of gear. Making a difficult decision more difficult is that all three of the people who need kayaks for this trip are small women.

Well last night, for one of our team mates a kayak arrived, it is now resting peacefully with the other kayaks in my yard. It is an interim kayak. A kayak for her to use to get some serious time in the cockpit while waiting for her actual trip boat to arrive. And if a trip boat shouldn't arrive, it will be a fairly suitable stand in. Many things are still going on here, but serious planning must start once January rolls around. A tentative departure date has been set for June 23rd. Ferry schedules must be consulted, a route has to be finalized. Much to do between now and June 23rd.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I have been very delinquent in my writing. In part because as the holidays draw nearer I get busier. In part, because paddling wise there isn't much to happening. Plans are moving along well for the this summers Alaska trip. A car was purchased to help transport the kayaks to the north end of the inside passage.

Team mates are starting to get serious about gear, and skills. The trip is coming together nicely, but there is still much to do. I need to start going over maps and charts and really fine tuning the route. That will be most of January. People consistently talk about how they could never do a trip like this. Either it's the sitting in a kayak all day, or taking the time from work. But honestly I think the hardest part is all the prep work. The gear, the food, the boats, the logistics, and most importantly the people. Keeping the people focused - but not overwhelmed and on track. That is the biggest chore.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

RECAP - the 2010 Paddling Otaku expedition skills camp

With the skills camp ending a few days ago, I have had some time to go over the event in some detail. I must say I am very happy with how well it went.

We had some last minute cancellations, so the group was smaller than I had hoped. But the participants were literal sponges for expedition information. With topics including meal planning, float plans, basic navigation, loading kayaks, making camp, where to store boats, how to dress for the water, etc.

The culmination of the event was a long paddle day. In my opinion the best skill for an expedition paddler to have is the ability to spend a long day in a cockpit. It is the only way to get the kind of productive mileage you need to maintain to accomplish a long distance paddling goal. We hit the water on Saturday morning right on time around 9:30 am. We spent 40 minutes looking for a water source - something not uncommon on an expedition - and then started paddling. We took a break an hour and a half later, earlier than I would have liked, but didn't stop again for another two hours. In all we paddled just shy of 17 miles, in just around 6 hours. I was very proud of how well people did in terms of keeping comfortable, and keeping focused.

I shot a little video, but probably wont post anything. I hope we get to do the 2011 expedition skills camp in the spring. This time some place with tides!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


It seems like I have only been home for a few days, and yet I am packed and ready to go back out. This seems to be my theme for next year, as I already have many trips planned for 2011.

This past week I was in Lander Wyoming, completing the training to teach Wilderness First Aid for The Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS. I have been associated with NOLS professionally since 2006, and since 2000 as an Alumni, but I have never had a training experience as difficult as this WMI instructor course. They have exceptionally high standards, and I wasn't sure I was going to make the cut until about the last 24 hours - folks at WMI, I am honored to have been selected! Next year I will be teaching 6 wilderness first aid courses by June for WMI, and I am really looking forward to it. In July I will be paddling in Alaska for a month. And tomorrow I leave for the three day paddling otaku expedition skills camp. All I can say is I have a very understanding wife, and a very sad dog. Fortunately I can pack for a three day trip pretty easily. Very little of my gear set actually changes. And though I always forget something, it is usually something pretty minor. Lets hope.

Friday, November 12, 2010

People worry about bears.

When I talk to people about the number of times I have been to Alaska, one of the first questions I generally get is about bears. People are afraid of bears significantly more than they need to be.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't take appropriate bear precautions, but you also shouldn't lose sleep over our ursine friends. I highly recommend reading 'Bear attack their causes and avoidance' which is the final word on the topic of bears, and the causes of bear attack. One of the most important things I took away from that particular book is this:

You are 50% more likely to get injured if you have a gun than not. Now that doesn't say 50% more likely to get injured by a bear, just 50% more likely to get injured, and I think that says a lot. I hear many people talking about guns for bear protection - part of that may be that I live the American South East where people like their guns - But guns, particularly hand guns are not a good bear deterrent. Even the biggest hand gun has a relatively small bullet, and therefore small stopping power compared to the size of a bear. A much better idea is bear spray. Though again, you have to know how and when to use it.

Education is key, and I think a very big part of the equation is confidence. I think that bears sense the confidence level of the people in their vicinity, and base a lot of their actions on that, though that is just my opinion.

Of course, sometimes the right thing to do, is nothing at all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This isn't kayaking related

But it is very cool. I initially thought it was using a GoPro which got my interest. I was wrong but this is still a very cool thing. Home made spaceflight is now possible, along with video of -almost- the entire process and GPS tracking for retrieval.

I think this is important because there is less and less interest in science in the United States. We are falling woefully behind other countries in science and math, and that is going to hurt us in the not too distant future. We all need to be doing everything we can to get our children interested, and active in the sciences.

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Thanks Drax!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Paddling Otaku Expedition Skills Camp

This November I will be hosting a small group skills camp - primarily for the Alaska paddlers but some others may be joining us. We are going to be going over various kayak expedition skills, including but not limited to:

Navigation, Packing a kayak, Tent site selection and kayak placement in relation to tent placement. Float plans, On water leadership, meal planning, clothing for paddling and camp, Tides, weather, and safety.

It will be three full days both on the water and on land. A big part of what we are going to be working on is getting people, and their bodies, comfortable with the concept of long days on the water and in a kayak. This is probably one of the biggest challenges. But when you have 350 miles to paddle, and a limited amount of time to do it five or six mile days don't work. You need to be in the mindset of fifteen to sixteen mile days with the occasional 25 mile day thrown in for good measure. The only way to do that is to find what makes you comfortable in your kayak, and getting in the right mindset to do that.

For me a long day in the cockpit is a meditation. Usually groups will determine that every two hours or so, people want to do shore breaks, stretch their legs, and go to the bathroom. I generally don't get out of my kayak on long days. When people are going ashore, going to the bathroom, eating some snack food, I am sitting in my kayak resting, eating and re hydrating. Once I get set, and I am in the right mind set I don't want to mess with it. My body just tends to feel like it just wants to keep going. For me, that is the key to expedition kayaking. Getting in the zone where all that needs to happen is around fifty thousand forward strokes. That is a wonderful place to be.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Here is to clear Skies.

No, this isn't a post about the weather.
This morning I am heading to Lander, Wyoming to take the WFA ITC.

If your not into Acronyms that would be Wilderness First Aid Instructor Training Course with WMI of NOLS - Yikes more acronyms!

Wish me luck!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

UPDATE: Alaska

Things are moving well towards next summers trip. The team has stabilized in terms of numbers, some are starting to spec new kayaks, and gear. As a group we are pretty excited. A few things need to occur for next summer to work. One of those is that I need to buy a new car. This has been pushed to the forefront because I got a new - or actually additional - job that will require my little home to go from a one car household, to a two car household. I have no qualms about paddling 350 miles in frigid Alaskan waters, but buying a car is daunting.

The reason that a car is need for Alaska is this. My team lives on the east coast of the United States. There will be - probably - five Seventeen foot kayaks going on the trip. They need to get to Alaska, and that is probably the biggest logistical challenge.

I looked into shipping kayaks, but that would cost almost as much as buying new ones, and then there is the fear of damage en route.

I looked into renting kayaks, and again, the cost would be around $1400 us. Plus, you don't know what you will have to paddle in, and I would rather this group get some time in the boats they will be paddling for the month.

A friend has an uncle who ships exotic sports cars from where I live to Seattle, Washington. He offered a ride for our boats. But then I would need to get the kayaks from Seattle to Bellingham Washington for the ferry to Skagway or Ketchikan Alaska. The ferry alone is over $600 per person. one way. And we would still need to get to the boats to Bellingham, and us to Seattle.

The fuel to drive all the way to Skagway will cost around $500, and while it will take more time it will give us control over the boats, so currently that is the plan.

two cars, five kayaks, a whole mess of food, and gear. and two or three drivers. I am honestly more worried about getting to the water than I am about anything that might occur on the water. But this isn't my first expedition, and I know that the things that you worry about are never the things that cause problems. It's the things you never think of, that create roadblocks. Only time will tell.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What went wrong.

I first saw this video linked online, it is helmet cam footage of a very bad day paddling. the experience, though not the video, ends with a helicopter rescue. Though this is whitewater I think it has some valuable lessons for us. The kayakers paddle broke when trying to roll - which in and of itself is both incredible and unbelievably bad luck - but there were several mistakes made by this paddler that I think we can learn from.

