Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Simon and Adrain - Congratulations!

When I first met Simon Maguire in March this year he told me about his plans to paddle from Byron Bay to Newcastle and I knew he was serious. Although he had very little sea experience it was obvious that he was committed and his mental and physical preparations were underway.

That is not to say that Simon and his mate Adrian were making a fuss, in fact I suspect that without a good cause to promote and support they just would have quietly gone about their preparations and launched with as little fanfare as possible.

So after a few months to hone skills and fine tune equipment they set off on a 600km open water paddle facing sea from every quarter, headwinds, landing heavy boats through surf and crunching out the miles when they really needed to.

The hardest part is often making the plan, setting the date and pushing your heavy boat off the beach. I reckon taking that first stroke on day one is a victory in itself because so much needs to be done before this can happen and it is always so much easier to find yet another reason to leave it until next year....

So congratulations Simon and Adrian! An open coastal voyage of this scale is a credit to you and one that you can always view with satisfaction,whilst raising money for a cause and taking a stand in support of victims of crime broadens the significance of your acheivment.

After a 600klm paddle you might be excused for thinking that Simon would want to give himself a break from kayaking? Not according to an SMS he sent yesterday in which he says:'''Keener than ever to paddle and increase my skill level"

For those who would like to know more about Simons and Adrains paddle or VOCAL (Victims
of Crime Assistance League) you can go to: the Manning Kayak Klan and/or the Hunter Kayak Klan websites

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Skill Session/Whale Cruise

Above: TJ and Whale checking one another out with North Head and Bluefish Point in the background. (photo by Matt Bezzina)

We are always trying to do a little something extra on the Tuesday night paddles.

It is one of the few groups I know of that goes out regardless of the weather and we work on skills, rescues and safety all year round. It is not uncommon to see a few upturned hulls as a wave of spontaneous rolling seizes the group. Within this group there is a rare sense of playfulness that co exists with a healthy respect for the sea. Sometimes we just paddle for the fun of paddling, other times we incorporate a group activity somewhere exposed to the prevailing wind, sea and swell.

This week for example, we decided to head out about .5 to 1 nm off Sydneys North Head in a gentle 10-15knot noreaster. As I looked around the group I realised that all twelve participants had a roll, re entry and roll and good support strokes.

At the agreed point offshore we split into pairs and one from each pair threw their paddle a boat length or so away from them, then capsized, tried to swim while still seated in their boat to retreive their paddle and then roll up. If unssuccessful they wet exited, swam leading the boat to the paddle and performed a reentry and roll.The whole time buddies waiting their turn were keeping a watchful eye and ready to lend a hand.

Some paddlers got it right the first or second time and all the rest managed a reentry and roll before they started working on personal skills in pairs.

Standard rolls, exotic rolls,hand rolls, sculling braces and a range of assisted and unassisted rescues followed when, suddenly, Matt let out one of his legendary blood curdling yells. By the time we had regained our composure we realised that this wasnt a shark sighting or any threat to our safety but instead, a very playful humpback calf having an afternoon frolic under the watchful eye of its very large Mum.

There is an unwritten law that whale watching takes precedence over skills practice and the group moved off following at a respectful distance in awe of one the finest shows of Whale acrobatics I have ever seen. It is a truly a joy to witness these huge and gentle animals launch themselves into the air with such effortless power and a sense of playfulness.

I consider sightings like this as one of the rewards of being competent and willing to extend your range. The better your skills, the more options you have to paddle at sea, and the more you paddle at sea, the more you see.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Surf Skills at Umina

