Learning safety in Sea Kayaking comes in many forms: science (understanding the physics of weather, waves, tides and currents), reading material (trade magazines, books on a wide variety of topics or specific in nature), word of mouth (social media, friends), formal training from qualified persons (first aid, CPR, kayaking courses and curriculum established by reputed and recognized agencies), and informal training (experiential, mentoring, friends sharing and showing). Because kayaking is an “inherently dangerous sport”, we can (and should) use all these different methods of utilizing key factors for increasing our chances of survival and enjoyment. As we all know from our formal and informal learning experiences, the key to the best learning is having FUN.
Here is a review of a recent trip to the Coast of Georgia (U.S.) and a message of how all of these components come together to form a rewarding learning experience. I’ve become more and more reluctant to use the term “Training”, as some folks think it’s all work and no play, instead, I want to emphasize to the reader that these “training” or “skills” courses should be an enjoyable way to improve skills, and thereby expand the opportunities of more paddling experiences. I must stress that a good coach is critical to this endeavor; one who can blend the learning with enjoyment, and can push the student beyond what they thought could be achieved by using progressions that build on present skills and experiences.
Several friends and myself recently completed a splendid kayaking experience in the barrier islands of southern Georgia. What was originally intended to be a circumnavigation of Cumberland Island, became an opportunity to paddle many different areas in the same general region. A restriction to part of the island due to an open hunting season, became an opportunity to experience, learn and train in a variety of conditions suitable for all the participants. A key to a successful trip is to remain flexible with your plans, and we didn’t let the variations upset what was to become an awesome opportunity.
My role in this adventure was a little different from the rest of the group; I was participating in what was to be a demonstration of my skills to complete my training and assessment towards my ACA Level 4 Open Sea Award and to be a co-leader of our journey. I had been working with Ryan Rushton, of Geneva Kayak Center, (or would it be better to say he was (patiently) working with me?) for the past several years. To get to this point however, I had participated in a variety of the learning experiences I listed in the first paragraph:
- I studied the science of seamanship,
- I had the required formal training of CPR, First Aid
- There were many days of formal training to be an instructor at this level
- I had a variety experiential learning: travelling to the places that challenge, playing on the water with friends, tuning up my skills of instructing at a variety of venues
- And what I live for in kayaking most of all: FUN.
My assignments were given to me in advance: study the charts of the area, consider the weather and water patterns, determine the skill levels and desires of the participants, and devise a plan and curriculum. Knowing these things in advance allows the group to move to the spot where the coach can give them what they need. A good coach can be imaginative and flexible enough to deliver the goods and be flexible. On this trip, Ryan was one such coach. All the participants in the group had experience, and some had lots of it; a few of them had ocean experience also. Their goal was to have a guided journey, learn along the way and most of all: FUN.
The evening of the first day, I began introducing the other participants to the concepts of tides, mainly the effects tides would have on our paddling. Some of the folks had a general idea of what tides were. They all sunk their teeth into the science of it and quickly realized the effect it was going to have on their experiences in the following days, and the need to plan accordingly. Soon everybody was doing their own tide calculations.
Our house in St Marys was a comfortable, elegant home. Spacious and well equipped for the six of us plus the GKC staff of 2, it was a fantastic headquarters for most of our stay.
Our first day took us to Jekyll Island and St Andrew Sound. The onshore wind forecast for the first day wasn’t too severe and we were looking for our first opportunity to experience wind and waves against the current.
A short paddle in calm water gave us the time to loosen up and relax; we were back in our boats with a sigh relief, this was why we journeyed so far. Forward strokes were tuned up a little as we made our way to the river mouth where things were a little more vigorous.
Outgoing tides, colliding with incoming wind and waves, make the waves in this zone to be even larger. I was interested in seeing what the skills of the group were in this environment and I setup a few exercises. Noticing our rate of travel when using a simple transit off to the side was fun to see; we were moving at a fairly good pace with little effort (hooray for the current!) and it was a pleasant surprise. The current was not so advantageous when we tried to hold position while listening to the next set of instructions. Paddling an area the shape of a very large box (approximately 100 yards square) gives the paddler the experience of paddling with the wind and waves at all four quarters of their boat: ahead, astern and both sides abeam. Okay, some folks haven’t done this much (if at all) or for a while; others seem to have it down pretty good. This is where we start to show our differences. The next exercise was to perform a 360 degree rotation. Looking for edging and commitment to the paddle, gives the individual opportunity to appreciate effectiveness of turning. Get it done quickly, safely and efficiently whether it be a 360, 180 or 45 degree turn when needed later.
