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Latest thoughts and news (I'll try to keep it somewhat tangential to paddling...)

CAUTION TO THE WIND - COMPETENCY TO THE FOREFRONT: notes from a conversation with Combat Canoeists

I recently had the occasion to share a pool deck with some gentlemen from an allied nation who I am pretty sure were members of a unit that is one of the few in history to ever bill itself as “Combat Canoeists.” (Admittedly the Polynesians, Algonquians, and a few other warrior cultures had that locked up for a couple of centuries prior.) currently I believe they call the military specialty Swimmer Canoeists.

Either the winged boat on my hat or my slowly swimming laps above them as they sat on the bottom on re-breathers eventually led to a conversation about survival on the open sea as we later lounged about baking in a desert sun.

Let me say right now that I guess that the majority of the people that read this website closely are not neophytes on the ocean, so they can appreciate that the following take aways from this conversation were gleaned from professionals who take great pains not to be seen or heard when they are in the water. There is no doubt that the bright life vests, cell phones, flares, and whistles that are espoused as the bare minimum safety equipment to recreational paddlers are a good idea, but these boys had some interesting insight on what the real basic equipment list is for those that can't just make a cell phone call for rescue when things get tuff.

#1 Insulation: No shock here, the underlying theme: it makes NO DIFFERENCE how strong you are or how much flotation you are wearing, most of the time the first thing that will get you in the water is exposure. The US Navy beats this into aircrew trainees from the very start, 10 pages of the 3710 (aircrew bible) are dedicated to computing just how long one can survive in various conditions and equipment configurations. For open water paddling I have to come to value a high end wet suit I purchased a few years ago as the most important piece of safety equipment I own. If the air is warm we might run with the backs of our wetsuits open, a brief dismount to flush through water is all it takes to cool down an overheat, but the ability to zip up and minimize heat loss for a extended period in the drink is probably THE paramount safety step that can be taken to improve survivability at sea. Have you ever noticed that the go to headwear for naval commandos on film is a watch cap? Its for good reason, and a wool lined 5mm neoprene beanie is always stuffed in the back of my suit in case things go bad. Even when water temps come up and it is way too hot for a full suit, a neoprene vest somehow attached to your person could literally be a lifesaver if you find your leash parted or hull breached and a long swim in your future. Which brings us to. . .

#2 Drown Proofing: No, not the hog-tied-thrown-in-the-deep-end ordeal everyone has seen on discovery channel documentaries. What I am referring to here is the simple but often hard to realize personal knowledge that the human body is inherently buoyant when the lungs are filled with air. It is this ability to put aside panic and simply breath and float that will allow an individual not only to remain on the surface but actually transit large expanses of water as long as they proceed with calm and a deliberate survival swim stroke. For some, this is not easy to develop, but if big water transiting is the goal of a paddler, it is a must! Pool time, and surf time are the key. On and off the boat, comfort in the conditions takes time, enthusiastic drive, and is best developed incrementally as confidence grows. There is an underlying truth to training for performance in high stress life and death situations, whether manipulating a firearm, flying a plane, or remounting your Surfski in a gale: you will never “rise to the occasion,” instead you will descend to the competency level that you have trained to consistently. This is to say, when you’re scared, cold, and tired, do not expect you are going to perform the way you did on your best day on the water; instead count on operating the way you did on your worst day of deliberate training. The goal is to raise this level up consistently.

#3 Fuel:Now here is one I have not heard emphasized in any article or course on water safety. CALORIES! Concerns of exposure or a long swim are going to be very short lived if you have not consumed enough fuel prior to hitting the high seas to insure your body can keep operating. I can personally attest to this as a buddy and I ransacked another friend’s kitchen after an impromptu 17 mile crossing that we didn't really plan. No swim, warm water, just a straight downwind paddle, and we were inconsolable until we consumed every cookie, nut, and broken pretzel that her bachelorette pantry had to offer. Now imagine that feeling after hitting a submerged log six miles out in the late fall. Fuel up and hydrate: it is a matter of life and death.

Takeaways:I am sure the attentive reader may have noted that the sacrosanct personal flotation device did not make the top three topics of this discourse. Again, it is important to stress that if the individuals I spoke with were indeed associated with the organization I suspect, it was a unit that pretty much raised the armed storming of North Sea oil rigs to high art in the 80's and 90's. These are people who professionally risk their lives at sea and have the conditioning and skill sets to mitigate hazards. But the reasoning and mindset is valuable to consider as well as an affirmation of my own experience.

