Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shepherding - Club Trips

The last time I wrote about shepherding groups, it was in a commercial context. More often, intermediate paddlers will find themselves in the role of shepherding trips with their clubs, which can introduce different dynamics.

Why Are We Going?
I've belonged to a couple of different clubs in New York City, and paddled with people from other clubs as well. One question that is rarely asked, and answered even less frequently, is, "why are we going?"

Clubs that rely on volunteer membership will use trips as rewards to their volunteers. Special trips for volunteers only, which are not open to the public or general membership, allow volunteers to feel like their efforts are appreciated, and give them perhaps their first set of bragging rights. Volunteer trips can also be training trips, putting the volunteers in more challenging conditions than usual, and using teachable moments to practice the skills they are expected to have when running the clubs regular programs.

Clubs that are more collegial - for lack of a better term, where members are more or less equal in status and simply band together as an organization for the mutual operation of activities - trips are very much social, and the goals of trips may vary with the leadership of the club. Trips can serve a number of functions, from providing opportunities to less experienced members to socialize and learn from more experienced members, to providing programs, or at least evidence of activities, to ensure club growth. For example, "members X, Y, and Z went on a twelve mile trip to the island and back, so aren't we a cool club?" Additionally, as with clubs operated by volunteer effort, trips can serve as training exercises.

Unlike commercial or walk-up programs, clubs ongoing relationships. The same people, more or less, show up for any given event. What this means for the club is largely up to the club, but for those in shepherding roles, it's an opportunity for coaching and sharing knowledge. With a formally qualified or not as an instructor, shepherds can give their flocks insight into what they're doing and why, building the strength of the club and widening the base of qualified leadership - a great way to avoid being the only people anyone ever asks to lead a trip!

The flip side to the relationships in clubs is that some paddlers may respond differently to various members. There may be a friendly rivalry, or a grudge about a trip that happened months or years ago, that makes someone not take direction well, or only take direction from certain people in the club. These kinds of issues are more social problem than paddling problem, but it's good to be aware of how they can affect a trip.

For example, I led a trip of a small group of experienced paddlers once on a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Two a history of racing and tended to keep too far ahead of the main group until I talked to them. Another was an skilled but slower paddler who dropped out earlier rather than deal with the forced march pace of the lead paddlers. Another paddler, as new to the group as I, kept steady but shared some of the concerns I had in keeping the group together and making decisions about when to stop and when to move on. We talked about it at the end, but along the way it took a while to figure out how to herd even this small group of cats.

Club Development
Regardless of the purpose of club trips, they all serve to develop the club as an organization. Unlike commercial trips, or walkup programs, there's a good chance that the people who come along on a club trip will come again, and again and again. The paddlers learn not only to be better paddlers, but to work well with one another. This makes for a stronger group, and that is never a bad thing.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Bounds of Winter

I got out yesterday with a friend of mine from the Inwood Canoe Club. It was the first time I'd been on the water for about a month - first time since my "snow-cial" paddle. The Hudson current was just after max flood, so AA and I decided to head into the Harlem as far as we could.

First: OMG I felt so out of practice. It's still  shocking how much difference a month makes. In the summer I felt ready to go every time I got in the boat. Lately, I have to take a few practice strokes before I feel like I've got my equilibrium.

Second: OMG I felt so out of shape. I was talking about this with another girl in our club, who was heading out on her paddleboard. We are hardly plump, and among certain of our friends are not allowed to complain about our weight; we are "skinny bitches". But, we're used to a certain level of fitness that is hard to maintain un the winter holidays.

Fortunately, by the time AA and I rounded the bend after the Broadway Bridge, I felt like I had my cadence back. My hands were no loner tingling as well; in the Hudson, a steady northern breeze had kept them chilled, even though my core was plenty warm. We had hardly any wind in the Harlem.

AA paddling a WS Tempest 170.

In the course of the trip, we experienced a range of weather, from tiny styrofoam-like snow pebbles, to rain, to sleet forming mush on our decks. Once we were in the Harlem we got proper snow again, big flakes, for about fifteen minutes. While all the precipitation cleared up by the time we got past High Bridge, it was a little foggy on the way back, and then the sun came out as we past the 207h street MTA train yard.

We saw some pretty wooden racing canoes wrapped in plastic on the northern edge of the Peter Sharp Boathouse. We sipped some water, and went on towards the three bridges, Washington, Hamilton, and High.

Near High Bridge on the Manhattan side, we saw this interesting bubbler:

Discharge at High Bridge.

It seemed to stream right out into the river before getting pushed north with the current, but with a crazy S-shaped trail to it. We were wondering if this was a new discharge point discussed on a local kayaking email list recently; it's about the right place. There was quite a bit of kick to it!

We made it as far as Macombs Dam Bridge, at about 155th street. This is the fifth-oldest bridge in the city, and is so named because one of the earlier bridges that it replaced was a lock-style "dam" bridge, even though it isn't so today. By then the current was pretty solidly against us, and we paddled back pretty easily.

Overall this was a good maintenance trip: enough time to really be out and get the good habits back, with generous conditions that made it low-risk for winter. There was a small craft advisory for boats in the harbor by the time we got back, likely due to increasing wind. We were very cold on the Hudson legs, but nothing a little hot tea couldn't solve.

