Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Moving Targets

Oscar's comment on my last blog prompted me to write this as I have been asked this question about hand held and fixed cameras many times before. First let me confess to knowing very little about the technical craft of photography and relying heavily on the ingenious technologies built into modern waterproof compacts, especially image stabilisation and auto focus.
All my still shots from the kayak are taken using a handlheld compact camera. When you see a camera mounted on the foredeck in some shots it is there to capture video for the EK website or Mark's Vimeo channel, fixed cameras work pretty well for video.

By using a handheld camera I can quickly change my point of veiw and shoot from as high as my outstretched arm will reach all the way down to just off the surface of the water. I try to avoid too many bow shots except when I think it will create a sense of proximity to the subject or add interest in some way.

I have tried using continuos shooting modes with fixed cameras but have discovered that the boat moves far more than my head or my hand producing mostly blurred and poorly framed images. The exception being self portrait type shots that work with a fixed setup where the boat and I are moving at the same rate.

My motivation is always to try for images that convey something of how it really looked from the seat of my kayak on the day so I can share some of the beauty and drama that I encounter at sea.

In my efforts to capture shots that depict sea kayakers in action I have found the following to be helpful:

  • Try to watch the action (waves, wildlife, light shifts ) as they approach the subject and synchronise the shot based on what is coming into the frame rather than what has just happened.

  • Steady yourself in steep conditions by relaxing and letting your hips ride the bumps.

  • Use a one handed low brace to deal with breaking waves.

  • Occasionally I have to do a "camera roll" which always seems to get a laugh from my buddies and I think the fact that I am unconcerned about the potential for capsize means that it doesnt happen as often as it should and I can focus on taking the shot.

  • Experiment with lanyards that allow plenty of reach and then use a quick release just in case of entanglement.

  • Choose a camera that has a quick setup time and minimum shutter lag. (The Canon Powershot D10 and the new Nikon AW100 seem to be the best I have used in wet and wild conditions.
Finally remember that when you are taking photographs you are often breaking a golden rule by turning your back to the sea so keep a lookout and be alert for warnings from paddlers looking over your shoulder towards the incoming waves.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Matt and Fernando paddle backwards watching out for the big ones.

Matt and Fernando surf to seaward.

Fernando and Andre

Bouncy conditions

Froth and bubble

Steep ( spot the paddle and bow toggle)

As above

Along the coast at Dover Heights there is deep water right up to the cliff face. Add a fat easterly swell to a light southerly wind and you can find some interesting multi directional water along this stretch.

Local knowledge is invaulauble in a spot like this. Matt grew up living along these cliffs and most of the group have paddled here many times before. We know that, with the right combination of current and swell, there are a series of very predictable long shore rips that drain to the headlands at either end of this cliffy embayment and then out to sea.

Yesterday these factors allowed us surf the rebound and just generally bounce around at the base of the cliffs, cautiously confident that most of the wave energy was driving us away from the rocks.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sydney Noreasters.

The image above shows Chris and Bob clawing their way up the face of a solid wind driven wave.

The crest of this wave is about topple onto Chris whilst Bob sneaks past this one only to be "surprised" by a similar wave on the way home.

There is a sense of randomness about these toppling crests and sooner or later your brace, balance and composure will be tested in these conditions.

This photo was taken approximately 2 nautical miles due east of Bluefish Point in deep water. The observations from nearby Western Harbour Channel lighthouse and Little Bay AWS were both in the mid to high 20knot range for most of the day prior to and during the paddle providing us with a "developed sea".

The group of seven used a buddy system with a skilled rescuer in each pair and the group leader was a free agent to oversee the group. VHF protocols were implemented and radios used. Full safety kit was carried and the rescue and self rescue skills of the senior paddlers were tested and current. A float plan was lodged with a reliable land contact. With all these precautions in place the group were able to challenge the skills of the less experienced members without running out of resources.

A couple of rescues, rolls and one very important high brace saw the group safely back inside the harbour before dark - an exhilirating afternoon made possible by our teamwork and mutual respect for the sea.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

High Brace, Low Brace, No Brace.....

