Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Portsmouth Island / North Core Banks Circumnavigation

Our Campsite on the first night
On Friday, March 23 2018, Lee Toler and I set out to circumnavigate Portsmouth Island. Portsmouth Island is essentially North Core Banks and is separated from South Core Banks by Ophelia/Drum Inlet. Circumnavigating Portsmouth Island is part of Lee’s quest to circumnavigate all the barriers islands in North Carolina and at the time of this writing, he has done 11 out of the 19.

We traveled about 4 hours from Raleigh to Cedar Creek Campground and Marina in Sea Level and setup camp, so that we could get an early start on Saturday morning. There were no other campers at this time of the year and our campsite was out on a peninsula, with a kayak launch only 30 feet from our tents and no security lighting to illuminate our tents, allowing for a great view of the nighttime stars.

A Change of Plans

Our initial plan had been to travel about 25 miles sound side, then another 2 miles out Ocracoke Inlet and around the North end of Portsmouth, camping ocean side the the first night(Saturday.) We would then spend two leisurely days paddling back ocean side, possibly with some surfing, and returning through Ophelia/Drum inlet.

However, the weather had changed several times during the week prior to our trip and a Nor'easter was now pushing towards Portsmouth and expected to bring rain Saturday night into Sunday morning and then potentially gale force winds Sunday and Monday.

Since we had both discovered during the first night, which dipped down to about 42 degrees, that our sleeping bags lefts something to be desired in terms of warmth and faced with what would be a long, cold, and rainy night/day in our tents, followed by what could be very heavy winds and seas the following days, we decided to make a change to our plans.

Instead of traveling sound side the first day, we reversed our trip and decided to paddle ocean side the first day along Core Banks in order to take advantage of the calm seas and good conditions, then travel back sound side in order to be more protected.

An Early Start

Our first stop on Portsmouth Island
We got started around 7:30 AM and after the 3 mile sound crossing, pushed out Ophelia inlet ( Drum Inlet per most nautical charts.) The inlet was not visible from our campsite, so Lee plotted a bearing to help us find the inlet and as expected, we received a bit of a push from the ebb current and cruised out the inlet at about 6 MPH.

The wind was to our face for much of the morning, but it was relatively light and conditions were very calm, so we made good time. After about 11 miles, we decided to take a quick break and did a surf landing, ate, and then hopped back on the water.

Along the way, we were taken aback by the beauty of the desolate coast line with few signs of mankind, aside from seeing a few trucks from people staying at the Long Point Fishing Cabins. We also saw a number of dolphins, including one that swum close enough to Lee’s boat to give us both a jolt.

Planning for the Storm

As we had been paddling, one of the most prevalent talking points was how to handle the impending storm.

We threw around a number of ideas, including possibly taking refuge at the abandoned Portsmouth village, but the idea that we kept coming back to was paddling a bit further to Ocracoke and staying at a local hotel. No doubt, our cold experience camping Friday night made this seem like the most attractive option.

Paddling to Ocracoke Harbor would add about 7 miles to the trip that day, but a bigger concern was that since we had reversed the trip, instead of riding the tide out of Ocracoke Inlet towards the ocean, we would now be arriving as the tide was pushing out to sea and working against us. Even taking into account the usual 1-2 hour delay in tide reversal from the printed tide schedule we were quite worried that the current would be too strong to paddle across the inlet.

Due to timing, we predicted it might have been necessary to wait until around 8-10PM to catch the next in-going flood tide. In addition to this putting us crossing in the dark, rain was expected around 6PM, so we would also be crossing in what might be a heavy storm.

We discussed a number of possible contingency plans, such as continual paddling Northeast oceanside past the inlet to an oceanfront National Seashore campground further up Ocracoke island.

Another idea we tossed around was to try to make it far enough into the inlet and around the North end of Portsmouth, which is a mile wide, and contact a local man who runs a ferry service from Ocracoke for people wanting to explore Portsmouth Village. We would ask him to come gets us, as well as our boats and gear, and transport us to Ocracoke Harbor.

Similarly, if faced with a strong ebb when we arrived in Ocracoke Inlet, we thought it might be possible to hug the shore line of the North end of Portsmouth Island as much as possible, then set an extremely aggressive ferry angle in order to make it across Ocracoke Inlet to Ocracoke Island.

Like Horses to a Barn

After about 15 miles after our first shore landing, we reached the North end of Portsmouth and did a beach landing just inside the inlet. Here we assessed our situation.

Fortunately, we had not noticed any major push from the outgoing tide as we approached, despite arriving when it should be flooding out ( explanation to follow ) Convinced we had the energy and plenty of daylight to paddle another 7 miles, we called a local hotel to see if they had availability. After securing a room and only a very brief 10 minute stop, we hopped back in the boats to head to Silver Lake( Ocracoke Harbor.)

Despite already having paddled about 25 miles, much like a horse returning to the barn, the thought of a warm shower, clean bed, and restaurant cooked meal energized us and we made short work of the inlet crossing. We safely arrived at Ocracoke after paddling 32 miles, and averaging 3.7 MPH, with 8:33 Hours of paddling and 38 minutes of breaks.

Since it was still off season in Ocracoke, we were able to stay at the Anchorage Inn & Marina, which is directly across from their boat ramp in Silver Lake. We had told the hotel clerk we were arriving via kayak in about 2 hours, so she had already cut on the heat to our room before we arrived and helped us carry some of our gear to the room. After showers, we got a ride with the local taxi up to Howard’s Restaurant and Pub for a well deserved meal of crab cakes and fresh fish.

Waiting out the Storm

Our Rustic Campground at Ocracoke
As expected, the rain hit that evening and ended up bringing quite a bit of precipitation to the area and we were quite happy to be riding out the storm in a warm hotel room, rather than what would have been a very long and cold night in our tents.

We had discussed getting started Sunday morning as soon as the rain broke, but the rain lingered until around 11AM and so there was little chance of us paddling all the way back to the vehicle that day. With a gale force wind warning in effect, we decided to stay one more night in Ocracoke, so after a great breakfast at Pony Island Restaurant, we spent the rest of the day walking around Ocracoke, visiting shops, getting coffee, and preparing our gear ready for the next morning.

Homeward Bound

Leaving Silver Lake / Ocracoke Harbor
At around 6:30 AM on Monday, we launched and headed out of Silver Lake to cross Ocracoke Inlet. The wind was very strong, but a little lower in the morning and expected to pickup again as the day progressed.

After a previous day of strong Northeast 25 Knot+ winds, the seas were pretty rough and there was reasonably heavy swell in the inlet. However, as expected the heavy winds from the northeast were favorable in terms of our southwest paddling direction. Once out of Ocracoke Harbor, we immediately began to paddle swiftly in our intended direction and reached the 3 mile south end of Ocraoke in minutes. We passed the inlet with Lee reaching a speed of over 10 MPH during one of his surfs.

Since Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke Island are oriented in a Northwest/Southwest direction(40 degree axis) and the Nor'Easter was blowing in a southwest direction, with speeds around 20 Knots and gusts to 30, it pushed us on our way, creating following seas in our direction of travel.

To quote Lee; “ The very strong winds created well formed 2-3 foot surfable mildy breaking waves, pushing us in our intended direction home. I was handed a situation like I never imagined. I was visualizing the possibility of “surfing” all the way back to Sea Level. We did unfortunately have to take a break from the surfing after about 7 miles. That was the fastest and most exhilarating 7 miles I may ever paddle.”

Trouble at Sea

Sound Side, Portsmouth Island
Unfortunately, after surfing the following seas for about 7 miles, I got a bit too comfortable and in a moment of inattention, capsized. I attempted 3 rolls, but due to a combination of rough seas, wind, and not being properly locked into my boat, my feet/knees were not connected properly to the boat, I was unable to get back up and wet exited.

At this point, I was in a rather serious situation, as we were a mile or two from shore. The winds were very heavy as mentioned, and even though we were sound side, the swell was steady and strong. Ever vigilant, it didn’t take Lee, who was a bit ahead of me, much time to notice I was in trouble and circle back, with the arduous task of paddling back to me against the wind and swell.

