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

Debugging a Sweep Roll

Post By Alan

I’ve had an ‘offside’ (or less reliable) side when rolling my kayak for a long time. Historically, it came about as a result of various rotator cuff strains whilst learning to roll. I have switched sides several times in the learning process, but my left side roll has always been the most reliable and strong. The lesser used right hand side (offside) has appeared and disappeared then reappeared in a different forms from time to time, and I have gone through the associated highs and lows.

I have mainly debugged my offside roll by analysing video footage, quite often on location for immediate feedback on what worked and didn’t work. Through this, I have a better understandings of some of the mechanisms that can lead to a sweep roll failing. Sometimes it is the exact same thing that I do wrong time and again, which shows that it isn’t always a straightforward process to learn from your mistakes when rolling!

My findings are based on rolling a sea kayak, with dry suit, buoyancy aid and a crankshaft Euro paddle. Again, the assumption is that you know the basics of a Euro paddle sweep roll, but you may be experiencing inconsistencies with your roll on one side or another. The following are things that I have determined whilst trying to debug my own less dependable ‘offside’ roll.

Debugging Alan’s Sea Kayak Offside Roll

  • On setting up underwater, I often find that I over-reach upwards and, as a result, I am holding the paddle and sweeping the blade out of the water at the start of the roll. Unfortunately, you don’t get any leverage out of sweeping fresh air, so bringing the paddle blade down to be in contact (or almost) with the water surface is a must before starting a sweep. The amount that you have to reach up or bring the paddle blade down will vary considerably depending on whether you are rolling with a buoyancy aid and dry suit, or not. For example, in a swimming pool rolling session, likely with no dry suit or buoyancy aid, you will have to reach a lot more to get to the water surface.
  • If you are uncertain of blade angle on the water surface, you can use your hand to reach up and feel what angle the blade is at before you start your sweep and make corrections to position it flat on the water surface.
  • A climbing blade angle results in adding too much resistance to the sweep, which limits it and results in a failed roll. A flat to soft declined blade angle is the best angle to sweep with. A declined blade angle of 30 degrees or more will make the paddle dive and most likely lead to a failed roll.
  • The blade angle changes as you sweep due to your body position changing, therefore, the sweeping wrist angle needs to bend back as the sweep reaches the mid to rear of the kayak in order to keep the blade flat and to stop it climbing. Failed rolls can happen even after starting the sweep with a flat paddle if the wrist is kept in the same position during the entire sweep causing the blade to climb, ie resistance. This is a common finding in many of my failed rolls. I find that at the start of the sweep my wrist is neutral to slightly bent forward, but by the end it needs to be bent back to maintain the desired flat blade angle. This action had become so automatic on the left hand side that I barely noticed I was doing it and it took me a while to realise that it was missing entirely on the right. When I introduced it to the right, the roll started working again!
  • Get someone to video your rolls so you can easily debug them later, or play back the video on site (if you have a waterproof camera) for extra quick visual feedback. Remember if a picture paints a thousand words, then a video must paint a whole lot more!
  • Different sea kayaks vary in how they capsize and, as a result, each will feel different to get into the set up position. Higher volume kayaks will have more buoyancy to drag round. If you sometimes feel like you are stuck before getting round to set up position, learn to tug on the paddle a couple of times to pull yourself around.
  • Keep your rolling practice to sensible durations. It’s better to do 3 days of one hour training sessions a week  rather than 3 hours, one day a week.
  • If you are doing rolling practice for a while and you start to feel your rolling is getting worse, a few other things can come into play –
    • Dizziness (affects me after about 3 rolls)
    • Water leaking from your spray deck into the cockpit filling it up and changing kayak/rolling dynamics
    • Fatigue from muscle weakness, which could lead to bad technique and injuries
    • Are you wearing the correct clothing? Dry suit and under fleece are essential at minimum for rolling in Scotland anyway!
    • Even with a dry suit and fleece, cold can become an issue, especially if you’re rolling outdoors in northern climes. Intersperse rolling with some forward paddling just to get the blood circulating again.
  • If you make progress during a rolling session, stop and feel good that you did so. Don’t keep repeating a roll until it fails. It’s better to leave with a sense of enthusiasm and achievement in your mind rather than dwelling on how you managed to fail miserably after a good start!

Finding your rolling mojo

If someone posted an article online about sea kayak rolling a couple of years ago, I’d have found it before Google did. It was around then that I was putting in enough research on kayak rolling that, in another field, it could have warranted the discovery of the Higgs Bosun particle, or the mapping of the human genome perhaps.   After many hours of YouTube videos, reams of articles, much experimentation and observation, guidance from coaches and friends, as well as DVDs and books, you might think that I would have determined the definitive technique for a bombproof roll. Well, it’s not that simple. There are so many variables in the rolling equation, including the paddler, that it is impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, what I can do is share some of the discoveries that helped me in the hope that they might tip someone else over (so to speak) into the realms of success.

Euro blade sweep roll

I’m assuming a certain foundation of knowledge such as – you’re familiar with “eskimo rescues” (wherein you capsize, thump the bottom of your kayak and then use the bow of your assistant’s kayak to right yourself). Thereafter, you’ve perhaps managed to roll all the way around to the other side of your kayak and used a float or a person to work your way to an upright position. You’ve probably learned the basics of “hip flicks” and body and head positioning . And, if you’ve got that far, you might even have inserted a paddle into the mix.