All too often a brace is a brake, a defensive drag against the water and a sure fire way to slow down, and yet ironically some paddlers try to apply it at the exact moment they are wanting to go faster.

The "No Brace" is simply my way of describing the technique of not responding to acceleration or directional drift with a defensive stroke. It is a bit like learning not to hit the brakes when your car loses grip and starts to slide on a wet or icy road. As in the car analogy, sudden deceleration tends to make the impending loss of control into an inevitability.

The first step in developing a good No Brace is to to sit on the shore before your next paddle in following seas and challenge yourself not to drag the blade behind you in a trailing brace to hold your line. Instead, when you feel a wave lift you and the boat starts to slide, just keep paddling, try to take off very square to the steepest part of the wave and only use sweeps, edges and forward strokes. When your experience tells you to hunker down with a trailing brace or rudder ignore it and put in a big sweep on the other side, instead of being defensive, focus on staying in control by maintaining drive!

The ''No Brace'' could also be described as the "body brace" in that you can brace against the heeling force of a wave with your hips or even hips and knees and simply maintain a good stroke. Remember to be patient, despite the car analogy above, course corrections take time in any boat, and you may have to wait a second or two for the edge to bite or the sweep to take effect.

An interesting technique in developing a good No Brace is to paddle abeam to trains of short steep, closely spaced overtopping waves on a windy day in an area of short fetch like a wide bay, see if you can paddle a perpendicular course without using the paddle as a crutch, use only sweep and forward power strokes while you do all the bracing with your hips and knees. Your cadence will need to change so you can meet the oncoming crests with a good strong catch and some of your strokes will have to be carefully placed over the high side gunwale, and timed so as not to trip you up, but the emphasis on bracing without having to stop paddling is a valuable skill to acquire.

When your "no brace" is working well you will get those extra couple of valuable strokes in at the take off point in a running sea instead of putting on the brakes. Even when rudder strokes become unavoidable you need to keep them crisp and decisive, feel for a blade angle that moves the stern without hauling on the brakes and creating excess drag. An effective stern rudder looks and feels very different to a heavy trailing brace and in a running sea will often get you back on line in the time it takes to make one forward stroke.

The less you use the stern rudder, the less you need it and linking rides by building up speed from consecutive waves will get easier. As a novice sea paddler I can remember being a lot busier than my more experienced mentors especially in following seas and then I learnt the "No Brace"; real life proof that "less is more".

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Down Hill Paddling

Below is a scrapbook of images from this weeks Tuesday night paddle from Watsons Bay to Malabar. A brisk Northerly gave us a steady push and multiple runners combined with the stunning evening light to make the car shuffle worthwhile.

(above: Paul digs deep)

(Above: Rae directing traffic)

(Above: Wendy leads the way)

(Above: Gary contemplates)

(Above: Shaan chills out)

(above: Paul in the fast lane)

(above: Rae in top form)

(above: necessary deck clutter)

As we surfed along the coast I occasionally caught a glimpse of car headlights along the beachfront or a TV set flickering through the window of a clifftop house and I was struck by the contrast - our small group out among the wilderness of swells and waves while the vast human energy of Sydney kept humming, oblivious to the other world just beyond the line of cliffs and beach breaks.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lesson on a stick..

In the warmer months I look forward to spending some time with all three types of paddles enjoying many styles of kayaking.

For exercise I like the solid grip of the wing and the feedback it provides you about catch and rotation. The wing is uncomprimising power.

For all round boat control my flat "euro" blade feels superb, allowing fast linking of sweeping, slicing and power strokes. My favourite all rounder for rock hopping, guiding and surf. If there is manouvering to be done the flat is so versatile.

The Greenland stick is so quiet in the water it is clearly my stealth blade of choice and wonderful for support and rolling strokes. It is very tactile and generates lift that can be harnessed for many purposes.

The simplistic myths of the "weak greenland stick", the "brutal flat blade roll" and the "joint destroying wing" are surely behind us and need no further refutation. Let's just say that in each of these crude stereotypes the problem lies with poor technique or understanding rather than equipment.