He got me back in my boat, but because the seas were so rough, we opted not to do a t-rescue and instead I hopped into my boat still full of water. With the wind and swell, I was unable to safely paddle with a full boat of water and initially tried pumping, but this proved to be too exhausting. Worried about getting blown off course and the energy I was expending pumping, Lee instead told me to hold on and began paddling towards a duck blind.

The duck blind was in the opposite direction that the swell and wind was blowing us, but against all odds, we made it, with Lee paddling full force and me paddling with one arm, as I held on with the other. At some point during this ordeal, I capsized again, but was able to roll up and grab back onto Lee’s boat.

Once we made it to the duck blind, Lee tried to hold onto a post, but had to let go due to fears of capsizing himself.

Lee was not able to make any progress paddling the rafted kayaks in the direction of shore and at this point, we felt like there were 2 options; 1. a May Day call, 2. Attempt a T-rescue despite the great chance Lee might capsize also.

We decided on a T rescue, which necessitated me jumping back into the cold water. However, as luck would have it, as soon as I jumped out, I realized I was able to touch ground and so held onto Lee’s boat and supported it, so that he could empty mine. This is described in more detail below, but in retrospect heading towards the duck blind and general shallowness of this area helped out a great deal, although if I had become separated from my boat, it could of been a very serious situation!

My boat must have re-filled some with water during the period I was trying to attache my spray skirt with frigid fingers, but much less than before. I hobbled back slowly to shore sideways against the wind/swell. I was surprised at my feeling of relative stability with as much water as I observed in the boat once on shore.

After being in the water for so long, I was very cold and the heavy wind was not helping. After only a few minutes, I opted to keep pushing on in order to warm up. We paddled for several more miles before stopping again in a slightly sheltered hollow, so that we could eat and take a breather.

Back on Track

Lee at Long Point Cabins
Despite the time we spent during the rescue and subsequent slow paddle to shore, we still made excellent time, with the same wind and favorable following seas giving us a much needed push. We arrived at the Long Point Fishing Cabins, which is operated by the Parks Service, after only 4.5 hours of paddling. Our moving average for this leg of the trip was 5.44 MPH and we had traveled 24.5 Miles from Ocracoke.

The Long Point Fishing Cabins are a semi-rustic set of cabins located towards the middle of Portsmouth island. There are around 10 rental cabins of varying amenities, with the nicest having indoor plumbing, heating, and all getting power from a diesel generator.

Accessible only via a local ferry, this was the first week they were open to the public and there were already several people staying there, although only a couple had fishing poles. Some of the campers, including the camp volunteer, had seen us paddling two days earlier as we traveled up the coast line.

Lee and I moved our boats out of the way of the dock and found a porch on one of the cabins that was out of the wind. We ate and sat in the sun to warm up. After eating, we spent some time looking at the map to determine our location and path, figuring that we were about 8 miles from the car.

Erring on the Side of Caution

Our Windbreak at Long Point Cabins
After about an hour and feeling refreshed from being out of the wind, we hopped back in our boats to finish the short leg, but by this point, the winds had picked up and shifted directions. The wind had been predicted at around 25 knots, with gusts above 30 knots, but even in just the short period when we stopped, it felt like it was blowing more than it had been during the day.

Likely with the thought of my capsize in the back of our minds and faced with what would be a rather difficult 3 mile crossing, as the wind and swell would now be essentially perpendicular to us as we crossed, we decided not to risk the crossing. After paddling only 50 yards, we decided it was a no-go and not worth the risk.

Communication on the water would have been near impossible, given the increased wind velocity and moderate change in direction, rescue would have been even more difficult than earlier in the day, and separation of a paddler from his boat would have been disastrous.

Even though it was only a three mile crossing and 9 miles to go, neither of us needed to be home that day. So, we decided it was better to err on the side of safety and wait until tomorrow when the wind was expected to die down.

After speaking with a park ranger and getting some pricing, we opted not to rent a cabin, but instead camp nearby. The local volunteer, who stays on site and helps manage the cabins, was kind enough to drive us around in her Gator in order to search for a camp spot that was somewhat protected from the wind, as well as help us move our gear. For tent campers, you are required to be 100 feet from any of the cabins and we were much further than this from the nearest cabin.

We setup our tents, changed out of our dry-suits into dry clothes, and then retreated back to the porch we had rested on earlier in the day for some hot coffee and to relax in the sun.

While it was disappointing to be so close to our vehicle and, after having made such great time, still very early in the day, it was a beautiful place to camp. We both also felt that we had sort of cheated by staying at a hotel in Ocracoke, so this helped make it feel more like a proper camping trip.

An Easy Paddle Home

Our campsite
The night was uneventful and as expected the wind began dropping during the night. We had a lazy morning and were on the water by about 9:30 that day.

The wind was 1/3 of what it was the day before, so the crossing back to mainland was easy. We started out with a rather aggressive ferry angle, but ended up adjusting it several times as we realized that the wind and swell were not presenting much of an obstacle.

After an 8.7 mile paddle, we arrived safely back at the campground.

Local Insights and Closing Thoughts

How come Ocracoke Inlet was still flooding, when we reached there so late after the schedule tide change to ebb? After talking with the owner of the campground, he indicated that sometimes, the deeper water in the inlet will be flowing out, while the water closer to the surface is still slack or even still moving in. This likely accounted for our easy crossing of Ocracoke Inlet, despite being at a time when the tide should have been flowing out.

Another factor he mentioned was the effect of the Nor’easter. It will continue to blow water into the inlet past the time you would expected the tide direction to change. A long term South Wester has the opposite effect.

He also helped clear up a discrepancy between our map and what we had learned from the Park Ranger regarding the names of the local inlets. Our map had the name of the inlet across Core Sound from Sea Level as Drum Inlet. We had thought that Ophelia inlet, named for the hurricane that breached the outer banks and created the inlet, was three miles North. We both did Google Earth(GE) recon as part of our trip planning and on GE, you can see a second Inlet to the north. However, upon paddling both sides, there was only one inlet open, the one named Drum inlet on our map.

The Park Ranger, however, referred to this inlet as Ophelia Inlet and said that there were two others, Drum Inlet and Old Drum Inlet, which were both closed now. The campground owner confirmed this and said that while some of the locals still call it Drum Inlet, several maps have it incorrectly labeled and it is really Ophelia inlet.

Duck blinds are your friend: This is actually the second time a duck blind has proved to be a safe refuge. In a previous paddle while crossing from the Cedar Island Ferry to Portsmouth, Lee and I had also stopped at a duck-blind to get a breather when another paddler in our group began to feel seasick. In that case, while we were not able to climb onto the duck blind, it was shallow enough that we were able to get out and take a much needed break before finishing our paddle to Portsmouth.Duck blinds are almost always planted in shallow water and in both of our experiences, they have never been in water more than 3 feet deep. During another trip, while Lee was doing his Hatteras circumnavigation and during a 10 mile diagonal crossing from Hatteras to Buxton, his group took a lunch break at a massive duck blind, tying their boats to the support posts that stood in only 6 inches of water.

Trip Statistics

  • Overall Distance: 65.2 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 16:20 Hours
  • Total Stopped Time(While Paddling :) 2:33 Hours
  • Moving Average: 4 MPH
  • Overall Speed: 3.4 MPH
  • Top Speed: 11.1 MPH

Day One:

  • Overall Distance: 32 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 8:33 Hours
  • Total Stopped Time(While Paddling :) 0:38 Hours
  • Moving Average: 3.7 MPH

Day Two:

  • Overall Distance: 24.5 Miles
  • Total Moving Time: 4:30 Hours
  • Moving Average: 5.44 MPH
  • Top Speed: 10 MPH

Day Three:

  • Overall Distance: 8.7 Miles

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Strokes notes: Thinking outside the Box

If you've ever taken an introductory kayaking course, you've heard of the "Paddler's Box." The Box is one of those classic fundamental rules of kayaking, and it's generally considered critically important for protecting yourself from injury--particularly shoulder injury--while kayaking. Many of the most common errors of paddling technique can be ascribed to doing things outside the Paddler's Box. 

If you've somehow managed to avoid being introduced to the Paddler's Box, here's a link to a short but helpful videoAnd here's how the instructor in that video describes the Paddler's Box for those watching:
"The Paddler's Box is a rectangle that we create between our arms, our paddle, and our shoulders."


