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...)