If you are pursuing a sweep roll (as I did), it’s around now that things start to get a little more tricky. You are probably using a “Euro” blade (as opposed to a Greenland “skinny stick” paddle) and that’s when you might become intimately familiar with the concept of blade angle. It has been my personal experience that blade angle can make or break a Euro blade roll. An angle that is, say, 30 degrees or more off of flat can make the blade dive or climb. Never mind head positioning, sweeping or watching the blade, your roll is DOA and all the heaving in the world won’t save it (but may injure your shoulder!). Blade angle can also be affected by the particular paddle you are using (in relation to blade size, feather, crank shaft etc), your buoyancy (buoyancy aid, dry suit etc), and the type/size of kayak you are rolling.

All I can say is that, having a death grip on your paddle does not help. In other words, loosen your grip sufficiently to allow the paddle to find flatness on the water. In the past, I have tended to draw up elaborate mental formulae for wrist angle that only lacked a protractor for accuracy, but this was easily thrown out of whack by so much as a change of dry suit. Another idea is to capsize, set up and then get someone to adjust your paddle to be flat on the water. That was, in fact, the final step that got me rolling in the first place.

You might wonder whether you should try to progress on both sides equally. A coach once told me to make one side bombproof before working on the other as you can transfer your awareness and learnings over readily. I would agree with this approach. Apart from anything else, it is a psychological boost to have a strong roll on one side as opposed to a weak roll on both sides.

I would also recommend having a go at rolling with an extended Greenland paddle. As I’ve mentioned before, the Greenland paddle is your friend. It will scarcely allow you to fail. If you can get hold of a copy, watch Helen Wilson’s “Simplifying the Roll” DVD where you will learn about torso movement and keeping the eyebrows under the water, among other things.  Whilst this type of layback roll differs from the standard Euro paddle sweep roll, it will give you a feel for the importance of body and head positioning, as well as confidence that you can get yourself back up. This goes a long way to removing the fear of capsizing that can hinder practice. Once you’ve gained that confidence, you can then transfer your awareness and experiment with an extended Euro paddle perhaps, before refining your sweep roll. As one thing leads to another, you may then find yourself pursuing some of the other Greenland rolls and, before you know it, you’ll start looking forward to capsizing. At the very least, you will have diminished any inherent aversion to spending time underwater.

Of course, you never finish learning in sea kayaking, and this includes rolling. No sooner than you’ve finished celebrating your first successful pool roll, you must work on rolling your sea kayak in salt water. Then you have to try it out in chop. Then in even rougher water. Then with “unexpected” capsizes where you haven’t set up beforehand. Then with a kayak full of water. Then with half a paddle. And so on.

One piece of advice that I can offer is to always adopt “beginner’s mind” when approaching rolling. Be open to all the possibilities, including failure – and success, of course. Don’t assume that just because you were rolling like Maligiaq one day that you will never again have an off day. And just because you didn’t nail that roll today, the effort is never wasted. You have built more “knowledge” into muscle memory than you realise.

In fact, thinking about it all, I’m going to amend what I said at the start. I do have the secret to rolling success, and I can sum it up in one word – practice!

Next kayakacrossthewater article will focus on debugging a faulty roll.

Failure is the path of least persistence

Avocet at poolHaving learned that sea kayaks are allowed in the Riverside Leisure Centre pool (as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed), we decided to bring one along to practice some “real” rolling at the Club session on Friday night.  Of course, I was keen to take my Rockpool Isel, but this was not conducive to letting other folks have a shot, being that the Isel’s footplate takes a bit more work to adjust than foot pegs. And so, we took along Alan’s Valley Avocet. This choice caused me a little trepidation as my history of rolling the Avocet has not exactly been one filled with glowing accomplishment. I have had the odd moment of success, but it’s been exactly that – odd. And, of course, after the arrival of my Isel, I was in no rush to go back and engage in further self-torture. I managed, however, to delude myself into thinking that I had been making decent progress in improving my skills in the pool boats, so perhaps rolling the Avocet would be a scoosh now. Or perhaps not …

The moment of truth arrived. Alan jumped in and rolled in his usual style, with grace and poise. Next up, it was my turn. After a particularly ugly roll, I then went for a little swim. This was followed by a couple more laboured efforts and some more swimming. Sigh …

Meantime, various other members of the Cowal Kayak Club (mostly river paddlers) jumped in for a go, and each one of them rolled the Avocet with ease.  By the end of the evening, it was as if my ego had imbibed a shrinking potion and  promptly jumped down the rabbit hole into a distorted wonderland of neurosis and despair. Through the haze of blind rage chlorine, I heard a coach’s voice advise something about giving it more “oomph”, fixing my hand position … oooh and look at how good Terry’s (first ever) roll in a sea kayak is … it’s so good, he doesn’t even know how good it is … yada yada yada (I hate Terry …*).

We did of course bring along a camera and I have now reviewed the video evidence.

Readers who are bored senseless at this stage can skip.

