Monday, April 30, 2018

Learning to paddle a "surfski" kayak

Lately my standup paddleboard racing buddies have been branching out into other forms of paddling. In our local club, the CGT Tribe, we now have about four new outrigger canoers, and three new surfski kayak paddlers. I am one of the new kayakers. These are the reasons I chose to try surfski kayaking:

1. I like to go fast. Racing kayaks are about 30% faster than SUPs, and generally faster than outrigger canoes, as well. Among paddle-powered craft, only rowing shells are faster than kayaks. But rowing shells have more rigging to fuss with, are more restricted to flat water, and force you to sit facing backwards, which seems unappealing. Also, nobody around here rows.

2. I like ocean paddling and "downwinding," which is what surfski kayaks are designed for. Surfskis are basically stretched-out versions of "sit on top" kayaks, which means they float like a surfboard and you don't have to worry about them sinking when you tip over and fall out. They do get some water splashed into the recessed "cockpit" area, but they have a one-way valve under your feet to drain that water out while you're paddling.

3. I had seen some exciting videos of expert surfski paddlers scooting down ocean swells, gliding from one peak to the next faster and with less effort than a SUP paddler would expend in the same conditions.

4. Most of the big SUP races in Florida also offer the option to race surfski or outrigger canoe. For really long races (>10 km) it would be nice to be on the faster craft that gets the race over earlier and easier. Also, being lower to the water makes sit-down paddlecraft easier to paddle upwind than standup paddleboards, and having a foot-pedal operated rudder lets them adjust for side-winds while still paddling symmetrically.

5. I ruled out outrigger canoe because the asymmetry of the outrigger on one side offends my slight OCD tendencies. That and the fact that OCs are supposedly not as fast as surfskis... Although I think that difference depends a lot on conditions and abilities. I.e., I think it's easier to adapt to rough water and downwinding on an OC than a surfski. That point is illustrated by my friends Justin and Matt, who got a surfski and an OC, respectively, around the same time. Justin is now easily faster than Matt in flat water, but Matt is faster and more comfortable in rough water and downwinders.

6. I heard that my buddy Murray, the most experienced kayaker in our group, was selling a very fast, advanced-level surfski for a ridiculously cheap price. Justin said that if I bought Murray's surfski, he'd give me his own older surfski paddle for free so I could get started right away. I suspected I'd never get such a cheap opportunity to try the sport again, since the boats are normally at least $3000. How could I refuse?

My surfski: The boat I bought from Murray is a 2009 model Epic V12. It's 640 cm (21') long by 43 cm (16.9") wide. The version I have is the second cheapest/heaviest construction offered, and it weighs around 15 kgs. The bottom is very rounded, which makes it extremely tippy for anyone not already skilled in paddling racing kayaks. If my boat choice weren't dictated primarily by what I could afford, I would have bought a much wider and more stable one, but I went into this with the full expectation that it would be very difficult.

The paddle I got from Justin was an Epic "wing" paddle, asymmetrically sculpted to effectively grab the water when swept out to the side of the board. Based on some online research I set up the paddle to have zero "offset angle" between the blades. The old wisdom was that the blades should be twisted 60 degrees so that while one was sweeping through the water, the other would knife through the air with minimal wind resistance. The new wisdom is that little is gained from that, and it just makes the stroke more complicated to learn. I've recently switched from the Epic paddle to a new Braca XI 705 paddle, because someone I lent the surfski to lost the Epic paddle and bought me the Braca to replace it. That was actually a boon for me, because the Braca is a fancier paddle. I have it set up with 0 offset, too.

My experience so far: My first surfski session, not counting the once or twice that I sat in Justin's beginner surfski, was 26 March 2018, in a bay with flat, shallow water. I got my butt in the seat of the Epic V12 and immediately capsized. I repeated this several more times until I was able to keep my butt in the seat, but only by straddling the kayak with my feet dangling in the water on each side. With my feet in the water it was just stable enough for me to tentatively begin paddling. For about 20 minutes I worked on getting my feet out of water and into the boat, but never managed more than a few frantic strokes with the feet in before capsizing. Finally my brain accepted the balance task I was asking of it, and I magically found myself able to keep the boat upright long enough to make substantial forward progress. I actually felt quite pleased with myself and ended up covering a lot of distance, even venturing out of the bay into the calm but slightly bumpy Gulf of Mexico. There I fell more often, and started to get tired. By the end of the session I was falling quite a bit again as both brain and body were worn out.

After the breakthrough on that initial session I expected to learn fast, but in fact my subsequent gains in stability have been more gradual. On my second session I was able to put my feet in the footstrap that covers the steering pedal area, as opposed to on top of the footstrap as I'd done initially. But I still fell a lot. Worse, I ended up with terrible bruises and sores in the area of my rear over my coccyx bone. I think it was from pushing with my legs and pressing myself into the back of the hard, bucket seat. After that session I went to a marine biology conference in Texas for three days, and it killed me to have to sit on my poor behind for hours watching presentations each day.

