A call to paddlers and others

Paul in trainingIf you are a sea kayaker in the west of Scotland, your assistance in sought in a special event targeted for 23 June 2012 (weather dependent). The event is a swim across the Clyde and kayaking safety support is being requested. This is a swim with a purpose that is close to my heart.

Paul Kerr is a former Royal Marine Commando who has always prided himself in being a fit and able individual. At the age of 26, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition which has given him his own considerable personal battles to fight. At the time of diagnosis, he foresaw a future filled with worst case scenarios involving wheelchairs, home carers and general disability. With the advancement of medicine, as well as improved awareness of the role of nutrition, lifestyle and a positive mindset – and despite having endured significant symptoms – Paul continues to challenge himself in defiance of those initial fears.  Two years ago, he completed the UK’s 24 Hour Three Peaks Mountain Challenge in 22 hours and 30 minutes. This year, with some friends, he is going to swim across the Clyde from Cloch Lighthouse to the Breakwater off Dunoon Pier, a distance of 1.4 nm.

Three Peaks ChallengeThe purpose of this swim is to try and show another side of living with MS to newly diagnosed sufferers, and to encourage those who are coming to terms with such a diagnosis.

Paul is also raising funds for the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre, an organisation which provides excellent information resources and support to those with MS.

Some readers will know that I also received this diagnosis some 3 years ago. I won’t ever forget the ferry journey home from my hospital appointment as I wept over visions of a melted future.  One of my first priorities was to search for any information I could find about people who were able to somehow continue doing what they loved whilst living with MS. To me, this was almost more important than researching the condition and its treatment. Of course, the worst case scenarios leapt out at me at every turn, and it was only through grasping on to the stories and efforts of people such as Paul that I kept myself out of an abyss of despair. I would very much like to help pass this along.

In support of Paul, around 20 swimmers are anticipated to participate. He is co-ordinating with Clyde Coast Guard and Clydeport, as well as organising RIB safety cover and media coverage (in particular via the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre).  Full details will be confirmed as the date approaches.

If you’d like to join in, please give me a shout, leave a comment or use the contact form. Whether or not you can make it,  you can sponsor Paul –  his JustGiving page is here. You don’t even have to be a sea kayaker to do that!

Your help is greatly appreciated.

Upside down, and round and round

Balance bracePool sessions have been very beneficial in reviving our Greenland rolling skills after a winter break but – even better – we have also been practising those skills outside again. This makes us happy! The weather threw a complete wobbly (of the good kind) last week and we were hurtled straight into summer – in March.  It was actually a bit strange and disorienting but, all troubling thoughts of climate change and weather modification aside, we decided to make the most of it. I should add that, before everyone gets too weirded out, it’s now snowing and blowing a gale.

As soon as the temperature edges above, say, 12°C in Scotland and the sun comes out, everyone is dressed in their shorts and tee-shirts (and the glare off of white skin can be seen from space). So, at 20°C, it did seem a bit odd to be layering up for immersion, but the water temperature confirmed that this was quite necessary. After a couple of standard Greenland rolls, it became apparent that the layering system was effective and that the water’s iciness was not penetrating much at all. I moved on to butterfly, then norsaq then hand rolls and realised that the contrast with the zero buoyancy at the pool was huge. It almost felt like cheating – so much so, that I took my BA off and have now consigned it to the “not required while rolling” gear bag. This is progress and has made the struggling in the pool worthwhile. It’s true that failure is a stepping stone to success.

We’ve started working on forward finishing rolls and have made some inroads. After watching Maligiaq and Dubside’s DVD, we are going through the “progression” steps and Alan is off and running on his own, whilst I need someone to hold my hand/paddle as I fumble about trying to get my head around this whole new technique. If ever there was a roll that would benefit from yoga (paschimottanasana in particular), it’s this one. Working our way through all of the official Greenland rolls is going to take a while, but we’ve been working on a few more now, including the elbow crook, shotgun and paddle-behind-the-head (presently aka stuck-under-the-kayak) roll.

It’s interesting to note that we both feel real improvement in our Euro rolls. The nuances of blade angle are less important and now it feels like we have a big blade surface to help (versus impede) us.