For the remaining 2 of you, I give you Exhibits A and B (and C and D):

Alan at set-up

Alan at set-up, note that kayak has started to rotate already

Pam at set-up

Pam at set-up, note that kayak is not rotating at all

Alan rolling up

Paddle at 90 degrees, and Alan's well on his way

Pam not rolling

Paddle at 90 degrees and kayak only just starting to rotate

So, what’s up with that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re all thinking – HIP FLICK! But I swear I can’t get it going any sooner in the Avocet.  Is this a connectivity issue (with thanks to Julia for supplying that technical term), or am I just rubbish?  My most successful roll was the one that involved an absence of noseclip which resulted in a degree of urgency, or “oomph”. I am now inclined to learn a C-to-C roll for those kayaks with which I have difficulty, being that the first half of my sweep isn’t achieving anything anyway.

Fast forward to Saturday and I awoke to a disinclination to go anywhere near a kayak. The prospect of sulking at home all day, however, was even less appealing, and so we trundled along to meet up with our friends and then made our way to Strachur.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess

It was a pleasure not to be warding off frostbite as we got our gear ready for going on the water, and we were soon heading south towards Strathlachlan, with some slight wind coming from the northwest. There were few other vessels on Loch Fyne, and we were passed by the Hebridean Princess (HM The Queen was not on board). Alan took a photo of her (the ship) with me in the foreground and said he was going to label it “Hebridean Princess and cruise ship”.  I simpered obligingly.

Castle Lachlan

Castle Lachlan

We stopped for lunch at the Inver Cottage Restaurant, whose welcoming fireside is always appreciated.

Upon departure, I took the opportunity to surreptitiously dip my hands in the loch to test the temperature. It wasn’t exactly bath-like, but I speculated that I could perhaps handle a little dunking as long as I kept my drysuit on. In other words, I needed to regain my rolling mojo. I read a book recently that dealt with how the brain attaches to negative associations, being that primitive peoples had to place great focus on matters such as not being killed or starving to death, versus the more positive matters of finding a mate, or a flat-screen telly.  And so we are hard-wired to attach to negativity. The book recommended that, when something negative occurs, you should immediately replace it in your mind with something positive and, in so doing, you can effectively rewire your brain.  My intention, therefore, was to replace the painful associations of the previous evening, with the memory of a perfect, effortless roll in my Isel.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. No sooner had I capsized than I became aware of a complete inability to surface. Convinced that I’d been snagged by the Loch Fyne Monster (or at least an especially vicious piece of kelp), I went for yet another frantic swim. On my next attempt, Alan pinpointed the problem. My drysuit was full of air and I was resembling the Michelin Woman upon immersion. Lesson No. 1: always make sure to fully purge your drysuit. Alan helped me deflate by hugging me (which Julia mistook for a romantic gesture – as if!).  Finally, I nailed the roll and it felt exactly as it should – effortless. I love my Isel.

I cheered heartily, however, not as heartily as Alan did. I’m sure I heard some utterances about finally getting some peace. Well, I can take a hint.

Now, I wonder if I should take my Isel into the pool next week …

* With apologies to Terry, it was the chlorine talking

Disregarding obstacles

Kyles of ButeI think everyone who has taken up paddling would agree, there are obstacles that must be dealt with along the way. Every training class, every trip, every swimming pool session presents something to be surmounted, some of it real, and some of it a creation of the mind of course.

At the moment, a couple of our paddling pals are overcoming the obstacle of having to learn open boating skills as part of the syllabus for SCA qualifications relevant to their pursuit of sea kayaking (I know, I don’t get it either). While they have been exploring the complexities of single-bladed paddling, Alan and I have been left to our own devices.

Tighnabruaich

Tighnabruaich

So, a couple of weekends ago, we kayaked from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich on a relatively calm day.  The first obstacle of that particular trip was the discovery that Tighnabruaich had succumbed to the Dreaded Curse. The sign had said something about “unforeseen circumstances”, but my disgust impinged upon my forbearance to read further. I would say that being a Sunday in the West of Scotland is not so much an unforeseen circumstance as a requirement for toilet closure. Disgust then took on a whole new meaning when, upon rejoining Alan on the beach, we discovered the source of an unpleasant odour that had been putting him off his lunch. Disturbingly, it was emanating from his boot. I’ll stop right here as, if I continue on I will get queasy. Needless to say, the sewage facilities at Tighnabruaich require some attention (perhaps that’s why the toilets were closed?).  Like me, you might now be interested in supporting this organisation. You might also be interested to learn that mukluks can withstand high-powered jetwashing.

Near the GantocksLast weekend, we were out on the Clyde with a couple of other members of the Cowal Kayak Club, one of whom comes from a river kayaking background. He informed us of a recent incident on the river that left him shaken, such that he is considering transferring his allegiance over to touring.  I have had my own little dance with the rough and tumble demons, which has been greatly alleviated by acquiring a Rockpool Isel (not so much my knight in shining armour as the kayak he paddled in on).

Then, of course, there are the obstacles that can be found each Friday night at the pool – mostly relating to the ever-moving goalposts of acquiring or perfecting a bombproof roll.

There are also the obstacles of everyday life as they impact our ability to get out  – whether related to time, family, health, injuries, work or even the weather. It’s all part of what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe”.

Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we work so hard to overcome these impediments? And is it so much about overcoming them, as disregarding them, or even working with them? The answer is difficult to put into words.  I recently found the following moving/inspiring/beautiful video circulating on the paddling blogosphere, and I think that perhaps it expresses it best:

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

Each of us has obstacles to transcend, and once we’re out there on the water, in amongst nature, we do just that. We are free and in the moment. We can breathe and be our natural selves.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a chunk of vision. Not to over-dramatise, I thought I might be going blind. The thing that concerned me most at the time took me by surprise. I recall standing on the shore road of Innellan as a storm blew in. I was fixated on the sea and how I might not be able to get back out in it. Day after day, I looked out at the Clyde and measured the changes in my vision against it.

My sight came back, but – like everyone else – I don’t know what lies ahead. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and, inspired by others, it will take more than a few obstacles to stop pursuing what is, after all, a birthright.

If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer

Getting warmer

Karitek Demo Day at FairlieAfter a weekend off from kayaking (other than the pool), it was back to normal last weekend as a group of us rendezvoused at Fairlie on Saturday. This was in order to coincide with the Karitek demo day being held there as we were all anxious to fondle the lovely range of Rockpool, P&H and UKSK kayaks on display. Of course, Alan and I are not in the market for another kayak, but it’s always nice to look at the latest offerings regardless. Hopefully the good people of Karitek didn’t notice mind one chap testing out Alan’s Nordkapp.  We bumped into quite a few “well kent” faces from the paddling world and it was only after Alan had launched my kayak without me in it that I took the hint, stopped chatting and  jumped in. Apart from anything else, I didn’t want it to be inadvertently taken out for a demo and returned to Karitek!

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

We headed over to Little (or Wee) Cumbrae and stopped there for lunch. The island is under new management in the form of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. As a yoga student myself, I am of course pleased that the island will be used as a centre for yoga and the promotion of ayurvedic wellbeing and non-harming – a much more favourable prospect than the potential shooting and quad biking options that were advertised on the prior “for sale” listing (somewhat oxymoronically alongside birdwatching). I have it on good authority that the owners are welcoming to sea kayakers, merely requesting that visitors respect the island’s ethos, although disappointingly allegedly, it is not necessary to swear an oath of vegetarianism in order to land (but don’t quote me on that).

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

We consumed lunch beside the square Castle remains and did a bit of exploration both inside and outside. Sufficiently fortified (us, not the Castle), we were back in our kayaks to cross over to Millport on Great Cumbrae for further sustenance in the form of a hot beverage in the Ritz Cafe. Following that, we hopped back to Fairlie, passing Hunterston’s terminal where a bulk carrier all the way from China was now berthed. Landing back at the beach should have been an uneventful affair, had it not been for Alan’s back going into a spasm which found him writhing about on the ground emitting “man groans” (akin to “man flu” in terms of the immensity of suffering involved). Not only that, my efforts to assist my fellow paddlers went horribly awry when I tripped over a stone and promptly dropped my end of Henrik’s kayak.  Henrik was very gracious about it and I didn’t even see him applying the duct-tape before putting his kayak back on the car roof.

Heading to Millport

Heading to Millport

One thing had become apparent during our outing and that was the almost, but not quite, spring-like quality to the day. In fact, we almost, but not quite, entirely dispensed with our pogies, neck gaiters and hats. At least I thought about it. Any weekend  now, I reckon.

And speaking of getting warmer, we’ve been trundling along to the pool each Friday evening to diligently work on skills improvement. A week ago on Friday, I jumped in, capsized and had the mental equivalent of a computer’s “blue screen”. The rolling program in my mind did not start and all that was left in my head was a blinking cursor.

Action shot

Action shot

There was no-one more surprised than I was about this. But it was actually a good thing as it caused me to have a total “reboot” (I won’t say where). I took myself (and Alan) back up to the shallow end and got right back to basics, once again building up what I consider to be the 2 core elements: sweep and head position. A bit of video replay had revealed a virtual absence of both which I soon corrected and was back feeling more confident by the end of the evening. In retrospect, I’d known that something wasn’t quite right the week beforehand and that my rolls were pretty laboured, but I hadn’t been able to fix it. So sometimes it’s better to utterly fail in order to deconstruct then reconstruct. The key is not to self-destruct, and that initself is a skill.

“You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is – working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.”
Ani Pema Chödrön

Amongst the waves

After the storms of the previous weekend, it looked like the weekend to come would be a bit more suited to getting out in our kayaks. I had anticipated a Sunday paddle, but – as a bonus – a “lazy” paddle over to Bute was scheduled in for Saturday. This involved a bit of a later start and a saunter over to Craigmore where lunch was enjoyed at the Pier at Craigmore restaurant.

On the way to Craigmore

Conditions were calm with some sunshine, albeit cold. At least the lack of wind made the temperature bearable. Just as I was contemplating breaking out my pogies, we had turned into the sun which warmed the hands nicely. It was good to get out and clear the head. At some point, Barrie mentioned that Sunday’s forecast had tacked a “2” on to the front of today’s prevailing wind speeds. I chuckled merrily, not giving it much more thought as we headed back to watch the sunset from Toward.

Our Sunday departure point was once again South Cowal, as we put in just beyond Inverchaolain on Loch Striven. I happened to notice it was a wee bit gusty and the wind was coming from the north as opposed to the previously forecast north-east, giving it a clear run down Loch Striven. The pogies would be out from the start today, it seemed.

