Saturday, December 29, 2007

On Balance... a good year


Most people kayak for fun, and realize it’s possible to improve quite rapidly. Although getting better at handling a kayak is easy to see, less noticeable perhaps is that kayaking improves the sense of balance, and quickens a person’s reactions. We probably take balance for granted, challenging it daily in ways we never realize, and then occasionally we’ll deliberately “stretch the envelope”. I know a paddler who bought a “tippy kayak” in order to become a better paddler and had problems even sitting in it. The kayak would stay upright by itself but not with him in it. He sometimes fell out, leaving the kayak empty and upright. He was frustrated because he knew other paddlers who could actually relax in it, so he loaded the kayak with weights to make it more stable. Each time he went afloat he reduced the weight a little until one day he found he didn’t need to carry anything; he could balance without help.

One of my own challenges was to stand up in my Vyneck sea kayak; something I saw somebody do on a Welsh lake years ago and vowed to copy. It took me a lot of swimming around, some strategy and some perseverance before I could wriggle from the small cockpit to sit on the rear deck, and then to stand on the seat. It took a lot more practice before I could stand up and then sit back down again without getting wet. My next challenge was doing the same on water that was not flat. Then Kristin stood up on the rear deck of my Legend… and the challenges progressively got more difficult!

So a sense of balance is something we can develop if we try, if we challenge ourselves. One of the improvements we make in time is to relax more, which helps us wobble less. As we learn to edge a kayak to turn, so our hips loosen up and we become more adept at keeping our shoulders above our hips. As our posture improves it helps keep our weight centralized. The improvements don’t just show on the water; as we react more quickly to a wobble on the water, so we react quickly to a spilled glass or a dropped pen.

Balance; In Search of the Lost sense, by Scott McCredie, Little, Brown and Company, 2007

So what is our “sense of balance”? We have sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch as long recognized and studied senses, so the long neglected and under-studied “balance” is truly the “sixth sense”. This year, a friend of mine, Scott McCredie was motivated to write the first book on balance for the general reader. He had seen his father, who had always had good balance, take a fall off a rock in the mountains. He had simply “lost his balance”.

Falling is how a great number of people begin
the slide from health to old age or from old age to death. There is a connection between ageing and reduced balance. Brittle bones don’t help, but balance is something we “use or lose”. In fact if you think about what helps us estimate the comparative ages of people we see, apparent agility and balance, posture and reaction time are big helpers. Someone who has quick reactions, good posture, is agile and has good balance is perceived as younger than someone who moves slowly and cautiously, with poor posture and tentative balance.

Even birds practice... like this one, balancing on one leg in New Zealand....

Might kayaking help us maintain our youthfulness into old age by maintaining our bone strength and challenging our balance in a safe way? Maybe. Smiling a lot might help too, but better; read Scott’s book about balance. He explains far more about the mechanism of balance than I would have thought to ask, including why I have a more difficult time standing and balancing while taking my socks off in the dark than in do in daylight. And also why, on special occasions like New Year’s Eve, my balance doesn’t always seem, well, let’s just say “as good as usual”.

Happy New Year, and may you succeed in balancing all the way into 2008 and far beyond!

(There is a little more about balance on my playak blog...)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

Here's wishing you all Happy Holidays and a fun year ahead of sea kayaking, surfing, white-water, canoeing or whatever you most enjoy! If you're frozen in, now is the time of year to start checking out your gear to make sure it's all leak-free, that deck lines are replaced if necessary and that your hatches haven't finally expired. The days are now getting longer and the thaw will eventually arrive! Hang on in there! Read up on Freya Hoffmeister's blog... she's on her way around South Island New Zealand and has just passed Greymouth where Paul Caffyn lives (he's the guy who first circumnavigated New Zealand... and went on to circumnavigate just about everywhere including Australia.) Explore and meet kayakers from other places on-line. Or, if you paddle in a warm place, then get out and enjoy! Speaking of which... the sun is shining in Seattle, there is snow on the mountains and the water calls...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thirty years ago in Iceland