As we count down towards our much anticipated training with Kayak Ways, we are not short of resources to help us learn. Any day now, 2 DVDs will be released:  as already mentioned, Justine Curgenven (of the excellent “This Is the Sea” series) has produced “This Is The Roll“, featuring none other than Kayak Ways’ Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson. Christopher Crowhurst (of “Qajaq Rolls” fame) has produced a “Rolling With Sticks” DVD to accompany his very handy book of the same name. We are getting spoiled!

For the past several days, it so happens that I’ve had a tab open in my browser window directed to the “Buy now” page for a Brooks tuilik. I’m not sure how that happened – I mean, I am coping without a tuilik. Although, I do feel a little restricted when rotating. And maybe it would allow me to ditch a fleece or two. And I don’t mind whatsoever being compared to a seal (in fact, I’d be flattered). I don’t want to be impulsive … but I am open to persuasion.

For Sale – Valley Nordkapp


Valley Nordkapp

The Valley Nordkapp that is for sale. (Image taken Feb 2012)

Since acquiring the smaller Avocet, Alan hasn’t been using his Valley Nordkapp anywhere nearly as much as such a pedigree kayak deserves. He has therefore decided to sell it.

Nordkapp description from Valley:

“A genuine evolution of the kayak that initiated the design trends most Sea-Kayaks now follow. Continued development ensures it remains the benchmark expedition-capable sea kayak.

The current Nordkapp is an evolution of the design used for the original Cape Horn and Nordkapp expeditions of the 1970’s. Indeed the original prototype was produced with the needs of the Nordkapp expedition in mind, hence the name! The first production versions even incorporated developments due to feedback from these early expeditions. This process has continued ever since, each generation of paddlers pushing the boundaries and providing feedback that is then incorporated into this, our flagship, expedition capable sea-kayak. Since its launch it has proven itself in almost every sea and ocean around the globe. Whilst the current Nordkapp shares many of the handling attributes of the original the design has evolved to meet the needs of the modern paddler resulting in a fast, comfortable and user friendly expedition capable sea kayak.”


Details are:

  • White deck over white hull with black decklines and trims.
  • 3 1/2 years old – one careful owner. Rarely used in past year and 1/2.
  • Fully functional (Valley) skeg
  • All hatch covers, hatches, foot pegs, decklines, seat etc. in pristine condition
  • Minor surface abrasions on hull (as to be expected)
  • Very minor spider crack to gel coat in one very localised area (< size of 1 pence piece).
  • Fitted Silva deck compass
  • Excellent condition
  • Length: 18’(548cm)
    Width: 21”(53cm)
    Depth: 14”(36cm)
    Weight: 51lbs (23.5kg)
  • Location : West Coast of Scotland (Clyde Area)
  • £1350

Photos below.

Contact me here or by leaving a comment.

Greenland comes to Scotland

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways

Before I started paddling, my only association with Greenland was flying over that country and marvelling at its Arctic beauty from high above. I’ve still never been there, however, slowly but surely, we are pulling more and more bits of Greenland over to Scotland. Not the actual icy bits, but some of the traditions, craft and skills of the Inuit people. We have kayaks and paddles, and now we are going to be learning skills from 2 of the best-known traditional paddlers in the world, Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways. They aren’t actually from Greenland (at least not in this life), but their status as traditional skills experts is recognised both in that country and throughout the world. You can imagine my excitement to be booked on to a weekend course with them when they come to Scotland in late May. What a privilege! (You can pre-order their “This is the Roll” DVD here, by the way).

Greenland paddlingNow that Spring is springing, my thoughts are turning to rolling in the sea again and I’m looking forward to sharpening up existing skills so as to not look like a numpty have a good foundation to work on when Cheri and Turner arrive. We have had the good fortune of attending pool sessions lately and I’m having fun playing with my Greenland stick there. Gone are the days of spending the entire evening stressing over that one perfect Euro roll.

My only concern is from witnessing where this Greenland path leads, as demonstrated by Mackayak in Orkney. She started out in a colourful drysuit and an Isel (which sounds awfully familiar), but can now be found in a tuilik and a shiny, black beauty of a kayak. I am feeling a bit gaudy …

Photography from your sea kayak

DSLR waterproof bag

Canon d10 waterproof compact

With the overwhelming popularity of digital cameras, more and more of us are taking photographs on dry land. For some of us that may involve using a cheap compact camera, whilst at the other end of the scale it may involve a professional DSLR camera with several lenses and filters.