And then there were 6 ... Maersk ships in cold lay-up on Loch Striven

And then there were 6 ... Maersk ships in cold lay-up on Loch Striven

We set off with the wind behind us which, ordinarily, would be ideal. It became evident, however, that the gusts really did mean business and conditions became quite exciting. (FYI – you will note here that I have switched over to “paddler-speak”, which tends towards understatement and euphemism). I paddled along for a bit, feeling the surges from behind and gripping my paddle tightly lest it be swiped out of my hands. I tried to assess if I was the only one who was feeling just a teeny, tiny bit tense. I watched as young Kirsty confidently paddled ahead quite unperturbed, and admonished myself for being a wuss.

As we rounded the Maersk ships anchored in cold lay-up, Julia checked in to see how I was doing. If I were to rate my comfort level according to the following scale, which correlates loosely (or not at all) to the Beaufort Scale:

    Frothy Loch Striven

    Frothy Loch Striven

  1. Chillin’ with the seals
  2. Paying a bit more attention
  3. Have been in worse conditions, it’s cool
  4. Good opportunity for skills practice
  5. Continuous monitoring of proximity of nearest potential rescuer
  6. Mental rehearsal of radio procedure, and location of flares
  7. Beam me up Scotty!

I quickly surmised that I was sitting at around 5. I confirmed to Julia that I really was quite fond of the notion of an early lunch and, before I knew it, I had the company of fellow paddlers ensuring that I made it across to the eastern shore without incident. On the way, I was presented with a beam sea, with waves and wind both to my left and in prime “tipping over” position. I was especially appreciative of Julia’s instruction as we crossed which corroborated what many people have told me, that bracing skills are hugely important. I won’t forget that real-time skills clinic. I was also appreciative of my faithful Isel, which played a large part in keeping me upright.

Heading home

Heading home

There was a palpable sense of achievement as we landed on the gravelly beach in time to watch a group of divers preparing to depart. We made our way over beyond the small point of protruding land to seek some shelter from the wind in order to consume lunch. It soon became apparent that a dividing line existed here separating the frothier north of the loch from the somewhat calmer south. And so, after eating, we carried our kayaks around to the more sheltered side and continued south. I was once again securely back in my comfort zone as we headed homewards.

I took away a number of things from Sunday:

  • My skills focus is now firmly on bracing.
  • I love kayaking. Even when I’m not 100% at ease in the conditions, I feel completely alive. This is important!
  • Paddling pals are always there to support and encourage you, to teach you, to console you, and – if necessary – to rescue you. Indeed, they are the best type of friends.

Riding high amongst the waves
I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
I can feel like I
Put away my early grave

Gotta say it now
Better loud
Than too late

Amongst the Waves, Backspacer, Pearl Jam

Both sides of the story

Scottish summer weather

Scottish summer weather

Let me start by mentioning the weather situation here on the west coast of Scotland. This past August was the second wettest on record, as measured at Benmore Gardens near Dunoon. A full 410 mm of rain fell. For a kayaker, of course, getting wet isn’t necessarily an obstacle to enjoyment. Indeed, a river kayaker may positively relish such conditions, at least in terms of their impact on river levels. But for the sea kayaker of less-than-advanced skills, aside from visibility issues, the real deterrent is the wind which has accompanied the torrential rain, with gusts of anything up to 50 mph. This doesn’t exactly entice one outdoors, let alone on to the sea (or on to the rapidly developing patch of wilderness/swamp formerly known as the garden, for that matter). Not only that, the average maximum temperature for August was 18°C. I know that my overseas readership is finding this difficult to believe, especially those in, say, fiery California or sweltering Spain, for whom August is still officially classified as summer.

So perhaps I may be forgiven if I don’t have exciting blog posts filled with details of multi-day trips to beautiful, sun-baked Hebridean beaches. Or even wee jaunts down the Clyde. Instead, the conditions have only served to encourage our preoccupation with rolling practice in the pool and at the loch. At the risk of being a tiny bit boring – and going on the premise that a boring blog entry is slightly less boring than no blog entry at all – allow me to return to that very topic.

Alan has come on in leaps and bounds, finally mastering a sweep roll – on both sides. Months of working on his “bad” side have been followed by him discovering that his other bad side, ie the injured side (bear with me here) is actually now his good side. A pool session at Garnock last week, coached expertly by Harvey, produced great results which saw my role as rescuer becoming entirely redundant. Also thanks to the efforts of Harvey in teaching me what a decent sweep was really all about, and to the many suggestions from other experienced folks, my sea kayak roll has improved markedly. Three things have been key:

  • aforementioned sweep
  • watching the paddle blade
  • blade angle

On that latter point, I made an astounding discovery. When I first learned to roll at the pool, I found that my blade angle was improved by tweaking my leading wrist away from me, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Last weekend, I discovered that in my Nordkapp LV, possibly due to the differing body position upon set-up (ie I’m up much higher in the water than when in the pool kayaks and in other sea kayaks), I have to tweak my wrist towards me. This flat out surprised me as I realised that this especially had been my undoing all along. Whenever I’d been trying to “improve” blade angle, I’d actually been hindering myself further. Finally, I started rolling consistently.