OK, so things are a bit clearer if you watch the video. But still, maybe we can find something a little more descriptive. How about this, from Jackson Kayak's paddle education site:
"The Paddler’s Box is the rectangle shape that can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, across the chest and back down the paddle. It is the rectangle that is created by our upper body, arms and paddle shaft."

That's a little better, though we'll see in a moment that it's incomplete. Here's a simple diagram that might help, from the blogger and whitewater kayaker brthomas:

So we can kind of see where the rectangle is there. Its four sides are the shoulders, the two extended arms, and the paddle. Maybe it's more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, but that's ok. And from the video and a number of these websites we get the sense of how to maintain the Paddler's Box. Here, from
"The paddler’s box moves with you as you rotate your torso, and it is generally important to stay within the box as you paddle."

So the box always stays out in front of you, even when you rotate to the left or right. The idea behind the Paddler's Box is that it forces you to think about getting your body in position for a stroke--any stroke--by rotating your torso rather than reaching with your hands and arms. It's supposed to keep you from doing things with your hands that you just shouldn't do, like reaching behind you to place the paddle for a stern rudder. This is, without question, a good thing. So I can appreciate the desire to have a rule that communicates this important principle of good paddling. Unfortunately, I think that the Paddler's Box may not be the best way to achieve that goal. 

I've never been fully comfortable with the idea of the Paddler's Box, for two reasons. First of all, I find the Paddler's Box extremely difficult to visualize. The diagram and descriptions above, though pretty typical, provide me only with a Paddler's Rectangle at best. Here's a more three-dimensional attempt to describe the box, from a site called ThoughtCo:
"When the hands are on the paddle and extended out in front of the paddler, the paddler’s box can be traced from the hands, up the arms to the shoulders, and including the chest and paddle contained within these constraints. This shape should roughly approximate a square. Now, extend those dimensions and shape down to the boat and that gives you the paddler’s box...Maintaining the paddler’s box simply means not allowing the hands to extend past the shoulders on either side, but they can move up or down within this imaginary box."

So the Paddler's Rectangle gets projected down to the deck of the boat, and this forms the Paddler's Box. It's a rectangular cube, and I'm supposed to keep my hands inside of it. That's actually not bad, I can see what the box is and how I'm supposed to use it. But it wasn't particularly easy to get to this point. And it brings me to the second reason that I don't like the Paddler's Box: For many skills, even demonstration-quality skills, the kind that you'd want your students or fellow paddlers to emulate, I'm pretty hard pressed to say whether or not my hands are inside my Paddler's Box. In other words, even when I think I can visualize the Box, I'm still not really sure what I'm allowed to do with my hands. Think of a good sculling draw, for example. Here's an image of someone demonstrating the stroke from the Necky Kayaks paddling skills website:

Where's the Box? Is his upper (left) hand outside of it? It's certainly above his shoulder; it seems to be level with his forehead. What about his right hand, which appears to have moved outside the box to the right? Or has it? I'm at a loss to explain to someone whether or not this paddler has maintained his Paddler's Box. But I don't think he's clearly doing anything wrong. 

In short, I find the Paddler's Box complicated to explain, difficult to visualize, and nearly impossible to apply to many skills. So what's the alternative? Here's my proposal for a rule to replace the Paddler's Box:

Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, allow your elbow to go either above or behind your shoulder. 

I believe that this rule covers every possible violation of shoulder safety that the Paddler's Box is meant to cover, and I think that it's also simpler to understand and simpler to implement. Here are a few examples of things paddlers do that I think should never be done:

  • Finishing the forward stroke with the arms instead of using good rotation
  • Reaching above the head for a high brace
  • Reaching behind the back for a stern rudder instead of rotating
  • Reaching across the body for a draw stroke instead of rotating

In every single case, I think that following the rule above would prevent the paddler from committing these errors. A good efficient forward stroke should eliminate the pull-through with the arms that causes your elbow to go behind your shoulder. If your elbow goes above your shoulder for a high brace, you're asking for injury. The only way you can get the paddle placed for a stern rudder without putting your elbow behind your shoulder is to rotate aggressively toward the paddle. And the guy above demonstrating the sculling draw is just fine; he's rotated so that he can keep is right elbow in front of his right shoulder and his left elbow at or below his other shoulder. 

Unlike the Paddler's Box, which is so challenging to communicate that in five minutes of googling I managed to find at least four variations, this rule has the great benefit of simplicity. And, even better, to implement the rule I get to refer to things that actually exist. So instead of trying to figure out if the stroke keeps my hands inside some imaginary box, the limits of which are baffling to describe and literally impossible to see, I just have to look at where my elbows are in relation to my shoulders. 

The big remaining question is whether or not this rule does all the work that I want it to do. Can you think of an instance in which you'd feel justified in breaking the rule? Can you think of a movement that would put your shoulder at risk that wouldn't be prevented by applying it? If you can, I'd be interested to hear about it. If you can't, then maybe it's time we stopped worrying about the Paddler's Box, and started paying more attention to our elbows.  

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Strokes Notes: Hanging on the paddle

Cross-over paddlesports are more popular than ever, with many kayakers expanding their skills by moving from flatwater to whitewater (or vice versa), or by trying out stand up paddleboard or canoeing. Unfortunately, there is one sport that I rarely see mentioned in discussions of these alternatives: rowing. I suppose I can understand why this blind spot exists. Unlike kayaking, rowing is primarily aimed at mastery of a single stroke, which seems contrary to paddlesports in which the goal is more complete control over a much more maneuverable vessel. But I'd argue that rowing has a great deal to offer the kayaker. There is something to be said for millions of repetitions aimed at perfection of a single stroke; specifically, it tends to develop a deep feeling of connection between body, boat, blade, and water, a feeling toward which all paddlers should strive.

I think that there may be one particularly valuable lesson that rowing has to offer the kayaker. It centers on a key concept in rowing: “hanging on the oar.” Here is a quote from Todd Jesdale, onetime U.S. Mens' Junior National rowing coach:

"A rower needs to find ways to have the push and power of the legs go directly to the oar handle, with little interruption. Simultaneously, one must realize that every ounce of power applied to the oar handle must emanate from the footstretchers, that there is a one to one connection between push against the footstretchers and pull on the oar handle. So, when one pushes very hard with the legs and keeps various parts of the body from giving way or breaking, one moves the oar handle as well."

Replace "oar handle" with "paddle shaft" and "footstretchers" with "footpegs," and I believe this statement captures something critical at the heart of the kayaking forward stroke. It also explains many of the ways in which kayakers routinely fail to exploit the full efficiency of that stroke.

To get an idea of what Jesdale means, take a look at Figure 1. This figure presents a series of images from a video clip of Rob Waddell, a rower with multiple World Championships and an Olympic gold medal to his name. These images show the "drive" segment of a single stroke, from the catch in frame 1 to the release in frame 8. Notice that from frames 1 to 3, for the first half of his stroke, it's ALL legs; the angle of the back is constant, and there is no break in his arms. Frames 4 and 5 finally see the back swinging toward the bow (remember, as a rower he's facing backwards), and only in frames 6-8 do we see him finish with his arms.

Figure 1. The drive segment of the rowing stroke.

This progression--legs, back, arms--allows Waddell to transfer every bit of the power that he is exerting on the footstretchers to the handle of his oar. Here's another way to view it: As his legs drive against his footstretchers and push his hips toward the bow, the strong back forces his shoulders to keep up with his hips, and his straight arms force his hands (and the oar handles) to follow his shoulders. This is most apparent in frames 1-4. Everything is tied together, and the result is that the leg drive is perfectly transferred into movement of the oar handle. Only after the power phase of the drive is complete do the arms come into play at all; by frame 5, the power of the stroke has diminished enough that Waddell can begin to effectively engage his arms to complete the stroke and release the blades from the water.

The connection you can see in Waddell's stroke, the unbroken transfer of power from the legs through the back and arms to the oar handle, is precisely what Jesdale refers to in his description, a description that is typically abbreviated with the coach's exhortation for the rower to "hang on the oar." Hanging on the oar is the way that the rower harnesses the power of the water pushing against the buried blade to move the boat forward efficiently. The feeling of hanging on the oar is similar to the feeling of hanging from a pullup bar; the weight of the body can be felt through the extended arms and down through the large muscles of the back (the "lats"). This is exactly where the power is felt in the upper body during the first half of the drive.