In order to take better photos while on the water, we are placed into a predicament, with only a few options open to us –

  1. Take a non waterproof pro-sumer/compact or digital SLR out without protection
  2. Take a non waterproof pro-sumer/compact  or digital SLR in a water-tight bag , or perhaps custom plastic waterproof housing
  3. Take a waterproof compact camera

Nikon D70 SLR waterproof housing

The majority of us will end up making the compromise of convenience and ease of access of the waterproof compact cameras over the other two options. Let’s face it, if we are spending time faffing about with large cameras and/or camera enclosures, including their storage on deck, we are not spending as much time enjoying kayaking! There is also the risk that we may also be spoiling  our paddling companions’ enjoyment of a trip.

Having said that, it is always desirable to be able to take DSLR quality images while we are out on the water, even if we only have a waterproof compact to achieve this! Obviously there are many compromises and limitations with using compacts over DSLRs from a photography perspective the following table compares the tradeoffs:

DSLR / Pro-sumer/Compact
Waterproof Compact
Risk High risk of water damage, even damp hands on buttons will eventually cause corrosion or salt buildup. Used in housings this may be better, but the tradeoff is size. Low risk of water damage.
Features Access to full features if not in waterproof housing.Only a subset of features are available if in housing. Full set of compact features available. Obviously this doesn’t equate to a full set of DSLR features!
Size/ Weight Bulky, heavy, cumbersome. How do you store it? On deck? In cockpit? Compact, light and easily stored and tethered.
Housing Housing can be a bag with a transparent lens ‘window’. What is the optical clarity/ quality of this window like?Housing can be a custom hard plastic casing that has buttons that access a subset of the cameras features. Really optimised for diving – very bulky. Self contained, small, fits into BA/PFD pocket.
Accessibility Slow to access, may miss a shot. Easy to access.
Image Sensor Larger image sensor per megapixel count. Bigger sensor. Smaller image sensor per megapixel count.Image sensors lack quality, they are usually smaller and capture far less light and tend to be far noisier than DSLR sensors. 

Auto focus may be slow due to image sensor’s small size.

A good article on image sensors can be found here

Optical Quality Larger lenses, better optical quality. Small lenses, lesser optical quality. Small lenses can vary considerably in quality and will never match DSLR camera. Distortion will be present.
Filters Ability to use filters, although anything more complicated than a polariser may be a bit of a task in a kayak! Very few possibilities for filters.
Lens Options Would you want to change lenses in a kayak? You can certainly pick from a wide range of lenses before setting out. Stuck with single lens that comes with camera. Limited focal lengths
Lens Speed/ Quality Wider lenses = more light entering camera = faster lens in lower lighting conditions = good autofocus. Smaller lenses = less light entering camera = give poorer autofocus and noise performance in low lighting conditions.
Zoom Capability Bigger zoom lenses are an option Limited zoom capability.
Image Stabilisation Only sometimes available, housed in certain types of lenses. Widely available, housed in camera. IS is arguably a necessity in sea kayaking.
Auto Focus Better focusing ability in low light, user controlled. More limited focusing ability esp in low light, no/limited user control.
User Control Manual control over everything. Primarily automated control, minimal manual control.
RAW Images RAW files + high quality jpegs both an option. Only jpeg files available – at mercy of manufacturer’s JPEG compression algorithms.
Movie capability Limited, although more models are supporting movie modes. Movies are supported most likely on all models. Not all compacts record movies of great quality.
High ISO performance Acceptable higher ISO performance. Higher ISO shots can be very noisy, which shows up as coloured speckles on images.
Turn on time Acceptable power-on times. Variable power-on times, some have quite a lag
Shutter response time No shutter release delay. Variable shutter release delay, some models have quite a lag!
Viewfinder type Optical viewfinder. No viewfinder, just screen. Can be hard to see in bright light. Screen being on is also a drain on batteries.
Write Speed Fast writing to memory, can use bursts (rapid sequence of shots). Slower writing to memory, can be a problem with fast sequence of shots.
Exposure control Better auto exposure, less blown highlights. Auto exposure biased toward producing overall bright pictures, blown out highlights can be common.
JPEG Quality Less compression of jpeg files. Jpeg files can be more compressed to optimise memory card space.
Power Larger battery size, potential longer duration, depending on lens type and IS usage. Small compact batteries, shorter duration of shoot times, typically 1 day at 150 shots a day.
Intangibles/Enjoyment Factor Can you still enjoy a kayak trip with an unprotected DSLR on board? Or even with a protected one on board? Are your paddling buddies prepared to wait while you stop and take your SLR out all the time? Camera is out and used so fast and with peace of mind, and minimal delays for paddling buddies.