On the other hand (so to speak), I have been completely neglecting my off side, choosing instead to try to make my right side “bombproof” first. I am a very right-sided person. Doing anything on my left feels weak and/or weird. So I knew that I would be starting essentially from scratch when I did move over to rolling up on the left. What I hadn’t factored in was the revival of an old mountain-biking injury from a few years ago.

I recall it was a March morning up on the forest trail. I was cruising along on the flat when suddenly my bike wiped out from under me upon hitting a patch of ice. I slammed into the trail, which caused me to writhe about helplessly in pain. I still have the shin dent to prove it. The worst of the injury was the tearing of the (rhomboid) muscular tissue between the shoulder and the spine which took some time to heal. And, at a certain age, one might argue that healing of such injuries is never quite complete or perfect. So it goes when attempting to engage a sweep roll on my left side that I cause whatever patchwork repair that occurred to start to unravel and my best friend soon becomes an ice pack. Of course, this only adds weight to my suspicion that I should have learned all this rolling stuff at age 12 (hi Jessica!).

Now I am facing the awareness that rolling on both sides may be a higher mountain to climb than I’d previously thought. When checking off the mental skills chart, in the entry against “rolling” I see a little asterisk beside my name which translates to “one side only”. Getting back to reality (I remember that!), there is also the annoying prospect of being unable to roll up against the waves because they are not on my “good” side.

I can’t help but note how, in rolling, my personal goalposts keep moving and it thus becomes rather like an emotional rollercoaster. It goes something like this:

  • Starting to learn to roll –> fear
  • Overcoming fear –> moderate contentment
  • Still can’t roll –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First roll at the pool –> ecstasy!
  • Growing awareness that roll could be better –> dose of reality
  • Can’t roll sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First sea kayak roll –> ecstasy!
  • First sea kayak roll in rough water conditions –> best day ever!
  • Difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • Continued difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> meltdown/tantrums
  • Rolling own sea kayak consistently –> happiness moderated by growing awareness of inability to roll on both sides
  • Can’t roll on both sides –> frustration and lowered self-esteem

That’s a lot for the old nerves to handle. Or should I say, the old ego. Good job that, at the end of the day, I can take a step back from it all and realise that it’s really the be all and end all only rolling.

If less is more, just think how much more more could be.” Frasier Crane

Rolling as religion

Alan doing C-to-C roll

Alan doing C-to-C roll

It’s been feeling like I’ve converted to a new religion lately, the religion of kayak rolling. The way it occupies my thoughts and spare time has all the markers of a cult-like fervour, a saltwater brainwashing of sorts. Heaven or Nirvana can be found in a perfect roll. Hell or dukkha is found in repeated failure. There are even sects to this religion – the sweep-roll followers, the C-to-C convertees, the “hybrids” who dabble in various forms. Our temple is the sea, our church a convenient loch or pool. Our rosary or mala is the noseclip worn around our neck and our skullcap is made of neoprene.

Sometimes the God of Rolling is in benevolent mood and the planets are aligned, blessings are bestowed and some sweet rolls are manifest. But sometimes this God is angry and vengeful and punishes by cruelly denying the devout prayers of unworthy disciples.

I’m certain also that there are many religious parallels concerning the gifting of a lowly devotee with a powerful and blessed tool that renders them capable of wondrous things, such as smiting enemies and parting seas and so on. I have been given such a tool – it’s called a Valley Nordkapp LV. I have yet to prove my worthiness.

So Alan and I made our weekly pilgrimage to Loch Eck yesterday. Alan struggled with his sweep and took a break for some contemplation. I jumped in my kayak and, to my immense pleasure, performed a highly successful roll that had the sound of “hallellujah” echoing up and down the loch.

That was my last really good roll.

And so it followed that I started to think. And then I thought some more. Here’s how my thoughts went:

  • I need to adjust my head positioning
  • I need to adjust my blade angle
  • I seem to be coming up too high and can’t get my blade on the water at the start of my sweep, why is that?
  • My BA is too buoyant
  • I need to reach forward more
  • Wow, I haven’t thought about my hip flick in a while, I need to focus on that
  • I’ve forgotten my head movement
  • My blade angle’s all wrong
  • I’ve forgotten everything, but if I try another 3 dozen times it might come back to me
  • I feel dizzy
  • I’m tired, cold and want to go home

There were some more successful rolls, and I should have stopped at 2 in a row, but I honestly can’t figure out what made them successful. Or why in some kayaks all this seems almost effortless.

Meantime, after his contemplation, Alan made a declaration that he was sick fed up with failed sweep rolls and was going to convert over to the C-to-C side. To me, such switches of allegiance at this stage in our rolling practice are akin to converting from Church of Scotland to Rastafarianism. It is beyond comprehension, a step too far. But Alan has been dabbling with the C-to-C for some time now and yesterday saw him on his road to Damascus (OK, enough with the religious metaphors). Needless to say, the C-to-C with an extended paddle (the latter recommended by Gordon) worked. Every single time. In my Nordkapp LV. In his Nordkapp. Awesome.

So, with a desire to share in the awesomeness, I had a go myself. It felt weird and different, yet not. I came up after 3 attempts, which isn’t bad for a brand new roll. I am torn.

I started a discussion on the UK Rivers Guidebook Sea Kayaking forum where I have found like-minded souls who evidently also spend their non-practising hours contemplating matters of deep and philosophical meaning relevant to all things salty. I would, however, like to know where they all were when I was checking for new responses at 8 am this Sunday morning. I mean, priorities.