I have often heard fellow Sea Instructors say:" if you can handle your kayak competently in surf, even easy to moderate surf, you can paddle in pretty much anything."
Obviously it is not hard to find conditions that exceed the easy surf; just sitting in your boat and dealing with the relentlessness of long days on rough seas for example.
Nevertheless, there is more than a grain of truth in this saying and surf sessions certainly stand out as a concentrated test of your ability to stay upright and in control.
In the surf you are tested by pulses of moving water, not just moving waves but moving water which is very different.
In the surf waves dont simply roll under you, if you arent decisive with your strokes they will very quickly take control of you. Kayaking in the surf is about learning to yield to the greater power of the waves without losing control of the boat.
For this surf day Chris James came along to assist and he quickly had the group assembled to go through safety protocols and some land based excercises.
As we held our paddles and checked body, boat and blade positions a passerby looked on in bewilderment, from their perspective we were just a bizarre assembly standing next to the carpark, dressed in rubber skirts and waving paddles in the air, but for the group it was a good start to the day and I enjoyed Chris's reveiw of technique and stroke corrections before we even hit the water.
With our land based breifing complete Sally, Karen and Tim followed Chris out through tiny spilling waves and headed North looking for the ideal practice waves i.e. not dumping in shallow water or close up against the beach

As this was a surf day for paddlers training for the AC sea skills award the surf had to provide some challenges and with the challenges come the usual risks of injury. We looked for a spilling break with enough size and push to make it realistic so I surfed in to assess conditions and assist from the beach while Chris offered advice and inspiration from his boat.

The tide changed and we moved further north taking on some bigger waves and the group managed well.
The surf was breaking in a very predictable pattern and into deep enough water to avoid unplanned impacts with the sand.

There were a few swims managed with good grace and composure, some heroic rolls (Karen's first ''in action") and some very tidy skills employed to catch waves and stay upright at all angles to the break. These included an impressive display of backwards surfing by Tim (Even though he denies it, I reckon he really looked like he knew what he was doing).

Usually we try to move into bigger waves later in the day but in this case we peaked just before lunch with ideal conditions right at he edge of the comfort zone and then moved back a notch in our wave selection for the afternoon session.

The whole group commented later how relaxed they were when we moved back to the easier waves. This got me thinking that this might be a strategy worth trying again especially with groups like this one that have already done a little surf work.
The selection of images featured in this blog were shot during this later session and it seems obvious that everyone is getting a slice of the action.

Above: Chris leads the charge.

Above: Karen prepares for the broach.

Above: Karen setting up for a ride to the beach

Above: Tim with stern rudder looking very relaxed.

Above: Sally punches out with 100percent commitment

Above: Karen drops her edge and keeps her brace compact.

After a long day we headed to the Patonga Pub for a coffee, a snack and a chance to relive some of the highlights.

There was the usual laughter and a few groans. It looks so obvious if you are edging the wrong way when you can see the video in slow motion, from a warm dry chair, while sipping on a latte.

I always feel a real sense of releif and satisfaction at the end a surf training day. Matching the conditions to the group and making sure the risks are managed is intense but very rewarding work. It is challenging to run this type of training but I beleive the lessons learnt promote safer and more independent paddlers. Ultimately there is no substitute for time in the boat in this high energy environment.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Beecroft Peninsula.... A Compact Adventure

I was sorting through some imges from the last few months to assemble a general blog and realised I had quite a few from the Beecroft Peninsula taken during a short break a in early spring.

The idea of a compact adventure close to home has a special appeal. It can be organised with a few like minded individuals at short notice. If you have the requisite skills then you just need a weather window and the comittment to make it happen.

If you choose the Beecroft Peninsula, the rugged scenery and sense of wilderness are just a few hours drive from Sydney.

I always enjoy sharing the Beecroft Peninsula with adventurous kayakers like Chris. This was his first paddle from Currarong into Jervis Bay.

With the sun setting and a few miles left to cover, we paddled harder, enjoying the light, the solitude and the anticipation of landfall. We were all ready for the companionship of our evening meal and a warm brew.

Chris off Point Perpendicular enjoing the same sunset as in the previous image but this time the light is reflected off the cliffs.
Images like this one taken facing over my shoulder are a reminder of how important it is to look around. There is more to see than the view beyond the bow of your kayak.
Matt considers running the gap between Drum and Drumsticks but only from a distance and only for a second. The photo shows wave action during a lull, on the larger sets the cliffs you can see in the background between the stacks were obscured by spray.
A heavy north east swell kept us out of the renowned caves, gorges and gaps.