Expensive DSLR

So how do we get the best out of a waterproof compact on the water whilst living with the above compromises?

  1. Go for a high pixel count compact camera so that we can at least downsize the images and iron out small visual imperfections
  2. Limit the ‘Auto’ ISO function to be a max of 400-800 range (many compacts are noisy/grainy at ISO > 200). Changing this setting is a compromise between image quality (grainyness) and blurred images (too slow a shutter speed) at lower ISO.
  3. Underexpose by 1 to two stops eg -0.3eV to -0.7eV. Most compacts allow you to do this by switching to a more manual mode. Compensate for underexposure by adjustment on computer at a later stage. You can always brighten an image up, but you can’t ever get back blown highlights!
  4. Switch your jpeg settings to highest quality available. A lot of manufacturers default to a setting that has less jpeg quality so as to increase the number of shots storable on a memory card.
  5. Switch off face recognition priority for auto focus. When out kayaking, faces may not be the priority of the camera, and there’s no point in wasting processing power hunting for them.
  6. Power down when not taking shots in order to save battery power. The screen view finders eat lots of battery power.
  7. Turn auto flash to ‘off’. Sometimes to compensate for a dull scene, the flash will go off, which is pointless for anything > 10 ft away.
  8. Make sure Image Stabilisation is always turned to ‘on’
  9. Turn off  ‘digital zoom’ there really is no point, you can just crop your images later.

Nion Aw100 waterproof compact

There really is no comparison between pro-sumer/DSLR cameras and waterproof compacts, but the waterproof cameras’ versatility, storability, readiness  and associated peace of mind will always win me over any day out on the water.

Forward motion

Northern Light 3-piece paddleI now seem to have found myself in possession of 2 Greenland paddles. In my defence, I am sharing these with Alan (or maybe he is sharing them with me?). We acquired an Anglesey Stick in the summer, which sparked our pursuit of all things Greenland (minus the icebergs). More recently, we obtained a Northern Light 3-piece carbon fibre paddle which combines ancient and modern technology in one sleek, black package. The reasons for pursuing this particular option were:

  • Now we have a Greenland stick each
  • The paddle can be dismantled for ease of transportation (which saves the car windscreen from being speared)
  • It can also be shortened into a storm paddle.

I am hard pressed to choose a favourite between the wooden and the carbon fibre versions of the Greenland paddle. I’ve enjoyed working with both of them when rolling, but haven’t yet done an indepth comparison when paddling from A to B. As a matter of fact, I haven’t done a whole lot of journeying with a Greenland paddle full-stop. After reading a blog post by Mel in Australia, where she describes her journey from using a Euro paddle to a Greenland stick (most recently completing a 111 km ultra-marathon), it lodged the idea in my mind that perhaps a Greenland paddle isn’t just for rolling!  I’m also familiar with its reputation for being easier on the wrists. This past weekend, I decided to see how I would fare on a short day trip. My treasured Werner splits were secured to my foredeck, as I ploughed forward armed with nothing more than a skinny stick.

Greenland paddleThe one thing that I notice when forward paddling with a “G-stick” is that it feels like a different set of muscles is being employed, compared with a Euro paddle. These muscles reside more in the torso and shoulders as opposed to the arms and wrists. I found myself being more naturally inclined to rotate, with marked improvement occurring when engaging the feet (of course, this should apply to Euro paddles too). The Northern Light paddle slips through the water smoothly and stealthily and, despite my initially less than perfect technique, I did not experience flutter. It takes a little adjusting, but wasn’t long before I got into the swing of things and I started to feel quite comfortable and made good forward progress.