But until such time as I figure it all out and achieve Ultimate Enlightenment, aka a consistent, bombproof roll in my Nordy, that’s me in the corner …

The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use our faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant.” Zen Master Taishen Deshimaru

A week with Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Mention the name Gordon Brown to the average person and they will instantly think of the besuited chap who resides at No 10 Downing Street. Do likewise to the avid sea kayaker and their thoughts will turn to Skyak Adventures and one of the best-known and most revered coaches in the sea kayaking business, also author of the hugely successful Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers. Such are his reputation and credentials that I used to think that someone of my lowly paddling status would not “qualify” for a course with him. A conversation with a certain well-known Spanish paddler some time ago, however, convinced me otherwise. It is the case that Skyak Adventures can accommodate everyone from beginners to advanced.

Introductions

And so it came to pass that Alan and I signed up for a 5 day course which took place last week. As our little group of fellow trainees gathered in Gordon’s converted bothy office at Isle Ornsay on Skye on Monday morning, some modest introductions were made. I recall mentions of paddling for wildlife photography purposes, and of a recent conversion from “couch potato” status, all very benign and it seemed that these were my people. As Gordon sought to learn what skills we wished to focus on, however, I tried not to become alarmed at the frequency of mention of “rough water”, or the size of the lettering of those very words on his white board. I deny all accusations that I participated in this madness. I was assuaged only by the appearance of the word “FUN” in even bigger letters. Gordon then asked what was the one skill that we would like to take home and, for fear of appearing a bit silly, I suppressed the desire to blurt out, “roll my sea kayak dammit”, and mumbled something about kayak handling instead.

Certainly, I was pleased to note that, rather than being some sort of kayaking boot camp, fun had indeed been included on our itinerary. It became very apparent from Gordon’s affable and jocular style and his many witty anecdotes that a light-hearted mood would prevail, although he did warn us that we would know when he was being serious. I fervently hoped that I would not be the one to provoke any “seriousness”.

Out on the water

At Armadale Pier

At Armadale Pier

Soon we were out in Armadale Bay practising sweep strokes and turning in and out of wind. Using these skills, we negotiated our way under the pier and I confess to the odd misjudgement which perhaps added a couple of deeply ingrained scores minor scratches to the Valley Avocet in which I found myself. This brought us out into choppier waters as someone (I remain blameless here) had suggested that self rescuing in calm waters was a scoosh and that they wished to try it in rougher conditions. All eyes fell on Alan as he wrestled his kayak into near submission only to capsize at the last moment. Gordon steered us back to less choppy waters and taught us the finer points of self and assisted rescues. The day wrapped up with a rolling clinic. I had secretly looked forward to this and duly paddled over to Gordon as he stood in the water and motioned for me to approach in the manner of Morpheus in the fight scene of The Matrix. But I was no Neo and my roll failed. It seemed that not even Gordon could work miracles. (Or perhaps they would just take a little longer?).

Tuesday at Kylerhea – off to the races

Breaking out of the tide race

Breaking out of the tide race

Tuesday introduced me to a new concept – entering and exiting tidal races. As most of our paddling is done in the Clyde Estuary, Alan and I do not have a whole lot of experience in this field. Our group had timed our visit to coincide with maximum tidal flow, however, the absence of strong winds made the conditions – I am told – less than perfect in terms of challenge and general scariness. I was OK with this as I have not spent sufficient time practising extravagant low braces to cope well with the entry and exit process for a start. Alan has frequently chastised me for my lackadaisical attitude to this particular skill and indeed I did manage to show myself up. I think I got away with it in our morning session, but the afternoon gave the game away. Let’s just say I was getting to know Gordon quite well during our various rendezvous across an upturned kayak and upon the long paddle back from whence the tide had cast me.

In between tides, a small miracle did occur. Gordon commenced another rolling clinic and I once again signed up. Some precision critiquing from him and – up I came! In a sea kayak! Of course, that was not quite sufficient and soon he had me dispensing with my nose clip (not as terrible as I had imagined) and skull cap, trying out rolling on the move, in moving water etc.

After my various tidal dunkings, Gordon made me end the day with a successful roll and it had the desired effect. I went back to the hotel that night smiling to myself.

Wednesday – the lows and the highs

The wind obliged by getting up a little on Wednesday, to F4-5. We were back at Armadale and once again made our way under the pier to what definitely qualified in my book as rough water. We paddled over to 2 nearby skerries. Gordon instructed us to paddle between them, out into the fray and anti-clockwise around the first one, returning to its lee.

It was like a wild, bucking bronco rodeo ride on an unbroken colt all the way around! Amongst confused waves of up to 6 feet, I knew that at any moment I was about to capsize and only pure luck was keeping me upright. I was so far away from my comfort zone, I was sending it postcards. Back in the lee, to my despair, Gordon sent us around again and my luck finally ran out as I completely misread the water and got trashed by one of the many thousands of waves that were jostling for position to unhinge me. Like a smiling, neoprene clad guardian angel, Gordon materialised at my side and we resumed our acquaintance across my upturned vessel. Once back in, I was given a class in reading the black and the white water and we commenced a clockwise circumnavigation of the island. Next up, an enormous wave loomed over my bow and, to the sound of Gordon shouting “Paddle!” resounding in my ears, I did what came naturally – I completely froze and was once again trashed.