The first thing I did after Texas was duct tape some pieces of foam camping pad into the seat of the surfski to make it softer, copying a surfski seat pad design I'd seen online. I also added a little patch of pad on the under-knee area of the surfski, not to pad my legs but to pad my head because that's where I balance the boat on my head when walk it to the water. With my butt not in pain I was more comfortable in the boat, and started to be able to go faster. On my 6th session in the surfski I was finally able to go faster than my SUP speed. With new confidence I ventured to the Gulf of Mexico again, and was absolutely hopeless at staying in the boat.

Now after more than a month paddling the surfski, alternating with the SUP so I can rest my rear, I feel pretty comfortable in flat water. I'm able to concentrate more on the paddle stroke and its strange mechanics, which seems to be the key to tapping into the speed potential of the surfski. I have a long way to go with that, though. I'm still way behind Justin in speed even though I'm faster than him on SUP. In rough water I am still absolutely terrible, but not quite AS terrible as the first time I tried it. I've been able to get myself upwind enough to turn around and experience some of the exciting, downwind "bump riding" abilities of the surfski. My current efforts are on improving my stroke and speed in flat water, and improving my balance and upwind/downwind abilities in rough water. My goals for the time being are to able to hold a good 11+ kph pace in flat water, and to be able to get comfortable enough in rough water to try a downwinder with the other guys. I'll keep y'all posted.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What am I resisting?

After work Thursday I came home and walked the dog. Then I loaded my formula windsurf board into the van and drove to the beach with the windows down. It’s a good life here in SW Florida in April. On the way to the beach a man in a black SUV burst my bubble by pulling up alongside me and asking in a confrontational tone, “What are you RESISTING?”

I gathered that he was referring to my “RESIST” bumper sticker. The sticker was designed by the progressive liberal organization to be an inspirational message to those discouraged by Trump and the GOP’s wins in 2016. To me, it’s a reminder to do whatever I can to resist attempts by those in power to weaken or degrade the things I value- Things like environmental protection, public education, race and gender equality, social services and infrastructure, etc. It would have been hard to explain all that by shouting through the window of a car to someone who didn’t want to listen. All I managed was, “The president- Trump!”

I’m sure my answer was no surprise to the man in the black SUV, but it gave him permission to shout his pro-Trump views. I listened and nodded and periodically gave a sarcastic “thumbs up” sign, but kept my eyes forward on the road and didn’t say anything else. I had no illusions that I might change the man, and I didn’t want to drive unsafely or escalate things into a road-rage situation. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I do remember that one of the first things was, “Trump is the greatest thing ever to happen to America!” And one of the last things he said was the ridiculous non-sequitur, “GET A JOB!” Eventually our paths diverged.

Although I am fairly good at keeping calm on the surface in an emotionally-charged conflict, such situations stir me up a lot on the inside. My thoughts race and my “fight or flight” hormones pump. I felt I’d handled this particular situation well by only minimally engaging, but afterwards I was stuck with some bad vibes that I’m working out of my mind now by writing this blog post. I hope to express to the universe some of the thoughts I was unable to articulate to the man on the road.

First, I would like to contest the man’s assertion that Trump is the greatest thing ever to happen to America. Below are some examples from American history of things I think I think were much greater than Trump’s election in 2016. In no particular order:

1. The 1st Amendment of 1791, which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom to protest, freedom of (and from) religion, etc. My RESIST bumper sticker is covered under the 1st Amendment.
2. The near-elimination of illiteracy by the investment in public schooling, starting around the time of the nation’s founding. "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." — John Adams, U.S. President, 1785
3. The abolition of slavery in 1865, ending centuries of torture and inhumanity.
4. The development of public utilities including safe drinking water and indoor plumbing.
5. The anti-trust laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which protected public interests from some of the worst abuses of power by big-business monopolies.
6. The spread of rapid travel and communication systems, connecting our country coast to coast and with the rest of the world.
7. The 19th Amendment in 1920, which finally gave women the right to vote.
8. The elimination of many diseases by the spreading science of vaccination and antibiotics in the early 20th century.
9. Various hard-won gains in workers’ rights, such as the fair labor standards act of 1938/1940, which limited the work week to 40 hours.
10. The sacrifices of hundreds of thousands who fought to free the world from fascist tyranny and genocide in World War II.
11. The development of effective and dependable police, fire-fighting, and medical first-response systems.
12. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1961, which greatly reduced the power of the Mafia and other criminal groups.
13. The triumphs of a non-violent civil rights movement over racial segregation in the mid 20th century.
14. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, which protected Americans from the worst ills of rampant pollution.

Secondly, I would like to establish that I DO have a job. I worked hard to get my PhD and I continue to work hard seven days a week as a scientist and university professor, notwithstanding the occasional breaks for watersports and surfing the web. My primary motivation to work hard is not the avariciousness glorified by Trump. Rather, it’s a combination of scientific curiosity and a sense of duty to protect the ocean environment and educate the next generation.

