Friday, August 22, 2014

Sedge Island

Last weekend I went on a cartop trip to Barnegat Bay. What happened was, my friend LB put together a trip under the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) banner, inviting friends from various walks of her paddling life, primarily whitewater and the Sebago Canoe Club. I met her on the one whitewater trip I did last year, but since we live in the same neighborhood we've kept in touch and she asked me along.

We cartopped to Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. This is a long barrier "island" the forms the northern stretch of land between the bay and the ocean. The inlet to Barnegat Bay itself is about forty miles south of Sandy Hook, a destination I know well.

I rode with local paddlers-about-town O & D. My first leg in this journey was to paddle my boat from Inwood to Pier 84, next to the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space museum, a retired aircraft carrier handing off midtown Manhattan.

D & O showed up later and we loaded all three of our boats on our car, then raced out of the city, down the highway, to the park. After introductions, we put in and paddled about a mile out to Sedge Island, our home for the weekend.

Boats Ashore, Argonaut in the Foreground.

The sun sets over the high deck.

The Big Sky.

Sedge Island is a combination research and education center, near the channel bisecting the bay. Our host, Bob, was a biology teacher who'd grown up and worked on he bay, participating in research projects and leading summer trips of students. We stay in a cabin powered by solar panels, with limited water. Generally, I woke and slept with the sun.

One of the ongoing projects involved protecting turtle eggs from predators. Interns would scout for eggs and move them to a caged area pretty well sheltered from predators. When the eggs hatched, the turtles would be nurtured before being released back into the wild.

Protected Turtle Hatchery.

The south porch - better described as the southwest porch - became our main congregating area.

The South Porch.

On our first night, we mostly unpacked and made dinner and learned about the island and each others' names. We were given a demonstration of bioluminescent jellyfish - little critters, the size of a child's hand, that when the water was stirred would spark off some light.

The next morning, the seagulls were OMG loud. I said we woke and slept with the sun, but Saturday morning it was the gulls what woke me up. I made coffee and walked about. Bob was fishing in the narrow channel in front of the house. Across the bay, we could see cloud formations swirling in the distance, a portent of things to come.

As people woke up we slowly assembled breakfast. We expected to be out a bit so had a big breakfast, figuring we could always snack and work it off later. After cleanup, we kitted our boats and Bob led us on a little tour of our environment.

Viewing the Osprey Nest.

This was mostly marsh, with channels cutting through wetlands; ducks, egrets, and wading birds were all on display. Osprey nests were on platforms in the middle. We could also make out oyster beds clinging to the mud in the channels.


We paddled on, eventually exiting and coming to a channel called Snake Creek. The tide was growing against us, surprisingly strong, and we eddy-hopped as much as we could until we reached a small beach near the inlet.

Ol'Barney, aka Barnegat Light.

The Broken Shore.

We saw the remains of a recent Army Corps of Engineers project. The idea was to drape a large canvas tub to block Snake Creek, fill it with sand, and allow a new topography to form. However Nature did not get the memo, and proceeded to flood over and the break the dike. We paddled over its remains the next day.

Later we paddled back over some shallow water. A few got out and hunted for clams.

Paddling Across the Shallows.

I took a stab or five at i but had no luck. Eventually I and about half the group gave up, landed, took a break and then some of us went out for a proper paddle.

D & O and I (that is, me) decided to go for a wee paddle across the channel and around Gull Island. We saw kiteboarder and plenty of  . . .gulls, as one might expect.

Paddling Out.

One thing that was a bit of a surprise was the traffic. On the one hand, we're bad-ass New York City paddlers, accustomed to the harbor and the ferry traffic, tugs and barges and the occasional cruse ship. What were weren't used o was the near-constant parade of recreational boats powering out or returning from the sea. Furthermore, the channel was narrow, but winding, meaning that it wasn't always clear which way or when a given boat was going to turn.

When we came back though, we had a nice surprise.


The hunt was successful!

While we'd been out, some of our party had grabbed proper clamming tools and gone out to scoop as many up as they could. Some were grilled, opening as they heated, and others served raw, on the half shell.

Later that night a handful of us did a night paddle around Sedge Island. We kept our lights off in order to better see the glowing jellyfish. It took a while but we spotted a few!

Meanwhile, most of our comrades went night crabbing. Apparently crabs are drawn to light. Shine a light and they'll walk right into your net. They caught a bunch and they were put in a bucket overnight to make crab cakes the next morning - but most escaped, and the last one was too cute to boil.