Like Matt, I am drawn to the challenge of running the gauntlet. It is a bit about bragging rights but a lot about the raw energy and immediacy of the zone between waves and rocks. The smells, sounds and adrenaline are intoxicating and can easily blur your judgement if you are not careful, but on this day the swell length and direction left few options but to keep out of the white water.

Up close on a smoother day or out wide when the swell is working this is a superb paddle and a healthy and humbling experience.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spot The Paddler.

In moderate conditions the waves regularly obscure a clear view of paddling buddies.
Often I try to set up an interesting snapshot only to see my subject disappear.

Note how easy the bright coloured boat is to see in the shots above and below

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Broughton Island Day Trip.

(above) Ian approaching Esmerelda Cove with Looking Glass Rock in the background.
(below) Sharon leaving Broughton Island after picnic lunch and power nap.

The Plan was fairly striaghtforward, Paddle to Broughton Island in easing tailwind conditions, camp overnight, and pickup the afternoon sea breeze on the homeward journey the following day.
When Sunday dawned with pouring rain and a steady Easterly over 20knots we decided to take it easy and see what the day would bring. I called the local VMR and was advised not to go to Broughton because conditions were still stirred up from heavy weather the previous day.
After a short paddle from WindaWoppa we had a leisurley lunch at Shoal Bay and waited for the ebbing tide to ease a little and then headed out through deeper water around Tomaree and into the "conditions".
The group looked very happy in the waves that had been stirring up the fishermen so with weather on the mend we decided to tackle Broughton as a daytrip the following day and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon paddling in the rain and wind.
Ian off Tomaree heading out to point Stephens.

Anne pushing into a headwind off Fingal Spit

Sharon off the heads of Port Stephens

Gina looking happy to be out despite the rain.

The following day provided ideal conditions for an express trip to Broughton.

Gina arriving in Esmerelda Cove for lunch.

Ian off the jagged tail of Cabbage Tree island on the return leg.

We paddled in moderate seas on Sunday exploring the spectacular clifflines to the south of Port Stephens in a heavy overcast with squalls and rebound. The disappointment of not making the crossing was soon forgotten as we engaged with the drama of our surrounding
On Monday, our patience was rewarded with milder conditions and we squeezed the usual two day 46klm Broughton overnighter into a day trip with short walk and picnic lunch included.
We didnt explore the sea caves or clefts, mindful of the occasional large and unpredictable set and we kept a respectful eye on the weather.
By working with the conditions and seizing our opportunties we had covered a fair number of sea miles, attained our goal of an offshore crossing and left some exploring for another weekend.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

If the boat fits... wear it.

Imagine walking into a specialist outdoor store looking for walking boots and finding there are only two sizes. Then imagine asking why there are only size 9 and 13 and being told that these sizes fit "most people"(read large males). Finally imagine the helpful store person explaining to your smaller companion with size 5 feet that the size 9 is is perfect for her as long as she is willing to wear enough socks.

I think kayaks and shoes have a lot in common and no amount of closed cell foam and wishful thinking will make a small paddler feel connected in a medium to large boat any more than a dozen pairs of socks will make big shoes fit smaller feet.

A few years ago there really was no choice in Australia for smaller paddlers but to follow the "wear more socks" principle. With very few imports and a small market it made economic sense to build kayaks that suited the male dominated sport: i.e. expedition ready boats that performed adequately for medium to large men when empty. Unfortunately because everyone smaller than this would fit into these larger craft, it was assumed the boats fitted them.

Trying a boat for size:

  • It is possible to have too much stability. It is tiring to edge, maneuver and brace an oversize boat, particularly if there is so much initial stability that it prevents you from heeling the kayak easily and precisely. A wide boat that responds well for a heavier paddler with a high centre of gravity may simply simply feel like a barge to individuals shorter and lighter in the torso.

  • The Hip Test: When the boat is tilted the coaming and deck should not interfere with elbows or ribs. If you want to edge and roll the kayak you need to wear it so that the coaming is approximately aligned with the top of the hips.