I don't mean to embarrass this paddler, I got his permission to post the video, as he agreed there were lessons to be learned.

I think that the most valuable lesson here is this. Rarely do people die when they make a mistake. Most climbing deaths on Mt. Everest don't involve someone rappelling off the end of their rope. But what happens is this. You make a mistake and an hour, or a day, or a week later, that mistake has been compounded and amplified - usually by other mistakes - to a point where you suddenly realize that you made a life threatening error and now have to claw yourself out of the hole you have inadvertently dug.

All to often I hear this phrase, 'Of course it's safe, we have always done it this way, and no has ever gotten hurt!' But having done something over and over again and not having a problem doesn't make it safe, it means you didn't get caught.

So what is the one thing this paddler didn't do, that would have made this day paddle an inconvenience instead of almost the end of his life? You may think his luck turned bad when the paddle broke, but in fact his fate was -almost- sealed several hours before the video starts.

Thanks to ScottyB for letting me post this.

The Swim from ScottyB on Vimeo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Head and hands

As Andrew C pointed out in the comments of the last post I neglected to discuss Gloves or head gear. This was on purpose as the previous post was exceptionally long. Before I delve into options for those two critical areas I wan't to tell a story.

The first time I paddled in Alaska I was a student with a famous outdoor/leadership school. We were camped on an island in Prince William Sound, and before we could really undertake big paddling days, each student had to perform a wet exit, and take part in an assisted rescue as both a rescuer, a rescuee and a rescuee in a double kayak. The water temperature was around 45º and so wetsuits were provided. We were instructed to roll out of the kayak, wet exit, and yell - paddler in the water. I did as Iw as told but when it came time to yell, my brain commanded my body, but almost no sound came out. As hard as I tried I couldn't make my vocal chords produce more than a grunt or a gasp. It turns out this is not unusual. This occurs because of something called the mammalian diving reflex. The Mammalian diving reflex exists in all aquatic mammals - seals, otters, dolphins and it's effects in these mammals helps them swim, and live longer in cold water as well as to dive to great depths. The reflex exists in humans but acts more as a way to keep us alive in a life threatening situation.

It is triggered automatically by a pair of cranial nerves and immediately causes bradycardia or a slowed heart rate. It also causes peripheral vasoconstriction which means blood vessels in your extremities constrict to keep more warm oxygenated blood flowing to your core and your brain. First your fingers and toes, then your hands and feet, and finally your arms and legs. There is oxygen stored in your muscle mass that makes it possible for you to continue using the effected limbs even after blood flow has been cut off. Interestingly seals have significantly much more oxygen stored in their muscles extending the time that they can go without oxygen.

I suspect that the loss of quality speech when immersed in 48º water is due to the vasoconstriction, but importantly there is a way to short circuit the MDR if you are going to practice rescues in cold water. Simply splashing water on your face will trigger it, but thereby you are in control of it, and not the environment - it's not as jarring when it happens if you trigger it first.

Andrew C also mentioned ice cream headache when he goes paddling, this is caused by cold water - or ice cream, or a slushie - touching the roof of his mouth. This causes your brain to think it is being rapidly cooled, and to prevent that it causes massive vasodilation to warm the brain - causing the headache. So Andrew, close your mouth! I am kidding it can probably occur in really cold water just by submerging your head.

So what can you do to keep the head warm? The best option - particularly for whitewater paddlers as they tend to be submerged more than us sea kayakers is a skull cap. It works well under a helmet and works even when wet.

When I am doing a multiday paddle I pack three different pieces of head gear. A ball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes, and to protect my follicley challenged scalp. A wool hat which will insulate when wet or dry, and dries very quickly, I like this on because it is so thin, and warm. And a rain hat.

Also on that first trip to Alaska I debated spending $50.00 on this rain hat. It looked very good, but it was a lot of money for a hat. So I didn't bring it. Someone else on the trip did bring the very same hat, and it worked really well for them, and I could have really used it. I learned a valuable lesson. Don't let an expensive trip get ruined because you had cheap or inappropriate clothing or gear. If you have spent $4000.00 to go paddling in Alaska what difference is another $50 going to make. But the difference of having a good rain hat - in a state that rains all the time - will be huge. I came back from Alaska and immediately bought that hat, and now it is the first thing that goes in a dry bag when I am headed someplace wet.

Gloves I think are even easier. I use a pair of NRS fingerless gloves (that are no longer made!) that I use in one of two occasions. If the backs of my hands are getting sunburned I put them on. If I am planning a long day - 20+ miles - I put them on. This I do to protect the bit of skin between thumb and index finger. I don't get calluses or blisters paddling long days, and if you are it is caused by one thing. Your holding your paddle too tightly. I also have a pair of thick neoprene gloves that I hate. They are all warm and cushy when dry, but when wet or even damp they are impossible to put on, and if you get the first one on, the second is even harder. I generally bring them to loan to people who have forgotten or lost gloves. I am a big fan of pogies. They protect your hands, from wind and water and cold, yet they give you full contact with the paddle shaft. They also allow you to do things with your bare hands that you couldn't do gloved and then quickly return your hands to a warm dry environment. And if you don't need them you can easily slide them to the center of the paddle where they are out of the way, yet handy if you decide you need them.

Three hats, three pairs of gloves. Simple, relatively easy to pack.

But wait, there is one more thing. I am a big fan of wool socks. They are my favorite choice because they insulate when wet, and dry quickly. Also important they don't get as stinky as synthetics do. I generally figure out how many pairs I want for a trip based on the length of the trip. Then I add a pair to that number. This additional pair goes inside my sleeping bag. AND NEVER COMES OUT! This assures that I get to sleep in warm, dry, clean socks. Which while feels nice serves an important purpose. If your feet are wet all day long and don't get a chance to dry out at night you are at risk for getting trench foot. A painful - and all too frequently trip ending - malady. Sleep warm and dry.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


It's that time of year when the weather starts to change and the water gets colder. It is the time of year that a lot paddlers start to put their boats away for the season. But it is without a doubt my favorite time to paddle a kayak. In part because there are fewer people on the water, and I can have it to myself without fears of a power boat captained by a 'had a few too many' skipper racing past me way to close for comfort and much faster than necessary. The people on the water are what I like to call 'professionals', some others may call us 'die hards'.

The people that venture out onto the water when the weather turns colder have probably put a bit more time and thought into what they are wearing, as well as what they will be doing. There is a bigger level of commitment when the water temperature drops. If you are paddling and have a bad day and the water temperature is 80º you really don't have much to worry about. But if the water temperature is 50º or even 40º you are in a completely different situation. Those of you paddling in more northern climates know what I am talking about.

There are two different temperatures that we need to look at when we plan what we are going to wear. The air temperature, and the water temperature. We need to meet a happy medium somewhere in between the two. If for example you have a 70º air temperature and a 48º water temperature - common in the summer in Alaska - and you are dressed for the water temperature you will be sweating in the cockpit, but if you are dressed for the air temp, and end up in the water you are going to have a very bad day.

I have two different types of outerwear systems that I use for paddling, and two different types of next to skin layers that I use under the outerwear systems. The temperatures listed below are examples to explain the way I think when I plan for cold air/water paddles. Nothing is written in stone. If you are active in the outdoors, you should have a lot of what I mention here already.

Fall - Air temperature 65º/Water temperature 60º

Outerwear: Waterproof Breathable kayaking anorak with gaskets at the wrists, and a rand at the waist. WPB pants with gaskets at the ankles and a rand at the waist.

Small neoprene booties with nothing under them.

The waterproof layers on the outside are going to trap a lot of heat, so a thin layer underneath is all that is needed to keep me warm. All the options for the base layers will quickly wick moisture away from my skin to help keep me dry. You may get a little moisture inside the clothes - you may be a little wet - but that's okay, because the synthetics will insulate you when wet, and the WPB layers will help keep you warm.

The booties are going to fill with water when you get in and out of your kayak, but they work like a wetsuit. Your body will warm the water, thereby keeping you warm.

Late Fall: Air temperature 55º/Water temperature 60º
Outerwear is the same as above, it's the base layers I am going to change. Midweight synthetic long underwear, top and bottom. You just need a little more insulation to keep the warmth up. Some people go the wetsuit route, but I really don't like it. It doesn't really perform that well when you are dry - as it is designed to warm a thin layer of water next to your skin.