PS- The formula windsurfing was great. The wind was a healthy 11-15 knots and I was well powered with my 9.5 Ezzy Cheetah sail. I had a good time buzzing around my buddies Cindy and Carlos who were doing a grueling paddleboard workout. For the first time I got some jibes on the formula board where I maintained the carve nicely and stayed fully-planing through the exit.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Downwind Paddling, and Windsurfing a Downwind Paddleboard

Lately the CGT Tribe of standup paddleboarders, kayakers, and outrigger canoeists has been getting into a specialized paddling discipline called "downwinding." I've jumped on the bandwagon, too. This post is a brief introduction to downwinding, with a couple videos of our downwindwind sessions.

As one might imagine, paddling with the wind at your back is easier and faster than paddling into or perpendicular to the wind. This is especially true in standup paddleboarding, where your upright body catches a lot of wind. Thus, when it's windy, the idea of a downwind-only paddle outing, a "downwinder," is appealing.

The logistics for a downwinder are complicated, requiring either a non-paddling chauffeur, or multiple vehicles and carpooling exchanges.

You also need wind, and the wind must either be parallel to the shoreline, or the shoreline must be a curve subtended by a line from the upwind start to the downwind finish. The closer the path is to straight downwind, the better, but 10 or 20 degrees off is still OK. There is no strict wind minimum for a downwinder, but most people won't go unless it's windy enough to be whitecapping. 10 knots will do, 15 is good, and 20+ is excellent. Of course, those wind strengths are also great for windsurfing, which brings up the important question of, "Why paddle if you could sail?" My answer to this question is complicated, and still evolving.

Indeed, my first assessment of downwind paddling was that it was a third-rate alternative for people too stupid to windsurf or kiteboard. Why work much harder than a windsurfer, only to go to 1/3 the speed and be unable to return to where you started from?

I might have continued to dismiss downwind paddling if not for my back-door entry into the discipline via paddleboard racing. Since races were sometimes held in rough, windy waters, I started doing paddle workouts in the ocean on breezy days. I practiced paddling at all angles to the wind and chop, but of course enjoyed the downwind bits the most. I realized how engaging and rewarding it was to try to sync up with small, wind-driven waves, feeling the speed-boosting energy of each one. "Riding bumps," as they call it, offers some of the same challenge and gratifying feelings as the traditional mode of surfing waves breaking in shallow water. In windy conditions on open water, downwind paddling essentially becomes surfing, with the same dynamic of paddling hard to catch a ride, then gliding along effortlessly at thrilling speed. In a way, riding bumps downwind is better than surfing, because instead of having to turn around and paddle out again after each ride, you can keep your momentum going and link that first ride into another and another. On flat water, my fastest paddleboard speed for a mid-distance race is around 9 kph, but on a decent downwinder I can average over 11 kph, with peak speeds of 16-18 kph on the good bumps.

Another fun discovery with downwinding is that my "old beater" race paddleboard, a 2014 model Fanatic Falcon 14'x27.25", happens to be a rocketship for downwinding. Its bulbous nose combined with a narrow tail and rounded rails let it catch waves of all shapes, sizes, and angles with aplomb. The teardrop shape of the board also minimizes the amount of footwork you have to do keep the board trimmed properly in the waves- On other boards you're constantly stepping towards the nose to help catch the waves, then scooting back to the tail to keep the nose from plunging under as you surf down the waves. For example, my Riviera RP 14'x23" is a lot faster than the Fanatic in flat water, but is much trickier to use, and therefore slower, for downwinding. I haven't managed to take any "epic" GoPro videos of downwinders yet. The one time I wore my helmet camera for one was a grey day, and the wind sort of died in the middle of the run, but it was enough to get the idea.

Some better downwinder cinematography has been done by my avid downwind partners Greg from Belarus and Matt from Sarasota. Greg does most of his downwinders on a SIC Bullet (a specialized downwind board) or a Starboard AllStar (an all-around raceboard). For some of this video he was also trying out my Fanatic, which he said made everything incredibly easy.

DW-2-4-2018-NAPLES from New Ground Photography on Vimeo.

At the end of the run in Greg's video he let me try out a special contraption that I'd built to mount a windsurfing sail to his SIC Bullet. I'd been eager to do it since noting that the rocker and rail shape on the SIC Bullet was very much like an oversized windsurf board, and I suspected it would be fast and efficient under sail power. Indeed it was. This demonstration was also my not-so-sneaky way of trying to persuade Greg that windsurfing can be a lot of fun. For the next step, I'll loan him the adaptor plate and a small sail so he can mess around with it.

Windsurfing SIC Bullet from New Ground Photography on Vimeo.

My big challenge with downwinding now is keeping up with Matt from Sarasota, who has been doing the downwinders on his 20'8" Puakea outrigger canoe. With Matt's increasingly skilled piloting he has gotten average downwind speeds of 12.0 kph, which beats my best 11.8 kph on the same run with the Fanatic SUP. (This is our most common downwind run. It works in NW winds but requires a strenuous side-wind "traverse" to get offshore to the starting point.)

Is the need for downwind speed enough to tempt me into a sit-down paddlecraft myself? Stay tuned.