Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Winter Troupe

It was cloudy, nothing but clouds overhead, with predictions of 100% rain in the afternoon. "Cats and Dogs," said the trip leader, "this afternoon all hell will break loose." We planned to be back before then. With almost no wind, today was going to be a good day for a trip north, practicing skills along the way. This was a trip out from the shop at Pier 40, with two clients and three coaches.

We left about two and a half hours after high tide at the Battery, meaning we'd have mostly slack on the way up - a good way to gauge un-assisted speed of our students.

Just north of Pier 40, on the right edge of photo.

Paddling north was fairly uneventful; it may not have looked like it but it was a brilliant day. With almost no wind, and little traffic, we could practice some of the more fiddly stokes, like hanging draws and draws on-the-move.  Our clients worked on edging and bow rudders.

Sauntering past Pier 76, or about 36th street.

It was a relatively warm day for winter - air temperatures in the high 40s. The water temperature was 47 - cold, but not terrible to touch.

Nonetheless, we did not see a lot of riverfront pedestrian traffic, just a couple of fishermen.

Circle Line terminal, around 40th street.

On the calendar this was a trip to the Intrepid, NYC's retired aircraft that is now an "air/sea/space museum". The giant box on the deck is temporary cover for a space shuttle. I made my usual joke about it being the one with low miles.

The Intrepid, viewed from a kayak on the river.

Since our group was doing well speed-wise, we pressed on to Pier 96, only a few blocks further north, past the cruise ship terminals.

Pier 96 Embayment.

We took some water and took in the view before deciding to head back. By the time we were heading out, a thick fog had rolled in, and hose with lights switched them on.

Then came the rain.


It came hard, pelting our boats and even the water rather loudly. I pulled up the brimmed hood of my drysuit. The rain wasn't bad; wind would have been worst. It lasted about ten minutes, and both the rain and the fog rolled away by the time we were past the Intrepid.

Tailgating, Kayak-style.

On the back we had our students practice edging and using edging to steer their boats. One of them had a habit of stern rudders to keep straight, and the other would do a sort of reverse-sweep/pry move that just completely killed momentum. Edging is a great way to make course corrections on the move, while still propelling the boat forward.

Actually, edging is good for a lot of things. That is just one of them.

Almost back.

When we got back to the Pier 40 embayment, we didn't go straight in. These guys are signed up for a rescue class later this winter, so we're taking as many opportunities as we can to let them practice. That requires a victim, and so the trip leader (who is also the head coach) asked me if I was prepared to get wet.

Well, I had been on the fence about attempting a roll, but sure, this cinched it.

We picked a rescuer, and I did a roll. The water was noticeably cold, and when I came up, I needed a moment to let the ice-headache effect wear off. It's only going to get colder, and I have a goal of rolling in the Hudson at least once a month this year. I'm building up a tolerance.

With that out of the way, I capsized and exiting the boa. My rescuer came over and performed a pretty decent rescue, talking me through a heel-hook. At one point, hanging on to the stern of his boat, I made a semi-faux grimace at the cold to one of the other coaches, but indicated I was OK. I have learned that its better to float my entire body on the surface. Among other things, the water is warmer than five feet below!

After talking though improvements he needed for the rescue, we had that student go in and the other rescue him. The main note for both was paddle management, and also boat control - using deck lines to dump, right, and put the boat where it needs to be for the rescue as quickly as possible.

I'll tell you, speed is key when the water is cold.

I went in one more time for the lead instructor to demonstrate a good rescue. After that, we were done - a good thing because I was ready for hot tea.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Drysuit Paddling

The first thing I feel is the impact of the water. If I'm perfectly lined up it's on my shoulder; if not, I take it on the cheek, cool brackish water slapping me in the face.

Then I'm under, and I feel my drysuit crinkle around me, air rushing to my arms and legs. I pull myself over and then sweep myself up.

Or, if I'm practicing re-entry and roll, I'm out of the boat, my feet in the cockpit while I sort my paddle, my legs inflated with whatever air was in the suit, and then I take a breath, stuff myself back in, assume the position, and roll on up. After than I'm sitting in six inches of water and wondering if I should even bother wringing my hair out.