In my paddling world I am wary of dogma, I don't choose to become an advocate for one style of paddling or one style of paddle because I don't have to. Besides, the principles of good body mechanics remain the same no matter what you have in your hands. If you are happy with your paddle of choice, and you are neither critical of others or curious by what other paddles may have to offer, then this challenge is probably not for you and I have utmost respect for whatever your choice.

On the other hand, my challenge to the zealots is to try the other blades regularly and develop an understanding of why they have succeeded. If you can use all three with a reasonable level of competence then you are in a better position to decide whether you would still really rather chase running seas with a stick, do the reverse sweep roll with a euro blade or rock hop with a wing.

Obviously we might often combine rolling, touring and rock gardening all in the one day so there is a need for realistic comprimise and I respect that we may have different priorities in choosing the right paddle for us.

From the elegant simplicity of the stick to the advanced geometry of the wing I feel there is much to learn by keeping an open mind. If you want to understand the appeal of other paddles and styles try paddling a ski with a stick, greenland rolling with a euro and surfing with a wing.

These have all been done before with varying degrees of success and high degrees of fun.

If you approach these "left field" challenges with an open mind you will not only learn why all these paddles have their niche; you will also learn about your ability to adapt to the improbable and discover that it doesnt pay to take yourself or your favourite style of paddle too seriously.

Every paddle requires different techniques. To adapt to any boat-paddle combination is to learn about yourself and that is why I see each of my paddles as "a lesson on a stick".

Sunday, July 31, 2011

North Reef Atoll

We arrive at North Reef with the last colours of dusk, the surf sounding ever more alarming as it works against the fringing reef. With a heavy break to starboard we probe the lee hoping dearly for a gap before we reach the waves that are wrapping around from the other side and obscuring our horizon to seaward. I take a mental snapshot of Chris just outside the impact zone slipping off a large hollow wave that is about to wash through sharp tendrils of coral.

Smiles all round as a clear lead opens up, there is the occasional convergence of waves reunited after travelling the island perimeter from opposite directions but they have spent most of their energy in the process and collide without force. Our boats grind up onto the beach under the darkest of starlit skies.

North Reef ; the namesake of our mini expedition and a convenient turning point for the return to the mainland, is not even an island. Some historical photos show the light house completely surrounded by water with no land around it, others show terra firma but no vegetation and yet others show a very different landfall to the tiny vegetated haven I walk around at first light with camera in hand, trying hard to capture the essence of this wild and beautiful place.

On the south east shoreline, just above the high water mark I find a rusted cable and stout anchor post; evidence of a system of huge guy lines that helped steady the light tower during heavy weather when it sat totally exposed on the coral crest and I wonder how the men who worked on this lighthouse without families and friends felt about North Reef?

The historical record contains the sepia image of a weather beaten lighthouse keeper alongside the following inscription neatly carved in a plate of whalebone:

"North Reef Atoll

No beer Atoll

No Women Atoll

Nothing Atoll."

Was this all they felt for their place of voluntary exile? Or was their lonleliness tempered by moments of awe and feelings of inner quiet like those I enjoy on my morning exploration?

North Reef is nothing without the movement of the waves, the waves are its creator and its reason for being, the lighthouse an enduring signpost on the frontier between deep ocean and the vibrant life cycle of the inner reef.

For me "nothing atoll" is a place of energy and abundance, but then again, its easy for me to savour this idea as I pack my boat seeking another landfall before the next ebbing tide.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Confessions of a Bad Blogger

Reading through many other blogs I am fascinated by the level of self cosciousness and introspection required. It seems like the great skill in writing a blog is in writing a lot about very little and frankly when I sit down at the end of another day of rich and diverse paddling experiences I am overwhelmed; I simply dont know where to start and yet I feel that same urge that all bloggers possess - that desire to share something about myself with an often unknown audience.

Today was a wonderful day to be on the ocean, the sky was heavy with serious clouds and the swell had some real weight behind it, the ancient sandstone cliffs of Sydney framed the seascape and concealed the city from veiw creating an illusion of remoteness to add extra drama to the heaving sea. I have no images except those in my minds eye, the camera stayed in my pocket as an open water novice deserved my constant attention.

