Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stars, Aligned

It started with a move of camp. During the Mid-coast Sea Kayaking Rendezvous, I'd been camping in a tent at the Sagadahoc Campground, but after that I moved to the AMC Beal Island camp at Knubble Bay. I pitched my tent and set up my kit, then met fellow candidates as they filtered in. Most had also been at the Rendezvous.

Reminder, once back home.

We were all here to take a two-day assessment for the British Canoeing Four Star Sea Leader award. In the BC scheme, the first three stars are personal paddling skills awards; after that, the fourth and fifth stars are leadership awards. Paddling skills are part of the assessment, but the baseline assumption is to take those skills and apply them in progressively more challenging conditions, and also to lead a group of paddlers in those conditions: planning trips, accounting for weather and currents, and being capable of rescues if something goes awry.

I think it's worth contextualizing the BC scheme in general, to contrast with some of the move skills-based assessments I've taken in the American Canoe Association (ACA) scheme, and my paddling experiences in New York City. In the sea kayaking discipline, there's an assumption of a journey, and along that journey the group might encounter various features to play in.

In my formative paddling experiences, so many of the attendant skills were imaginary. When would I encounter rocks or cliffs? Or ocean swell-based surfing? My journeys were about getting from point A to point B, and ever mind what was in between. The biggest obstacles would be commercial marine traffic.

Therefore, working towards the leadership award meant not only affirming specific skills, but also practicing a different leadership style, one that was open to group play, and less insistent on shepherding the group like a docent in a museum.

I didn't take many photos. On assessments I want to be as alert as possible, and also want to keep my deck clear of any unnecessary equipment. The last thing I want is to get caught out futzing with my gear when I should be paying attention to the group and the environment around me.

Day 1
It was quite possibly the quietest breakfast I've ever had in the camp cabin. This was my fourth time to Maine, and to the cabin; I'd previously paddled here for fun, and also taken my Four Star training the year previously. As other candidates shuffled in and made breakfast, each pored over NOAA tide tables and charts, locking in those vital details of the dynamic environment we'd be tested in. It was like monks at breakfast, each candidate locked in their own focus on the day coming ahead.

If it sounds intense, it kind of is. It's a two-day assessment. If one were to look at the syllabus, there are many broadly-stated skills checks, from things as simple to properly lifting and carrying boats, to rolling on both sides in seas up to a meter in height and in moving current, to rescues in conditions, to navigation in poor visibility and moving current.

It's not an inexpensive award either, between the cost of training (mandatory to register for an assessment) to the assessment itself. Failure hits the ego, and success, while gratifying, just means formalizing a level of responsibility. You can't say, "I'm qualified as a Four Star sea leader", and then go on a trip someone else organizes without paying attention to how you'd organize the trip, or by sitting back quietly when something goes awry.

Due to the number of candidates, we were organized into two separate assessments with two assessors each, and an assistant or two in each. Our classes were subdivided in half, so on each day we'd work with one assessor and on the following day the other. In my pod there were two more candidates besides myself, and we took turns leading our group of three "teabags" (practice students) in conditions.

Our basic route for the day was to paddle from a beach launch at Reid State Park up to the Five Islands area; thence across the Sheepscot River and back, and from there up to the camp at Knubble Bay. We three candidates were tasked with sorting out the route and deciding who would go first, second, and third. GA took the first length, I took the crossing, and MS guided us back to camp.

While another candidate was leading, those of us "off" were permitted to play, and at various points asked to perform certain skills or answer certain questions. While GA was leading, MS and I took a large breaking wave sideways and backed out of it using some reverse strokes to gain momentum over the next wave. We also did rolls in three-foot waves just a few yards from a rocky cliff. Later, we also had to roll in moving but flat water.

On my leg of the journey, my central challenge was to get the group across the Sheepscot River to a specific point with a lighthouse. The river is about a mile wide, and the initial task was pretty simple for me based on my experience. The crux points were gathering the group together, making the crossing, and arriving, and on the return, the reverse, with an additional waypoint.

Aside: in the distance, we glimpsed porpoises.

I did nearly screw the pooch on the return though. I was tasked with not only getting the group back across, but navigating to a ledge in the middle of the river, and from there on a difference course to the northern tip of Turnip Island.