The next morning LB and I, along with a couple of others, went for a wee paddle before breakfast - before the traffic roared up, more importantly.

Cowgirl on the Water.

Cowgirl with LB.

After breakfast, we packed up and cleaned up. I'm happy to say I got all my kit into the Argonuat, with a little room to spare, which means I'm getting better at packing - though I did not have my tent, or expedition levels of food.

We took one more spin around the bay, again through channels, with some of us heading out to run along the channel, to the worry of our host. We're sea kayakers! We're meant to be in a bit of chop. The boat wake combined with the shallows made for a somewhat bouncy ride, but nothing terrible.

Anointed by the sun.

This was a great trip, and honestly something of a surprise. In the weeks leading up to it, I though, "boring sheltered flatwater", but it really wasn't. For one thing, the dramatic effect on shallows by the tide, changing the topography and creating unexpected eddies, was a surprise. For another, we had steady wind and a ton of fetch, which meant we had to do a little work and instruction on how to manage wind. The fabulous scenery and genuinely interesting ecology topped it all off.

Once we met up again, we finished lunch and then paddled back to where we put in, pulled out the boats and unpacked them, and said our goodbyes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Coach

The best, most consistent advise I've gotten from nearly all of my paddling instructors is: work with as many coaches as you can. Take what works and discard the rest. Learn not just paddling but teaching, organization, and communication styles. Teaching paddlesports is a bit like being a rodeo clown - you've got to be entertaining but also capable of ensuring the safety of others when things go awry.

So, I was surprised when, as I was taking my Sunday morning class out, one of the head coaches at the shop introduced me to a Brit, I'll call him G, from the UK. G is a multi-discipline coach at a county paddlesport center. The guy does this  for a living. On top of that, having started in the British (BCU) tradition, any coach from the UK automatically gets at least demigod status here in the US.

"He'll be joining you on the water."

"Do I need to do anything special? Am I being evaluated?" My local coaches have been known to spring surprises on me. My paranoia is not unjustified.

"No, just do your thing. He's there if you need him."

So of course, I proceeded to nearly ignore him the whole time. I couldn't think of how to introduce someone who I hadn't properly met. I did have an aside with him at one point to explain/apologize for my use of the environment - the wind was stronger than the current so I moved where we were practicing. Then, I struggled to find a way to manage two neophyte paddlers who barely had control of their boats for about an hour. Thank God the conditions were flat.

After the class, he joined us for lunch and after some chitchat about the local paddling scene, I got some good feedback from him. It echoes what I've been told before, but I got more affirmation of what I got right.

I was very organized, he said, and made good use of games. Overall the class went well. He suggested more discovery, even in the beginning - give them a problem to sole without any instruction, or pair them off with my assistants to ask questions, but my assistants can only answer yes or no. We also talked about the particular problems I had with each student: one just was not going to sit up straight, and the other was so worried about capsize it hampered his ability to learn. Matching boats to people is turning out to be one of the most important things an instructor can do!

Afterwards, we went for a short paddle. It was low tide when we left, and we only had a couple of hours, so basically we paddled north against a spring tide (a supermoon spring tide, I might add) to the Intrepid, an old aircraft carrier docked at 44th street that has been turned into an air and space museum (they have a space capsule hanging off the side). There is another paddle shop there, and we took a break before practically flying back with the current.

I got some good additional feedback there. I was telling him I was learning new games to try, including one called Follow My Leader, when *splash* -

"Uh oh," he said. "Your assistant's in trouble."

This particular assistant has been learning to roll, and practices whenever he can. Unfortunately he decided to do this about seventy yards out, and failed. He came out of his boat and I gave him an assisted rescue.

We tried some more rolls, and critiqued both his and mine. Then, it was time to go in.

It was a good opportunity to get some feedback from another highly rated coach. I've worked with a couple here in the US but they are few and far between. This guy was succinct and very clear, but also very positive. His coachismo, as I call it, was present but not overpowering. He had very specific points but did not belabor them. I felt like I learned more in half an hour of conversation than I have learned from days of paddling with certain other people.

The Old Men and the Sea

Teaching at the shop, we get all kinds of comers: young, old, couples, singletons, professionals seeking escape from the 9-5 grind, hipsters looking some something even more obscure to do. So, there's a bit more variety than when I teach in club settings. In the case of this past weekend, I had two students for our level one course. R was 60. P was 78.