The concern for augmented flotation (other then the inherent buoyancy added by a wetsuit) is that it makes an individual susceptible to the whims of current, wind, and wave action. All surfers and long distance swimmers know that you want to be as streamlined as possible when going up current, up wind, or through surf. For this reason, the consensus is that flotation should be small, deployable, and most importantly, collapsible! The idea being that it can be used to rest, cruise down current or wind if that is desired or needed, but then collapsed and stowed to navigate surf, climb up on rocks, or manage boat or board etc. One individual went so far as to say that if a full load-out of gear was not a concern, he would take a mask and snorkel over flotation, the reasoning being that it makes him drown proof and mobile (as long as he is conscious and not cramped). Imagine showing up to a big race with a snorkel and fins on your ski rather then a life vest. Here-in is the fundamental difference of mindset between the cautious and the competent. Wear a bright orange foam life vest with a cell phone stowed in it so the rescue services can find you easily after you call them when you can't remount your boat. Or have the gear, skill, and conditioning to take your best shot at making it back on your own no matter what happens.

I don't offer this as an alternative to any of the recommendations or requirements of the entities that educate, regulate, or certify recreational paddling. However, just as there are subtle differences in the way each of us applies the fundamentals of the foreword stroke, those that choose to take their water time to a higher level, making the commitments of training and conditioning that develop confidence and independence, should consider all the angles when venturing out onto a huge sea on a very small craft.

 

ELEVATED STATE: Leah Ching delivers the highpoint of my racing career at the Carolina Cup

 At the start

At the start

It is no secret among my closest friends that I, a surfski paddler, harbor a crush for the single outrigger canoe. Maybe it is the Polynesian heritage, perhaps it is the high seating position; outrigger paddlers sit perched virtually on the top of their impossibly slender craft (often thinner then surfskis) while we swingers of the double blade drag our butts just at or below the waterline. For whatever reason, as an avid downwinder and a bit of an esthete, it is my opinion that there is no finer craft to watch well driven in a good downwind then the single outrigger. The tap, tap, tap, of the paddle catch as bent back pumps onto the swell, the hissing lay back, paddle in lap, Alma (outrigger) lightly skimming the surface, course steering across the running wave and onto the next crest. Yes, I love to watch Hank blast his ski over eight foot seas, but I paddle with outriggers allot and they make my heart ache.

WIND!!!

Standing on the beach at the start of the 2017 Carolina Cup, I was stoked. A couple of world class surfski paddlers had shown up to augment the already strong local field for this year’s 12 mile Graveyard race, including women's World Champ Kiwi Teneale Hatton and the legendary South African Oscar Chalupsky. The Carolina cup is traditionally a very important stand up paddle race starting the pro SUP season, but the weather had really shown up for the longboat racers today. A 26mph SSE wind blew slightly off shore whipping up whitecaps running down the beach and insuring that the three mile start run to the Northern Masons inlet was going to be fun; the seven mile slog back to the South in the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) was going to be brutal, and the one and one half mile diagonal passage to the finish once we exited back out to the ocean through the southern inlet was going to be epic.

All proved true. The OC's (outriggers) launched through the three foot surf first. Five minutes later, the surfskis left the line, followed finally by the headlining stand ups. It was after my ragged passage through the sand choked Masons inlet (I had failed to arrive early enough the day before to properly recce the shifting inlet, and it cost me dearly) as I was trying in vain to claw my way up to two distant surfskis that were working together to gradually pull out of my grasp that I caught up to a three paddler group of OC's leaning foreword, backs bent to the paddle, pushing into the wicked wind. I knew all three of the single blade athletes: John Beausang, Steve Dullack and Leah Ching. Steve is a buddy from Virginia Beach with whom I often downwind. Steve, who is on the 404 team has been generous enough to supply me with a place to lay my head, as well as some pretty great meals, at the team house for the last couple of Cups. John, the editor of the Distressed Mullet website and magazine and one of the masterminds behind the Paddle Monster training program, had brought Olympian Teneale Hatton over to the house for dinner the night before, offering me the very rare opportunity to take part in a conversation with a whole table of people that not only pursue paddling professionally but actually know what a surfski is! The third OC paddler is arguably paddling royalty. Leah Ching is married to Danny Ching, the eighth ranked professional SUP racer in the world. But initially that night I just knew her as a friendly face. As a back of the pack occasional surfski racer, I was feeling a little conspicuous in a house full of professional SUP racers; Leah had turned to me in the dinner line offered her hand with a warm smile and said “Hi I'm Leah.” It was only later when their one year old daughter Kaimana began to fuss and Leah scooped her up out of the crib that I realized she was Leah Ching. That night I watched Leah and Danny gracefully trade Kaimana back and forth, socializing warmly as they both took their time to prepare for the race. I was stoked to find out Leah was going to race an outrigger that Steve had managed to find for her the next day. At the time I had no idea what that would mean for my race.