First, when asked directly for a bearing, I waffled on the declination. I also took my bearing off a charted buoy that I could see with my eyes; subsequent discussion with the assessor made it clear the expectation was to navigate to the ledge that was just north of the buoy. I gathered the group together and led us to the buoy, and from there changed course to Turnip Island. It is very easy, with the numerous islands in the area, to mistake one for another, or to mistake a headland for an island.

Second, as we crossed, the river had just started to ebb, and further upstream there was a long, shallow bay beginning to empty into the Sheepscot. This produced just enough tidal flow to push us south a bit. Now as we crossed, I simply eyeballed this and got us to the buoy and then to the island. In the debrief though, the assessor made very clear that the task was to navigate by paddling a heading and course that accounted not only for the declination but also the ebb. My heart just about sank. I seriously believed I might have failed right then and there.

In hindsight, I would have estimated an additional change in heading by estimating the flow of the river (rule of thirds) and figuring where we'd have drifted to, then eyeballed the difference between that and the course I'd plotted, and estimated an additional set of degrees to add.

Most of my guiding experience is in waters I know and in good visibility. It's easy to pilot based on landmarks, and adjust course visually by taking ranges. If the current is moving me faster or slower than expected, I can see that, and intuit course corrections.

That won't work in poor visibility whether at night or in fog. And, it was becoming foggy, as a warm front moved in, bringing moisture that curled and sat over the water. We still had a few miles of visibility when I came "off", but if we hadn't, finding that ledge, that marker, and that island, would have been far more challenging. This was a very real skill that I needed to demonstrate.

That night, I got super-remedial. With two other candidates eating in, we got around the table and reviewed our notes, and I zeroed in on declination, and made sure I wrote down at least four different data points each for local tide heights and time of current change.

I was not going to get caught out like that again.

Day 2

With the dawn of the second day, I awoke, still kicking myself about the previous day's mistake but resigned to it. I wasn't going to fix the past; I could only take care of the day ahead of me. I made breakfast, checked my notes, and transcribed them to my deck slates.

Tides and currents on the left, with peak currents noted.

Trip log and waypoints, for dead reckoning.

The second day, we launched and landed at the camp, making a round trip around Macmahon Island to the Five Islands area. Once again, GA started, then MS was second, and I only lead the group for a short bit for feature play and landing at Five Islands, and later for the final push past Robin Hood cove to the camp.

The day was nicer, and quite a bit warmer. In fact it got hot in our drysuits, something of a predicament given the cold water that made them necessary. 

The first half of the day was relatively straightforward. GA led us out to the river and south a bit. I spent a lot of time taking bearings and comparing them to the compass; I was told later that this was noticed by the assessor and I expect worked in my favor. Even if I wasn't being asked, I was ready to answer where we were and what was going on.

When we landed at Five Islands, we landed in a slightly different location after being informed the group ahead of us had had "a real incident". In the course of the assessment, a candidate in another group had been sent to find features for the group to play in; in the course of doing so, she ended up in a bad position and her boat was damaged. 

Once ashore, of course the plethora of candidates all had boat repair kits that they wanted to whip out; if anything the challenge the assessors had was to keep the event from turning into a marathon repair session. In short order, the boat was patched enough to be seaworthy, and the candidate was able to finish the assessment and paddle back to camp. The good news is that she rolled more than once to stay upright, so you could say her roll was stronger than her boat.

After lunch, as our group moved up the Shepscot, we stopped to do some self-rescues. Each of us candidates, and our practice students who opted in, did both re-entry and roll and also scramble rescues in a spot of water with 3-4 foot breaking waves, less than ten feet from a bald-faced boulder. Afterwards, we did an "all-in" rescue. MS and I paired up and got my boat empty, then me in it, then finished our rescue, by which point our mates had done the same. It was great fun !

Shortly after that we did a tow rescue. We'd done some short tows before, as well as rescues the day before. Here, we had one person support the casualty, towed by another, with a second in-line tow. We went quite a ways, further, I think, than any practice tow scenario we'd had before. And here, we had some dissension by the lead candidate. 