Feeling the wave lift your stern while paddling forward is a great way to begin your surfing experiences, efficiently make progress with the wind, but perhaps more importantly, sense what the boat is doing underneath you; it’s good practice to feel the boat without seeing the waves approach. I call it “paddling with your butt”. The current was lessening, the waves were diminishing and it was a nice ride to a lunch spot.
An afternoon of rescues made a good conclusion of the day; not just rescues, but rescue games. Folks have done the exercise whereby a paddler with eyes closed is guided by another paddler next to them. This game brought it up a notch by having the rescuer close their eyes while being guided by the swimmer to perform rescues. This exercise stresses the importance of communication between partners.
Interesting things crop up that we normally take for granted when we can see, such as not taking the stern of the boat. Ah well, “play with the hand that is dealt” was the value of this lesson.
Another of Ryan’s favorite games is “Mayhem”. Played in teams of three, the first team member (a “victim”) paddles off followed shortly by a member form the other team (that person is known as “Mayhem”). The job of “Mayhem” is to spoil the efforts of the rescuer, who is coming up next. Lots of things were learned in this exercise, but not what Ryan was expecting. Apparently the folks from Minnesota are a little, shall we say: aggressive? Ryan calls it cheating, but what I think he dislikes the most is having to make new rules because the Minnesotans don’t play nice.
Okay! Day one on the water and we have the bugs shaken out.
Part skill enhancing, part journey, we began our day by paddling in Cumberlando Sound. With the increase of on-shore winds for the next couple days, our play areas were going to be limited to the inland side of the Barrier Islands; but not to worry, there’s plenty of action to be found.
From the launch point, we were able to talk about our chart of this area. Being able to see the real world and compare it to print was a valuable lesson. Scale, buoyage, traffic channels, friction eddies, and again, wind and waves against current, were put into perspective.
As we paddled around the corner towards the river mouth, it became apparent that the wind and waves in the entrance to the sound were formidable. We grouped up on the lee side of the jetty and took turns with Ryan going out into the active water. Active? I had challenges just holding position behind the jetty. Only when I was tucked right up next to it, was I able to relax and wait for my turn. Communication was difficult due to the noise of wind and waves. Some folks took the opportunity to re-adjust the trim of their kayaks by pulling out on shore and re-adjusting their load. The wind was having it’s way with some of the kayaks that were lee cocking. Ryan was taking people out into the active water one by one, where the current was running strong and pushy and the wind against it was standing the waves up. A seemingly simple task to paddle out to a buoy and back was raised several notches by the conditions, but was made more simple and relaxing by the coaching and encouragement of Ryan at their side. As each one returned, I could see by their expressions that it was challenging, perhaps the most challenging paddling they’ve had, but every one met with success and a desire to try it again. When it came my turn, I was sent out with another paddler, and Ryan enjoyed a respite. From my perspective there were a lot of things to keep track of while we merely went around the buoy; the current quickly swept me towards my target, a large buoy about four feet in diameter and six feet out of the water; it definitely was a formidable opponent that seemed to draw me to it. As if fighting the opposing wind to avoid it, watching the other paddler, and being pushed around by the current weren’t enough challenge, I also wanted to see if I could keep track of the group and watch out for motor traffic. Woops!, the other kayak capsized right in front of me, and I had to position myself to be available without creaming him as I slid down the wave. Yippe! He rolled right back up and we continued. Weird, though, his day hatch cover was off. Oh well, a little water in the day hatch isn’t an immediate emergency; too bad about the errant bottle of sunscreen. But that’s not to say it was over. As we re-grouped to return to the launch site for a lunch break, Ryan secretly told him to move over into the current, capsize and wet exit. An uexpected test (although you can expect anything from a coach). Bam! done – let’s have lunch!
After lunch we continued on what we learned the day before and did a little more work on down wind runs. We caught some nice rides, zooming ahead and watching each other do the same to catch up. It was obvious the lessons of yesterday stuck with us and we were able to improve our skills on larger waves. Rather than battle our way back, we continued until we found a creek, followed it upstream and exited on a road in town.