Now imagine, instead, that Waddell allowed the connection to break down. Imagine if the back was weak, and collapsed forward as the legs drove the hips back. The result would be a disconnect in the transfer of power; the legs would drive, but the oar handle wouldn't move. Or imagine if he tried to grab at the catch with his arms. Instead of transferring the power of his leg drive efficiently by using the biomechanical advantage of his extended arms, he would be trying to transfer that power through his contracting biceps--and even Rob Waddell doesn't have biceps strong enough to fully transfer the power of his leg drive. The transfer would break down. The result in both cases is a loss of power and a reduction in efficiency of the stroke.

What does any of this have to do with kayaking? Let's take a look at another world class paddler: Anders Gustafsson, a World Champion sprint kayaker. Figure 2 shows a series of video stills from one of Gustafsson's practice sessions. There are a great many similarities here to Figure 1. The most important for our purposes can be seen in frames 1 through 4. In these frames Gustafsson's right leg drives his right hip back in the seat and he uses the rotation of his torso to keep the shoulder following the hip. The extended right arm provides the connection that keeps the paddle shaft moving right along with the shoulder. The result is an unbroken connection between the leg drive against the foot stretchers and the movement of the shaft, a perfectly efficient transfer of power. Gustafsson is "hanging on the paddle" through this entire motion. By frame 5 the leg drive is complete, and the blade is nearing Gustafsson's right hip. At this point, nearly all of the power of the drive has been expended, and the remaining rotation of the torso and bending of the right arm is primarily serving to extract the blade cleanly from the water to finish the stroke.

Figure 2. The drive segment of a kayaking forward stroke.

The same opportunities exist here for the transfer of power to break down. If, for example, Gustafsson's torso rotation was weak, his leg would drive his right hip back but his right shoulder would lag behind and fail to move the paddle shaft. Similarly, if he were to grab immediately at the catch by bending his arms he would be asking his biceps to transfer the power generated by the large muscles of his legs and back, an impossible task. Only by hanging on the paddle, by maintaining the connection through his lats and extended arms, is he able to efficiently transfer the power needed to drive the boat forward at top speeds.

In thinking about problems that kayakers might have in maximizing the efficiency of their forward stroke, I have come to the conclusion that many of them relate to a failure to hang on the paddle. Consider the following, for instance. One of the best ways to cultivate the ability to hang on the oar in rowing is to take strokes using only leg drive. Since the back and the arms remain static, this allows the rower to eliminate (or at least limit greatly) the possibilities of breakdown in connection throughout the drive. The same drill exists for kayaking. It's called the straight arm drill. Just about every kayaker who has ever taken a formal class, especially one focusing on the forward stroke, has done the straight arm drill. And most people absolutely hate it. I have found that most paddlers have trouble doing the straight arm drill properly--almost everyone wants to break the arms. But what's really interesting is that even when people are successful at keeping their arms straight, they often can do so only by sacrificing nearly all the power in their stroke.

Why? My theory is that many kayakers’ forward strokes involve engaging the arms immediately after the catch. Instead of hanging on the paddle and allowing the extended arms to transfer power efficiently from the leg drive to the paddle shaft, this approach relegates all power to the biceps, which means that the stroke is limited to what the biceps can bear. (Interestingly, this limitation can exist even if the paddler appears to be rotating well with the upper body, and in some cases even if there is drive on the foot peg. In other words, it’s difficult to diagnose this problem with the standard markers that we use for a good forward stroke.) The problem is that in this case the leg drive and the rotation are being compromised by the instinct to initiate the stroke by grabbing at the paddle shaft with the arm. For anyone that paddles this way, the straight arm drill is crippling. Since power transfer for them normally depends on engaging the biceps, removing that muscle group from the stroke eliminates virtually all power. In contrast, a paddler who consistently hangs on the paddle should be able to paddle at nearly full power with the straight arm drill; any limitation would be associated only with the mechanics of the release, which involves bending the arm to cleanly extract the blade from the water.

What is the cure for this problem? First and foremost, the paddler must cultivate the feeling of hanging on the paddle shaft. Some visualizations might first help to illustrate the technique. Imagine, for instance, that you're trying to pull-start a reluctant lawn mower. You don't just lean over, grab the handle, and pull the cord with your biceps. You'll never get enough power doing it that way. You put your foot on the lawnmower and you bend your leg to get leverage; you extend your arm fully, reaching your shoulder down toward the mower; and when you pull, you drive that shoulder back up with a strong push on your leg and rotation of your torso, and you let your extended arm do the work of making the cord handle follow along. That's the only way you'll get that rusty old thing started, by hanging on the handle and using the big muscles of your legs and your torso instead of your biceps. When people know they need to efficiently apply power, they instinctively apply every available biomechanical advantage. The challenge is to transfer this instinct to the forward stroke.

The easiest way to develop this feeling in the boat may be to take strokes in conditions where the resistance of the stroke is great enough to prevent grabbing with the arms. The most convenient place to find that resistance is in the first few strokes from a dead stop, overcoming the inertia of a stationary boat. If the paddler prepares appropriately for the first stroke--one hip forward, knee raised and foot placed firmly on the foot peg, torso rotated and on-water hand extending out with a straight arm, blade planted fully at the catch--and then takes a full power stroke by driving hard with the leg and torso rotation, it will be nearly impossible to grab with the arm and bend the elbow. The paddler should feel the power transfer from the big muscles of the legs and core, through the lats, and down the underside of the extended arm. This is the feeling of hanging on the paddle that the paddler should seek to replicate with every stroke. The paddler can repeat this exercise simply by letting the boat come to a full stop after every initiating power stroke; or, if there's a willing partner, by having that partner stand behind the boat in shallow water and simply hold onto the stern to keep it from moving. Other ways to find the kind of "heaviness" that reenforces this feeling is to paddle hard in very shallow water or to engage some kind of artificial drag or anchor, possibly by towing another paddler.

The other worthwhile exercise, obviously, is the straight arm drill itself. If you look at frames 1-4 of Figure 2, you'll see pretty clearly that Gustafsson's regular forward stroke is basically a straight arm drill for the entirety of this power phase of his drive. The biceps are not generating power, they are simply finishing off the stroke and facilitating a clean release. The straight arm drill will be most effective, obviously, once the student has cultivated the feeling of hanging on the paddle (perhaps with resistance drills as described above); that feeling can then be carried over into the straight arm drill until the paddler can move the boat efficiently throughout the drill. (The other challenge with the straight arm drill is that eliminating the elbow bend in the last third of the stroke makes it extremely difficult to achieve a clean finish. There is, fortunately, a very simple solution to this problem: just shorten the stroke. Simply extract the blade earlier, before you would normally begin your finish by bending the arms (say, just after frame 4 of Figure 2). Do the straight arm drill using only a half stroke, slicing the blade out early enough that you're not tempted to break the arms to get a clean finish.)

Once you've cultivated the feeling of hanging on the paddle shaft, it becomes something that can be easily employed as a "self-check." A paddler hanging on the paddle will feel the tension running like a cable that stretches along the underside of the extended arm, through the lats in the upper back, down the muscles lining the core and into the driving thigh. This is a proprioceptive marker just as effective as any visual marker of good forward stroke technique. It is a marker that is used constantly to gauge stroke efficiency when rowing, but I think its value has not been appreciated by kayakers. As a former rower and current kayaker, I frequently check myself to make sure that I'm hanging on the paddle, and it has been a critically important component in the development of my forward stroke. I highly recommend that you give it a try.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Strokes Notes: Why I feather

(This is the first in what I hope will be a series of entries describing my take on some issues related to kayaking technique. It is a series aimed at others like me: strokes nerds. You know who you are. You've watched that Roger Schumann bow rudder video 13 times, and you've spent days trying to figure out if the inside or outside edge works better on your hanging draw. Pretty much all of my decisions about paddling style involve an agonizing analytical thought process. That's just how my brain works. So if you're a strokes nerd like me, maybe you'll find something interesting or even useful in these entries. And if you're not a strokes nerd... well, you've been warned...)