Thirty years ago, summer 1977, it felt strange to drive past the bright flags and flapping buntings strung out between the houses and across the streets of the little Sussex village of Burwash. It was as if the village was decorated to see us off; ready to watch the spectacle of Geoff Hunter’s Austin Mini Van with sea kayaks (two of the very first Vynecks) lashed to the roof-rack pass on its way to Iceland, but no, it was the summer of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebration. Unlike the Queen’s, our procession came to a grinding halt when our paddles flew from the roof; we forgot to tie them down.
Geoff in his Vyneck in Iceland with fisherman-farmer Axel
Geoff in Vyneck, Iceland with Axel
That year there was a ferry service from Scrabster in Scotland to the Faroe Islands, and this, the first ferry of the season, was greeted by a bagpipe-playing band of kilted musicians striding the quay… another illusion of a personal send-off. We parked Geoff’s minivan in the harbor master’s shed for the summer and carried our weighty kayaks and boxes of gear on board Smiryl for a wild bouncing ride to Torshavn… and then, after four days to recover, for the remainder of the journey north to the snow-coated mountains of eastern Iceland to offload at Seydhisfjordur.
Geoff was a more seasoned paddler than I, having paddled around Britain a few years before in a plywood copy of a Greenland kayak he built himself.
"Angmagssalik Round Britain" about Geoff Hunter's 1970's trip

However he was patient with my pace, as we set off towards the sands of the south coast, about which we’d been warned by everyone who knew anything about Iceland. Dumping surf, quick-sands, sandstorms, no shelter and strong winds were a few warned-of dooms but there was always that back-up plan… we could quit if it proved too much for us. But I know Geoff… he’s not a quitter! We never considered it as more than a back-up plan, even when Geoff was being looped end over end in his Vyneck in the surf off a river mouth where a rapid current fought to help us out through the surf but in the end was not enough. The surf in the end prevented our escape. We finally admitted defeat and were returned to a pounding in the shore break with the day’s mileage total zero. When we changed into dry clothes we found beach sand and grit up to pea-sized nuggets had been forced as far into our clothing as our underpants. Of course, that was before the happy days of latex dry-seals around the wrists… or nowadays even cocoon-like breathable fabric dry-suits that can make kayaking a somewhat dry sport rather than a water sport. Typically our launching provided a sufficiently thorough drenching to set the level of wetness for the whole day, while throughout the night the wet gear dripped to mere dampness if it didn’t rain.
Nigel Foster (left) and Geoff Hunter, South coast Iceland 1977
But it was summer, and the weather was often pretty nice! Barring a few storms, and some chill snowy weather in August, we fared pretty well. Sometimes it might have been nice to have had a weather forecast. We could not receive the English-speaking BBC radio programs from home broadcast, and of course this was before portable VHF radios, and before cell-phones. Our best forecast was usually our own observation, but we also asked about the weather when we detoured to buy food supplies.
In 1977 Iceland had almost no kayakers. In the ten weeks we spent in Iceland that summer we met just one kayaker, a man who lived in the northwest fjords. He had been inspired to build his own skin-on-frame kayak after visiting Greenland. But there was no shortage of interesting people! One remote lighthouse holds the biggest private collection of books in Iceland. A handful of fishermen-farmers living in a remote place bury shark meat in the beach for months on end to ferment before hanging it in chunks in drying sheds for more months to reduce the odor… before… well in our case, before offering it to us to taste. Out in the fjords fishing boats approached us to offer us scalding cups of coffee, passed over the side as the vessels rolled low on the swell.
The puffin cliffs near Vik, Iceland
As with all good travel, we had a single well-defined goal to hold the experience together; in this case it was to try to paddle all the way around Iceland. We also had the time to spend doing it. In the south we were invited to stay with a farming family through 6 days of a particularly harsh storm. At Haemay we hiked up the volcano Helgafell, and camped on the beach, still hot since the 1973 eruption. In the northwest we helped with haymaking. We had enough time to get a good feel for Iceland and its people, and by the end it was with sadness that we realized the trip was over. As Geoff said, we should have made it last a bit longer, but perhaps that too is how it should be. It’s a sign of a bad trip if you’re glad when it’s over!
(Left) Raging Rivers Stormy Seas devoted one chapter to a part of the 1977 Iceland circumnavigation
So that was 1977… would I go back to Iceland? Absolutely! It's a brilliant place with great people! I already have returned more than a couple of times; to hike in the interior, to kayak more closely sections of coast we passed quickly, and to driving around the island.

