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.

The Moon

Moon Paddles are popular in the paddling community. A summer night, when the wind is low and the water is relatively warm, the air is still, and a ginormous reflecting rock about 224,000 miles away from the Earth is at its closest - these make for pretty and pleasant paddles.

Canoeboy and I put the trip together at pretty short notice. Earlier in the week here were predicated chances of rain and even thunderstorms - things which proved to come in just after the weekend. Thus we had low turnout, but it was a fun crowd.

Paddling North on the Hudson.

We paddled north with a strong flood current, and then into the Harlem, heading for a salt marsh at the northern tip of Manhattan. We passed pretty easily under the railroad bridge at Spuyten Duyvil, and then onwards towards the Henry Hudson Bridge. The sun had pretty much set and we were left only with some afterglow, and the lights coming up on the various bridges.

Towards the Henry Hudson.

We need a better photogapher My little powershot doesn't understan "faraway light", and the case I keep it in doesn't help. We watched the moon rise over the Bronx - the glowing orange-ish orb in the photo below.

Moonrise on the Harlem.

We paddled around in the salt marsh. At low tide, it's a mud flat, and you can see birds walking on it. Here at high tide, we were able to paddle all the way in, and see the park from an angle we usually skip. The water was still too shallow for anything clever.

Some kids on the sidewalk of the park called out to us, and asked us questions about our boats. "Take me for a ride!" "Is that fun?" "Are you wet"? I did some sculling for support, and some low brace turns. "Are you a hero?" That one made my day.

"Yes," I answered, in the Winson Zeddimore school of etiquette*.

After some time had passed, we went back, and one of our number got out at the boathouse. The res of us continued on, south against the current towards the George Washington Bridge. We managed around the point at the Little Red Lighthouse, which was no mean feat. With the tide rushing in, there's a fair amount of current to paddle against, with some large rocks making eddy paddling slightly perilous. 

We made it around, and paddled into the crescent-shaped (one might say moon-shaped, but not on this night) bay next to Washington Park. We took in the urban skyline, and the planes and helicopters flying above it, a glittering canvas against the night sky.

When we were ready to go we ferried out to still see Manhattan, a bit more of it including midtown and downtown and the tremendous spires of light. Then we turned around, and practically flew home on the current, learning just how hard - and easy - it can be to spot people at night. Hard at a distance, and to make out whether moving lights are other paddlers - it's a bit deductive, accounting for last known position and course. On the other hand, easy - it would have been impossible without lights.

Our evening came to and end, we landed and cleaned up boats.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

To Piermont

I paddled to Piermont and back with some friends, two in sea kayaks, the third, self-named canoeboy, in his trusty single canoe.

We got a very late start, over an hour after our intended departure time. It was also a hot day. Paddling up the Hudson felt like effort, though we made decent time. We'd all had somewhat long weeks and just wanted a simple paddle, nothing elaborate, no paddle-to-the-maddle effort. That's pretty much what we got.

Near Alpine marina, I took a roll to cool off, and also demonstrated with MD a paddleshaft Eskimo rescue. B, an experienced canoeist and outdoorsman, was paddling a sea kayak sans sprayskirt. He's strong, and quick, but still learning the finer points of sea kayaking.

We continued on, running into a lone kayaker who had put in at a park in Yonkers but was not with the Yonkers club. We saw birds of prey circling high over the landslide. We started running out of current and moved closer to shore to catch what little eddy we could. Then, near the fancy homes just above the Italian Garden, we saw a ginormous bird take flight from one tree to the next. He was gorgeous and brown.

Onward we went. The boys really like to push themselves, and while we knew we wouldn't make it to Piermont pier we decided to paddle as far as we could before returning to the Garden for lunch. We did pretty much just that, enjoying a beautiful sunny summer day.

After lunch, we launched and set out, well rested and well-fed.The wind picked up considerably from the southwest, and pretty soon we had some chop. Fun for sea kayaks, a bit soggy for canoes and open kayaks.

B and canoeboy were very fast and pulled well ahead of MD and I. We ventured farther out into the channel a few times hoping to get some current assist, but had to judge that against the stiff headwind. Eventually, we were so far behind we decided to just go out to play - with the wind on current, there were some 3-4 footers coming in, and we rode up and down, and through, and across most of the way down.

Eventually, our fun came to an end. We saw a barge approaching in the far distance, and went closer to the eastern shore - the conditions tended to push us out, so we wanted plenty of time to make it in. Around the time we got to the Stairs for Nowhere, our friends rejoined us and we made it down without issue, plenty of current carrying us home.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Real Assessing

So in the paddling community, there's some emphasis on assessments. Whatever the program, there are certain levels used to define a paddler's overall ability in their chosen discipline. Theres BCU (British Canoe Union) and ACA (American Canoe Association), levels 1-5 respectively. There are only so many ways to paddle a boat, and it's good to have a measuring stick to gauge skill level and establish goals. To earn these badges, a paddler finds a coach offering an assessment, and that coach puts them through their paces in an appropriate environment, and offers pass/fail/needs improvement.

However, a more important kind of assessment is not for handing out awards, but gauging conditions. There's also assessing ability, regardless of grade level. Paddling skills are perishable, and diminish without practice.

So there I was (as all good stories begin), all prepared to teach a level two course at the shop. Not ACA or BCU, just the next stage in the shop's internal curriculum. I had three students, two of whom had recently done our level one introductory course, an the third who had some paddling experience on harbor trips. OK, beginners, but not novices, I thought.

It was a beautiful sunny summer afternoon, with a flooding tide at the start of class, and steady northwesterly winds. The result was a fair amount of chop - nothing terrible, but irregular waves, and definitely not a glass surface.