Whenever you start a new student, especially beginners, it's a good idea to get their goals. R was simple: self-taught, he wanted to learn proper technique. P was a little hard to believe: he was going on a weeks-long trip to Alaska in two weeks, which inlcuded a four-day kayak camping component.

"Have you ever paddled before? Kayak? Paddleboard, canoe, even surfing."


Oh boy.

So from an instruction perspective, these two presented a couple of challenges. Both were new, and on the bigger side. P was so tall I put him in our widest boat, a Necky Eskia, which while stable also tends to track very, very well - meaning I had to teach him how to stop early on. R was not as big, but on the tall side. I took a chance and put him in a Chatham 17, my go-to fits-everyone boat. However, his experience was with wider, more stable boats, so while he fit the boat, he was not confident in it. This limited his torso rotation.

We managed to step through the class. I was a little nervous because a well-credentialed BCU coach was visiting on holiday and sat in on the class. He was very nice, not interfering at all, occasionally paddling off on his own, and he gave me great feedback at the end. Still, I was a little nervous at first, even though I wasn't being formally evaluated!

Since it was high tide when we started, I had us on the south edge, but the light wind from the north proved more of a factor so I moved us to where Pier 40 blocked most of it. Highlights, from my perspective, were that I had more activity and less of me talking - and at that, I probably still talked too much. However, using my assistants, in short order I had them paddling around the embayment in circles, then lanes, and then figure eights. I felt like I got the hang of demonstrating and then sending them out while I evaluated them, and then gave them individual and collective feedback.

P had a habit of leaning back all the time. Even when I got him to understand the value of sitting upright, I'd have to remind him. R understood things a bit better, but was nervous about capsizing. He also had shades and a mustache that made him hard to read. He was actually friendly and open to instruction when I talked to him, but at first he looked like an impassive drill sergeant!

Near the end, we took a little jaunt out around the Holland Tunnel blower towards Pier 26. The students got a taste of the river. R was willing to do a wet exit, which is optional at this level. We went back, and he capsized and I rescued him. Then we went in and called it a day.

The nice part: I got a tip, which I split evenly with my assistants. Also, one of them opted for a private lesson with me specifically. That was gratifying.

Rescues and Shepherding

This past weekend was a fair amount of rescues and instruction. On Saturday I taught a small rescue class at my club. 

It was small because, I think, the weekend before was pretty intense - the boathouse was in use nearly twenty-four full hours. People needed time off. Also, I gave short notice - just a couple of weeks - grabbing an increasingly rare open slot on my summer paddling calendar. Altogether I only had three students - which made it a cozy class!

This was good, because I was trying something new - a hybrid class on shepherding and rescues. I've decided this doesn't work, at least not for a day class. Even at three students I had to shortshrift both topics. I'll have dedicated sessions for each from now on.

I started with shepherding. I like that term better than trip leading, because I've seen too many people take trip leading into trip bossing. Sherpherding also connotes the actual responsibility of any journey: these are your charges, and you are responsible. Put another way, one of my coaches with a police background used a phrase from that part of his life: there are wolves, and there are sheep. A shepherd's guide is to protect the sheep - although most of the time the 'wolves' are the elements - wind, water, etc. 

So we talked about CLAP (Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance, and Position of maximum effectiveness). I used some simple props in the class to talk about various scenarios: what positioning would work, how to communicate and hand off problems or potential problems, and so on. One of my students is keen on radio communications, which are often impractical for paddling since you need two hands to paddle and one to use the radio. Line of sight, group awareness, and environmental awareness are more valuable than a radio in most situations.

Then, I handed out random secret roles and we went on a little journey, where each of the students was trip leader in turn. We had the fast paddler, the lost paddler, and the sick paddler. The last of these was so convincing that the trip leader though he was actually sick! We paddled north from Inwood into the Harlem river, coming back as the tide turned against us. I demonstrated belt tows and contact toes, including hand-on-deckline tows. I had the students try those as well.

Then, we did rescues. I started with balance exercises - sit legs out, then on the back deck, paddle around a bit, then get back in. Then we did scramble exercises: only one had trouble, and the rest commented on how a scramble was much easier than expected. 