At the shop, some of our students and other clients bought drysuits and have asked to continue paddling into the winter. So we've had a gradual introduction to drysuit paddling. For the record, the water temperature has been in the 50s Fahrenheit and dropping, yesterday 54 F.

Here are my observations.

Entering and Exiting the Suit: It's important to check and double-check all zippers; it isn't difficult to leave that last half inch open. Be sure to grab and hold open the gaskets and not just poke through them. Absolutely bilge the suit of internal air, not just before going out but every couple of hours if possible.

We had one student who, on a wet exit drill, could not get completely over because he had so much air in his suit. This made getting out of the boat difficult, flopping around like a fish until his legs were free.

Range of Motion: Drysuits allow for a range of motion, but do make the paddler bigger all around. I have to adjust my PFD sizing when I go to the drysuit, and I feel like I fill my boat more than I do in the summer, wearing only sandals and rash guards. I notice this the most getting in and out of the boat.

Temperature Management: This might be the biggest topic so I'll give it several grafs.

First of all drysuits keep you dry; they do not keep you warm. A drysuit is essentially a Ziploc bag shaped like a person, or a drybag for people. To stay warm, wear layers underneath.

One challenge in this part of the season, and in early spring, is that the air and water temperatures are very different: yesterday the water was in the 50s but the air was in the 30s, low forties by the time we were on the water. In the spring it's the opposite: the air warms up to the 60s but the water is still in the 50s, leading people to underestimate the potential risks.

On top of that, being on the water, and immersion in water, tends to be colder than street weather. Without protection, humans lost heat twenty-five times faster in water than in air. Even fully layered and in a drysuit, that water felt colder than the air did on land yesterday. Even out paddling, the proximity to water, with exposure to the wind, makes it feel colder.

Last weekend, one of the other students felt overheated as we talked through the float plan in the cozy confines of the classroom. He disappeared for a bit and, as we learned later, stripped down to his trunks. When he capsized later, he felt it. He was not in long enough for it to be debilitating but he was longing for his layers.

Second of all, drysuits work in both directions: as you paddle, you're going to sweat, and that sweat isn't going to leave the suit. So, however many layers you wear, you'll want to make sure you've got something that will carry that moisture out away from your body. Most athletic wear does this, and drysuit manufacturers have their own lines of products meant specifically for this in drysuits.

What you want to avoid is a scenario like the following: It's cold, so you dress warmly. You paddle for an hour, and then the day turns sunny. Now you're hot and sweaty and beginning to wonder if the drysuit was overkill. Then you stop for lunch, clouds obscure the sun, and now you're cold and clammy until you start paddling again.

So, layers: stay warm, manage moisture, and practice gradually.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cold Water Paddling

I sent an email to my club recently about cold water paddling. Given we're expecting a blast of cold this weekend, I figure I ought to cross-post here.

A lot of risks can be mitigated with a cautious float plan, gentle conditions, and going out in a group. Being able to self-rescue and rescue quickly help too.

You want to dress for the water, but be aware of what’s going on in the air as well. Once you’re wet, a steady breeze will chill you. Keep a paddling jacket handy just in case it gets wet and it’s windy. 

Bring hot tea in a thermos that will keep it hot. Future you will thank present you. Hot chocolate is good too. 

You lose body heat about 25x (twenty-five times) as fast in the water as you do in the air. So, if the water temperature if 56 degrees and it takes you two minutes to get back in your boat, imagine wearing what you are wearing if you stood outside for about an hour. Next, imagine being wet afterwards, losing heat at your normal rate.

Wear synthetic materials or wool. Wear layers. Start with something that will wick up sweat underneath, with additional material in the middle, and a windproof shell as your outermost layer. Bring spare clothes to change into later, either optionally or as necessary.

If the water temperature is:
  70s F  - rash guard; swimsuit
  60s F - neoprene or similar insulation
  Below 62 F - wetsuit
  Below 50 F - drysuit

Drysuits keep you dry; they do not keep you warm. You will need to layer up underneath it just as you would for a walk in the park.