In 2008 I'm going again for the “Eric the Red” sea kayaking symposium. Iceland has a great coastline, and nowadays has a thriving sea kayaking community. See you there? Click here for more about the 1977 Iceland circumnavigation.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Forty years since the telling… from UK before the end of 2007

In 1967 the British Canoe Union (BCU) magazine “Canoeing in Britain” published a Christmas competition with a prize of a copy of each of “Byde’s Books”. (In 1960 Alan Byde had become just the second person to be appointed Senior Canoeing Coach by the BCU. I’d better explain that in Britain a “canoe” was, and sometimes still does refer to both canoe and kayak.) More about Alan later…

In other news from 1967, a number of people expressed dismay and wrote to criticize one prominent sea kayaker, who shall be nameless, (Chris Hare) oops! Returning from an expedition to Greenland where he had hunted from his kayak with Greenlanders, Chris attempted to gain support for the introduction of seal hunting from kayaks in UK… not in the traditional way, but using a rifle, which was by then the usual way in Greenland. (are there any Seals reading this?)

Colin Mortlock, (later to lead the expedition in Norway, 1975, for which the paddle and kayak designed and used for the journey were also named “Nordkapp”), describes paddling Welsh white-water rivers in flood. His descriptions hint of the hands-on experience he applied to his Charlotte Mason College teachers course in "Adventure Education".

In 1967 an advertisement for the sea kayak, the Wessex Sea Rapier, demonstrated its on-land portability by showing it on the roof of a Morris 1,000 (cc) car… a model of car that I remember had little orange direction pointers that swung out from the supports between the side windows to indicate the direction of an intended turn… In 1967, a fiberglass Sea Rapier cost just 37 pounds 15 shillings… With today’s poor US dollar exchange value that’s about 74 dollars…

The magazine columns that year were full of interesting little revelations, such as “A Canadian is not really a sea going canoe”… and that during 1967, by September, two people had passed the Advanced Canadian examination… (...are there any Canadians reading this?) Next… “The Senior coach is on a par with the Gold Medalist, and is a gentleman to be reckoned with” (...any women reading this?) “To all but a rhinoceros it must be obvious that the only place to learn to roll is the swimming baths – in this country anyway.” (...any rhinos reading this?)

Also in 1967...

Hans Klepper died. He was the son of one of the original tailors who produced the first folding Kleppers in 1905 to speed up trips from the mountains. Han was associated with the design of the Klepper Arius in which Dr Hans Lindemann crossed the Atlantic.

Dave Mitchell (now of Mitchell Paddles in USA) won silver medal for slalom kayak in the world championships.

“The first thermoplastic kayak” was displayed at the annual boat show, (Telephone Kelsall 255) and Bude suffered its annual invasion of competitors for the week-long surf kayaking event.

In this context, back to Alan Byde againAlan wrote a great book titled “Living Canoeing” which according to Alan was started in 1967. Published in 1969, it is a classic, with content still valid today. I can see how later writers have likely been influenced by the style of line drawings that illustrate many of the technical aspects, and by the content of the Sea Kayaking sections of the book. This was not Byde’s first, nor last writing achievement, but I consider it his finest. Returning to the photo of Byde upside down in his kayak on his lawn, you can see similar images (in sequence) in my own "Kayaking; a beginner's guide" and "Nigel Foster's Sea Kayaking". (See "roll" and "books")

(Alan signs a copy of "Living Canoeing", March 2007.)

An intelligent, versatile, yet often controversial figure, Byde retired to New Zealand where, this spring, we found him hiding away from his kayak. With the encouragement of local paddlers such as John Kirk Anderson, I gather he has resumed his participation in his sport and is once again "living canoeing". It was a real pleasure to meet up with and him and his wife in New Zealand; someone who has contributed so much to the sport and never lost his love for it.

(For more of 2007 New Zealand...)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

kayaking below sea level

“Watersheds are difficult places to map, and for that reason (among many others) they are the most fascinating places in the world to explore – debatable lands.” William Bliss, 1935, from the book “Rapid Rivers”.