The wind and waves were still pounding on the outside and there was little chance we would attempt to go to Cumberland Island as planned for our first of two evenings there. Instead we opted for a tour past Jekyll Island, travelling on a part of the inter-coastal highway. Down wind runs were performed and some discovered that the boats they loaded to perform into the wind the day before handled poorly while running down wind. Front heavy boats want to weather cock badly and require more attention and effort to keep on track..
Along the way we found a small stream dumping out from a marsh and played on the sharp eddy lines. I was trying to be a smarty pants and use the current and standing wave to surf backwards and was met with a watery response. Others experienced a stiff current and sharp eddy lines for the first time, later to comprehend they need to take a class of “Long boats in current”.
At last! Our chance to travel to Cumberland Island and spend the night. Our group divided in order to do a shuttle. Ryan would lead the group south down Crooked River, past the U.S. submarine base at King’s Cove and cross the northern end of Cumberland Sound to Cumberland Island, while Matt (GKC staff member) and I would drive the vehicles and trailers to Fernadina Beach and from there paddle north, crossing Cumberland Sound to Cumberland Island and meeting the group at Dungeness, Cumberland Island where the Sea Camp Ranger station and campground is. This plan allowed the main group an opportunity to travel a greater distance with the ebb tide, work on their navigating skills and allow for the whole group to make a shorter exit the following day, allowing us sufficient time to travel home.
It could be argued that Matt and I had the better route, as we had the opportunity to see eleven wild horses close by, but the other group did get to see a submarine at the base.
Cumberland Island was a fantastic destination; wide sandy beaches,
wild horses and the ruins of a massive mansion.
Our return to the launch site was to be on the ocean side this day! The forecast was finally appropriate for us to paddle on the outside of the islands. Locals had repeatedly mentioned how unusual it was at this time of year, to have so many windy days out of the northeast. That’s not to say our paddle on the ocean was to be a walk in the park; there were remnants of the long lasted winds that were still in the form of a three to four foot swell. A launch through a five foot surf lay ahead, but each participant found their way through the largest part of the sets, some getting the brunt of waves, some getting through easy, none capsizing. The thing to note at this point in time is that throughout the week, everybody had been working on building their skills. Earlier in the week, this may have seemed like an excessive challenge, now it simply became another learning point along the way.
A light paddle on the swells was like riding a gentle roller coaster until we crossed the jetty at St. Mary’s entrance. All members knew the importance of crossing this jetty at high tide; it would shave several miles off going around. As we slid through a narrow opening in the jagged rock jetty and made our final crossing, every one had the sense that their “training” had paid off.
In case you, the reader, hadn’t noticed, I mentioned the “training” we had a little less as each day passed. It wasn’t that we did less every day in the way of developing skills, it was that each day built on the previous. By gradually increasing skills and knowledge as we go along, in sensible progressions, we get better without the painful lessons of hard knocks. A great coach like Ryan, knows how to challenge every member in a group and bring them to their full potential, without putting them in over their head and creating a fear barrier.
This group definitely had an increase in confidence every day; it was very apparent to me. If we took everybody back to what we were doing the first day, there would have been none of the apprehension that was felt; instead it would have been tackled head on.
I was also amazed at the amount of laughter that went on for the week; laughter on the water and laughter on land when we reviewed what we did. Indeed, we had fun!
It is my hope for every paddle that you find the logical progressions to build the confidence to build the skills you need to take you to the next level of paddling and the next wonderful journey you desire. I hope you can find the coaches, instructors, mentors and friends that will help you along journey. And I hope you have fun along the way.
How did my assessment turn out? I passed! But I must say that to get to the point of the assessment, there were a lot of steps in my progressions, some of them backwards, some of them were big steps forward. It wasn’t always easy, sometimes it was hard, but it was always fun. Why did I do it? Why did I put so much into it? Because I want to bring this joy and fun of kayaking to others. I want to have sensible progressions that I can share with you and not have barricades to your advancement based on fear. I want to see you grow to the level of paddling you desire and enjoy your next wonderful journey.
Train for the worst; Hope for the best.
A major factor critical to my success was the mentoring and coaching I had along the way; knowledgeable and caring coaches gave me what I needed, not what I wanted, and still making it FUN. Long term coaches Ben Lawry, Mark Tozer, John Carmody and Ryan Rushton, have been a tremendous help, and never let me off easy; I owe them a great deal of gratitude.