Something that Alan and I have both experienced is a slight hesitance to trust our Greenland paddles when bracing. Without a big, fat blade to lean against, we feel a little exposed. But this is more of a psychological/perception issue and I think that, with practice, we will be bracing effectively regardless. Counterbalancing this, I did notice a heightened sense of security in relation to the fact that rolling with a Greenland paddle is significantly more reliable than with a Euro paddle. This really does improve one’s confidence. I have read comments suggesting that, for example, a standard Greenland roll isn’t as effective in rough water. Yet I’ve also recently read reports of  Greenland paddlers out in serious surf who had no problem with, and thus every confidence in, repeatedly employing this roll (comments here, for instance).

Greenland rollingPassing my G-stick over to friends to try out gave me the opportunity to make a direct comparison with a (crank shaft carbon fibre) Euro paddle. Suddenly, it felt like I was paddling with a shovel. I could feel every tendon in my arms and wrists and it all seemed a bit like hard work, especially against the wind. My right elbow is a slight weak spot (in wind in particular), which ultimately leads to a wrist problem, and it wasn’t long before it started to tweak. I will confess to being relieved to get my skinny stick back, when the elbow pain disappeared and everything felt more comfortable again.

I’m certainly going to continue taking the Greenland stick out on trips. Alan will probably have a go with the carbon fibre paddle next time while I try out the wooden Anglesey Stick which I already know is a beautiful paddle to hold.

The Greenland adventure continues!

Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks book at the ready

As Alan and I go out to practice our Greenland rolling, a scenario unfolds that might resonate with other paddlers of the skinny stick variety. Picture the scene: you have arrived at your favourite rolling spot, you go through the repertoire of rolls that you’ve mastered then you proceed to the ones that you are working on. One of two things happens then – you can’t quite get it right and can’t remember all the tips you tried to memorise from the DVDs and videos you’ve watched previously. Or, you nail it and are ready to try out a new roll, but can’t think which one or where to begin.

Sadly, out on the water, it’s not possible to take along a laptop, or even to readily fire up a mobile device, so it can leave one at a loss as to how to proceed. At worst, one could inadvertently start using bad technique which could lead to injury.

Rolling With Sticks

So that's how it's meant to be done!

Some of you might already be familiar with the Qajaq Rolls Website, which has been carefully put together by rolling aficionado Christopher Crowhurst in the US. It is a terrific free resource, documenting all the Greenland rolls (and others) in video and text, as well as employing useful stick figure diagrams. Branching out from this, Christopher has now created a book containing a first volume of rolls illustrated by said stick figures and accompanied by descriptive text. The book is called “Rolling With Sticks” (what else!) and is published on “Xerox premium NeverTear water resistant polyester paper.” In other words, it’s bombproof (just like your roll will be).

Alan and I received our copy last week and took it out to test in saltwater. Firstly, I can confirm, it really is waterproof. It’s difficult to imagine anything “paper” that wouldn’t become a soggy, mushy mess in saltwater, but it truly doesn’t. It’s hard to tell it’s even wet! And so, we were happily flipping through the contents and rolling with the book under our decklines. I was working on my hand roll and Alan on his storm roll and it was extremely useful (and somehow comforting) to have a handy reference right in front of us. It also acts as inspiration to get started on a new roll that we might not even have considered before. The stick figures work well as a quick visual reference (and I appreciated that they are smiling, reminding us to have fun!).

Rollign With Sticks

Alan looks up something new to try ...

This is quite a pioneering  book, being that the very nature of Greenland rolling is such that the skills have been passed down via elders and mentors, and have not been committed to paper to any large extent. Even although the activity is growing in popularity, it has still been quite niche. Skills sharing in this digital age has occurred via Internet sites and videos (as well as elders and mentors, of course), but I have not come across a lot in the way of guidebooks, and certainly not waterproof ones – a definite first!

I do have a tiny criticism. In the instructions for at least one roll (hand roll, forward to aft), we are guided to look up at the “sunlight”. This did throw me, being that the West of Scotland hasn’t seen sunlight for most of the “summer”. Perhaps “sky” would be a better word for us sun-deprived folks. But now I’m just being bitter picky.

To get your copy of Volume 1, go to the Rolling With Sticks Website. You won’t be disappointed!