  • Longer isn't always faster: Although a longer waterline equals higher potential speed this potential is only realised if you can produce enough power to overcome the drag generated by the extra wetted area. A scaled down boat may be a little shorter but the reduced waterline beam and wetted area will often more than offset reduced waterline length.

  • Weight: All other factors being equal, the lower volume (LV) boat will be lighter than standard or HV equivalents. Lighter boats accelerate faster on the water and are easier to handle off the water.

  • Beam: A reduced beam and height amidships allows shorter legs to engage the deck without straining into a very wide ''frog position". A narrower foredeck also allows a closer catch without overreaching, making it easier to roll as well as paddle.

  • Bulkheads: A scaled down cockpit area and closer spacing of bulkheads reduces the floodable area in the cockpit, and makes the boat easier to manage if it is swamped and easier to empty if it is capsized.

About 10 years ago with all this in mind and a complete lack of local options my wife, Sharon,
made her own plywood kayak: a ''Baidarka" built from plans that had been scaled down to give her a boat that would provide the same proportional fit as the larger composite craft that I had always found easy to paddle. Her boat control skills improved dramatically and she handled the challenging maiden voyage from Sydney to Jervis Bay in challenging conditions with new found confidence. These days there are options in the low volume market. Her regular kayak is an Impex Force 3 and she has her eye on an Avocet LV to add to the fleet in the future.

As sea kayakers have become more aware of the connection between boat fit and performance the number of LV models has steadily grown and new LV paddlers seem to be vindicating this move by learning faster and paddling better than ever before.

A spin off from the "Low Volume Revolution" has been the number of medium sized paddlers who have found these general purpose LV tourers make excellent play-boats. But, if you usually paddle a standard kayak don't expect any offers for a test paddle from the LV crew. They will be too busy ''getting amongst it" and won't happily sit on the beach watching you have all the fun.

Above: Sharon in her Impex Force 3; and below: Wendy in her Valley Avocet LV

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Keeping It Real

I believe that developing sea kayaking skills requires time on the sea, if you stay in the bay it's just kayaking.

Sometimes the best learning is "experiential" with the Instructor setting the scene, managing the risks and leaving the rest for the participants to sort out by engaging with the conditions. For this to work the sea state has to be challenging enough to demand the use of occasional support and control strokes: techniques that can seem irrelevant or contrived on flat water. For most paddlers these strokes just don't make much sense until you add moving water and some fresh breeze.

From an instructor's point of view there is a fine line between challenging conditions that raise skill levels and placing people in a fearful environment where they tend to lock up and only remember being frightened. To address this and make sure individuals could easily communicate how they were feeling I explained how everyone could rank their challenge/fear factor on a scale from one to ten with 0ne equal to sitting in the bathtub and ten being; ''get a helicopter out here now!''

So with the forecast for last weekend a little too big for our scheduled Beecroft overnighter I offered members of the NSWSKC an alternative day trip looking for whales in some lively conditions along the cliffs and exposed coast just south of Sydney. The BOM forecast for Sunday was for 3 metre southerly swells, winds south west at 15-25 Knots and seas 2-3metres (Winds and sea trending down slightly during the day).

As the group assembled at the edge of the sheltered waters at Bonnie Vale it was hard to believe that there was any wind but high up on the ridge to the south of Bundeena branches were bending and every few minutes the glassy waters would suddenly pile up and spilling waves would light up the location of sand bars as the larger sets of southerly swells bent around Jibbon Point and rolled up Port Hacking heading west toward Maianbar.

Everything pointed to an active sea state off the Royal National Park cliffs and with reports of large pods of Humpback whales heading close along this stretch of coast, expectations were high for a great day on the water.

As for the whales; we saw them spout, splash and breach briefly and sometimes they were quite close but the swell and sea made it hard to see them for long enough to snap photographic evidence, fortunately the paddlers were far easier to capture with the lens.

Sharon and Karen rounding Jibbon point heading into the wind. The RNP cliffs trend SW and offer little protection from SW winds.

