Sunday, June 12, 2011

Training and balance

We did our annual SKOAC beginners course on Bush Lake in Bloomington yesterday, basking in the sun that NOAA assured us would not appear, and introducing a dozen plus folks to the fun and challenge of coastal kayaking. This was my first stint coaching at this class and it proved to be a very enjoyable day. With the tragedy earlier in the week, the three of us debated about if, when, and how long we should discuss what happened. Consensus was yes, at lunch, and for a few minutes during the wind, waves, and weather segment of the course.

Everyone was a bit early and we spent the first hour or so on land going over boats, paddles, clothing and gear as the air and water warmed a bit. There was the usual trepidation about tipping over for the first time with the spray skirt on and wet exiting but everyone did well. I always think about getting people in the water to roll around and get wet before this part of the course but it seems like we never do it. Paddle float reentries went well too, with everyone from age 21 through the mid fifties exhibiting the upper body strength and flexibility needed to get up on their back deck and into the boat. No yellow rainbows observed. The assisted reentry pointed out why its so much better to paddle with companions that can get your butt out of the water quickly, with minimal energy expended, and significantly less pumping. Since the name of the club is the Superior Kayak and Outdoor Adventure Club, SKOAC, we tried to relate what was going on in the 70F flat waters of Bush Lake with the 47F waters and not always so flat waters of Gitchee Gumee. The 'graduation' for some members of the class will be out intro trip in two weeks from Little Sand Bay out to Sand Island, ironically the same route as the ill fated group on Wednesday. The hands on experience and coaching comments set the stage for our luncheon discussion of that situation.

By the time we got through charts and navigation, signaling devices, and into wind and waves it was time to talk about last Wednesdays tragedy. The difficult part about discussing a kayak fatality is walking the line between scaring people away from the sport and being Mayor Larry Vaughn from the movie Jaws. "I'm pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it's a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means "friendship". Even with just 4 hours of coaching most people were able to point out the problems with Wednesdays tragic crossing and discuss them intelligently. By discussing the situation we would hope that people would begin to move from the 'unconscious incompetent' to the 'conscious incompetent' category in the sport of coastal kayaking. I have a friend who rock climbs. I am a classic 'unconscious incompetent' regarding that sport, meaning I don't know anything about it and I have no idea how much there is that I don't know about. Were I to take a course in rock climbing, I would hope to move into the 'conscious incompetent' range, where I still wouldn't know a damn thing about rock climbing but the instruction would make me conscious and aware of how much I didn't know and the implications of not knowing. The hope would be that knowledge of my own ignorance would prevent me from heading to Palisade Head in the rain with a harness that didn't fit, some WalMart rope, and my buddy holding the belay line in one hand with a beer in the other.

It was gratifying to see the discussion and the student/coach interaction as the information sunk in. Our afternoon consisted of strokes, moving the boat in all directions, and some low bracing. We ended on time and about half the class had things they had to get to and the other half went for a paddle around the lake, learning on the move. This weekend we will be heading up to the Inland Sea Society's kayak symposium on Lake Superior. How things are handled and taught up there is up to greater kayaking minds than mine. But the one thing that we hammered at our class was personal responsibility. We encouraged students to think for themselves, develop their skills, provide input, and take responsibility on trips. If a paddler plans to not bring a map and compass on a trip because someone else will have them, or rely on someone else's spare paddle, radio, or first aid kit, then they need to be on an outfitted and guided trip. We all want to paddle with peers or groups where the abilities are known, and not be nursemaids or mother hens. Trips need a designated leader but the hope is that the leader will be more like an infantry squad leader, leading trained individuals with common attitudes and experiences rather than like a junior high lunch room monitor attempting to corral a group of diverse individuals with different goals and motivations. Like many endeavors in life, thinking ahead like a good pool player, and taking the time to become familiar with the various skills and variables will make coastal kayaking a much more enjoyable and safer sport. Those that spent the time and money to do that last Saturday and those that will do it in Washburn this weekend will find themselves ahead of the game and on track for a safe and enjoyable time on the big lake.


Silbs said...

Superb post.

anthony schmitz said...

Hey Dave — As it turns out, I was teaching a beginners class the same weekend. Naturally we ended up having what I assume was much the same conversation about the recent kayaker death, and how these fatalities could be avoided by realistic appraisal of skills, appropriate equipment, monitoring the weather, etc. You've got to cross your fingers and hope it does some good.