Winter: Air Temperature below 50º/Water temperature anywhere below 60º
Drysuit. That simple. Can you use a dry top and pants like listed above? Sure, just bump up the base layers to heavyweight/expedition weight - but be careful, you don't want to end up in the water. With a drysuit I actually use a midweight baselayer as well, sometimes even a lightweight because it traps so much body heat. My drysuit has thin booties that I put my neoprene booties over in part to protect the drysuit, but mainly because I like the contact I get with my foot pegs. For a very long time I scoffed at the drysuit as extravagant and unnecessary. I really purchased it because of the little booties I wear. I love the feel they offer, the contact with the kayak. I tried many ways to make them work through the winter, and I couldn't pull it off. That combined with a constantly wet bottom, spurred me to make the investment. It paid for itself almost immediately by extending my paddling season right into brutal winter - if the water isn't frozen I can still paddle. It's 34º and snowing? Guess what, I am still going paddling.

I primarily am talking about dressing for immersion, meaning you are planning on getting wet. All of these systems will work when your wet, and still keep you warm. But can you do this another way effectively. Why cant you replace the WPB paddling jacket and pants with regular hard shell outerwear, and replace the neoprene booties with high rubber boots -an Alaskan staple. You can, as long as you don't top your boots getting into our kayak, or roll your kayak once you are paddling you will be fine. BUT, if you do wet exit you have to get ashore and get into dry clothes.

It is important to keep a couple of things in mind. There is nothing wrong with being wet, as long as you are warm and wet. There is also nothing wrong with being a little cold, as long as you are dry and cold. But be very wary of being cold and wet. Cold and wet will kill you.

When expedition paddling it is good to have paddling clothes - clothes that will be damp either from water or sweat - and land clothes - clothes that will be warm and dry. I start all my trips with clothes in two twenty liter dry bags of different colors. One is paddling clothes, and one is land clothes. Eventually I start to think of the two bags differently. Paddling clothes becomes wet clothes. And land clothes become dry clothes. On a long trip something will usually get inadvertently wet. a pair of socks, a T shirt. Once it's wet, it goes in the paddling/wet clothes dry bag.

It only takes a little planning to paddle warm and safe in the winter. If done well, you can paddle all year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Update: Low and High Brace turn

I get a surprising number of hits from people doing google searches for the low and high brace turn. There seems to be a great deal of interest in this stroke, which while fun, really isn't that useful - at least compared to strokes like the forward and the sweep. Recently over at kayak yak there was a post with video showing the talented teachers of body boat blade doing the low brace turn - they also showed an edging video that I have commented on in the past - But they do the Low brace turn differently than I do, so I did some research.

My go to book for kayak information is Gordon Brown's 'Sea Kayak: A Manual for intermediate and Advanced Kayakers'. In Gordon's book he talks about the Low brace turn, and he does it the way I do - or probably more accurately, I do it the way he does.

My other go to book is 'Sea kayaking Illustrated' which makes no mention of the stroke whatsoever.

The body boat and blade folks teach a much more passive version of the stroke than the way I perform it. They talk about using the blade for psychological support, and allowing the blade to gently slice over the water, allowing a more confident edge turn. Whereas I teach a much more aggressive stroke with the blade biting the water at a much higher angle. My method turns the kayak because of the blade interaction with the water, and the BBB version is supporting the kayak while it turns - the paddle isn't initiating the turn, just supporting it.

I like to think of the two versions of this stroke as a passive version, and an active version. I don't think one is right or wrong, but they are different, and I think you should take the time to play with both and see which works better for you, which is what I did earlier this week. Below is video of both versions. First a left then right 'passive' low brace. Followed by a left and right 'active' high brace. They are really two very different strokes, and I feel that both are useful in very different situations.

updated low and high brace turn from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Monday, October 4, 2010


After reading about the BCU five star training that Simon Willis did, I couldn't help but give a couple of the things he mentioned a try. In particular the balance drill that he had to do. I will confess of the three things I was interested in trying, I only tried two of them. I was not able to stand up in the cockpit of my kayak. I am sure with practice I will be able to accomplish it, but on this particular day I didn't have it in me. I was successful at sitting on the back deck of my kayak, and turning 360º and then getting back into my kayak, though I will say it took me 2 minutes and 24 seconds. I envisioned it being much easier. I am curious how fast the people in his training did it? I am going to work on being able to do it faster. The third balance drill that he mentioned was this. Also sitting on the back deck, and rolling the kayak 360º under you. So you are sitting on the top, then the side, then the bottom, then the other side, then the top. I didn't even try this, as I wasn't sure what to do with my paddle. Perhaps Simon can offer some guidance. I should point out that I am very interested in doing a BCU assessment and I am only a few hours from a highly skilled east coast BCU five star instructor, but I just have had an opportunity to make it happen. Some day.

I shot video of the drill, but sped it up 500% so it isn't quite so painful to watch.

balance drill from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


If you are a rock climber, the question you get asked is, "How do you get the rope up there". If you are a long distance paddler the question you get asked is "How do you get all that stuff into a kayak". I think it is one of the easier things to do. Small bags are easier to pack than big ones, but as I have said before I am organizationally challenged. So I tend use 20 liter, 10 liter and a single 5 liter. I am a big fan of dry bags, but for my kitchen bag I use a small duffel with a heavy duty plastic bag inside of it. I find it easier to root around for the things I am looking for.

Their are a couple of basic principles:

If you may need it during your paddle, it goes in the cockpit or directly under a hatch opening.

Keep heavy things - water - centered. In general try and balance the load inside the boat.

Fill in the gaps. Don't give away space by not using it. watch what your doing, and don't leave gaps. Which means, a lot of the time, the most important thing to pay attention to is the bow and stern. Fill in those pointy gaps. I am continually toying with buying a tapered dry bag that fits my bow or stern, but I haven't made that leap yet.

Some people will say that you can trim the boat for particular situations by adjusting where weight in the boat is the heaviest. For instance, adding more weight in the bow paddling into a cornering wind, so the bow locks into the water and tracks better. I don't like this idea, as situations change, and it doesn't make sense to then repack your kayak.

Below I have two videos. A straight 'this is packing a kayak' and an uncut - but sped up - packing the boat. In total it took me a little over ten minutes to pack my kayak. I think in general it takes people longer than that, but I have a fairly solid system. As I have said continually, practice makes everything easier. I like to pack a kayak before a trip, just to make sure that it all fits.

Packing from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

packfast from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

the challenge.

- Am going to cross the Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea Islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come?

This is the message that Thor Heyerdahl sent to three people. They all said yes. This in a time before Personal Locator Beacons, GPS, Drysuits, satellites phones, and Search and rescue. THEY ALL SAID YES. This to me is amazing. Many think the hardest part of expeditioning is the act itself, and that may be the case if your climbing Everest. But for the trip I am planning for Alaska the trip itself isn't that physically demanding. The route is very protected - that's why it's called inside - and there is relative safety in the form of the Alaskan Marine Highway system. We have many opportunities to bail out in a bad situation. The difficulties are this, not necessarily in this order. Cold, Wet, Rain, Wind, Getting time off from work, and getting there.

The paddle isn't that difficult, though long, and cold and wet, it is more a challenge of perseverance. The Challenge is getting the group together, and keeping them focused on the goal. And getting them to the put in. Seriously. I think the most difficult part of the trip is getting all the people, and the gear, and the kayaks, to the put in. It isn't even that expensive of a trip - unless you don't own a kayak, which two of our group don't, yet. Or at least a kayak suitable for a trip like this. - But the costs are pretty meager.

The group of people who responded to my Heyerdahl like message on a whiteboard started as 9 and now is 6. How many make the actual trip only time will tell. Many things have to come together to get this group to the other side of the continent in a position to paddle for 30 or so days.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Kitchen

I used to be an avid backpacker, but after many years I had an epiphany. After laboring all day under a 52 pound back pack, and setting up camp with no real comforts or amenities. I was faced with freeze dried dinner coming out of a package. This is no way to live. This is why I started sea kayaking. I read a magazine article by Tim Cahill. He explained that after a day of paddling in the San Juans, dinner was fresh salmon with a nice bottle of wine. My interest was immediately piqued.