I get cold pretty easily so I end to progress sooner; your mileage may vary. I switch to a drysuit sooner because 1) I have one and 2) it simplifies everything. 

The water temperature last night at Battery was 55 F. After Thanksgiving it will probably drop below 50F, then to the mid-thirties in January and February, and not above 50F until the very end of April. The anecdote is that there are more cold water incidents in April than any other month because the weather is nice, but the water is still crackin’ cold. Even in June it’s in the mid-sixties.

There is no reason to be afraid of cold water paddling. It’s quite nice and a nice contrast to summer. Safe paddling is all about risk management. Use your judgment, learn from others, and build experience. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Visitor

I was surprised when I read the email: Coach Gordon Brown will be visiting New York Kayak Company Saturday afternoon.

The best advice I've gotten is to work with as many coaches as possible, take what I like and leave the rest. That said, Gordon's pretty well known and highly regarded, running a shop on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He coached a couple of my coaches, and has an excellent book and DVD series. If you're into sea kayaking, you've probably heard the name.

Several people showed up and we settled in to hear the great wisdom of this world-renowned instructor. The first thing we did was learn a little eskimo song and dance:

We gathered in a circle.
We learned the words, presumably in Inuit.
We hunched over and passed our hands from our knees, o our neighbor's, then back, then our other neighbor's.
Then we learned more words, repeated the motions, grabbing our nostrils and alternating left and right earlobes.
The we did it all again and adding some folding arm motions.
At the end, we jumped at the ceiling.

Wisdom received, we watched a slideshow about paddling in Scotland, and had some Q&A

One bit I was happy to hear about: how to encourage a student who has hit a plateau. This is an actual challenge I've been working on for about a month now. Gordon gave me something to try - more tools for my toolkit, as they say. We'll see how it works out.

It was great fun, and the first time I've seen some of my paddling friends in months. As the winter months creep in, I'll be thinking of Scotland and, perhaps, one day paddling around some stacks and muirs myself.

Winding Down

While things have slowed down a bit this month, the paddling season isn't over. I've had a couple of my regular 1-1 students out this month - in conditions that raised their cackles but ultimately gave them a bit of confidence. At least, I think that's what happened!

The past couple of weekends have featured a fair amount of wind coming from the west. On two separate occasions I took a student over the the Pier 26 embayment after a quick lap to ensure they were comfortable in the wind. Wind has a major effect on kayaks, generally catching the back and turning the boat towards the wind. So, for these students, having gotten good at turning the boat with sweeps and edging, this was an opportunity to practice the same when Mother Nature was being less agreeable.

They noticed that it was harder to turn away from the wind, but easier to turn to. When the wind picked up, or if ferry wake brought in higher waves, they got a chance to feel the boat broach a bit and either help or hurt their turning. This made for good fun on some of the edging practice too, though neither went in the water.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


The last trip I ran out of the shop was a mixed group. What happened was, a couple who had a gift certificate from mom signed up for a trip, and then a visiting Norwegian signed up as well. I was the only guide on at that time so we put them both together.

Not for nothing but the girl half of the couple and the Norwegian had similar-sounding names, so at first we thought they were the same person.

The Norwegian's experience warranted a Tiderace instead of a Chatham. The thing about Norwegians is, they know what cold water paddling is and they're generally a cut above the typical turista. Mind you, they aren't always amazing paddlers, but they are generally competent paddlers.

So we went across. The couple was a little nervous but after their first wake wave settled in. One was a bit slow, so I kept them all together as we crossed the Hudson. We arrived at Morris Canal, paddled in a bit, and I pointed out the sights before turned around back.

Going back was a bit slower owing to less current. We did stop a couple of times to outwit traffic - the least of which was a large cruise ship which we let pass before even beginning to venture out. On the way back, following seas made for some nice faux-surfing for our Norwegian friend.

It was a simple trip, but it's easy to forget how fantastic simply being out in the lower Hudson can be for our clients. Everyone was amazed, seeing the city from a completely different angle. This is particularly true for people from out of town. They've getting a vacation, and an unusual paddling destination!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


By now I've gotten used to the paddle out to the upper East River, but I haven't explored all its nooks and crannies. One in particular beckoned me: I wanted to see how close I could paddle to the Worlds Fair pavilion in Queens. That meant a trip to Flushing Bay.

