Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gales at the Gales

Last weekend found a group of 60 or so eager students and a couple dozen equally eager coaches in Munising, MI for the 4th annual Gales Storm Gathering, a grad school level symposium on how to handle sea kayaks in what we all hoped would be some larger conditions.  I coached at the GLSKS earlier in the summer but I was quite appropriately in the student category for this event, although I was forced to don my coaching helmet briefly on the last day but more on that later.  Our intrepid foursome of myself, the ManFromSnowyLegs, StripperDave, and the MalmuteWhisperer all gathered at a nice VRBO cabin in Christmas, MI with a great view of Grand Island and a nearshore forecast that promised to deliver those conditions that we all drove 6-7 hours to work and learn in.
The first day was the most benign as we eased up the east side of Grand Island toward the tip of the thumb.  The cliffs and indentations made for some fun rock gardening practice as well as some mini surfing at our lunch spot.  We also got a bit of a taste of what was to come the next couple days as we rounded the point and got a bit of the building NW wind, maybe 15 knots gusting to 20 or so.  Everyone seemed to be pushing it a bit, trying to improve, because at least three of us took a swim. StripperDave ventured in close to the rocks and his lovely strip boat which was based on the Impex Outer Island hull, and got a couple scrapes as it went over near the cliffs.  I dragged him out from the rocks and we did what we both thought was a pretty sweet T rescues.  We did a couple more simulated rescue scenarios on the way back and had an exercise with ‘the blind leading the blind’.  I was paired with Sharon Bustamante, the two Greenland sticks in the group.  The game was played with the lead paddler closing their eyes and the trailing one giving directions on which strokes to use to stay away from the cliffs.  It became apparent quickly that ‘two left sweeps’ was a lot more effective and specific than ‘turn right’.  A bit of towing ended the day and we headed back to the launch at Sand Point.  Some rescue practice pointed out that we needed to come out of our boats more often and that I was in need of an instructor update sooner rather than later.
Conditions continued to build through the night and Saturday morning was raining, miserable, and windy.  We got geared up and dragged ourselves down to Sydneys, our local HQ which played on the Australian theme.  Our very own Australian, the ManFromSnowyLegs, questioned the authenticity of most of the genre but we all agreed that with a nice room of our own upstairs, three squares with as much chow as we cared to eat including a nice sack lunch, and a keg of Keweenaw Pickaxe Blonde Ale on tap, that it was indeed a perfect spot to gather before and after the anticipated carnage.  After breakfast and our morning briefing we adjourned to the shores of beautiful Au Train Bay with it’s 40F temps and wind in our face either side of 20 knots.  That drove the rain nicely sideways and added to the ambiance. We all paddled up the river to work on the sweep pivot and power strokes to catch a wave and then studied the water we would be surfing. We collectively answered three questions put to us by Mr. Wikle and Mr. Stachovak.  We plotted the best route to break out, estimate the waves at 3’ or less, and agreed that the main danger would be from each other.  We were pretty much wrong on all three of them.  Most of us got pounded a bit on our ‘ideal’ route out, the waves were closer to four feet with the occasional three sisters set a bit larger, and we all pretty much avoided the danger of one another but a large sandbar about 50 yards out got our attention very quickly.

In the end all of we students/participants swam, just some sooner than others.  In my personal three involuntary inversions I managed to roll up twice and swam once.  Some did better than that, others not as well.  I did find that sandbar first however with a spectacular endo or pitchpole if you prefer, that landed me hull side up and forced me to bail.  One of my fellow students, Aaron from Loyola in Chicago, hit the same sandbar only he was able to pirouette his endo around 360 degrees and land the thing hull side down.  Bill Thompson from Downwind was taking pictures and captured the entire outstanding sequence. 

The coaching from Keith Wikle and Jake Sachovak was both timely and specific, although Jakes analysis of my bow plant was a bit more detailed than Keith’s, “Nice endo Olson!”.  The common thread and a comment that I heard over and over was complimenting the quality of the coaches.  Jake pointed out to me that with longboats we need to be a bit further back on the wave to avoid that bow plant and give us a better chance to steer the boat with a stern rudder than if the bow was planted.  After all of us swam the coached suggested that we paddle back and forth in the soup a bit to get used to bracing, bouncing, and general chaos.  After going over twice and rolling up both times Jake also pointed out that, to use Scott Fairty’s  axiom, keep moving and even if you are doing the wrong thing, do it aggressively and with purpose.  No more involuntary inversions for the session after that gem, even though the waves were building and Keith made the observation that any learning was pretty much over and it became an afternoon of paddling out and attempting to head back in upright.  One nice feature of surfing with a Greenland stick, a trick I learned from Mike McDonald at an earlier Gales.  When you have a neutral stern rudder with an extended Greenland stick, you have immense leverage to help turn the boat.  I happened to be using a carbon fiber stick lent to me by none other than FivePieceRoy and it worked perfectly.

So far two days of excellent learning and as much fun as you can have when you’re sitting down, but the forecast indicated that wind and waves would be decreasing throughout Sunday.  When we arrived at Miner’s Castle Beach we discovered that this was not the case.  Surf was rolling in and the veer from west northwest to a southwest wind only funneled the wind up the channel between Miners Castle and Grand Island like a bellows on a blacksmith’s forge.  How strong it was blowing would not become apparent until we rounded Miners Castle point but to begin with we headed the other way toward the main Pictured Rocks area.  After paddling about 300 yards and having the group separated by 100 yards it was decided to head back into the lee of Grand Island, which reduced the fetch from about 30 miles to five or so.  The waves, clapotis, and tour boat wakes thrown in for good measure created that gigantic upside down egg carton paddle that we all talk about.  Heading back to the southwest brought us to Miner’s Castle point, which was perfect as it had relatively benign swells to play in on the lee side and 20 knots or so of wind and confused seas reflecting off the cliffs.  I played a bit in the wind and waves and then headed back to the lee where I was forced to put on my instructor helmet by Jeremy Vore who ‘didn’t like them odds’ of 6 paddlers and one instructors.  We then planned and executed our surf landings.  As StripperDave, the last guy to land pointed out,  it was like a Monty Python movie;  people would land and then fall over when the next wave nailed them.  That’s Dave’s head in the image below, photographic credit Sam Crowley.  The ManFromSnowyLegs was not nearly ready to be done and was out playing with Jake until the last dog died. 
I would have to say that this Gales, the third one I’ve attended, was the best by far.  Conditions were part of it, coaching a huge part, but it seemed like things just came together.  The gathering place at Sydney’s seemed to fit our needs perfectly and the paddling spots were within 30 minutes of the restaurant.  We also discovered a nice little brewpub a half blocks walk from Sydneys, an amenity that we partook of a couple three times over the weekend. In the case of southerly winds, a situation that occurred the first year, Manistique and Lake Michigan are about 45 minutes south.  As the MFSL and I can attest, it gets plenty big there.  Again, I can’t say enough about the coaching.  It’s a veteran group and they kicked collective ass.  If you are an intermediate paddler looking to gain some big water techniques and experience, this is the spot in the Great Lakes area.  We all agreed on the ride home that ‘next year in Munising’ would be something we would be looking forward to over our summer of paddling.

*photo credits to Bill Thompson of Downwind Sports, Sam Crowley of Sea Kayak Specialists, and yours truly*