We relocated to the north side of the river, which worked well in terms of depth and being very sheltered from the current, as well as river traffic. A Circle Line boat roared past us, creating little relative wake, and we had the depth we needed to capsize and rescue. We did paddle float rescues, both back deck and heel hook, and after one student had trouble securing her paddled, I demonstrated holding it against the coaming and using weight to help keep it secure.

With that, we ended the morning session, and two of them left for the day. After lunch, I worked with the remaining student on various eskimo rescues. What was interesting with her was how turned round she would get. She would find her stability (my boat or my paddle)and somehow reach for it behind her, practically somersaulting the boat length-wise in the process. I got her to get her support in front of her, and also to use her hip flick more.

The best part for me was, near the end, I had her spot me on my own work - and I finally got a re-entry and roll. It needs work, but at least I know for certain that I can do it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Paddled to Brooklyn Bridge Park today from Pier 40 - that's Houston street and the Hudson river for you landlubbers. With the nature of the tides, that meant we actually left Pier 40 against near-maximum flood tide, meaning it was nearly three knots against us.

It was hard work just to go south. We made it, getting around the ferry terminal at Battery Park City and taking a short break at South Cove. Then we continued on around Battery, towards Pier A.

There was a lot of chop. For one thing there was all that incoming tide glancing off the seawall of Battery. For another, there was enough traffic down there to generate waves that would bounce of the walls and hit is again. I took three foot waves abeam, quartering from all quarters, before, behind. With the tourists on the esplanade, I couldn't help but break into a reasurring song:

As I sit here today,
Many miles I am away,
From that place I pulled my pony through the draw.
Where the oak and blackjack trees,
Kiss the playful prairie breeze, 
Well I feel like in those hills I still belong.

Way down yonder in the Indian Nation,
Riding my pony on the reservation, 
In the Oklahoma hills where I was born.
Way down yonder in the Indian Nation,
A cowgirl's life is my occupation,
In the Oklahoma hills where I was born.

Well, I felt at ease.

Shortly after, we passed the New York Water Taxi, the Statue Cruises, and then we just had to wait for the Staten Island ferry to get out of our way. By then we were on the East River, where the incoming tide was in our favor.

We crossed over to Brooklyn, where we saw a class of sit-on-tops learning to paddle. After we said howdy, we paddled down to another pier and landed on a small beach. We made nice with the natives, who were setting up their kayaking program, and then to the Smorgasburg - a moveable feast/flea market that is near the Brooklyn waterfront on Sundays!

We had a lot to choose from. I had a small brisket sandwich, and an Arnold Palmer/Pineapple slushie - so good! We hung out and chatted, waiting for the tide to turn, and then launched and headed back on decidedly friendlier seas - if a tad boring compared to earlier.

First Class

I taught the first half of my first ACA class. I got my certification last year, but have only continued informal instruction and teaching at the shop on Pier 40. Last Saturday was a class that I organized myself, with support from the Inwood Canoe Club (boats, location, equipment).

I had seven students and one assistant. Conditions are tricky here because the Hudson river peaks at a current speed higher than what the level two curriculum dictates. However, a small marine offers sheltered water, and  organized the class around the slack period.

The first half was paddling skills; rescues will be next weekend.

After orienting students to where we'd be practicing, and going over boats and kits, we launched and I started with turn in place. I've had some debate with other coaches but I find this helps get torso rotation going. For new students, this is key. I tell them to remember that feeling, and we move into turns on the move: basically, sweep strokes. This is also useful when I move on to forward strokes and send them out and need them to come back - although I have another trick for that.

After that, we moved on to forward stroke. It was much easier having explained turn in place - same motion, just closer to the boat. I hd them paddle out, turn in place, and then come back. We did that a few times, and then I had them do figure of eight courses, turning one way, and then the other.

Then, to cap it all off, we did "follow my leader", where I secretly to every one of them to follow one other person. What started off as a disorganized mob quickly became a stable orbit as they lined up one after another. I broke in and told one of them to follow me, and eventually they all made it out of the marine, where we had a quick powwow and then broke for lunch.

Lunch went a little long. We ate out on the high deck. When we returned, we put one paddler in a different boat - the one she'd been in did not have good thigh braces. We launched and continued.

We started with braces. First, low brace. I had each of them try, both sides, only a couple at a time. Bracing is usually where students start to go in, and sure enough that happened. I rescued her, and we resumed, then moved on to high braces.