Flushing is an Anglicization of the Dutch Vlissingen, the colonial name for the area from the 17th century. Part of Queens, it's just east of Laguardia airport and Rikers Island, west of the College Point and Whitestone areas of Queens, on the south side of the upper East River.

I paddled with my friend TS. The general plan was a variant of the Throgs Neck plan: leave before high tide at Battery to ride the current down the Harlem; cut through Bronx Kill and shoot out past Rikers Island, but make a right turn into Flushing Bay and paddle back as far as we could before turning back. It would be an all-day paddle.

Our trip out the Harlem was mostly uneventful. It's crew season, and we saw several crew boats and their attendant minders along the stretch from the Broadway Bridge to the High Bridge.

It was a beautiful day, cool to start but it would warm quickly.

Along the Bronx Kill we saw signs of fall foliage. After a very warm couple of weeks it feels very sudden.

At the end of the kill, the view of Astoria - to the left is the upper East River. I've come to love this view because while it looks so empty, Manhattan and the 1,000,000+ peeople who live there are less than a mile behind me.

Off we went. I recognize that marker - at South Brother Island. At this point in the trip I realized this is my fourth time out here this summer, and the second time in as many weeks.

Looking across at North Brother, we could make out some of its ruins.

To get to Flushing Bay, we paddled past Rikers Island, New York City's main prison facility. We took a compass heading of 120 to head towards end of a long pier that extends from Laguardia. Not pictured, we saw some men working on the pier and I asked them what it was for.

"Private property, belongs to the airport."

Never mind the fact the airport is part of a trust operated by New York and New Jersey, I asked, what is the pier for? What does it do?

"ILS, Instrument Landing System." I kinda knew that but was delighted at the confirmation. The pier is clearly not meant for people or airplanes. It just guides them in to land on the north/south runway of the airport.

We paddled on, keeping our twenty-five yard distance from the pier, following the buoys down into Flushing Bay. There was hardly any wind and we began to broil a bit.

We were afforded oddly distant views of midtown and downtown Manhattan.

Not to mention, we had jetliners arriving directly overhead.

We paddled back as far as we could, into Flushing Creek, underneath a highway and past a cement factory. Eventually though we hit a dead end - one we might get past on a more adventurous day, but on this day, a foot-high floating boom was enough to stop us. We admired the #7 train, Van Wyck Expressway, and an egret.

We were stymied, but happy to have made it as far as we did.

After all, we found a Mensch Supply place!

Not to mention the cement factory had a cigarette boat hanging over the water. We figured either they made express cement deliveries, or the owner was Batman.

Sadly then, this was as close as we got to the World's Fair. You can make out the "flying saucers' about two-thirds of the way to the right here.

We discovered a small dock at the end of Flushing Bay, part of an NYC Parks park. There were ramps for dropping trailers in and we saw several jetskis, mostly middle-class hispanic kids out for a a last gasp of summer.

We ate lunch ashore, then packed for the trip home.

On the way out, we were overtaken by a faux-paddlewheeler, the Paddle Wheel Queen.

She passed us, went east a bit and then looped around, passing us again on her way to Hell Gate. From what I could make on the radio, she rounded Mill Rock and then came back through. "The poor old broad," said TS. "So drunk on her way to Manhattan she couldn't even make it to the party."

Perhaps the oddest sight on this whole trip was on the south short of North Brother Island. Someone set up a TV and chair. Remember, North Brother Island is abandoned. No one lives there. It's a bird sanctuary, and there's not power or electric. Either this is a prog rock album cover, or Typhoid Mary's got satellite TV.

All in all this was a good trip. It was long, but in line with other day trips. We got back with tide to spare. Paddling in to Flushing was a nice diversion from most of our other trips. The water is sheltered though the route out is not, and it's a working waterfront. The airport is a nice touch. The weather was good and conditions benign.

 On the way back, our route up the Harlem was uneventful. We went through the Duyvil, landed, and unpacked, with a week nip at the end to celebrate.