The last month has seen me often sit down to write a blog about the many and varied places have paddled and the people with whom I have shared the delights of kayaking on the sea, and yet the words never seem to do justice to what really happens.

There was a wonderfull long weekend on the North Coast running Kayak surfing workshops with fellow instructor Karen Dallas and the simple pleasure of watching the smile on paddlers faces when they found themselves carving and sliding on the perfect little waves of Arrawarra Headland.

The deep heavy troughs off Sydney heads with Matt, Shaan and Ian very focused, and cheers all round when Ian rolled saving a tricky rescue in conditions that Matt (a known rough water enthusiast) later rated among the biggest he had ever paddled.

Surfing sow and pigs reef in the middle of Sydney Harbour and watching a refracted swell steepen and obscure a passing manly ferry and the south head lighthouse before engulfing me in a wall of whitewater.

The personal challenge of Greenland rolling at the pool with "the splinter group" - improving my dexterity by solving three dimensional puzzles upside down, underwater and on one breath.

Idyllic calms off Little Beecroft with a group of NSWSKCs best leaders as we push home into the sunset after an afternoon of rescues in rock gardens and wave washed ravines.

Serious training for the North Reef Expedition and the comraderie of planning and preparation.

The many hours of coaching groups and individuals in waves and calms, surf and rocks, sharing the many facets of sea kayaking and respect for the sea.

Maybe one day I will spend less time on the water and more time in front of the computer perfecting my blogs, arranging images and writing in depth technical analysis but then again.........

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sea Kayaking Around the World.

The languid twilights of summer have passed with their welcome afternoon sea breezes and temperamental southerly outbursts.....

......and with the passage of the seasons have come shorter days on the water and time to catch up on all those neglected blogs I meant to write.

From around the country and around the world paddlers of renown and enthusiasts alike have visited to enjoy our beautiful City with its rugged coastline and gentle harbour.

Just before Christmas, local hero Stuart Trueman took the afternoon off from his circumnavigation of Australia to paddle with us for the afternoon, even though it meant paddling the same stretch in the afternoon that he had just finished in the morning.

This year Ginni Callahan made a return visit to inspire and challenge with her engaging style, valuable insights and personal flair on the water.

One of Ginni's paddling colleagues, respected Dutch coach, Axel Schoevers joined her to present some excellent boat control courses with an emphasis on finesse and water feel. Mark and I had a very entertaining paddle along the cliffs with him and caught a few nice waves on the point break at Fairy Bower.

As there are so few other people in Australia who make a living out of Sea Kayaking it is valuable for me to just share ideas and talk about different approaches with other professional instructors like Ginni and Axel.

It is also rewarding to see that the exchange cuts both ways with Axel enjoying some different sea conditions and the occasional big surf ride that he assures us is hard to come by in Holland. Ginni and Axel also developed a real liking for the local Aussie sailing rigs and they plan to share the joys of lightweight sailing rigs beyond our shores.

Tsunami Ranger Captain, Jim Kakuk was also in Sydney. He is a quiet legend with a very different approach to kayaking. Jim has a strong preference for the wash deck kayaks that he and his team have pioneered. After a short paddle to The Gap we had a long chat over lunch about the evolution of these craft and the Tsunami Rangers philosophy on the sea, skills and safety.

Hot on the heels of Aussie adventurer Sandy Robson who came to Sydney to research the first leg of her voyage to re trace the Epic journey of Oskar Speck was German author Tobias Freidrick. He was also here to research the Speck archive for his upcoming book.

Whilst in Sydney Tobias visited the Australian Maritime Museum, and travelled to the central coast where Oskar lived for many years. Over dinner at Doyles it was fascinating to hear what Tobias had discovered during his visit and at Watsons Bay the next day he spent a morning with local enthusiast, Peter Osman checking out folding, segmented and hard shell kayaks.

As you can probably tell I value these exchanges of ideas and techniques with paddlers from far and wide so I was delighted and honoured when the formidable Sean Morley, who featured in "This Is The Sea 2" invited me to attend San Francisco's Golden Gate Sea kayak Symposium 2012 as one of the Instructors. It is going to be very different instructing in such an unfamiliar environment but, frankly, I can't wait.