Cut to today. Close to two decades later I am revamping my paddling kitchen kit. I like to eat well on paddle trips, but at the same time the longer the trip the harder it is to get creative, because of the constraints of space and time. But in November the Alaska crew is doing a paddle together. Only a few days, and as some wont have their kayaks that they are buying for Alaska, we needed to scale it down a little. Three days, base camped on an island. Working on skills and getting a feel for group dynamics. But I digress. The kitchen kit.

In Gordon Browns video he explains that he likes smaller bags because you end up with less air in the boat, but if I have a dozen small bags I wont be able to find anything. So I use a bag for food, and a bag for cooking gear, and it is this bag of cooking gear that I am revamping. Previously I would put cooking tools into the bag, and then hunt and peck for what I was looking for, but I recently picked up this. It is designed for bike tools, but I am using it for kitchen tools. It packs pretty flat, and will make finding the appropriate tool that much easier. I am waiting for a small chefs knife to arrive and then the first stage will be done. I am looking forward to the November trip to get a feel for how it works.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Charts and NY Nautical

As I started planning this little 350 mile jaunt through Alaska, the first major task was route planning. Where we would actually be going. I have a few good books, and a few maps, but I did a lot of the early planning with Google Earth. I am a huge fan of google earth, both before and after a trip. To see the route, look at possible campsites - sort of - and generally get a feel for where we are going, and what is going to need to happen. It gives a wonderful birds eye view of the route. You can see the major crossings, and where the walls squeeze in.

But of course, I need to bring charts - and maps, but that's another post - with me. Some quick research showed me that the route would cover three NOAA Charts. They were 17300, 17360 and 17420. The NOAA makes them available for download in high resolution. They also offer something perfect for kayakers. Booklet charts. Again, they are free charts that are suitable for download and printing, but they are cut into much smaller sections. They print at 8.5 by 11, so they are suitable for a regular printer and fit in traditional binders. I downloaded the full size charts, and figured for route planning I would have them printed. At this stage it is better to see the whole route spread out before you. I downloaded them, and brought then into photoshop, aligning the images into one master map. After cropping and aligning it measured 40 x 48 covering the whole route. I figured I would print it out someplace commercially but after looking into it I found that it would be as expensive as buying the full size waterproof NOAA charts. At the time I had a trip home planned, and remembered that downtown Manhattan there is an amazing place called New York Nautical. I had been there once, but had never purchased anything and I decided that this would be the perfect thing. The day that I decided to make the trip an old friend and I had planned on going into Manhattan to a favorite place to relax, and before hand we would stop at New York Nautical.

It is a fairly non-descript place, on a side street way down town. Upon entering it was a small space with large chart tables in the center, with what seems like hundreds of flat, open drawers holding charts by the thousands. The walls were lined with cases displaying all sorts of navigational tools, and aids. Brass compasses, Dividers. Bells, lights. Two gentleman were sitting at desks, one on the phone, the other stood and asked if he could help us. I mentioned that I was looking for three NOAA charts of Alaska. I gave him the numbers, and he started looking. He mentioned in passing that 'NOAA has had us shredding charts lately - so I don't know if I will have them'. His co-worker, still on the phone pointed to a different set of drawers, indicating they would be there. In no time all three had been found and placed on the large plotting tables. I slid my hands across the coast of southern Alaska and he handed me a long thick dowel to hold them open. He said 'take your time.' and walked away. It occurred to me that people must come here not sure of what charts they need, and peruse several before figuring out exactly which ones they require. I didn't give him time to sit down, and told him that these were the ones I needed, and I would take all three. He took out an old receipt pad and started writing a receipt for me. 'Vessel name' he asked? 'It's a kayak', I replied. 'Well give me a name or I have to charge you sales tax.' Not too sure of how having a vessel name saved me sales tax - I am sure it is some business incentive from 1840 or something like that - I told him sailing vessel Annabel lee, and he wrote it down and handed me the receipt with the total. I paid him and we were on our way. As we walked out onto the sidewalk in lower Manhattan I remembered something I taught my nephew a long time ago. He was probably only four or five at the time, now an adult, But I taught him a very important saying. 'Every adventure starts with a map'. And here I was with three charts of Southern Alaska. It was a start.

And let me tell you, when the charts are spread out on the floor they take up quite a bit of space. In fact it is fairly daunting.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 11th 2001

On September 11th 2001, I was living in Lower Manhattan, the west village to be precise, just north of Houston street. As the crow flies I lived exactly 1.25 miles from the World Trade Center. The thing that most people don't realize about that fateful day - and you wouldn't realize unless you lived there - was how beautiful that morning was. Early September in NY can be glorious and it was. The sky was an unbelievable blue. The air was crisp, and clear, and had just a bit of a cold snap to it. Just cool enough to need a light jacket but you could sense that winter wasn't too far off.

At 8:46 am when the first plane struck the North Tower, I was driving in the Holland tunnel to New Jersey. The Photo Studio I managed had relocated from Manhattans Union Square area, and I was making a reverse commute. When everyone was coming into NY, I was going out. the impact was initially reported on the radio as a small plane. Then shortly later corrected to a full size airliner. I looked in my rear view mirror and could see the North tower burning. A friend and co-worker was in my old beaten up truck with me, and we decided to continue on to the studio. Shortly after that the second plane hit the south tower. Life in lower Manhattan would never be the same.

I tell you this story because it was that day, sitting in my office at the photo studio, watching the news, and trying to get into contact with my family, that I pulled out a map of Alaska and thought of being some place beautiful, and peaceful. When times are bad for me I retreat to the wilderness. I had been to Alaska in 2000 and it was still fresh in my mind. I had paddled Prince William Sound for the first time that year, and it would start an obsession that continues to this day.

I looked at that map of Alaska, and here was the plan I hatched on that day in September of 2001. I would paddle my kayak from Ketchikan Alaska to Skagway Alaska. The inside passage. Roughly 350 miles of amazing Alaskan rain forest. While in 2000 I was already a skilled kayaker, I was but on the beginning of my journey. I realized quickly that my touring kayak wouldn't hold enough gear. I would need a better tent, along with a lot of other gear And really, my skill level should have been higher. I spent the next ten years plotting, planning and building skills. Every time I needed a piece of gear I thought about the inside passage. Every time I packed a kayak I thought about the inside passage. I have been back to Alaska 4 times in that decade. I also paddled the British Columbia coast - their section of the inside passage, the more difficult section - Not to mention all the other places I had put a kayak in the water. But still the Alaskan section called to me. I became an instructor for the school that taught me. But still, in the back of my head, Alaska whispered. She said 'you still haven't done it. I am waiting for you.'

Two years ago I got close to finding someone to do the trip with me. But too many things got in the way. I work for a major outdoor retailer (MOR) and we have a dry erase board for people looking for something fun to do. You can write, 'going climbing Thursday, who wants to go?' Finally, about four months ago, I looked at that board and wrote 'Paddling the inside passage, who wants to go?' I got tired of making her wait.

A surprising number of people let me know that they were interested. People with all sorts of skill levels. In the next eleven months I am going to journal the process, the planning, and the trip. There will be pictures, and video. There will be a trip to Alaska's Inside Passage.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Skilled and unskilled

Last night as I was watching my Sensei do Kata - and explaining why it was the single most important aspect of Karate. I realized how unskilled I was. The perfection of his movement. The minimal effort required to get the maximum effect. The combination of grace and power. At first it was depressing - how far I had to go. But then I realized if I had not already come a very long way, I wouldn't be able to see in him what I was doing wrong.

This is how I feel when I watch Gordon Brown Kayak.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Endings, but never ending.

Roughly six months ago I stepped out of the shadows and I started the process for putting what I teach on this blog for all to read. Seventy-two posts later I am about where I want to be, At roughly thirty five thousand words it is a bit shorter than I planned but so far I am happy with the results.

I am going to take some time, and reorganize what I have. Change orders around. Flesh out some more Ideas. I will still be posting, but the age of hard skill instruction has - mostly - come to an end. I will add, and tweak things in the future, and as I mentioned previously I am going to transition the blog into a journal for a trip I am doing next summer.

So if you have read this blog from beginning to end, and it has helped you, then I have succeeded in terms of my goal. This is but the first step on a longer journey. A long time ago I was introduced by my Sensei to the phrase, 'student of serious kayaking'. It is a phrase I like very much. I consider myself a teacher, but the reason I teach is that it lets me learn. I learned a tremendous amount about kayaking in the last six months. I plan on learning a lot more.