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

I’m not going to lie to you, I was not a happy bunny at this point. My mind started spinning to thoughts of giving up completely, to my neglected bike in the garage, to my book and a cosy fireside, and so on. I started to doubt I was cut out for this sea kayaking business – it felt like my ego had been writing cheques that my ability couldn’t cash. I couldn’t help but hate observe my fellow trainees. They seemed to be coping admirably with the conditions, more than is strictly necessary for a spot of wildlife photography if you ask me. So what was my problem? As I sat in the shelter of the island where Gordon had awarded me a rest, I could feel tears welling. But something interesting happened at this point. I paused and took a breath – and somehow I knew I was OK. Underneath the spinning mind, the strangled ego, the envy, I was actually perfectly OK. They were only thoughts, after all. I started watching the manx shearwaters, the terns and the seals, and that very moment felt pretty good in fact. I even started feeling happy that everyone else was doing well – what purpose would it serve if everyone was having a bad time?

As we all met up and pulled in for lunch, Alan confessed to just having had a bit of a swim himself (the omnipresent guardian angel had appeared at his side too). But I’m sure he only did this to try to make me feel better.

Gordon suggested we swap around kayaks and I relinquished the Avocet LV to a willing taker (God bless Nick, who seemed to relish its “liveliness”). We were then informed that we were going out to do some rough water rolling practice and I contemplated what I would do during this time, apart from watch the seals. On the way out, I started to become pleasantly aware that I was doing a little better in my new kayak. Next, 2 more advanced trainees in our party were rolling in the middle of the turbulent conditions. I could only hang back, agog with admiration. Imagine my shock when Gordon turned to me and yelled, “Your turn, Pamela!”. I whimpered back that I had only just learned to roll a sea kayak the day before, and that he could not be serious, but he reminded me that I’d been effectively learning for 2 years. There’s no arguing with the man. And so I capsized. And I rolled up. And stayed up. He made me do it again, and again – and I kept coming up. After about half a dozen rolls in the rough water, I eventually failed – but came up on the second attempt, which proved that my brain could operate without air. Who knew?

Finally, a last couple of trips around the island allowed Alan and me to gain confidence by demonstrating that it was indeed possible to stay upright.

I won’t ever forget that day. I won’t forget the despair or the elation. I had been pushed to a certain limit and had come out the better. It is quite something for someone to believe in you more than you believe in yourself. I won’t forget the encouragement of Gordon, Alan and my fellow trainees. Or the little audience of seals who seemed to approve. Or the terns squawking overhead. It is captured in my memory, and feels a lot like being given a gift.

Thursday – a ring of bright water

Sandaig

Sandaig

As most of our group had travelled quite some distance to get to Skye, including from southernmost England, there was a general desire to do a little exploring. It had been hoped (by some) that the tide race at Kylerhea might be running at savage proportions at some point later in the week, but alas the forecast had changed and this seemed unlikely. So now was a good opportunity to do some sightseeing. We agreed to set out from Camuscross for Sandaig.

The crossing was a little choppy, but I felt good in the Avocet (non LV version) which seemed to handle it with ease. Tips previously provided by Gordon on how to improve forward paddling efficiency helped enormously.

Edal's grave

Edal's grave

Sandaig is the former home of Gavin Maxwell who wrote one of my (and millions of others’) favourite books, “Ring of Bright Water”. It was absolutely magical to visit the scene of “Camusfearna” and I could easily envisage the otters playing about in the bay and the waterfall. After all, not much has changed in that beautiful place over the years. The house is gone now, of course, but a monument to Gavin Maxwell is there in its place, as well as the grave of Edal the otter, poignantly decorated with stones and shells. Some tears were shed as I read the inscription on the latter, written by Maxwell himself:

“Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to Nature.”

On leaving Sandaig, we paddled south-east and then west to Knoydart, stopping briefly for afternoon tea before heading “home” to Camuscross.

Friday – towing the line

The weather had established itself as definitely “settled”, so Friday morning was spent at Skyak Adventures’ international headquarters, aka the bothy, working on tidal planning. During the course of our lesson, Gordon advised Alan and me of a location not far from Cowal to which we will shortly be making a beeline to play with the tide. More later!

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

We took the Skyak minibus down to Ord where, against a magnificent backdrop of the Cuillins, we commenced practice with the many different kinds of towing that one can do, including improvised methods. It was amusing to note that all the females of our party had chosen to be towees first, followed by the the males who relished their turn a bit too enthusiastically. This was succeeded by some sort of kayak display team stunt that I haven’t quite fathomed, but looked like fun. Rolling clinic came after that and, before we knew it, it was all over and time to go home.

Having taken leave of Gordon and our other new friends, our minds were filled with the sea and kayaks as we headed down the road to Cowal. We came away from our week in Skye so completely encouraged and enthused that it was actually difficult to imagine going for more than a couple of days without being back out on the water. We were greatly looking forward to continuing to work on our skills. So it’s no surprise that on Sunday, we were out on Loch Eck and – notching up another day of achievement – I rolled my very own Nordkapp LV.

When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape
My videotape


No matter what happens now
I won’t be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen

Videotape, In Rainbows, Radiohead