To feather, or not to feather? That is the question. As far as I’m concerned, you can pry my feathered paddle from my cold, dead hands. And in this entry I'm going to tell you why. I expect not everyone will agree with this position, so I invite counter-arguments, objections, and general rebuttal in the comments section. Or maybe someone will be moved to write a similar blog entry defending the unfeathered paddle. So here, in no particular order, are the three primary reasons that I feather my paddle.

1. I feather because it just feels right. 

Once I made the decision to feather, it took me about a week or so to develop a feel for a feathered paddle. That was a pretty miserable week. Switching from unfeathered to feathered is an awkward experience, and it takes some dedication until your strokes feel normal again. The good news is that once you've gotten a few weeks of feathered paddling under your belt, you'll forget why it felt so weird to begin with. The bad news is that you can easily remind yourself how weird it felt by just unfeathering again. At this point I've been paddling with a feather for over 3 years, and I hate, hate, HATE going back to unfeathered paddling. 

The point here is that there is nothing "natural" about an unfeathered paddle. I'd wager that my feathered paddle feels every bit as natural in my hands as an unfeathered paddle may feel in someone else's. And this goes for just about every important aspect of paddling. After 3 years of feathering I'm convinced that my body knows instinctively where my hands are on my paddle and how my blades are oriented at all times. I have no reason to think that the feather ever causes me to misapply a stroke, or to miss a critical brace or a roll. This, of course, is a common argument against the feather, that it introduces uncertainly in bracing because the two blades are oriented differently with respect to the water. I'm willing to concede this point only in a very limited sense. I believe the notion that a feathered paddle makes bracing more difficult applies primarily to "practice bracing." Here's the scenario: You're in a class, sitting in a good low brace position with your elbows up and the back faces of your blades perfectly parallel to the water's surface on both sides. In that position you're ready to do your "demonstration quality" low braces. But if your paddle is feathered, one of your blades will always be angled awkwardly toward the water, setting you up to miss a brace on that side; you've got to keep adjusting your blade angle every time you switch sides for another brace. The problem with this argument is that bracing almost never works that way. Here's the reality: You're paddling forward in rough water, you've just finished off a stroke on your right side, and you're hit with a surprise wave that throws you over onto your left. Quick!--how is your left blade oriented with respect to the water? Feather or no feather, your body has to know without thinking how to shift the angles of that left arm--shoulder, elbow, wrist--to position the blade for a good, safe, solid brace. There's nothing automatic about this but that practice makes it so. 

So I paddle with the feather because it just feels right. Calm water or rough, paddling straight or carving turns, high brace or low brace. It always feels right to have my paddle feathered, because 3 years of practice have made it so. An unfeathered paddle--not so much. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if I went out in rough water right now with an unfeathered paddle I'd be VERY prone to miss a brace when I needed it. No thanks.

You may have noticed that this isn’t so much an answer to the question “Why feather?” as it is an answer to the question “Why not feather?” Fair enough. But I’m not done yet… 

2. I feather because headwinds are a drag. 

You've probably all heard this argument: With a feathered paddle, the off water blade is conveniently angled to slice through a strong headwind. This claim is pretty obviously true, but it almost always invites counterarguments. For one thing, the beneficial effect of the feather would obviously be most pronounced with a 90 degree feather, and hardly anyone paddles with a 90 degree feather. For another, the feather is only reliably helpful in a perfect headwind. In any kind of crosswind, a feathered blade may be just as likely to catch the wind as an unfeathered one. In fact, it’s possible that a strong crosswind on a feathered blade might even have a destabilizing effect by pushing the paddler over sideways. And wouldn't an unfeathered paddle actually give you an advantage in a tailwind? This is also all true. But if that means it's all a wash, then why am I just so happy to have a feathered paddle in my hands when that wind kicks up in my face?

While it's obviously true that the wind can come from anywhere, wind resistance will have its most pronounced effect countering your forward movement. And the thing moving forward most is your off-water (top) hand; not only is your boat moving into the wind, but that hand is moving forward relative to the boat. If you haven't thought a lot about how headwinds affect you on the water, it's worth checking out this short Wikipedia article on "apparent wind". Basically, if there's a 10 mph wind blowing in my face and I'm paddling forward at 3 mph, I'm feeling a 13 mph headwind. If my off-water hand is moving forward at another 3 mph relative to my boat (just a random estimate, I'd guess it's probably quite a bit faster than this, depending on cadence), then my hand is pushing against a 16 mph wind. That’s a lot of resistance on the off water blade if it’s squared to the wind. (Based on the surface area of my Werner Cyprus, it works out to about 0.43 pounds of resistance with every stroke.) In contrast, if I had a 10 mph tailwind in the same situation, my off water hand would only feel a 4 mph wind pushing it from the back. Headwinds have a whole lot more effect on you than tailwinds. The result is that having your blade squared to a headwind will not only slow the boat down, the blade effectively acting as a mini sail, but that it will also put significantly greater strain on your shoulder as you attempt to push that blade forward into the wind. Half a pound of resistance doesn’t sound like much, but try doing 10,000 reps. That’s a workout you probably don't need. 

So yes, how much a feather helps you does depend on where the wind is coming from and how your blade is angled relative to it. But the feather provides relief when you MOST need it, when the wind is right in your face. It could prevent your trip from becoming a very prolonged and potentially exhausting set of shoulder presses. 

3. I feather because I don't want to break my wrists.

This one is a bit more complicated.

Try this experiment. Grab a two-piece paddle, ideally one with a loose ferrule that allows you to easily rotate the two halves of the shaft relative to each other. Sit on a bench, stool, or chair, something that will allow you to get into a catch position with your paddle. Now lock the paddle in the unfeathered position (zero degree feather angle) and hold it like you’re ready to paddle. Your hands should be out in front of you, with the power faces of both blades facing toward you. Maintaining a firm grip on the paddle shaft with both hands (don’t let the paddle shaft rotate in your hands), move yourself into the catch position on your left side, with the left blade down toward the "water" and the right blade up in recovery. Now look at your top wrist. Unless you’re some kind of freak of nature, it will be bent. In fact, if you have a high angle stroke, it may be bent uncomfortably. Now, separate the two halves of the paddle so that they are still connected but free to rotate relative to each other, with the ferrule unlocked. Do the same thing, coming to a catch position, but keep both of your wrists locked in the unbent, neutral position. You will notice that as you move to the catch, the two halves of the paddle shaft rotate relative to each other. Stop again at the catch position; your top wrist should be unbent, but now your blades are feathered. That angle between the two blades is your natural feather angle--it is the angle you should feather your blades so that you don't have to break your wrists on your forward stroke.

The ergonomics of the forward stroke are such that the off-water wrist will tend to break at the catch; again, this is more dramatic the higher the angle of the stroke. An unfeathered paddle combined with a firm grip on the shaft are thus a recipe for unnecessary strain on the wrists. If you paddle this way with a very low angled stroke, the bend in the wrists may not even be noticeable. But with a higher angle stroke, this approach could result not only inefficiency, but also tendinitis.  

There are actually two solutions to this ergonomic problem. Mine, as you might have guessed, is to feather my paddle. I've found that a 45 degree feather is a pretty natural angle for my typical stroke, which is relatively high angle. I maintain my right hand as my control hand at all times during the forward stroke; my right hand holds the paddle in place and my paddle shaft just rotates freely in my left hand. With this arrangement, whether I'm catching on my right or my left the blade is always in a good solid catch position while my off-water wrist can stay safe and neutral. The remarkable thing about this is that my wrists and hands don't have to do anything to position my blade for the catch. The rotation of my body and the movement of my arms on the recovery is sufficient to put my blade right where it needs to be, on either side.

The second solution is, I imagine, almost universal among kayakers who don't want to feather their paddles. You simply forget about the firm grip--or, more precisely, you switch the control hand with every stroke. With this approach, the hands are held loosely on the paddle shaft (usually a good idea in any case), and with each stroke the on-water hand becomes the control hand. This allows the paddle to remain unfeathered and the wrists to maintain a neutral unbent angle, and still enables effective catches on both sides. It will work with any angle stroke, though the degree to which the hands must work to shift blade angle is more pronounced with a high angle stroke. (If you want to see a good demonstration of how this control hand switching approach works, check out this video. It's a good explanation of what many kayakers probably do without thinking about it.)