The Falls of Lora

How exactly did I find myself kayaking on the Falls of Lora?  In past times, the concept of paddling there was consigned in my mind to those mad, daredevil individuals whose skills surpassed my own by a quantum factor. It had about as much relevance to me as embarking upon a hillwalking trip up Everest, or an afternoon cycle up l’Alpe d’Huez.

Well, it started with Facebook. Entirely in keeping with Mr Zuckerberg’s stated goal of having us share our  every fantastical whim thought on social media, I entered a status update which linked to this particular video:

with the wistful comment of, “This makes me want to be a better kayaker…”. The power of Facebook is such that, before I could say, “… in my next life”, I was already signed up for a one-day training course on the Falls. Actually, it had a lot more to do with having a friend who never fails to encourage and motivate others towards becoming that very thing, a better kayaker (thanks, Julia!).

Connel Bridge - Falls starting to flow

Connel Bridge - Falls starting to flow

In the days leading up to our trip, it was interesting to observe how my mind flew into full “OMG!” mode, torturing itself with videos of other, better kayakers on the Falls (and they were capsizing!) and general panic. It was hard to discern which set of Falls I was actually headed for and might as well have been Niagara.  By half way through the week, however, a certain calm emerged. One might call it resignation, but I prefer to think of it as perspective. I realised that that video where the waves looked ginormously scary involved a deck-mounted camera (objects in the camera may appear bigger), and that the swimming part was quite short-lived. There had been a fair number taken at spring tides, when we would be going at 4 days after springs. It also seemed that there had been no fatalities in any of the footage. I reminded myself that we were going with a coach with a pristine reputation to uphold (so allowing folks to drown would be quite bad for business). I even went as far as reading my last blog post. Along the way, I developed some mantras to take along with me:

  • “Just do it.”  I think this has a certain ring to it. It was inspired by the advice from John from Northern Ireland who warned that hesitation was the worst enemy on the Falls.
  • “If it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter”. This applies specifically to rolling and again was also passed on by John, a recent Falls survivor, to whom I am grateful.
  • “I can and I will”. This came from my yoga teacher who used it to learn snowboarding.
Approaching the Falls

Ain't no stopping ...

So, there we were, meeting up with Tony Hammock of Sea Freedom Kayak and his very able assistant, Carol, at the Connel bridge last Friday morning. We donned helmets (as protection from each other’s kayaks and paddles during rescues) and made our way to the water.

To be honest, the specific details get a bit blurry after this. The Falls of Lora is a veritable Disneyland for tidal flow practice and all I know is that I entered a world of  fast-moving, turbulent water of a kind I hadn’t previously experienced. I learned about its principal characteristics: eddy lines, whirlpools, flows, standing waves, holes, boils, hubble bubble, toil and trouble.  We practised breaking in and out, high crosses and s-turns as well as (crucially) plain old tight, sweeping turns. We also learned such genteel disciplines as “mooning at the menace”, or “farting at the force” (I will never again forget which way to edge in tidal flow).

A particularly vivid recollection, however, was of punching through various foaming eddy lines.  With a battle cry of  “Hoka hey!” (although I may have got that wrong), Tony led us over the top and into the fray. As I watched his kayak scooshing off on a crazy edge, I remember thinking how simple the situation was (you could say it was a little moment of Zen). There really was no alternative but to deal with what lay in front of you at that moment, to PLF (paddle like fury), edge, sweep and see what happened. And so I was off, perfectly aware that I could well be gunned down in a hail of seawater, but – astonishingly – I managed to stay upright through each of our forays into the froth. I can’t ascribe a specific reason for this, other than perhaps the kayaking gods were too confused by my newfound assertive attitude to get up to their usual mischief. I also give credit to my wonderful Isel kayak, of course. I would be telling a lie if I were to say I didn’t capsize all day. Embarrassingly, whilst faffing about trying to get my camera out of my pocket, I managed to capsize in a tranquil eddy (a real Mrs Doyle moment, please don’t ask …). Suffice to say, you can never let your guard down in tidal waters.

All 3 of us got a lot out of our day and I can certainly recommend a visit to the Falls as a great way to improve your kayaking skills. I can also recommend that you go with Tony. I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm and his ability to bring out the best in someone who is not at all used to that environment, whilst encouraging an assertive response and respect for it.