I'm not going to offer a play by play; I'll offer up the highlights. This class did not go well. I feel it's important to write openly about my failures, to help me learn from them better, but to share them with others for learning as well. No one was injured, and no one died, but I came away with a bad feeling, and I figure if I did, so did my students.

First, I did not assess the environment correctly. What were to me some playful, fun conditions were, to a beginner, terrifying. I could see it on at least two of their faces, and the third I'm convinced just had a better poker face. In a level two course, a wet exit an rescue are mandatory, so I figured everyone had to be prepared to get wet. What I neglected was, not by accident. Most inexperienced paddlers still have this fear of the water, whether it's a sign of failure or a genuine fear of going in the water and drowning. I knew they'd be fine, and easily rescued if they went in, but they had no way of knowing that.

I found the part of the embayment that was least affected, somewhat sheltered from wind and tide alike. All the same, we had to reset our position several times - which meant lots of turning, paddling back, and working a bit more before we reset again. Paddling around the embayment was even more of a challenge because these students did not have the skills to deal with this level of wind, and were too terrified to push the limits of the skills that they did have.

This brings me to my second failure: I did not assess the students correctly. Any teacher knows this problem. They arrive having completed the first level. You assume they are ready for the next. Oh no, absolutely not the case, not in general, and not with these students. I didn't have the full picture when we started, but basically two students had had a single class less than a month prior, and the other had been scheduled to take the introductory class in the morning but opted for a paddleboard class instead.

Knowing that, what followed was predictable. There was very little torso rotation, and poor handling of the boat. What did I do? I chalk it up to inexperience and conditions and drilled right down the level two syllabus: leg driving, edging, applying these skills to forward an turning strokes. After the first few capsizes I decided to move those up from the end of the class, and by then I'd completely lost my rhythm.

If I was thrown off-kilter, I know the students were as well. Within half an hour I was constantly thinking, 'how do I fix this', which meant I wasn't focused on the students and teaching. Talking with my own coach later, it was clear: I should have simply made it a remedial course, worked on the basics, and found exercises to give them a sense of safety and control in these conditions. That's it. Nothing fancy to it.

Instead, I felt obligated to stick to the script. I was actually thinking I owed them something, as in, they signed up for this course, I need to give them this course. But the truth is, we owe the students nothing more than duty of care and making them better learners. Whether that's deciding to limit the venue, or working on forward stroke instead of edging, or rescues instead of rolling, the first thing to do is to assess the students and to assess the environment. For some of the people I paddle with, this would have been a great day to capsize repeatedly, to paddle against the current, and to surf ferry wake in. For beginners, reinforcement of existing skills and building the confidence to go out in something more exciting than a glass pond would have been enough.

So, lessons learned. The more I go down this path of guiding and instructing, the more conservative I become. What can go wrong? Who's with me? What's my fail plan, and backup, and backup backup? What happens after that? And then, to turn around to my charges - whether club members or paying clients or friends - and make it fun, and interesting, and seamless.

That's the challenge, and one I hope to live up to better in the future.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day

Inclement weather kept people away from the boathouse today. As far as I can tell, only two people went paddling besides myself.

In the morning I did some work on my boat. The main thing is filing down the gel work on a repair from last year: fiberglass bandages over some spider cracks. I had the color and gel and took care of that earlier this year . . .or was it last fall? In any case it cured kinda rough, and was big enough that I waited to buy an orbital sander to assist with the labor. That's kind of its own story; the repair is looking better but still in progress, so more about that later.

I left to grab lunch and watch a World Cup football match, returning in the evening. It rained in the afternoon all through the walk over to the boathouse, and I figured at the least I'd just enjoy working on some trip plans with the garage door open, a pleasant view of the Palisades to keep me company. However, but they time I got there, I could see clear skies and sunshine slowing making their way eastwards to Manhattan.

That did it. I got out my kit, ran my fingers along the repair to check it, and took a little trip. I went up to Spuyten Duyvil as the current spilled out of it; a stiff breeze made the conditions there more interesting than usual, and my boat go cocked sideways to the current. I straightened out, then paddled in and took a look around the conditions, making mental notes for teaching purposes.

After that, I went back onto the Hudson, now ebbing more strongly. A large ocean-going vessel with two cranes on it sped by, kicking up strong wake abetted by wind and curent; I plowed over some 3-foot waves. Fun! Then I set out towards New Jersey, keeping an eye on traffic. There were some sightseeing boats, as well as as a tug steadily making its way up. I thought better of my plan and went down to show off some moves at the Tubby Hook pier.

The little tug turned around - I saw the strange sight of a tug and its towed barge drifting sideways with the current. I thought she might moor but she did not; went south with the current.

I cleaned up, locked up, and that was that. Happy Independence Day, United States!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Little Here, A Little There

Been taking it easy, no big trips these past two weeks, though I've been itching. Have had a couple of clients at the Pier 40 ranch, and the instructors got together with teaching assistants and did some rescue practice on a windy Monday evening.

Boy howdy there was a big temperature difference between Monday and Thursday, when I went out again at Inwood, and then again on Friday, when I paddled with some mates towards Ross Dock and back. There's an impressive standing wave the appears near the Little Red Lighthouse, underneath the GWB, at about Battery High -2 Hours. Doesn't last long though, I'll have to hunt it down.

I took a group of Turtles (Inwood Club Members) out. One capsized but was capably rescued by another. Too much edging was too blame. But is there ever too much edging?

Sunday I taught an impromptu rescue course to about six turtles. It was short, so we only did assisted rescues, including the rear deck and heel hook. Also did some contact towing, and of course, and all-in rescue. We did have one gentleman abandon his boat in favor of his wife. I fetched it with my contact tow. Man that thing comes in handy.

With the holiday weekend coming up, and City of Water the weekend after, I expect plenty more fun little trips soon.