For you, my advice is simple. Paddle. Spend time in your kayak, and get to know it. Be pushing your skills. Paddle in different environments. Paddle in the cold, and the wet. The rough and the calm. Paddle with your kayak empty, and full. simply paddle. Only through consistent practice can you continue to grow as a kayaker. Work to the point that kayaking can become a meditation. The forward stroke is the ultimate meditation in a kayak. You must be aware of it, yet unaware. You have to learn how to do it, so you can forget how to do it, and thereby do it naturally. That is the skill. That is the art.

If you came to this blog with previous kayaking experience, I hope you followed my advice, and emptied your cup. If you did, I am sure I had something to fill it with in return.

This phase of the journey ends, and another begins. But here is an offer I have for you. If you have questions that I didn't answer, by all means send me an email. If you have questions about form, and how yours is, send me a link to a video, and I will review it, and get back to you.

Video is a wonderful tool to see what you are really doing. I saw it myself when editing the video for this blog, I had to shoot and reshoot things because I didn't like the way I was doing particular things. Video is pretty easy to do these days, please use that powerful tool.

Now go kayaking.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Weather, or not.

Another important factor when paddling is weather. Understanding what is happening now, and what may happen in the near future. Being in small craft, sitting on the water line, it is very important that we think about weather a great deal. Weather, tides, and currents are a big part of the decision making process. We need to be thinking about all three. Should we be on the water or off? Can we reach a planned destination or should we plan an alternate?

Weather, like tides, can be very complicated. But for the most part we can simplify to get the information we need to help us make the important decisions.

Whenever I paddle I wear a watch with a barometer. I helps me keep track of the changes in Barometric pressure in my immediate vicinity. It is the changes over time that are important. I also carry a VHF radio, with a weather band. This way I can listen to the weather report for the surrounding weather stations to know what is happening in all directions.

I use the information from the barometer, and the vhf and my senses, to form a picture if what is happening, and what may happen in the immediate future. While weather forecasts online, and on television may go seven to ten days into the future, I really don't believe a weather forecast more than three days out. There are too many variables that can effect what has been forecasted.

Here are some factors to keep in mind:

In general terms West to East, because of the jet stream. If you want to know what tomorrows weather is going to be, look a couple of hundred miles to the west.

In the northern hemisphere HIGH pressure systems bring cool, dry air. They flow in a clockwise direction. Air flows away from the high pressure center, and the coriolis effect makes it turn in a clockwise direction.

Also in the northern hemisphere LOW pressure systems bring warm, moist air. They flow in a counter clockwise direction. The best example of an extreme low pressure system is a hurricane. Where winds fight to get to the center of an extreme low pressure center, and for a circle, or eyewall.

Air, and the associated 'weather' flows from areas of high pressure to low pressure.

High pressure is 'good' weather.

Low pressure is 'bad' weather.

With this little bit of knowledge we can do basic weather prediction. Clear skies are the work of high pressure systems. I know if my barometer is falling rapidly, then bad weather will follow, as the falling pressure means any moist air will 'fall' into the center of the low. This moving air, is going to make wind, and then potentially rain.

High pressure is going to push the 'lows' away, and with them take all the moist air. But that high is going to flow east - due to the jet stream - and will slowly move away.

When bad weather gets pushed away by a high, there is usually high winds, as the high gets pushed away, air has to fill the void.

So I am watching my barometer for an overview of what is happening to the air pressure around me. At night, and in the morning I am listening to the weather report to get an idea what is happening to the west. I am also listening for the wind report. What kinds of wind will I be facing tomorrow when I try to paddle to my next destination.

It is wind, not rain, that is our limiting factor. With wind comes waves, and those two things are going to keep us from making good progress, as well as making it harder to get off the water should we have a problem. I will paddle all day long in the rain, but wind, wind worries me.

Wind will slow our progress, or make our forward progress when it comes from behind at least tricky - I think the best test for a kayak is how it paddles in a following sea. That is when kayaks get squirrely - if not down right dangerous. I don't mind waves on their own, but where waves interact with land is where things get dangerous, made more so by wind pushing you into land. Wind makes a good situation bad, and a bad situation worse. pay close attention to the wind.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Once more into the tide

A few more elements of tides that we need to understand are that the tides don't change like a switch going on and off. They gradually change, and that change is constant. In a normal situation you have 4 tides a day, as I mentioned previously. Two highs, and two lows. If you have four tides a day, and the changes are gradual then they must be fairly even in their dispersal throughout the day. They each last approximately 6 hours - give or take. In actuality tides occur about fifty minutes later each day, (Because it takes the moon 24 hours and fifty minutes to complete a cycle around the earth) which is why our tides don't occur at the same time each day. Tidal changes during that six hours start slowly, build to maximum strength, and then start decreasing in intensity. During the middle of the cycle when the most water is moving, you get the biggest change in tide height. This varying cycle generally follows the rule of twelves. During the first and sixth hours of the cycle 1/12th of the water will move. During the second and fifth hours 2/12ths of the water will move. And during the third and fourth hours of the cycle - the middle two hours - 3/12ths of the water will move.

The important aspect of this is that in the middle of the cycle you have the most movement of water, and at the ends of the cycle the least. In fact at the change of that cycle when we end the 6th hour of the high tide and start the 1st hour of the low tide, in that change over, we are in a period called 'slack tide', this is when the least water is moving.

So there are times when a lot of water is moving, and times when very little water is moving. It is important to know when those times are because while the water is moving vertically, it flows to new areas, as water always seeks its own level. When water flows through a narrow area - a constriction - it goes faster. Like putting your thumb over the end of a hose.

So when you create your float plan, look at the possibilities of water being constricted and a tidal current being created. If there is an area of constriction water will be flowing very fast through that constriction at the middle of the tide. Whereas very little water will be flowing there at slack tide. Plan your paddle accordingly.

For instance, if I am paddling out and back to the same point I want to paddle against the tide on the way out, and back with the tide - so when I am tired I am not also fighting the tide. The same goes for the wind. I would rather start my paddle heading into the wind, so I get a push coming back.

Or perhaps I have to transit an area of high tidal current, but its going to take me four hours to get to it. That means I need to leave the safety four hours before the slack tide, so I reach the area of high tidal current when the least amount of water is flowing through it.

An area like this is not very far from where I learned to paddle. It's an area called 'Hell Gate' and it is in New York State. Three bodies of water converge on a very small opening. The Long Island Sound enters the East river along side Manhattan Island. At the north end of Manhattan island The Hudson river joins the East river. The sound, the East river, and the Hudson river are all tidally influenced. Meaning the rivers reverse there flow when the tide is coming in - or flooding - and then the rivers flow takes over when the tide is receding - or ebbing. (In actuality the East river isn't a river, it is an inlet from New York Harbor, a large bay, and finally the Atlantic ocean.

So when the tide is flooding, water comes from the Long Island sound and floods into the east river. At the same time the Water is flooding the east river and Hudson river. This junction can become very turbulent with a fast moving tidal current.

Other things effect tides and tidal currents as well. The shape of the land surrounding the water, and the shape of the land under the water all will effect the tide, and tidal currents.

It's good to understand tides and tidal currents, but the best way to know how tides effect a certain area of coastline is to get knowledge from someone who paddles there all the time. Local knowledge is key. Seek out paddlers who know the area, and can give you information that can only be learned by putting a kayak in the water.

Monday, August 30, 2010


This blog will slowly be transitioning from a purely instructional to a purely story driven enterprise. I am planning a trip for next summer, and currently I am spending a fair amount of time paddling with the young team that will under take this trip. All have some experience paddling, a couple of others are paddling driven like myself. But it is interesting to see the people with little experience - day trips only - thinking about what a month in a kayak will feel like. I am coaching on basic skills, the diamond of four strokes and a skill that I talked about earlier. But hearing things like - I have never worn a spray skirt - make me think. I know that all the members of the group are capable of doing a trip like this. It will be more perseverance than hardcore skills. But even perseverance can be a challenge. It will be interesting in the next year to see this group of relatively inexperienced kayakers grow with their skills and confidence and take on an amazing challenge.

It has gotten me to thinking about the physical aspects of long distance paddling. I really have very little patience for a two hour paddle. I do them. But they don't drive me. They are more a way to keep my skills sharp, and my mind clear. But give me a coast line, and a campsite twenty miles away, and that is where I shine. I am not fast, but I have the ability to spend 16 hours in a cockpit, cold and wet, with out a moments thought. It is a zen experience for me. It is as close to being in the moment as my far to active brain can handle. It is my meditation.

