Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My First Time

I attended a presentation last night on managing risk in sea kayaking. This event was sponsored by the Inland Sea Kayakers, a group that I belong to. It was a very good presentation and addressed the question of who is the biggest risk, a beginner in a T-shirt with the pfd strapped on the back deck or the expert who decides to head out and surf some 6' breaking waves by himself. In the matrix that was presented it was suggested that the 'unconscious incompetent' (T-shirt guy) and the 'unconscious competent' (Surf boy) had some of the same things working against them. Both the 'conscious incompetent' (knows they don't know what they are doing and seeks training) and the 'conscious competent' (in the process of training or trained and very cognizant of the risks) had a much better chance of coming back healthy and with good stories to tell. Which reminded me of my very first time in a sea kayak on Lake Superior.

It was 1997 and NumberOneSon had graduated from high school. He and I took a week and headed up to northern Wisconsin to do whatever we felt like. We canoed the Namakagan River, fly fished for panfish, mountain biked the CAMBA trail system, and ate like kings. I had talked about kayaking with my long time Madison buddy, The FrugalFisherman, and I figured if he could do it so could I. I had the usual fear of being trapped in the spray skirt upside down but figured I could learn how to avoid that. We were only about 40 miles from Bayfield so we called Trek & Trail, booked the four hour intro to sea kayaking course, and off we went. It was all brand new stuff. Bilge pumps, wetsuits, paddle floats, spray skirts.....paddle with your core, don't tuck the pull strap under the skirt, etc. All interesting stuff but I was impatient to get on the water. At the time they were using the Perception Eclipse, a boat that has the intial stability of one of those rolling logs they use at the Lumberjack Championships. But what did I care or know about stability, I was a veteran canoeist and had kinda listened to the instruction. When it was time to get on the water I hopped in the boat, put on the skirt per instructions, and headed for Basswood Island. I made it about 200 yards before I went over. I guess I had missed the part about 'if your nose is over your belly button you can't go over'. God it was cold. May in Chequamagon Bay, 3 weeks after ice out is no place for a wetsuit. I had only intellectually understood the wetsuit concept of your body heat warming the thin layer of (freezing) water between it and the neoprene. The concept became very clear at that point as did the realization that if I had to urinate I would require a tweezers to successfully complete the operation. The instructor paddled out quickly but I was only in chest deep water and told him I was fine. I was, however, freezing my ass off and my confidence was shaken at best. From the looks on the faces of my fellow rookies it was apparent that their confidence had also taken a bit of a nose dive. The instruction was excellent however and we all continued on and went through the rest of the exercises. I was, of course, very confident of my wet exit abilities at this point and since I was already soaked tipping over again held no fear for me.

When I am trying to show someone the basics of kayak touring I always retrieve the memories of that day in 1997. I remember being awestruck when the instructor did a high brace and snapped right back up out of the water. I also try to remember it when we are gazing out at the waves and trying to decide whether to paddle or sit back and make another pot of coffee. When paddling in a group of different skill levels its good to recall when you were the novice of the group. Nothing is worse than making the decision to paddle after the rookie does the 'Minnesota Nice' thing and tells you they will be fine. Ten minutes into the trip when the same question is posed you get the same answer, 'fine', but now the neck and shoulder muscles are clenched and the head does not turn toward you to deliver the 'fine'. At that point we need to be cognizant enough to make the suggestion to head back to the coffee pot and give it a try later. Even though we always fall into the 'unconscious competent' zone a times, its good to remember how you felt when you went out for your first time. It helps center you back in the 'conscious competent' area where you can be most useful to yourself and your paddling companions.


Silbs said...

Hard lesson, well learned. I have to wonder why you were allowed out dressed as you were with the experience you had. Were I in the business, I would not have rented you the boat.Or am I missing something?

DaveO said...

It was actually an intro to sea kayaking class put on by the outfitter Trek and Trail. Everything was done properly but wetsuits and 42F water are a bad combination in my opinion. I now own a dry suit!