Why do I prefer the feathered paddle solution? My reasoning is based on a simple premise: Every sprint kayaker in the world can't be wrong. If switching control hands is a viable option, why wouldn't world class sprinters adopt it just as frequently as the alternative? My guess is that the answer has something to do with the challenges associated with finding the catch efficiently, especially at high cadences. With an appropriately feathered paddle the hands don't have to do anything to put the blade in a strong catch position, everything is determined by the ergonomics of the forward stroke. In contrast, if you're alternating control hands the hands are doing lots of work, with every stroke, to find the catch. Obviously this is doable, but what would happen if one adopted this approach at 120 strokes per minute? During a sprint the first inches of drive are absolutely critical, and there is very little room for error at the catch; the paddler must have confidence that the blade is entering the water at exactly the right angle to apply pressure immediately. I suspect it could be very difficult to accomplish this by alternating control hands at very high cadence. And maybe this is why kayak racers appear to be one group that is unanimous on the “to feather or not to feather” question. They just cannot afford even slight uncertainty at the catch. And what better way to eliminate that uncertainty than to make the catch position automatic? Just "set it and forget it”: determine the right feather angle for your stroke and you'll have a perfect catch every time without your hands or your blade needing to do any work at all. 

So I feather because it gives me confidence in my catch, at any speed and any cadence, without having to worry about poor ergonomics. All I have to do is focus on my forward stroke form, and my feather takes care of finding the catch for me. 

These are my reasons for sticking with the feather. It should be clear from what I've said above that these reasons depend quite a bit on my own paddling style. Since I adopt a high angle stroke, the ergonomic benefits of the feather are considerable and, at the same time, I can employ a large enough feather angle that it makes a significant difference in a headwind. If you use a low angle stroke, you will have an entirely different set of criteria on which to base your decision. I'm sure that there are plenty of other arguments both for and against feathering that I've not addressed here, and there are also lots of details that I've left out of the above account, since I figure not many people want to read a 12 page treatise on paddle feathering. In the end, of course, your decision to feather or not to feather is yours. But as with all such decisions related to paddling skills, I recommend that you make it for good reasons, and not simply because someone told you there's a “right” way to do it. So if you’ve been wondering about why someone might feather a paddle, I invite you to think about the reasons I've laid out here. And then think about the reasons not to feather. And then get out on the water and practice, practice, practice until you find what works best for you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Trip Report: Cedar Island to Portsmouth and Ocracoke

On Friday, April 29 Lee Toler led a group of four paddlers, including myself, John Keeter, and Chris Rezac on a trip to Ocracoke Island. Lee had outlined a plan that would take us around the island in three days, and after some email exchanges to discuss options we agreed on an ambitious but achievable itinerary. We would leave from the Cedar Island ferry terminal near mid-day on the 29th (after a 4 hour drive from Raleigh) and make the crossing to Portsmouth Island, camping on the beaches lining Ocracoke Inlet. The second day would take us out the inlet and northeast along Ocracoke on the ocean side, reentering the sound through Hatteras inlet and staying on the south end of Hatteras Island. On the third day we would paddle southwest on the sound side, camping just south of Ocracoke Harbor. We would finish on Monday by loading our boats on the ferry for the return ride to Cedar Island and the drive back to Raleigh. Lee had timed tides to give us favorable currents into and out of the inlets and the winds, though forecast to run against us in both directions, would be relatively tame at 10-15 miles per hour. So despite the roughly 60 miles total distance we all felt comfortable in our ability to handle the conditions. In the end, we would have nearly completed the 35 mile circumnavigation of Ocracoke Island, but for the several miles between Springer’s Point and Ocracoke Inlet.

Cedar Island ferry terminal
We launched as planned around noon on Friday under grey skies. We had encountered some rain on the drive to Cedar Island, but it had stopped by the time we got our paddles wet. Our plan was to paddle a straight course to the north end of Portsmouth Island. This would take us far enough out into the Sound that land would be barely visible, if at all. So we were to be guided by compass for the first leg of our trip. A moderate breeze off our front quarter and some light 1-2 foot swells from the same direction kept trying to draw us off course, but with occasional corrections we were able to maintain our heading. The breeze and spray kept me cool and comfortable in my drysuit (water temperatures were still in the low 60s, cold enough to be cautious), and the clouds gradually opened up to reveal patches of blue sky. All in all a very pleasant day on the water.

Until I got seasick. If you’re ever considering getting seasick, I have some advice: Don’t do it. Few things can ruin an enjoyable day of paddling more than the firm conviction that you’d rather die than spend another minute in your boat. In my limited experience with coastal paddling I’ve encountered seasickness about one out of every 5 times I paddle. So my advice isn’t entirely facetious; I have now decided that a 20% chance of being miserable isn’t worth the risk, and I’ll be taking Dramamine before every coastal paddle. I’ve never yet gotten seasick on a day when I’ve taken it, so it seems to be effective for me and has no apparent negative side effects. Unfortunately, while I had packed Dramamine in my first aid kit and even had a pill accessible in my pdf “ouch pouch,” I had decided not to take one prior to launch. Which leads to my second bit of advice: If you do get seasick, let your fellow paddlers know right away. It’s somewhat embarrassing to get seasick on a paddle like this—it is sea kayaking, after all, and hard to accept the fact that your body just can’t handle the “sea” part—and the inclination is to keep quiet and hope beyond reason that it’ll just go away. It won’t. In fact, it will almost certainly get worse. It’s far better to let your group know about the problem before you’re utterly incapacitated. Once I knew things were going downhill I drew up alongside Lee to let him know, at which point we all discussed options and planned to adjust our course to head toward the Core Banks and shallow water. This would take us a bit out of our way, but we’d still be heading in the right general direction.

Pitstop in shallow water in the Sound
As any nautical chart will show, there is a lot of very shallow water in the northern Core Sound. We were still quite a ways from solid marsh when we reached water shallow enough for me to hop out and stand next to my boat. The relief was immediate. We spent the next 30 minutes or so taking water and snacks and experimenting with various approaches to peeing from a boat while wearing a drysuit (experimental results available on request). Eventually I felt well enough to continue, and we headed off. I would have to stop one more time before we reached our destination, on the edge of a marsh prior to reaching Portsmouth Island. Fortunately I was able to continue paddling the entire time. The group decision to find shallow water and take additional stops allowed me to avoid the more debilitating effects of seasickness. In the end, I suspect that the extra distance and rest stops ended up delaying us much less than if I had needed a nurse boat and a tow.  In retrospect, given our plan for a long crossing without opportunity to land I definitely should have taken a Dramamine before launch to remove any risk; if shallow water hadn't been an option, things could have gotten much worse for me and the group.

Setting up camp on Portsmouth Island
We reached our landing on Portsmouth Island after 18 miles of paddling and well before dark. Once on sandy beach I made a full recovery, and we were all able to find a site and set up camp at a leisurely pace while the sun set. We pitched tents in the dunes just off the beach, and aside from some mild uncertainty about the likelihood of the tide overtopping the dunes (it would not), we spent a very pleasant evening refueling and resting. The campsite was mercifully free of mosquitoes. Portsmouth Island has a rather infamous reputation, and I had troubled myself by reading online horror stories of mosquito-plagued outings prior to the trip. But the breeze and the early season conspired to keep us bug-free, and to provide us with perfect camping conditions.

Portsmouth Island campsite
The next morning (after dutifully taking my Dramamine) we headed out Ocracoke inlet on the outgoing tide, taking a pretty steep ferry angle across the inlet to avoid getting swept out to sea. Before heading out we spent some time surveying the sandbars and breakers to find the safest route out to open water. We proceeding cautiously, pausing occasionally to discuss options and try to locate a calm path around the point. Our patience paid off, and we ended up getting outside without incident, following a relatively surf-free passage that cut inside an offshore break.