We have some very fine coastline and some excellent paddlers but regardless of who you are and how well you paddle there is always so much to learn and so many ideas to share. So if you want to leave the warmth of a Sydney summer and head for the cool waters around the Golden Gate Bridge next February then check out the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium site and the enthusiastic blogs from last years attendees. It looks like a brilliant event.
Registrations will open soon and it would be nice to see an Aussie contingent and a few familiar faces amongst new friends on the other side of the world.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bass Strait: First Woman Solo Crossing.

It was great to receive one last update text from Shaan Gresser on Friday the 25th February to confirm that she had safely arrived at Little Musselroe Bay and in so doing, became the first woman to kayak across Bass Strait single handed.

Last year when we discussed her preparation for the solo trip I asked her whether it might be a "first". She just shrugged her shoulders and made it obvious that this was not even part of her motivation for making the crossing. For Shaan, the freedom of travelling on her own and the opportunity to explore the wild and beautiful Islands of Eastern Bass Strait were the key attractions.

Shaan rightly recognised the precarious nature of solo paddling and set out to make herself as safe and self sufficient as possible through solid training, good technique and detailed research of the Straits. Although lacking the brute strength of some other paddlers, Shaan made up for it with fitness and attitude. In the months leading up to the crossing her increase in speed had many wondering what was driving her and now they know!

Shaan's success is a reminder of what we can acheive if we commit ourselves to a challenge and keep a clear sight of our goals. Her trip should inspire many of her peers who have the ability and the desire. I am sure many will ask themselves why they shouldn't be next and hopefully they will pull out the maps and start planning.

Congratulations Shaan.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stuart Can Do It - Stuart Trueman's Biggest Adventure Yet

Many years ago I can remember sitting on the beach at North Era and reluctantly deciding to join the rest of the group portaging all our gear and boats about a kilometre over a steep hill and muddy track to South Era to avoid an almost impenetrable surf that had built up overnight. I say "almost" because Stuart Trueman was already sitting out the back.

With a minimum of fuss, he had paddled straight through the whole horrible mess. An air of dread descended among the so called "hard men" who were still back on the beach. Discretion was no longer an option and boats were readied for the challenge. (So much for the non competitive nature of sea kayaking!)

A paddle was broken, backs strained and egos battered but ultimately the rest of us walked to South Era. From that day forward I realised Stuart was a pretty unique and focused character.

As I watched him paddle into Watsons Bay many years later nothing had changed except the challenges just seemed to be getting bigger. Given the sheer scale of his present undertaking and the distance he has achieved already, it was great to find his dry wit and good humour intact.

It was a highlight of recent evening paddles to have Stuart as our special guest and a real privilege to buy him a beer. In return we got to hear his understated but at times chilling account of paddling the big cliffs at night and trying to land through heavy surf only to discover undercut rock platforms where he had hoped for sand.

Stuart's respect for the achievements of others separates him from most others at the sharp end of the kayaking world. On numerous occasions I have seen him listening to vivid accounts of more modest adventures with the same genuine keenness as he would if he were comparing notes with peers. Then again he has so few equals in the sea kayaking world that these exchanges are probably an important means to remind Stuart that there are many people from a pretty broad demographic in the paddling community who share his passion for open water adventure.

I think Stuart is refreshed by these meetings with paddlers experienced enough to grasp the enormity of his project. To sit around a table with people who at least speak the same language of sea kayaking, must be very reassuring when compared to the chance meetings with so many strangers who, despite their good intentions, know nothing of kayaking and just keep asking WHY? or even worse, dismiss his efforts as "madness".

Stuart left Sydney on Wednesday. I paddled with him for a while as he eased into the steady pace that has pushed his kayak to so many wild and wonderful places. As I watched him disappear along the cliffs of North Head I realised that regardless of where I was over the next 7 or 8 months I could be pretty sure that Stuart would be out there clocking up the sea miles heading for Broome and planning his next adventure.

Owen, Bill, Mark, Rae, Stuart, Wendy, Matt and Brett off Diamond Bay.