The Seattle Times today names Seattle as one of the many cities in US to have made efforts to meet the targets of the Kyoto treaty. On a national scale, the current White House doubts there could be such a thing as global warming (“the science is unproven”); hence the refusal to make any move to reduce emissions in case it might “harm US jobs”. According to Max of the Associated Press, “world’s top climate experts” warn that carbon dioxide levels already in the atmosphere commit the world to an average rise in sea levels of up to 4.6 feet above those experienced before the industrial revolution. That’s the rise they expect if polluting factories were shut down today and cars were taken off the roads; we’re already committed to 4.6 feet.
Imagine a gradually rising sea level flooding some homes while others further inland become waterfront property, in the meantime the weather changing a bit and up to 70 percent of all plant and animal species have become extinct, as predicted. Check the plant nursery catalog… we might have to change the type of grass that makes the lawn.
Let’s look at another idea… a slightly different scenario described by the so-called “Ancient Mariner” in William Bliss’s whitewater kayaking (and white-water canoeing) book “Rapid Rivers”. Back in the 1930’s he forecast the mountains of England and Scotland protruding from the sea as; “… a wheen scatter o’ rocky islands!” Anticipating this rise in sea level he prudently bought up foreshore along sections of coast in Australia and South Island New Zealand on the assumption that since the sea level in the Southern Pacific Ocean is currently higher than that of the north Atlantic, and because the retreating ice around the north pole leaves it much thinner than the ice at the south pole, the imbalance would eventually cause the earth to flip pole for pole and cause the sea level to, well dare I say “level out”? At which time… the foreshore he had purchased “down-under” would become land which he would own up to the new high-water mark, considerable tracts since he chose areas with shallow sea, while the land he had sold in Scotland to finance his purchases would rest deep beneath the waves. That land would be worthless. I expect he’s dead by now, seeing as he was old in the 1930’s, and the flood hasn’t happened yet, otherwise I’d love to ask what he thinks about it all now. You’ll have to read “Rapid Rivers” to get more of his story; most of the book consists of gripping accounts, (or perhaps “quaint” would be a better adjective) of first descents of British rivers in the early days of white-water paddling. 
Rapid Rivers by William Bliss, published 1935

But more about rising sea levels; London already built a flood barrier across the Thames to prevent storm surges, which, fueled by the combination of low atmospheric pressure, high tides and wind pushing the North Sea into the land-funnel of Dover Strait, and into the Thames Estuary, occasionally threatened to put London underwater. Since devastating floods in the 1950’s the Netherlands built dikes along the coastal islands, and barriers between, to protect the lowlands of Holland against the same threat. In Holland, pumping the enclosed land dry has caused the land to shrink, not in area but in volume. In places the land is already more than 14 feet below sea level. Given a rise in sea level of 4.6 feet I can imagine Florida either substantially flooded or else, barricaded by dikes, surviving like Holland below sea level. Likewise vast areas of Georgia, the Carolinas… well, you can figure out where the low spots are!
A canal in Delft

Ten ago, 1997, Sea Kayaker Magazine published an article about kayaking below sea level. (I just posted it to my web-site.) 1997: the year of the Kyoto Protocol. We are at a watershed; our decisions now make a difference. In another ten years of global warming, 2017, when the residents of Asia’s large cities are predicted to be at great risk of flooding, we might be able to kayak below sea level in our own back yard.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Old kayak displays current thinking

Little in sea kayaking is new. A few years back in the Shetland Islands, chasing old kayaks, I was led to this one, almost certainly from before the Second World War. Although painted in sombre green, a suitable war-time camouflage color, the underlying paint is bright yellow. Of course that might be just undercoat...

Interesting to me were the two bulkheads, sealing off the two ends. Bulkheads in sea kayaks are often said to be a more recent idea. The front bulkhead, positioned quite close to the cockpit, would have been ideal for someone of my leg length to use as a foot-brace (there was no other foot-brace fitted). The rear bulkhead was fitted immediately at the back of the cockpit, so in a rescue situation all water could be spilled out of the upturned kayak simply by raising the bow. Each compartment was sealed by a deck hatch.

The curator didn't know much about the origin of this kayak except that it was one of a number used to train Norwegian resistance fighters in the Shetland Islands in how to travel inconspicuously around the fjords during the Second World War. These visitors were then secretly returned with kayaks to Norway. Maybe something more is known about their activities in Norway? During wartime a number of similar kayaks were built on Shetland, but this is the only one known to remain.

The kayak was also fitted ready for a mast and rudder, and all that would be necessary to sail it.
The cockpit, compared to many earlier European designs, is quite small.
A detail you can't readily see from the image is that the hull was carvel-built and then covered with canvas. The deck on the other hand was canvas over a wood frame

Can anybody tell me more?

The grease van heads south...