Upon finding myself low-bracing as I was drifting off to sleep on Friday night, I realised just how fully engaging the experience had been. I also realised how very silly my fears had been. But it amounted to more than a day’s training in kayaking skills for me. I discovered that, to be 100% present in the moment with unhesitating, positive intent increases the likelihood of positive results. Who knew? (Aside from a couple of thousand years worth of buddhas, yogis, gurus, and Oprah).  Too often we talk ourselves out of things that we are actually capable of. We are our own worst enemies! And now, with that in mind, I’m off to find some menaces to moon at.

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to go for it!

PS – Photos of our trip are limited due to the dynamic nature of the environment. At one point I had a GoPro camera attached to my kayak’s stern. I am hoping to gain access to the resultant video and, if I do, I will post it here.

Hurricanes and supernovas

Surface pressure chartWe appear to be living in interesting times. Tuning into the news lately, I’ve learned:

*(remnants of)

We’ve had our fair share of man-made crises too in the past year, from oil leaks to nuclear meltdowns. And, of course, the usual wars, alerts, and political and economic upheavals.

Stormy dayIt’s enough to make you anxious.

What’s this got to do with kayaking? Well, the common denominator is: fear. We live in a fear-filled world. The mainstream media likes nothing better than to amp up the fear factor (as well as the X Factor). Before you know it, you’re anxious about everything, even your leisure pursuits.

I realise that everyone is different and perhaps many of you braver, chilled out individuals can’t relate. But I would wager that a few of you have danced with anxiety in the great céilidh of life.

In particular, in sea kayaking, there’s a lot to potentially be anxious about:

  • big, scary waves
  • tidal flows
  • failed rolls
  • barnacles
  • jellyfish
  • looking stupid

If like, me, you bore yourself to death with such thoughts and their paralysing tendencies, there comes a point when you very much want to be free of them. And that’s when you realise – well, they’re just thoughts. They are 100% in your head. Just because you’re fixated on encountering big, scary hurricane-powered waves in a 12 knot tidal flow whilst failing your roll and being swept into a bay of jellyfish (after your GPS fails due to a solar storm) before crash-landing on top of barnacles (and looking very stupid), doesn’t mean it’s actually happening, or going to happen. It’s all a (bad) dream of yours and is no more pertinent than the one you had about public speaking whilst naked (you had that one, right?). Afterwards, you wake up, reflect with alarm/amusement/embarrassment on your crazy old mind, then get on with the reality of your day.

And that is the tack I am now taking. But it’s not a case of ignoring my crazy old mind – au contraire. Instead, I am inviting it to come in and take a seat while we have a little talk. What’s this fear thing then? After I’ve shone the spotlight on it for a bit, it starts looking rather like my bank account after a visit to the kayak gear shop – empty. It has no substance. It’s no more than a feeling. The other shocker for me has been to discover how much of that fear relates to appearances – not so much how great I look in my neoprene hood, but more whether or not I can maintain that norsaq-wielding, rockstar kayaker image I’ve been working so hard to build. I know, I laughed too. It is much easier to let all that go, to escort fear out of the building with a polite handshake and a thanks for the insight, and to return to being – well, nobody.

Here’s a quote that’s inspired me recently:

It’s actually wonderful to see that you’re nobody and that all the fear you’ve had all your life was in relation to this self you thought you had. You have one less thing to promote, protect, maintain, dress up and present to the world.

Radical stuff! It’s from Larry Rosenberg, in his book “Breath by Breath”, in which he also says:

We see that fear isn’t something we own or have any control over. We’ve been living as if we do, as if we should be able not to feel it. But all we can do is meet it skillfully.

And then we just go kayaking and we see what’s out there. We might even have fun. We might pick up skills and, funnily enough, have less to fear afterwards. We might have some failures (and I don’t mean the ones involving unnecessary risk), but that’s part of learning. One person’s failure is another’s first step on the ladder to acquiring an awesome skill.

With that in mind, hurricanes permitting, I am off to the Falls of Lora next weekend. I’ll be taking my old pal Fear with me, but firstly we’ll be sitting down for a little chat, and then he can watch me from the shore.

Up here in my tree, yeah
Newspapers matter not to me, yeah
No more crowbars to my head, yeah
I’m trading stories with the leaves instead, yeah

In My Tree, Pearl Jam, No Code