Karen looking relaxed, holding position in the breeze.

From my sheltered position in a trough the waves look a lot smoother but Sharon looks very windswept as she climbs to the adjoining crest.

Gina seems to be enjoying the swells. You can just see the tops of the buildings behind Cronulla Beach in the background.

Gina with Albatross escort (top left) looks south along the Royal National Park cliffs toward Wattamolla with Wollongong on the horizon.

Sharon riding down the back of an oncoming wave.

By mid afternoon we were back at Bonnie Vale and the flood tide had taken some of the power out of the bay surf but there were still a few easy rides on offer. It takes a powerful southerly swell to keep things spilling this far inshore. (Above Matt Bezzina takes a well earned break from Sea leader duties.)

Owen relaxing in the zone and enjoying the responsiveness of his sporty new boat.

Special Thanks to Sea Leaders Matt and Owen for the their essential role in making this a safe and effective Day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tassie Training Weekend

When Greg Simson first extended a firm invitation to Mark and I to present training at this weekend I asked myself what we would have to offer such an independent and capable paddling community.

After Greg's reassurance that many members of the Tasmanian Sea Canoe Club were curious about different approaches to boat design, boat control and rolling, we put together a list of half day sessions based on generic principles such as ''torso rotation for power and injury prevention'' and ''edge control for manoeuvering and support''.

Our main aim was to invite paddlers with a wide range of skills and experience to test the techniques we have enjoyed learning ourselves. We also wanted to show how much fun you can have paddling your boat with the rudder up or rudder off.

As always we had the not-so -hidden agenda of promoting skeg boat paddling as a real and rewarding alternative...the way it is viewed in UK, Europe and North America.

I thought we were a bit cheeky considering that some Tasmanian Sea paddlers not only have a very strong claim to invention of the flip over rudder but often consider a boat without a rudder to be unseaworthy.
As it happened we were let off pretty lightly for our 'heretical views' and treated very well. In reality, this group reflected a national trend towards increasing diversity in equipment with Greenland, Wing and Flat blades all used side by side in boats that ranged from hard-core British tide-race boats and skinny ocean racers to beautiful replicas of Aleut and Inuit craft. Watching paddlers adapt the techniques we were presenting to different paddles and boats was fascinating and fun.

On the Monday morning I conducted a rolling workshop for some of the club's volunteer instructors and mentors. We looked at different skills-progressions and ways of supporting learners, and there was some interest in a number of the different warm up and pre rolling drills that I demonstrated.The club's senior paddlers had already decided to teach the sweep roll as the "club roll"and I thought this was a good choice that will allow a consistent approach so that future training can be shared with confidence. With this in mind we looked at variations to tailor for individual differences in flexibility, equipment and personal learning styles.
As with all good rolling sessions it concluded with all concerned messing around with different techniques, swapping ideas and generally having fun getting extremely wet and cold .

Fine food (including the best abalone I have ever tasted), great company and a real sense of community made this a weekend to remember.

On Tuesday morning I had to decide whether to enjoy a leisurely drive from Fortesque Bay to Devonport or paddle out to the magnificent rock formations around Cape Huay and risk missing the ferry home.

As you can see I made it out to the Cape and its many attractions and paddled through all the channels and gauntlets I could find.

The fur seal family guarding the gap between The Candlestick and The Lanterns escorted me through the slow surge and out into the sun on the other side, but they became progressively annoyed with me when I kept paddling back and forward to admire the views.

I arrived at the ferry terminal three minutes before they closed the ramp and as I caught my breath, I watched a lone paddler doing his afternoon workout around the Devonport dockside and I thought about the amazing contrasts we encounter as kayakers: whether it is training with a group of like minded individuals, a short blast around a familiar waterway, a detailed exploration of a rocky shore or a committed journey along a lonely coastline, paddling to the rhythm of the sea is good for the soul.

Thanks to Greg Simson for organising the weekend and the friendly people of the Tassie Sea Canoe Club for their open minds, companionship, hospitality, abalone and for sharing their ideas and paddling techniques with Mark and I.