Once on the ocean side we headed northeast along the Ocracoke coast, directly into the wind. Fortunately the wind was as forecast, around 15 miles per hour. Having dealt with worse wind before I felt that we were making decent time, probably moving along at 3 miles per hour or better. But the markers on land seemed to tell a different story. After several hours of paddling we appeared to be making little progress, and decided to make a surf landing to take stock of the situation and get some food and rest. The landing was not entirely uneventful; the second boat in got tumbled in the surf after landing, coming up on top of the first boat and causing some minor damage. An important lesson learned: Spacing and timing are critical for surf landings. With so much beach available to us we should have been spread out much more. Also: Loaded boats and surf are a risky combination. It’s hard to control a loaded boat once you’re out of it, and the surf never seems to care that you haven’t quite gotten your boat out of the water before the next wave breaks.

On the beach we consulted Lee’s GPS, and were dismayed to learn that we had made it only about one third of the way up the island. We were barely averaging 2 miles per hour. Over the remainder of that day we pieced together an explanation. We had been fighting not only wind, but strong littoral or “longshore” current caused by swell approaching the coast at an angle. The northeast wind had been blowing for several days, building up 3 to 4 foot swell coming from that direction, nearly right in our faces. The associated current was running against us parallel to shore, and had been slowing us much more than we anticipated based solely on the wind. This effect was later confirmed by some other boaters we ran into, who commented on the strong longshore current to the southwest. Some quick calculations revealed that even if we kept up our current speed we wouldn’t reach Hatteras Inlet until the tide had turned against us. We discussed the possibility of continuing onward and camping instead at the north end of Ocracoke before entering the inlet, but we soon rejected this option. It would have gotten us in late after a grueling paddle, we didn’t know what would be available in terms of campsites, and (most problematic) we had all planned only for enough water to last through one night and couldn’t be guaranteed resupply. So the group opted to head back; we would reenter Ocracoke Inlet and camp at Springer’s Point, where we had originally planned to camp on the third night.

The experience presented a sobering lesson in the importance and challenge of accurately judging speed in conditions. The strength of the littoral current and its effect on our progress was surprising to all of us. Had we not been near shore with ample opportunities to judge land speed using obvious markers (water towers and other structures), we could have seriously overestimated our distance traveled and been in real trouble mistiming tides at the next inlet.

After launching through the surf we headed back to the southwest, flying downwind (and down current) and topping out at speeds over 6 miles per hour. We re-entered the inlet the same way we exited—cautiously, looking again for the path we had taken on the way out. We hit a bit more surf in this direction, which John took as the perfect opportunity to execute his first combat roll. After rounding the point it was a smooth paddle, mostly shielded from the northeast wind, to a calm beach landing at Springer’s Point. After setting up camp we walked through the nature preserve into Ocracoke and rewarded ourselves for 18.5 miles of hard paddling and judicious planning with pizza, beer, and ice cream.

Springer's Point beach
Since our plan for circumnavigation was shot, we mulled over a number of options for the next day. Unfortunately tides would not be conducive to heading out the inlet again, even just for a day of surf play. And a long paddle back to the takeout at Cedar Island just seemed like a lot of effort without the promise of anything new—plus, the wind was forecast to shift 180 degrees overnight, and would be right in our faces for a trip back across the Sound. So we decided to get up late, have breakfast in Ocracoke, and take the early afternoon ferry back to Cedar Island. From there Lee, John, and I would drive over to Lee’s place to spend the night, followed by a Monday morning surf session at Bogue Inlet. Chris decided to head home Sunday night, saving his vacation day for another trip.

Just one quick note on the ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island: It is outrageously inexpensive. One dollar gets you on board as a walk-on, and bikes cost a mere $2 more. Kayaks, mysteriously, are free.

Tides again worked for us at Bogue Inlet on Monday morning; we let the tail end of the outgoing tide carry us out in the morning, and rode the beginnings of the flood back in the early afternoon. Surf was at about 2-4 feet, perfect for a few hours of practice catching waves, bracing, and perfecting our rolls. John and I, both relatively new to the surf zone, found the conditions just right to challenge ourselves and build confidence in rougher water. At the start of the flood tide the water just outside the inlet turned confused, with a small area of clapotis and waves breaking from multiple directions, ideal for practicing timely bracing and boat and blade awareness. It turned out to be a fortuitous addition to the trip, something we wouldn’t have gotten had conditions not forced us to deviate from our original plan. It was a great end to a great weekend--challenging paddling, fantastic early summer camping, and good group decision-making made for an enjoyable trip and a valuable learning experience.

Taking a break from the surf at Bogue Inlet (photo by John Keeter)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Journey Across The Pamlico

The Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the US east coast.  When Italian explorer Giovanni da Varrazzano reached the Pamlico Sound in 1524 he thought he was in the Pacific Ocean.  His report caused many errors in the naming of places on the map of North America.  Its vast size and numerous shoals present many dangers and rough ocean conditions.  For 2 years Lee endeavored to lead a kayak trip to cross the Pamlico Sound.  Such a trip would carry with it dangers inherent in an major open water crossing.  A paddler would have no place to bail out, rest, perform repairs, and have no shelter from storms and high winds.  The trip would also require a reliable weather window and excellent navigation practices.   In 2013 the time for the long anticipated trip came, but risky weather forced Lee to cancel the trip entirely.   He scheduled a second attempt the following year on July 12th, 2014 to leave from a public boating ramp at Stumpy Point on the mainland and cross the Pamlico Sound to the town of Rodanthe on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and return in the next 2 days when the weather permitted.  We estimated the crossing would be around 18 miles each direction with each crossing lasting a duration of 4.5 - 6 hours.  Our destination was Rodanthe Water Sports campground on the sound front and accessible directly by our kayaks.   To bolster our navigational tools, Lee studied surrounding landmarks that would be visible far out at sea.  He noted our destination was next to a water tank and near a radio tower.  He estimated the towers would be visible once we were 5 miles from shore on a relatively clear day.  Lee also picked out landmarks at our departure site to aid navigation home.  A water tank and a cell antenna a mile inland were the only distinguishing landmarks that could be seen 
at a distance for the return trip.  In preparation, I created two routes and downloaded them into my GPS a few nights before departure.  Lee had briefly contemplated leaving for Rodanthe from the port town of Engelhard which would  ve been an open crossing of 28 miles instead of the 18 miles we had planned if we had a south-west wind pushing us the entire way.  However, the winds that day were to be 10-15 mph from the north-east .  So we decided to depart from the originally planned site at Stumpy Point and deal with the wind and waves on our left beam.

Our departure point from the mainland was a wildlife
 ramp on a swampy rural hook shaped peninsula named Stumpy Point.  There were no stores or lodging facilities for 20 miles, so we staged our trip from the near by town of Engelhard which was dealing with a cleanup after hurricane Arthur passed by a a week earlier.  Mosquitos were everywhere, so the marina we had planned to camp at seemed even less inviting.  Soon after we arrived in Englelhard, we learned Chris would be meeting us at Stumpy Point for the departure.  On a whim, Lee and I decided to abandon our campsite plans and stay at the Hotel Engelhard overnight where we enjoyed good company and a hearty hot breakfast the next morning.    We started our day at 6:00 am and left for Stumpy Point after our hearty breakfast for a planned 8:00 am launch.  Driving the lonely road to the launch site we left civilization behind and contemplated the trip ahead as we stared into long empty road across a flat treeless landscape.  Chris was at the boat ramp as we arrived to begin the careful packing process of loading our kayaks for the trip.  Everything we needed along the way had to be easily accessible from the cockpit of a pitching kayak since we would not stop or get out of our kayaks until we landed in the Outer Banks.  All my food was in small plastic containers so I could grab them quickly from my day hatch.  I rigged 2 hydration systems with tubes inches from my mouth.  A 3 liter bladder strapped behind the cockpit, and a secondary 1.5 liter bladder inside my PFD.  I 
was not to use the water in my PFD until the 3 liter hydration unit was empty since it was my emergency water supply in case I was separated from my kayak and lost. I had both a VHF radio with an emergency location system and a SARSAT Personal Location Beacon.  I also carried 4 flares and a signal mirror in the front compartment of my PFD.  Attached to the side was my trusty whistle.  As we packed the NE wind penetrated the trees to remind us that this was not to be a calm day.  I worked hard all winter perfecting a bomb proof roll recovery at the pool and practiced often in the lake and during trips to ensure a good chance of recovery in the event of a capsize. 

