Saturday, December 1, 2012
Finding Stability in a Sea of Chaos
As we indulge the sounds of life, a mosaic of diverse vibrations, notes, and beats play upon our ears at times orchestrated with purpose, other times randomly. With the experience of life, we perceive these sounds and wire our minds to react to them in thoughtful predictable ways. The sea is not unlike our terrestrial world. As we watch the ocean, we see another type of concert manifested in the waves with rhythmic vibrations, harmonics and beats similar to the sounds we surf with our ears. As kayakers, we are afforded the unique opportunity to become part of the music of the sea. Where every other water going vessel passively opposes the sea's forces, the kayak alone is able to interpret and play upon each wave with elegance and precision, realizing remarkable stability for watercraft of such narrow proportions. Last year I faced faced a situation of hostile conditions far out at sea for more than 10 hours (see "50 miles at sea") and learned in course of the trip, rather than futilely react to each wave, there was a opportunity to assimilate with the rhythms of the sea and feel stable in the midst of chaos using my paddle as an instrument, and my cadence as a verse.
But the waves and motions of the sea are even more complex and diverse than a symphony orchestra. Waves originate from many sources and many directions, close by from boats to storms and winds hundreds and thousands of miles away, and even reflect from rocks and shorelines and move in opposite directions making the water very confused and difficult for kayaks. A paddler unfamiliar with such conditions, like a person encountering a loud strange and unanticipated sound will react defensively with a thoughtless opposing reaction. As we gain knowledge of unfamiliar sounds, we respond with a predictable and well thought out action. Similarly, as kayakers, we will encounter difficult conditions many times and must develop ways to handle these situations. Especially in a long trip where we may face difficult conditions for hours and days at a time, we do not have the luxury to react to each wave.
The kayak itself has little innate stability. Although wider beam kayaks for the novice possess a higher degree of primary stability, nothing comes close to the skills of a skillful paddler. In wavy conditions, primary stability works against the paddler and shows its weakness inherent in every other craft as it characteristically applies a righting force to bring the kayak level to the surface of the water. If that surface is on the slope of a wave, the kayak's primary stability will actually attempt to right the kayak more sideways which can be seriously destabilizing in the moving motion of the waves. In challenging conditions, lower primary stability is more desirable as the paddler assumes the responsibility for providing the stability. But every kayak still has some primary stability, and the paddler will be pressed to mitigate the affects of the waves on that primary stability in addition to the other effects by applying a brace to each stroke.
Applying a brace to the stroke is a simple matter slightly angling the blade downward during the stroke. Angling the blade will add a downward force component in addition to a forward thrust. Adjusting the downward angle of the paddle can be done very quickly. Often times the paddler will need to try a number of angle settings to find just the right bracing strength. But once the right angle is found, its normally good for the wave set and should be noted for similar reoccurring sets of waves. If more bracing force is required to cross over a sharply pointed wave or through a whitecap break, a downward pry can be added to the stroke by pushing straight down on the braced blade during a stroke. The pry can be used only when a brace is applied to the stroke. Otherwise, the blade will knife downward and possibly compromise stability. If a wave hitting the kayak requires a pry on a brace, the paddler should be ready to brace quickly on the other side to address a possible abnormally harsh transition to the downward slope with a temporary shift to a fast cadence. As I paddled long hours in rough conditions, I was periodically hit by isolated waves which posed a problem, requiring a fast cadence until the wave passed. On a couple of occasions a wave broke over my bow, causing the kayak to spin off course like a compass needle. The fast cadence possibly averted a capsize far from shore.
As waves travel through the ocean they combine and cancel each other out. Over a distance, the resulting set of waves normalize into a consistant procession known as a "wave train". The waves further congregate into groups like harmonics from a string instrument, which called "sets". The kayaker will notice groups of similar size waves passing in cycles as wave sets come and go. The paddler will need to adjust to changing wave sets by altering the brace angle and cadence to match the oncoming set of waves and make fine adjustments. Through a number of cycles the paddler will notice a pattern which can be anticipated and formulated into a strategy to be used at any time in the future. As we learn to anticipate the notes of songs we hear many times, paddlers on longer trips will have the ability to predict when wave sets will arrive and structure tasks around the arrival of specific sets of waves.
As a padder moves through a rough conditions with the wave train at the beam, the kayak will transition between the upward and downward slopes of each wave. With a normalized wave train, the waves are spaced consistency. The paddler may use this to an advantage, by matching their stroke cadence to the consistant period of the wave train. A slower cadence is used for longer wave periods. A faster cadence is used for more confused conditions with sharp pointed waves. When in doubt, I always start with a faster cadence and adjust downward to empirically match the conditions. The transition between braces should match the crest and the trough where the slope changes. After a while I was able to develop an instinct to match my cadence to the wave train and develop a strategy for a number of conditions and realize a feeling of stability and confidence in a sea of chaos as these motions became more instinctual.
As kayakers, the chorus of the sea summons our skills and intuition to artfully ply confused waters with uncommon grace and dexterity while bearing witness to its every nuance like no other craft. As a musician contributes to a song, the kayaker flows with the beats and rhythms of the sea, wielding their paddle in a special art of seamanship as a small contributor in the greatest composition.
Copyright 2012 Lyman A Copps