Recently I have been fielding a lot of questions from students about hands. Hands, and gloves. Hands and gloves in cold weather, and warm weather. and blisters. Which really are probably more likely calloses. Here is what I have to say about hands.

I have three pairs of gloves, A fingerless set which live in my pfd chest pocket. A thick neoprene arctic glove, and a set of pogies. The fingerless gloves come out on two different types of occasions. A very sunny day to protect the backs of my hands from sunburn, and very long days where I am planning on paddling 20 plus miles. But they aren't for blisters or callouses. They are simple to protect the patch of skin between thumb and index finger. Paddling for a long day particularly into the wind where my paddle is feathered, that piece of skin gets a lot of wear. So it is just an added piece of protection. The thick neoprene glacier gloves I despise. I bought them for my first Alaska trip. I thought they were amazing until I used them. They tend to get wet on the inside, and once wet are very hard to dry. Also once wet they are very hard to get on or off, and once you get the first one on, it is particularly difficult to get the second one on. I bring them on trips but they are generally my loaner gloves for the person who can't locate - or neglected to bring - theirs. Finally pogies. I was very skeptical of pogies. Until I tried them. When using them I still have good solid contact with my paddle, as well as protection from wind and rain. But if I need my hands it is very quick to get my hands out of them and to the task at hand. Try and put a spray skirt on with thick neoprene gloves, it isn't easy.

Hands are important. They are our connection to the paddle, which is our connection to the world. You must take care of them. Feet similarly so. The primary reason that I made the investment in a dry suit was to keep my feet dry. I tried many options and the things that kept my feet dry didn't give me the feedback from the foot pegs that I wanted, and the things that gave me the feed back I wanted left me with cold wet feet. Which for a little while is manageable, but for an extended period of time is difficult, if not down right dangerous. In the summer I wear small neoprene booties that is actually designed for whitewater play boating. In the winter I wear the same booties over my dry suit socks. It is important to not only have a good connection with the boat physically, but if you are cold you are distracted. And distraction leads to problems.

Friday, August 27, 2010

predicting the next tide.

We can look at the beach and see where the water is, and even sometimes where it is going, but for us to camp on a beach we need some solid information. The tide line is for ever moving up and down the beach, and we need to be able to decipher what we see to figure out where our kayaks and ourselves can sleep. We need to determine where the last high tide was, and how high above that the next high tide is. If you look at the photo that I borrowed from a skilled photographer on the web you can see two distinct lines running across that beach from left to right. The line closest to the camera - running diagonally across the frame - this is the high tide. The line slightly further away that is less distinct is the low tide.

The more pronounced line is the last high tide, the one below it is the most recent tide, which was a low tide. This tells us that the next tide coming is a high tide again, and our tide table which we learned to read earlier in the week will tell us if the high tide that is coming is higher or lower than the last one. This is the information we need. The height of the next tide in relation to the last high tide whose remains we can see on the beach.

Just for clarity, I know that the low tide in the picture is newer than the high tide in the picture, because when the high tide comes in it will wash out the remains of the low tide. Therefore it must be newer.

So we can see the last high tide. if we pretend that the height of that tide is 8 feet (above mean low tide) and the next high tide is 6 feet. Then all we have to do is camp above the current high tide line. But if the next high tide is the 'high high' and its height is 9 feet then we need to do some figuring.

So for this example our next high tide is going to be one vertical foot higher than our last, lets go stand on that last high tide line and figure out the next high tide. To do this we are going to need our paddle, a half filled bottle of water, and the ability to accurately judge height or a tape measure.

Put your paddle blade on the tide line with the shaft perfectly vertical. Estimate the distance above the tide line that the next tide will be vertically up the paddle shaft, in this case, one foot. Hold the water bottle at the one foot line, horizontally, so it is pointing at the beach. Use the water in the bottle as a level to make sure the bottle is horizontal to the ground. Then sight over the top of the bottle to the beach, and mark that height - the spot you are looking at over the top of the bottle - I like to use a small piece of drift wood sticking up out of the sand. This is your next high tide line, and your tents and kayaks must be above it.

This is also a good time to touch the two tide lines and see how wet they are. The newer low tide should be wet to the touch, while the high tide should be a bit drier as it has been there longer. Get a feeling for how long it takes for sea grasses to dry in the sun, and you will have an easier time determining what you are looking at.

In the picture there is also scattered sea grass above the high tide line, this could be one of two things. As the month goes on, the tides will move in a cycle getting higher each day, until they reach an apex, and then slowly receding each day, until they reach the lowest point in the cycle and then they start over. This could be an older high tide, with the new high tides receding lower and lower. If your paddling when the cycle is receding, all you have to do is find the last high and camp above it, because the next high high is guaranteed to be lower.

Unless this scattered line is something else. A storm tide. When you get a Storm, High winds can drive waves higher on the beach above the high tide leaving a scattered layer of sea grass. Looking at this photo I would bet this is the case.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tide tables

So now we understand what causes tides, it's time to look at how this information breaks down into effects for us paddlers.

First lets look at a tide table for an area near where I learned to paddle, Port Jefferson on Long Island, New York for Monday the 30th day of August 2010.

It lists four tides in this order, HIGH, LOW, HIGH, LOW. Because we have four tides a day and two of them are highs, and two lows, they occur in that order HIGH, LOW, HIGH, LOW. The first high is at 3:19am and has a height of 6.3 feet. 6.3 feet above what, you may ask? 6.3 feet above mean low tide, which means the average low tide. The next tide, a low is at 9:20 am - almost exactly 6 hours later and is 1.0 feet high, again above mean low tide. Next is a high tide at 3:31pm with a height of 6.9 feet followed by a low at 10:01 at 0.8 feet. Four tides of different heights all approximately 6 hours apart. This tide table has a tidal range of about 7 feet. From a low low of 0.8 to a high high of 6.9 feet. 7.1 feet to be precise.

The tides occurred in this order:
Low High - meaning the lower of the two high tides
High Low - the higher of the two low tides
High High - the higher of the two high tides
Low Low - the lower of the two low tides

I mentioned before that when traveling in a kayak, my first concern is being able to get off the water. I would rather be off the water and wish I was on the water, then on the water and wish I was off. But once I am off the water, I need to be able to camp. I don't want to set up a tent and wake up in the middle of the night floating in my sleeping bag with my kayak washed away. So I use this tide information when picking a campsite. I want to make sure that I am camped above the high high tide line, and then I want my kayak to be above the tent. This assures that if my tide calculations are wrong I will know when my tent floods, and before my kayak floats away. And remember we are talking about tides, which are the vertical movement of water - not horizontal. So when I am finding a campsite - with this tide table - the tent needs to be at least 7 vertical feet above the low tide line. On a steep beach that usually isn't too far. On flatter beach, that can be a great distance.

Lets look at one more tide chart, this time for a place I have been lucky enough to paddle out of on numerous occasions. Whittier Alaska. This one for August 6th 2010. The first tide, 1:58 am at 12.3 feet Followed by 8:32 at -1.1 feet. Then 2:57pm at 11.0 feet, and finally 8:35pm at 2.2 feet

1:58am 12.3 feet is the high high
8:32am -1.1 feet is the low low
2:57pm 11 feet is the low high
8:35 pm 2.2 feet is the high low

There is a tidal range 13.4 feet, think about having to find a campsite 14 feet above the low tide! I say low tide, because if you come ashore at low tide, that is how far you will have to travel. But most people will come ashore between tides. Rarely have I ever arrived at my home for the day at high tide. So really what we need to do is find the last high tide, figure out how high the highest tide will be during our stay, find that spot on the beach, and camp above it.

That is our next lesson.

Monday, August 23, 2010


One of the beautiful aspects of doing a long distance tour, is that you get into cycles. Instead of your day be driven by the times that things normally occur - lunch at 12, work ends at 5, dinner at 6. You are more controlled by the natural environment. You tend to rise with the sun, and sleep shortly after sunset. We move in day light, but part of the planning of that move, as well as other things, is dictated by the tide. So first lets discuss the what causes the tides.

Tides are the vertical movement of water - currents are the horizontal movement of water - and that movement of the water is controlled primarily by two forces. The Sun, and the Moon.