I have been shopping around for pogies and gloves; I am leaning towards the former right now. I need new summer gloves as well - and a sprayskirt, and I'm ready for a new PFD. Summer is just around the corner. I'm already planning my trips and classes.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Shepherding - Commercial Groups

We've hit that point in the winer season where I can take the time to write about some of my experiences in the summer. I did a lot of shepherding - trip leading, assistant trip leading, taking students out for their first time on the river. Because there are different dynamics depending on the context, I'm splitting them up by the circumstances, whether commercial, club, or just out with my mates.

In a commercial setting, there are two factors that aren't present in other settings. First, you never know who is going to walk through that door. Second, you're providing a service in return for a fee, so there is a contractual relationship to the trip.

When I say you never know who will come through that door, I mean anyone can show up. Unless they are clearly going to be dangerous to themselves or to others, you've going to take them out.

Most people are OK. People who decide to try kayaking, and are willing to pay for it, are generally self-selected to be healthy, moderately fit, and willing to put themselves in a novel and dynamic environment.

A few people walk up to that line, and someone, either a friend or their own bravado, convinces them to step over it, and once on the water, they need some attention. Maybe they're afraid, and you need to reassure them, or just keeping near them. Maybe they lack ability, and are going to be the slow boat that needs lots of coaching, or a tow. Maybe they're just oblivious, and having so much fun that they don't pay attention to danger, coming too close to a pier, too far out into a channel, or just plain horsing around.

We ha one couple from Canada who we took across the river and back at the shop. A husband and wife, both had some experience, the husband more than the wife. The wife kept asking why we didn't have bilge pumps for every single boat, which she said was the law in Canada (we had two for our four boats, and those of us leading the trip are trained in rescues). On the way back, the wind picked up and we had some chop. Her hands were tight and she only looked straight ahead, never turning her body. Her husband was far more comfortable in the swells, and had a smile hidden in his beard, like a dog hanging his head out the car window.

Another challenge is that it's possible to end up with widely disparate skill levels. There were at least three trips I was part of where we had one very skilled paddler, typically some Norwegian or Swedish badass who just wanted to try some urban paddling, and then we had two to five regular folks, in one case a second date and n another a group of buds celebrating a birthday. In these cases, we gave the skilled paddlers a longer leash but kept within communication range, and on the way back, one of us would go with the advanced paddler to get in whatever they wanted - speed, play, some wee beasties - before we landed with the main group.

The commercial part of these trips is rarely problematic, if you're clear about expectations up front. If someone pays to paddle out to the Statue of Liberty, they're going to want to see the Statue of Liberty nice and up close. If your group is too slow, you'll have at least one disappointed customer unless you find a way to get them there and back (in the particular case I am thinking of, we did). If you are foolish enough to guarantee certain outcomes, without language about skill level, sea conditions, and safe judgement of the trip leader, then you're setting yourself up for a bad conversation.

In one example, someone took out a commercial trip to circumnavigate Manhattan. Normally, this is about an eight hour trip. They got a late start, they got the tides wrong, they took someone who simply did not have the ability (and had to be towed three quarters of the way) and on top of it all, the weather was terrible, rainy and cold. It took them fourteen hours to complete, and while the clients were polite in their complaint, they did complain to the owner.

One final bit about commercial shepherding, which isn't exclusive to it, but more of a factor than elsewhere: people misrepresent their abilities. In my experience most people don't, because they're new to it. In some cases, people understate their abilities. because if you've been in this sport long enough, you get tired of braggarts. However, the problem people are the ones who know just enough to try and bull their way in . . .to some unknown purpose. They may try to parlay some lake experience and a single trip on Long Island Sound into representing themselves as a se kayaker, or they may have heard of braces and reverse sweep strokes and "back deck finish" rolls, but from YouTube or books. Worst, they may say that are BCU 2 Star or ACA Level 4 paddlers based on a course they took five years ago without much paddling since.

What I've learned to do is interview heir experiences. Have you paddled before? Where? What were the conditions like? how high were the waves, how strong was the wind? How long were you out, how far did you go? And so on. Watching their behavior as they answer is as telling as the answers they give. I'm not saying you need to be a lie detector, but based on their confidence, and how realistic their answers seem, you can get an idea of how prepared they actually are for a trip on the water.

Friday, January 3, 2014


I've bough coffee recently. I mean, bags of coffee, 1 lb bags of beans, to be ground and brewed at home. I realize today it's been so long since I did this, and why.

For most of spring, all of summer, and nearly all of autumn, I simply was not home for it. I only brew on weekends; during the week, after some tea to get me going I get coffee at work. It's only on the weekends when I can lazily putter around the house working on a half cup over email and news and whatever.

In paddling season, however, I always had someplace to go. Weekends blurred with weekdays, the only distinction being what clothes I wore (and, at that, not always - I did each during the week). Months flew buy without me having to buy coffee for use at home.

And now, in the depths of winter, I am finally home enough to brew coffee.

On the one hand, I enjoy it. On the other - time to get out and paddle some more.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Year

Well here we are, 2014. With the holidays all but over, I'm picking up on some of the planning for summer: trips, training, teaching. It's just around the corner!

This year's goals include more multi-day trips based out of Manhattan, both north up the Hudson and south past the harbor to Jamaica Bay and Sandy Hook. I also expect to teach more, on my own and under the tutelage of others. Somewhere in there, I hope to link up with new acquaintances from Wind Against Current and 2Geeks3Knots.

So, huzza for a new year! I'll have some some winter paddling until then. Stay tuned, buckaroos.