After that, draw strokes. Here, we split up, and I had my assistant work with half the group while I worked with the other half. I demoed an in-water recovery stroke first, and then the out-of-water recovery stroke. It's funny how this is such a hard stroke to understand, while it is so simple. We stopped at "good enough" and moved on to edging.

Edging is where we move the boat underneath us. I showed how it is different from leaning, and what to look for. After a demo, I had them buddy up and support each others' boats to see how well they could hold an edge. Edging is not strictly speaking L2 ACA - but it is so integral, I couldn't not show it. We got one capsize out of it but that was OK - she wanted to cool off anyway.

I was saving stern rudders for last, or nearly last, hoping enough tide would come in that we could paddle under the boathouse, but my timing did not match up with nature.

Last but not least, I offered up a choice: get wet, or fancy stroke. To my surprise, everyone asked for fancy stroke. I demonstrated a low brace turn, but it was clear that everyone's brain was full. The all basically stern ruddered with edge. And, that is OK. Low brace turn is a bit advanced for this crowd, and it was the end of the day.

We ended with a wet exit. All but one paddler had done wet exits in the river, so it was hear time. Minor problem though - we'd put her in a different boat, her friends' boat, and there were concerns over damaging it in a rescue. No problem, I thought - swap boats!

I popped my skirt and hopped on the back deck, then had her do the same, and get her into my boat. After some ritual procrastination, she went in, and my assistant rescued her.

With that, we returned to shore, cleaned up and put away. Feedback was good - both direct and indirect. Several members who passed my students as they were coming to the boathouse said they seemed happy and well-paddled.

I hope they retain things for next week! We'll review, and move on to rescues.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


After a long week, I wanted some simple paddling this past weekend. No commitments, no schedules to keep, no tides to make. I slept in, did some chores, paid some bills, and headed up to the Inwood Canoe Club, where I keep my boat.

I took it out, and went through some basic maneuvers - turning, turning on edge, running a slalom of buoys using edging as much as possible and paddling as little as possible. I played a game where I would paddle into a slip, then back out and turn backwards into the next slip, and then forwards out to the next, and so on.

Then I got to what I love most: sculling for support and rolling.

For the laity, sculling for support is basically moving the paddle back and forth horizontally for support. Done correctly, it allows the paddling to lean pretty steeply over, even practically capsizing before coming back up. I'm working on extended sculling, to lay on my back, sideways, without pitching over.

I've also got a solid, reliable roll. I worked on this quite a bit last year, and this year have gotten it nice and consistent, and I enjoy showing off in front of non-paddlers. I still have a lot to improve on, working on harder conditions and using my other side, but it's good - I can roll my boat.

Near the boathouse is a restaurant with open seating overlooking the river. There's also a small pier where people can enjoy the view, and sometimes fishermen perch there. I like to paddle out and show off so I did that - rolls, sculling for support, and so on.

After a while, I remembered there was another boat I wanted to paddle - a pretty boat, a Boreal Design Ellesmere, that is just my size. Paddling that boat is a dream - with hard chines, it holds an edge incredibly well, and turns on a dime. I did some more sculling, and some rolls, and headed back.

I decided to try some self-rescues. The tricky thing about this specific boat is that it has an ocean cockpit - meaning it is round, and a little harder to get into. I hopped out of the boat, floating in the water, and then scrambled back on. Then, I had to put my legs in.

I couldn't. At that angle, I basically needed backwards-facing knees. I would try to twist myself in and almost fall in - eventually, I did. I scrambled back on, and fell in again. Fine, I thought. I scrambled back, sat in the cockpit well with my legs dangling out, and paddled back to the dock.

I had a snack and then went back out in my boat. I paddled back to the pier. As I approached I saw some men shuffling out. A new audience!

As I approached, I notices some of them had reflective tape on the cuffs of their pants, and that their pants were held up with suspenders. A couple had collared shirts with badges on them, and I saw logos on the rest: FDNY.

A woman on the pier made a circling motion with her arm. One cue, I rolled.

I paddled closer. Now they were all lined up on the pier, looking in my direction.

"You aren't all here for me, are you?"

They all nodded.

"I'm OK. I just come out here to practice."

"Well could you practice someplace else," said one jokingly. Half-jokingly, as I thought about it.

"OK." I was feeling rather chuffed. I had actually moved someone to call 911 - which, is not a good thing, taking away resources. It wasn't my call though - I was perfectly fine. From now on I'll practice closer to the boathouse, or with friends.