Friday, August 26, 2016


I was conducting a paddling skills assessment at a lake yesterday, aided by friend and fellow instructor Jean Kostelich of Two Geeks @ Three Knots. While there, I ran into some other local acquaintances, people who are more skilled paddlers than I, and we got to talking. Our conversation went along these lines:

You got any plans this fall? What about that thing we went to in Groton?

Gotta wait and see about my schedule. I'd love to go. I also want to get some [n] training.

Really, with who?

[name]. I find his style really works for me.

Yes he's good, I only met him last year. You going for your  [n] ?

Maybe, but what would I do with it? Conditions around here are only so much, and very few paddlers are up to that level of paddling.

Yeah. In NYC people say I'm an amazing paddler, but I go up there and I realize where I'm really at. You know, just average at best.

What constitutes amazing? I think it's only human to think in binary terms: I'm a beginner or  I'm amazing. Where one places oneself on that limited spectrum might depend on the events of that day. If you try something new, that pushes your limits, how well you do will color your self-perception.

I for one can say that I felt pretty darned amazing the day I capsized while surfing a three-foot wave and rolled up on my less-elegant side. But then the next day I repeatedly failed a re-entry and roll.

Some folks who keep at their paddling will develop a third model. The wording is always awkward. What's an "advanced beginner" or "intermediate". In my own work I've settled on "improvers", covering a wide range: from "has the basics down" to "can do everything I can and be better at it too."

The truth though, is that paddling skills are a spectrum, and each skill in itself can run on a spectrum. I've seen plenty of paddlers with good forward and turning strokes but weak or ineffective braces. I've seen some amazing rollers who have messy draw strokes. On top of all this, there's experience in conditions. Strokes that work in rough water will work in flat water, but unless practiced correctly, in those conditions, fear in the "brain" part of body-boat-blade-brain will wreck the best efforts of the other three Bs.

Hence, most of the best paddlers I know will say they're "OK". "Just OK," because paddling is a practice. It's an ongoing activity and achievement. I might have an amazing bow rudder one day and a terrible on the next. Or crack six rolls consecutively one day but then muscle one the next.

Amazing? It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Safety Patrol

So I embark herein on a somber post, one I've been ambivalent about: what can go wrong on the water.

Nothing terrible's happened on any trip I've been on, but a number of local headlines have brought the subject up. Recent back in July, at least.

For the good and the bad, all you have to do is subscribe to the US Coast Guard Twitter feeds. For example, this one from mid-March, near the Tappan Zee Bridge. The water was still very cold, and anyone unprepared was not going to fare well.

More recently, a paddleboarder disappeared off the coast of New York. Although it's worth pointing out that,  in some cases, people are found.

Even non-kayaking events give one pause. Sometimes planes crash on the Hudson. They don't always end this well. Recently a WW2 fighter-bomber crashed while preparing for showing off Memorial Day weekend.

So what's a paddler to do? When these events cluster together, it's hard not to think that this is a dangerous sport, and one should be careful at all times. Flat water, perfect weather, always file a float plan, never far from shore.

But, that's kinda boring.

It's easy to look at most of these stories and observe, "there were inexperienced, or poorly equipped, or poorly trained people who had no business being in those conditions at that time." Then you read something like this.

A trained and registered guide, with two clients, caught off guard by a strongly-winded storm, capsized in cold water, and two of three dead.

There's probably more local knowledge that I can't glean over the internet. The point is, it's not always the misguided idiots on a lark who suffer catastrophe.

It'd be too easy to wrap up with the familiar caveats: always check the weather, always go out in a capable group, have multiple means of summoning assistance. A proper trip, even a simple one, involves contingency plans that mimic disaster recovery plans; the most audacious expeditions have redundancy approaching the Apollo program in depth.

It can happen anytime. A medical emergency, a badly placed log that hits your head when you capsize while reaching for some snacks in your day hatch. Or maybe you just forgot that one thing, that one step, that makes a difference.

It's pointless to live in fear; it is the human condition. We can only take steps to address it.


You learn a stroke. Then you learn another stroke. Then another, and another, whatever order they come: propulsive strokes, turning strokes, bracing strokes. Along the way you learn how to wet exit, how to be rescued, how to rescue, how to self-rescue.

You go on trips. Short trips, long trips, so-long-you-thought-you'd-die trips, trips where maybe you did almost die or were at least at risk of severe inconvenience. You go with others, you go on your own. You see other people doing other strokes, or doing neat things in their boat, and you try to copy them and figure out what they're doing..

Then one day someone says, "can you teach me that?" And you kinda show them what to do. Then you take a class on how to teach, and you relearn all of your strokes because you don't want a bunch of people out there paddling as bad as you've been paddling. You learn how to introduce a stroke, demonstrate it, explain its purpose and block out time for students to practice. At that point, you're an instructor.

That is, until you see really good instruction in action.

I was fortunate to work with some excellent instructors at the Hudson Valley Paddle Symposium in late July. Organized by Matt Kane at PrimePaddlesports, with John Carmody of Sea Cliff Kayakers and Carl Ladd from Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, along with other coaches I saw some very zen, very effective instruction.

Some coaches will say, they don't teach strokes. They do, but not overtly. They just go on a journey and observe. Oh my, how they observe. I had someone ask me one time if I was holding my right knee too tight against the braces, and I was. They make a mental list of what everyone's doing and give everyone individualized advice.

Then they find an area suitable for practice. Talk about what the boat is doing. Give students a simple exercise and query them on the outcome. Pedagogically, if you give someone an outcome and steps to reproduce it, they'll get anxious if they don't get the desired result. Even worse if they get it right they'll lock in that behavior: "this is what to do, always". If you give them steps, and ask them what happened, they learn for themselves. They put together what works and what doesn't, and you can give them variants; try a little more of this or a little less of that.

And of course, always, both sides, forwards and backwards.

Least said is best.

In the course of the symposium one pairing I had was with a woman who had a lot of casual recreational boat experience, and was in a sea kayak for the first time. After nearly a full day's session, she was still having trouble controlling the boat. It was hot, and she was clearly growing frustrated.

I asked her to watch me and tell me what I was doing wrong. I did everything that she was doing and got the same results she did.

"Look towards me," she said. This got me putting the boat on edge. "With your whole body!"

"Sit up straight.". OK, now I was in a stronger position, with more rotation.

"Extend your arms!" That got me more catch. By now I was edging the boat, paddling strongly, and grabbing as much water as I could. I was achieving the desired outcome.

"See," I said, "you know what to do. Everything you just said, do it."

She did, and was turning on the move and having fun playing with changing directions.

Getting students to own their knowledge is my latest challenge in teaching. I can show strokes, and I can critique strokes, but getting people to understand, in their own brains, what's working and what isn't, that's what I want to be able to do.

After all, the best instructors do.