You will need to visualize the water covering the Earths surface as somewhat elastic, as it gets pulled and pushed by the sun and moon. First lets start with the moon. The moon has a weak force pulling on the earth, but the moon is relatively close to the earth. When it is over a specific spot, it pulls the water nearest it, and pushes the water furthest away from it.

The sun has a very powerful force exerted on the earth. But it is considerably farther away. But it also pulls the water on the near side of the earths surface to it, and pushes the water on the far side of the earth away from it.

So you have to forces of similar effect - the moon is weak but close, the sun is strong but far away - pulling and pushing the water on the surface of the earth.

But now we have to add movement. The Earth spins on it's axis once every twenty four hours. The moon revolves around the earth once every 28 days. At times the moon and sun are aligned on the same side of the earth. At times the Moon and sun are on different sides of the earth, and at times the sun and moon are at ninety degree angles to each other. This movement combined with the earths rotation is what causes our tides.

In one twenty four hour cycle - in most locations - we have 4 tides. Two high, and two low. These are further broken down to a high high, and low high. (two high tides of different heights) and a low low, and high low (two low tides of different heights)

This is how tides work in the most simple of forms. This is enough for our purposes in that it will give us the back ground to understand how the tides move, and effect us in our kayaks. The tides flow continuously. With no beginning or ending. Only changing in their height, and even those have a never ending flow to them. There is no effective way to fight the tide as a kayaker, we have to get into rhythm with the tides, and use them to our advantage. We can use them in planning our movements, when to leave a beach, when to arrive at another. When it is a good time to move past a shallows, or an area of strong tidal current. Yes, tides can have currents associated with them, but that is for another post. get into the zen of your tide, as it will make for a happier life working with it, in harmony. Than working against it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Boat Materials and an email exchange

Today I paddled with a woman who wanted to test paddle my boat, and a friends boat as she is preparing for her first long distance paddle. As the two boats were constructed differently, it prompted the question of what kayaks are made of and how. So I thought I would go over it briefly here.

First, and probably most common material for a kayak is plastic. I had the opportunity to go to a factory near me, to see plastic whitewater kayaks and recreational kayaks manufactured. Plastic kayaks are made from plastic powder, which is poured into a mold, and then placed in a very large oven. The oven is on a gimbal, and moves the mold every which way, after heating the mold to around 500º (If I recall the temperature correctly)

Plastic kayaks are relatively inexpensive, incredibly durable, but comparatively, fairly heavy.

The next most common material for kayaks is fiberglass, and it is the generally preferred material for a high performance boat. More expensive, a bit lighter, a bit stiffer. For all practical purposes each boat is hand made, though I am sure that someone can fill in the blanks of how they are manufactured.

These are, by far the two most common materials for kayaks. There are of course wooden kayaks, skin on frame kayaks, folding kayaks - which I tend to think of as skin on frames younger cousin, and high end carbon/kevlar composites, but the majority of paddlers use Fiberglass or plastics.

Like everything in kayaking there are trade offs of each, and because of the popularity of fiberglass and plastic those are the two I want to focus on.

As I said, the plastic kayaks are incredibly durable, and less expensive, and since a lot of high end fiberglass manufacturers are making plastic versions of their high end boats, it makes it very easy to start with one of these kayaks.

If you do manage to damage your plastic kayak they are not easy to repair. I have seen kits for plastic repair, but I suspect there is always a scar, whereas Fiberglass is easy to repair, and maintain, and repairs often leave no scars whatsoever, though they are a bit more fragile.

Having paddled both extensively, I can say that there is a responsiveness to fiberglass that is incredible. Actually responsiveness isn't the right word. It's a feel. This isn't an accurate description, but some say that paddling plastic kayaks, the boats 'feel dead'. I don't know what that means, but when you paddle both you will understand the expression. There is a snappiness in fiberglass that isn't present in plastic. Plastic kayaks have a 'thud' to them when they come down over a wave. It is really very hard for me to describe.

The big argument between the two is the inherent stiffness that the fiberglass kayaks offer, over the relative softness of the plastic.

And this brings me to my email exchange with the editor of Sea kayaker magazine. It was just before I bought my current kayak, I emailed him to suggest a story idea. The idea was this, since Sea kayaker does all sorts of tests on kayaks to determine drag, and speed, and the like, I felt they were in a position to discuss materials and all the benefits and drawbacks. Over several emails we exchanged ideas and information - in all fairness he gave information, I gave questions! He talked about the stiffness of fiberglass, and how that translates to speed. He talked about the plastic kayaks tendency to gouge, and its effect on speed. The flex of the side of the kayak when you push on your foot braces which he thought would be a big drawback of plastic boats efficiency, and I thought the flex of the paddle blade and shaft would be a big loss of power. (According to Sea Kayakers tests we were both wrong, as the flex of the kayak at the foot braces, and the flex of the paddle shaft are both non-issues.)

After a number of emails I asked what I really wanted to know. In testing, with all conditions being the same, what are we really seeing in actual speed difference between plastic and fiberglass. His response was this, 1% or 2%. I cruise at around 4 knots. 2% of four knots isn't much. So don't let speed be your overall judge in deciding what types of kayaks to paddle.
The outcome of the email discussion was published in the 25th anniversary edition of Sea kayaker magazine.

I have only owned plastic kayaks. Mainly due to cost, but durability is also a factor for me. I started kayaking the shores of Long Island, New York which are essential rock piles. I didn't want to worry about my kayak, so plastic it was.

Of course I haven't mentioned my current kayak, which is thermoformed plastic. Using plastic in sheets, the kayaks are manufactured similarly to fiberglass kayaks. I currently feel that it is the best of both worlds. It doesn't have 'the dead feeling' of plastic, and is lighter than most fiberglass kayaks. You repair it very similarly to fiberglass, but it is priced between fiberglass and plastic. I am curious how the kayak will age, but thermoformed kayaks have been around for quite some time with various names -airalite, and ultralite being the most popular.

So you need to think about use, and care, and cost of the kayaks you are looking at, but most importantly you have to paddle kayaks to get a feel for the different boats. I am a firm believer that once you start paddling different kayaks, just like the paddles, one will sing to you. One will feel just right. One will be 'the' kayak.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The paddle

We talk a lot about kayaks, and what properties different shapes offer. How to control them, and how to best use them to get the needs we require. We talk about the fit, and the connection between ourselves and our kayaks. But what we haven't spoken about, and I think most don't speak about, is our paddles.

Frequently I see people who have decided that they are going to do it, they are going to buy a kayak, but then they realize that there are things they need in order to paddle. Among them are the PFD and paddle. You can't really save of money with your pfd choice. Yes, there are expensive and less expensive pfd's to choose from, but not to the degree that you can save money on a paddle. But spending less on a paddle is truly a mistake.

The paddle is our connection to the water, and our means of propulsion. Or at least our means of transmitting propulsion power to the water. I don't think there is a single piece of gear that is as important as your paddle. I tend to think of it as being like the idea of buying a Ferrari, and putting cheap tires on it. What would be the point. I am not going to get into the debate of Greenland or euro - what ever works for you, works for you! - But I will say a few words about length, and materials.

Length, I feel, is a lot like hemlines. They go up and down with the times. I paddle a 220 cm paddle. If I go to the Werner website and fill out a quick survey, it will tell me I should be paddling a 215 cm paddle. Today I was reading a kayaking book, by who's formula I should be paddling a 230 cm paddle. At this point I wouldn't change the length of my paddle because I am comfortable with it, but my guess is the Werner formula is closer to the truth.

In terms of materials you have a handful of choices. The paddle shaft can be Aluminum, fiberglass, wood, or carbon fiber. With wood being almost exclusively the domain of Greenland style paddles - though bending branches makes a nice wooden paddle.

As you go up in price, you go down in weight, and here is what I think is important. Weight should be low. As low as you can afford. Here is why.

If you paddle for four hours, you will do about fourteen thousand paddle strokes. if you save five ounces, by going up in price, that is well over two tons you don't have to lift. If you are kayak touring, four hours is a short day. For that reason I paddle with a Werner Kalliste, which is a carbon shaft, with carbon blades. It weighs 23 ounces. Compared to the previously mentioned Wooden bending branches paddle which weighs 41 ounces. The carbon is stiff, and light, and a dream. Students regularly ask me to try my paddle, and I tell them they can try it, for 30 seconds. And I hold them to it. Mostly I limit their time because I don't want to paddle with their almost universally heavy paddle. And also because I want to make sure I get it back. That paddle is mine. This is another thing I feel strongly about. Connection.