Basically, he had lodged in his head that the little Sheepscot, the stream between Macmahon and Georgetown islands, had a tidal current that exceeded the remit. The "remit" is the limit of conditions in which a candidate can take a group, and part of the assessment was being able to recognize conditions that exceeded the remit. One of those conditions is tidal currents not to exceed two knots. Based on an anecdote about a standing wave, he thought the river would exceed the remit.

The thing is, it wouldn't. His key data point, in addition to the anecdote about a standing wave, was based on an overfall two miles north. A closer data point indicated slower speeds that, while high, were within remit. Furthermore, we were at a point in the tidal cycle just before slack. While even at peak we'd be in remit, we were certainly well below it. So, rather than taking his preferred route around Macmahon's eastern side, adding miles of towing for our simulated casualty, the assessor had us paddle up the lower Sheepscot quite a ways, and that was fine.

At the end of that passage, I took us in the final leg for the camp. I was fortunate in that the water had just started to ebb, and there was a group ahead of us demonstrating a good line to take. I still played it like they weren't there, directing my group via landmarks and making some jokes to keep everyone engaged, rather than quietly paddling along. We came around the "knubble" and into the camp's cove, and disembarked at the highest tide I've ever been in there. 

The landing beach was entirely covered, as well as the final step of the stairs leading up. All the groups had arrived at about the same time, so while it was crowded, with many hands we made light work of carrying our loaded boats up the stairs.

At the start of the assessment, one of the assessors addressed our anxiety by saying that their role was to ensure we were fully prepared to be sea leaders, and that we would not have been there if we did not have the required skills. I really liked this statement. At this point in my paddling career I have taken several assessments and I've truly sweat them all, even while I was confident. The goal is to become a better paddler, not to accumulate awards. So, pass or fail, we were all going to get feedback on how we could improve.

As far as I could tell, I was the first of our group called in. I may have been wrong but it wasn't a long wait. I'd changed into street clothes and finished un-kitting my boat, and just started in on my camp. My feedback was as follows.

  • First, I passed. Both assessors agreed on this.
  • My group leadership was a little "guide-y", but that was attributed to my experience being predominantly in a working harbor. In a more open, less trafficked environment, group leading can be more like a rubber band, or a retractable leash.
  • We did talk to the navigation errors, and at this point it was made clear that they saw me put extra effort into it the second day. 
  • My action plan is to go lead some Four Star trips and really lock in that experience, and focus on my navigation skills, rather than go straight to Five Star. Which, I gotta say, is totally fine to me. The way I'd put it is I'm a bit "coached out" after working hard for this award, and five days of coaching and assessing. I could use a break of just paddling and guiding for fun!

I'll say that this is largely how I feel after any assessment; relief, and also, barely able to conceive starting down another. I felt this way after my 3 Star in particular, but also my instructor assessments. Oh my God, I think, that was a lot of effort and I made x, y, and z mistakes. But, a year or so later, I'm fully recovered, and ready to start in on the next.

We'll see how I feel. For now, truly, I just want to paddle.

With that, I finished packing up the tent and all my camping gear. My paddling clothes were soaked with days of sweat, and my drysuit was stiff with layers of sea salt. 

I lingered for a little bit to see how some of my fellow candidates, including some who were in my group in the Rendezvous but not the assessment. Nearly everyone I asked passed; I only found one who had not. Everyone had different feedback and action plans, from setting up safe play areas to navigation to personal paddling skills. There is always room for improvement.

With some help, I loaded my boat on the Saab and got going, driving down the rutted road, to the steep gravelly climb, to the town road, to the county road, to US 1, to the interstate. I stopped at the last service center in Maine to take this photo: a woman, her Saab, and her boat:

I've been paddling ten or twelve years now (truly, I am not certain). I've been more serious in the past four. Certainly the past year, starting with that Four Star training I took with John Carmody, Todd Wright, and Steve Maynard, kicked off a pretty intense period of not just practicing, but logging my trips and making sure I got experience leading groups in conditions more advanced than "Force 2, Sea State 2, partly cloudy on the Hudson River". 

This award meant a lot to me, an in particular, it's a responsibility, not an achievement. I need to practice more, for sure. I got my own car this time last year, and since then I've expanded my range, literally and figuratively. I really do look forward to more paddling, and paddling more, if you know what I mean.

Like the song goes, "the road goes on forever, the party never ends."

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