So with the grease van, parked down the street, we sipped cool beers in front of the fire, broke out some wooden instruments and warmed up, Nacho's friend trilling out the notes on his silvery-toned mandolin. But as we warmed up, so the van cooled down... the grease congealed and the van wouldn't start again until coaxed with hot air and patience until the wee hours, when it coughed into action and slipped away into the night leaving a faint smell of late night restaurant kitchen hanging in the chill air.

Check out their route... the Vegetable Oil Road Trip blog has a great description of their sea kayak trip around Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula... classic northwest route! And they're heading onward toward warmer climes....

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Alternative fuel

What can you say when someone asks if you fancy joining them at Deception Pass for a spin in a kayak? It's a fun place to play after a full moon and it's a sunny fall day with the trees in blazing colors. Sadly I'm effectively grounded from the water this month so I had to decline Nacho's invitation. Nacho is one of a growing group of people who, although he doesn't burn his food, does burn the cooking oil afterwards. His diesel Mercedes is converted to run on vegetable oil and other similar natural fats, leaving behind it a slightly confusing "restaurant" scent and nothing much in the way of pollutants. For me that's a huge plus.

From San Diego, Nacho has spent his summers in Alaska as a park warden, migrating north and south with the seasons with a trunk laden with drums of dirty cooking oil. Collecting the oil solves the disposal problems for restaurants on the route, and leaves Nacho with the mouth-watering task of filtering out a residue of fries before filling his tank instead of inhaling benzine beside the pump. He stopped by on his way north last year to say "Hi!" to grab a snack, and to top up his tank... that's him in Seattle in the photo...

Last week I was in Shanghai breathing the hazy air of a city with a population, including migrant workers, conservatively estimated to exceed 20 million. Not everybody there drives a car, but the air is distinctly "heavy" to breath, and that's air that travels east... toward USA. I know the Chinese use cooking oil... for cooking... but what do they do with it afterwards? Perhaps there's a place for some education... after all, the Chinese do have the only cities I know of that have banned two-stroke motor-scooter engines in favor of electric scooters in the quest for cleaner air.

Nacho is giving talks about bio-diesel at a few colleges on his way south this time. He'll be in Seattle in a day or two. He does have a blog: check it out! In the meantime you can see him on my web-site, in the Misty Fjords, SE Alaska, where he turned up unexpectedly at our camp site in the middle of nowhere bearing the gift of dressed crab and fresh salad!

Monday, October 8, 2007

colors for visibility

Which colors show up best on the sea if you want to be seen? When I first bought a sea kayak my mentors said it was important to be visible and that the most visible colors lay in the red-orange-yellow range of the spectrum. I chose orange because that was right in the middle and ordered the kayak with orange deck and orange hull. I later decided I didn't really like looking at orange all day! Hence the next choice, still in the same range; a yellow deck with a red hull. But research shows that these colors while bright don't necessarily show up best. Red becomes less obvious in certain light...
White on the other hand reflects light so well it ought to be incredibly visible... except maybe when there are a lot of whitecaps out there? And black? Fishermen often find that black floats and black flags are easier to spot than brightly colored ones, especially when seen against the light...
Yet it's the unlikely "robin-egg blue" that surprises most paddlers. Because it contrasts sharply against most sea kayaking backgrounds it too is highly visible.
Of course big blocks of a single color show up better than broken shapes, hence the smaller blocks of color that effectively break up the outlines and camouflage war ships...
But when I spot a kayaker in the distance, it is often the movement of the paddle that catches my eye first, sometimes long before I can make out the kayak. For all the color you can add to the kayak, moving a paddle in the air is more likely to attract attention.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fun with colors

A few years ago I wrote an article for Sea Kayaker Magazine about the psychology of color and how it relates to the color we choose for a kayak... especially the deck. I was interested because after I finished circumnavigating Iceland in a kayak with a yellow deck, I borrowed my then girlfriend's kayak which was identical but for the color (green deck) and felt very insecure on what was a choppy sea but certainly nothing I would normally worry about. I began asking other paddlers what color they preferred and why... and came up with some interesting results, enough to make some generalizations. Then recently I heard Mike from Portland Kayak Company saying he didn't like paddling the "green boat" and it reminded me of my earlier experience... and apparently his feeling about it had been similar to mine at the time.... has anyone else out there had a "color" experience???
So yellow is a "big" color, an "adventurous" color, where red, the color of flight, fright and fight is a more aggressive color. The color red makes not just humans but other animals ready for flight/fight by raising blood pressure and heart rate... dark blue having the opposite effect.