In Feng Shui they explain that a room with good Feng Shui will just feel right. Similarly, when picking a piece of fruit, let your hand wander over the choices and one will just 'feel right'. This is how I feel about paddles. I feel that there is a bond between myself and my paddle. I found this quote about Samurai and their Katana:

The bond between the katana and samurai was sacred. The sword was always used as a last resort. The samurai believed the katana was linked to their soul

For this reason I limit the time my paddle spends in another's hand. She is mine, and I am hers. I know her every scratch, as they tell a story of the journey similar to a persons scars. She is kept in a soft cloth bag when not in use, she is treated with respect. She is my connection to the water. As important as I think choosing the right kayak is, I think choosing the right paddle is more important. Spend a little extra money, and more importantly a little extra time. Check your prospective paddle for scratches, and if faced with more than one of the same paddle, let both of them - or more - rest in your hands, and see which one sings to you. This will be a partner in many great journeys. Choose her wisely.

A short word on 'spare paddles'. When I do long trips I carry a spare paddle. She is an older, but still solid Werner carbon fiber paddle. The Camano, also 220 cm. Many people use a less expensive paddle as their backup. One school I almost taught for - used smaller Greenland paddles as their backup paddles. Regardless of what the primary paddle was. I think this is a mistake. If your paddle fails you, it will likely be in bad conditions. You will probably do something to stress the paddle in a way that it wasn't meant to be stressed. This is no time to switch to something new. Something that doesn't feel natural, or right, in your hands. Your backup paddle should be very close to your primary paddle in terms of weight, and feel.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I can't stress enough the importance of practice. I paddle frequently - though lately not as frequently as I would like, but still probably more than most - and while I have rituals and routines for when I paddle to practice there is still a fair amount of freedom to it. I will always focus on my forward stroke at the beginning and end of each session. I always get in my kayak and play with edges to make sure I have a good feel for my body, the kayak, and the connection between the two. I will then pick a few strokes to work on.

This past week I chose three different things. Various draw strokes, the low brace turn, and an as yet unnamed turning stroke. I chose these three for various reasons. The draws, because I don't do them frequently. Of the draws, I use the sculling draw the most. The standard draw I will almost never use. Which is why in the video it doesn't look very good - my paddle shaft should be more vertical, but I have short arms. But I practice it from time to time regardless. The low brace turns I like to practice though I don't use them that often. They are just a lot of fun. I recently read in Canoe & Kayak magazine that I should be doing the low brace turn with the paddle in the center of the kayak. So part of my choosing that was to get a feel for the way they said to do it. They way they describe it, it is more of a support for a powerful edge turn, than the paddle actually causing the turn itself. I like my version more, though I will continue to play with theirs and see what it becomes. The as yet unnamed turning stroke, perhaps someone can enlighten me as to what it is called, I actually saw it quite a while ago on youtube, and have been playing with it since then. It is sort of a hanging draw, with the paddle at a 45º angle to the cockpit at the stern. With the blade in the water, it nicely turns the kayak - though I don't like how high I have to place my left elbow to make it effective.

Anytime your elbow is above your shoulder, you are risking an injury. Falling with your elbow above your shoulder is a very easy way to dislocate it. In general we don't like strokes that put our shoulders at risk.

But to me this stroke feels in terms of usability like a cross bow rudder, which is another stroke I am very fond of, and so I continue to play with it. I think it will become a powerful directional stroke. There are times when it is good to control direction from the stern, others from the bow, and still others from the cockpit area.

I started thinking about practice as I was at my dojo. the past few weeks my Sensei has been teaching the class certain techniques that I have come to employ when sparring. I think of them as my own. I am under no illusion that I had anything to do with him choosing them, but I did feel that he was giving away some of my best personal sparring secrets, ways that I move and strike. It got me to thinking about where new techniques come from. Even something as old as the martial arts, every instructor puts his or her own spin on things. They add their own flavor. And so each student will take a piece of that with them. A small portion of the instructor lives on in the ways that their students have been taught.

I feel the same way about kayaking. First and most importantly you must be open to the ideas of others. The magazine I was reading showed a way to do something that was different than the way I do it. I wanted to see if it was better - for me - to do it their way or mine. For now, my way is better - again, for me - but as I said I will continue to play with their method and see if something comes out of it. Secondly it is important to share knowledge, as every time I teach someone something about a kayak, the gift that I receive is what they give me back. Every student adds something to the way I teach. Every student gives me a different perspective on things I have taught hundreds of times. But most importantly you have to spend time in the cockpit of your kayak in various conditions to expand your skill level. Remember ten thousand hours! Some days practice can be working on technical skills, some days it can be working on softer skills. Following a bearing, reading a chart and orienting it to your position. Watching the weather. All things that must be practiced, to become natural.

What I realized at the dojo is what my Sensei was doing was giving younger students something to practice that could become more natural to them. They were just already things I was comfortable doing - maybe next week it will be spinning hook kicks, which I still don't like.

practice from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

Friday, August 13, 2010


One of my biggest concerns when paddling is my visibility. On my first multi-day paddling trip, down the Hudson River, I awoke the second morning to flat water and an overcast sky. The water was reflecting the sky in such a way that everything was a similar shade of grey blue. I decided right away I wanted to be paddling in this amazing light, and calm conditions before they changed, so I quickly packed up my camp, loaded the boat and headed out. It was an amazing section of river, and I had it all to myself. A little rain began and with it a little wind. The wind was coming from the west, and I was on the east shore of the river, so I knew that if I paddled to the west side of the river - about a mile away - the shoreline would protect me and I wouldn't have to deal with the wind ( When wind has open water to move over with nothing impeding it, it moves faster. The distance that the wind has to move freely is called 'fetch' So the section of river I was on had a fair amount of fetch). So I changed my direction and angled across the river. After a few minutes I noticed a large yacht coming up the river, moving quickly. By all appearances if neither of us changed course, we would either hit, or come very close to each other, and I didn't want to be anywhere near that boat in my little kayak. I had the right of way. I waited for him to change course, or alter speed. Nothing happened. Finally I decided to cut back to the east shore to get some distance, and then as he passed turn back west again to take his large wake on my bow. I did so, and through this he never changed course. Never altered speed. In retrospect he probably never saw me. My kayak was blue, matching the water and sky. I was wearing a red paddling jacket and red PFD, but when you think about how small your body is compared to your kayak it isn't surprising he didn't see me. It changed the way I thought about visibility.

All of my kayaks have been red, yellow, or a combination of the two. My PFD is still red, as is my paddling jacket and dry suit. The only thing I use that isn't brightly colored is my werner paddle. I carry a C strobe in my pfd as well as a chemical light stick and whistle. On multiday trips I have a waterproof VHF radio within reach. When I teach for the school in Alaska I carry flares as well. But the biggest most visible object is my kayak, and I like it in a bright color. traditionally I have owned plastic kayaks, primarily because I can't afford a fiberglass boat. But also because I learned to paddle on very rocky beaches and a plastic kayak made sense. My current boat is plastic, but built like fiberglass, meaning it starts its life as two pieces and is joined together. I have a problem - in terms of visibility - with kayaks that are made of two pieces. A rotomolded kayak is one color top and bottom. For some reason, composite kayaks - be they thermoformed plastic like mine, fiberglass, or a kevlar layup - almost always have a colored deck, and a white hull. I would imagine it is to save money on materials, but someone more familiar with construction can correct me on that if I am wrong.

Here is my problem. Over turn your white hulled kayak. The white hull is now facing up. The bright colored deck is facing down into the water. If a search and rescue team or even a passing powerboat was looking for you, and your kayak was overturned it would look just like a white capped wave. If you are floating in the water, the majority of you is beneath the water as well, only your head and shoulders are above the water, so we are really relying on the kayak to be the visual that gets us noticed - forgetting about flares and strobes and the like. Now, I don't plan on ever being in a situation where I am out of my kayak, in the water, and unable to get back in, but Still I give it some thought. I also don't plan on getting into a car accident, but I have a car with airbags, and I wear a seat belt. This is why it is vitally important to think about these things. They call them accidents because we don't plan them.

As I have just learned that I can paint my kayak I am giving serious thought to painting a bright yellow stripe down the keel of my kayak. While I doubt I will ever be bobbing in the water next to my overturned kayak unable to get back into it, hoping someone will see me. I do think about the 'what ifs'. What if you were in that situation. What if a good day goes bad?