We departed for our crossing at 8:45 am under the
morning sun through the tranquil waters inside the hook of Stumpy Point heading toward the point.   When we reached the point, the wind and waves were waiting for us as our kayaks slammed by the 1 ft chop on the left beam.  Once around the point, we set course to the town of Rodanthe on the Outer Banks far over an empty horizon.  The water flew over our kayaks, accented in gold by the morning sun.  For the entire trip each way I had my GPS route pointer displayed page.  Once my kayak was on course, I immediately took a compass bering to our destination in case my GPS should fail and checked it periodically along the way.  For the trip over we held to bering 120 degrees.  I found the compass was easier to steer my kayak by as the GPS screen was slow to correct 
 at times to the pitching kayak which made the route pointer seem to point erratically.   The waves and wind made their presence known as waves crashed into the port side of our kayaks and spilled over the deck.  My normally less stable kayak was a little bit more stable with the kayak loaded with gear and fresh water.  Despite the waves and wind hitting us, we were making way at a good 4.2-4.7 mph as our bows pitched over the waves.  The morning sun reflection from the waves and flying spray was beautiful.  With the pitching, we had to remain vigilant about staying on course with no visible landmarks to guide us.  Lee stressed that we should err our path to the
north to counter the inevitable southward drift of our kayaks caused by the wind and waves on our left beam.   I adjusted my paddle cadence to match the period of the waves to ensure my paddle was in the proper bracing position at all times to prevent a sudden capsize.  Lee periodically looked back to determine how far out from shore he could see our return trip landmarks.   As we moved beyond the sight of land I became more comfortable relying on my navigation instruments. 

At 4.5 miles out we sited the tall water tank next to our destination which was our landmark from the outer Banks.  Our kayaks pointed strait at the landmark as it was first sighted  reassured me my navigation instruments were spot on.  From then on we were able to visually navigate as we were most comfortable doing even though we were still a long way from spotting land.  The wind was a little stronger and the waves steepened as we were far from any shore.  As the trip wore on, the miles seemed to tick off slower as our landmark so far away was in no hurry to move closer.  We could not stop, so everything we did had to be accomplished very quickly and deliberately.  Every time a hand was taken off the paddle left us vulnerable to being knocked over by one of the constant barrage of waves hitting our beam.  Through the entire trip we always gripped our paddles firmly by at least one hand.  This trip was only the second expedition for my Epic Kayak and the first in rough water.  I found accessing my food more challenging than anticipated.  So I had to curtail my meals until the seas subsided enough to safely reach for my food.  The resulting loss of calories would later catch up with me. 

As we drew closer, we could start seeing more land features.  Radio antennas appeared from obscurity, later houses, business, and other land features appeared and at long last land.  The NE wind hitting us from the side all day was coming directly from the Atlantic, so as we drew closer to the Outer Banks the shrinking fetch lessened the size of the waves.  We could feel ourselves getting closer to the Outer Banks.  The beautiful sand dunes from the national seashore painted the island with a sparkling stroke of gold.   We saw navigation markers to the Oregon Inlet pass by as we directly headed to our destination.  Having no been able to replace the energy I lost was starting to take its toll and my pace slowed considerably
as I began to struggle the last few miles.  As we neared the shore, our kayaks passed into shallow water and saw jet skis, standup boards and the puzzled looks of people at play wondering where these three kayaks appearing from the abyss came from.  We landed on a gentle beach exactly 4.5 hours after launch and traveled 17.3 miles.  The staff on hand was kind enough to help us carry our loaded kayaks from the water’s edge to a grassy spot at the top of the bluff.  After nearly 5 hours we arrived and were starving hungry after a non stop trip.  We wasted no time unloading and pitching our tents so we could clean up and find some much needed food.   We walked next door to Lisa’s Pizza in Rodanthe where
 the 3 of us ate 2 large pizzas.  After which, we sat and savored the air conditioning for a while before leaving to find Chris some ice-cream.  We hit a few shops, then walked a mile north to see “Serendipity” where the movie “Nights in Rodanthe” was filmed.  The house had been moved from its romantic spot at the ocean’s edge to a safer lot inland.  We made our way to the beach and took in the sights of the beautifully quaint Rodanthe beach for a while and made our way back to the campground in time to watch a most beautiful sunset over the Pamlico Sound.  Before going to bed, we made preparations for a very early departure back the next morning.  This would be our only weather window since the
weather was forecast to deteriorate after noon.  For my part, I hoped and prayed for a calmer less rocky trip home.  After plugging in the route back on my GPS I started getting ready for bed.  We had a most exhilarating and satisfying day and slept well that night. 

The following morning, we departed Rodanthe at 7:15 am in crystal calm conditions.  The golden light of the sun cast a warm glow as we departed familiar surroundings into what appeared to be the imaginary realm of a dream where the sky  water were indistinguishable and objects real and imaginary appeared before us.  Waves at a distance refracted off the horizon and appeared as land before vanishing.  Clouds reflected off the water looked like a continuous sky above and below.  The silence was peaceful, but its emptiness lent it to a most surreal environment we passed into.  There were also the familiar sights of pelicans plunging after fish.  Once again we started with no landmarks and relied entirely on our navigation instruments.  I took my compass bering for the trip back across the sound .  We followed herring 300 back as we plugged forward through the dream like landscape.  We spotted many unexplained objects and anomalies.  What looked like a big block of pilings or a barge ahead of us was likely trees far over the horizon magnified by the air at the water’s surface.  As we paddled on, the tranquil conditions continued.  Unlike the trip over, we could actually converse in a normal voice as we found ourselves truly alone miles from anywhere. or anything.  We spotted a red marker on the same bering as our destination so we used it as a visual landmark knowing it was stationary, but not really knowing what it was until we were almost upon it.  It turned out to be a channel marker to the Oregon Inlet.  Once we passed it we once again navigated by our instruments until at 12.7 miles into the trip, we spotted our Stumpy Point landmark on the correct compass bering and backed up by my GPS route pointer. But It was very far away and we were a long way from spotting real land.  When visibility improved, we saw the lonely Bodie Island lighthouse to the north at a distance.  We were able to make our way back 
faster with the calm conditions and afforded more freedoms
to leisurly grab for food, drinks, lotion without worry of a capsize in rough waters.  But there was little to no wind to cool
us.  At one point Lee left his kayak and took a quick swim. I

considered rolling my kayak, but did not want to get my camera wet. 

After more miles ticked off, we could see tree covered
 land and soon after, a 5 mph South East wind kicked up.  As drew closer to our landmark, I noticed my GPS route pointer starting to diverge.  We were heading for what appeared to be the point just left of our landmark, but my route pointer was continuing to diverge.  I soon realized we made the error to use our landmark as a spot on marker for our destination when in reality,  it was a mile or so from our destination.  We corrected our course to my route which I set to a waypoint at the tip of Stumpy Point.  Finally, the end was near and the wind was picking up as though the Pamlico was not willing to let us go without a fight.   But soon we rounded the point and entered the protected waters inside the point and leisurely paddled the calm last quarter mile to the ramp and the end of our trip, arriving back at 11:35 am.  Very shortly after our return our weather window closed as we observed torrent water from where we came with numerous whitecaps. 

Over the two days of this trip each one of us had paddled the farthest we had ever done without stopping or setting foot on land. We had traveled 35 miles according to my GPS at an average of 3.7 mph.   I had learned much about navigation and the importance of researching landmarks in preparation.  Preparation will make your trip much easier.  I also was reminded of the importance of replenishing the calories burned.  Toward the end of the trip over, I found myself running low on energy and struggling near the end.   Know your body and give it what it needs.  We had a great time on Rodanthe and enjoyed good food.  The passages we well planned went well with no evil surprises.  Our passage home was a surreal experience at times.  One I have never experienced before.  In summary, we were rewarded with a intimate perspective and experience that only a kayak can offer: to be one with every nuance of the sea with a front row seat to her vast emptiness, might and brilliance.     

Kayaks:  QCC Q700X,  Epic 18x,  P&H Bahiya