In the morning, after the SUP racers had left in the team car to go up to the start, boards stacked four high on the roof, Steve, Leah and I dropped our boats in the water to paddle up the Inter Coastal. Danny had gotten Kaimana properly covered in sunblock, Leah had fed and kissed her goodbye, entrusting her to Steve’s fiancé Isabel who would do dual duty baby sitting and running to all the bridges and beaches along the course to monitor our progress on what was to surely be a grueling day, not only for us but for Isabel. As Leah dropped off the dock onto her boat, I could hear the distant angst of a one year old's separation from her mother. Without a blink Leah pushed off from the dock, caught her paddle in the water, and stroked out into the wind. I remember thinking “Damn, Leah is switched on!”

 Kiamana and her hero on race morning.

Kiamana and her hero on race morning.

Now, as I slowly came alongside the trio and we turned into a winding canal sheltered from the wind, Leah must have made her move. I didn’t see it, I was too fixated on the ski paddler shrinking into the distance in front of me, but next thing I knew we were back in the wind and shuttling across a wide channel. I passed her as we sought shelter from current and wind, hugging the docks and boats on the left side of the ICW. As we approached the inlet that would release us from this inshore upwind torture and deliver us back to run before the swell in the ocean, I would periodically scan back over my shoulder and see that she was there, head down, driving the green boat in powerful surges against the wind. By some twist of fortune, the surfski I had been chasing had a mechanical issue and we were side by side again (we had started from the beach this way). We all entered the inlet channel probably 200 yards wide and marked by long rock jetties on each side.

 Need to freshen your race pace?... see this when you check you 6

Need to freshen your race pace?... see this when you check you 6

The other ski and I went right up the middle, dodging incoming waves and boat traffic, and as we neared the end of the left hand or Northern jetty which would mark our turn to the north and the beginning of the run for the line, he seemed to favor going wide. I was in a quandary; I didn't know what the other ski paddler knew, and I wasn’t sure what was off the end of that jetty, but for sure it held some sand because the small ground swell we were pushing into began to stand up and threatened to break top to bottom. I shadowed his conservative line just to the inside waiting for him to turn. Just as the beach and distant finish came into view two miles away, I looked back to see Leah who had been hugging the left jetty, button hook her boat on the crest of a wave and the stern and about five inches of rudder shot away not ten feet beyond the waves crashing on the end of the jetty. I immediately kicked all my left rudder, put my hip down and leaned my boat onto the next wave of the set. We were released.

We started the drive down to the finish, Leah on my left and inshore. Even though we could not see the buoy that would mark our left turn into the beach, she immediately crossed behind me, taking a more offshore line. I was a sucker for the deep holes that ran towards the beach and stayed on the inside as we slid down the sea trading runs. There is a dialog that goes through my head on good downwinds and today it sounded like this:

wait. wait. wait... just keep it going..tick it over

there is one! power...power... power

relax! hold it up there …. where is the next one...

rest.......

where’s leah?

SHIT! She is on a good line!

edge right....find something going that way...

there! On it …. don't over shoot.... let that one go.

where are the others? (Look back) HOLY CRAP!! were dropping them.

wait....wait ...wait ….keep the momentum

go for that one!

And on and on and on. Each time I glanced over, there she was, probably not even aware I was near. Who was that? … A mother? … The wife of Danny Ching? … A 404 athlete? All three. But most of all, a daughter of the sea, driving her boat beautifully down to the finish. The truth is, I could not pass her, not for lack of strength or want, but because the speed I had was based on rhythm, the right rhythm. When you race downwind you are confronted by a constant series of decisions: go over the wave in front of you or wait for the next, take this little cross wave going out to sea or the big fast wave going towards shore. If you don't charge, you wallow; charge too hard and you bog down and stall. It is all pacing and efficiency and Leah had both.

tap tap tap hisssssssssss

tap tap tap hissssssssss

Properly driven, OC's play to the sea’s metronome. Leah Ching knocked out the beat all the way to beach.

AUDACITY & THE WINGED BOAT: Why we take fun so seriously.

Valkyrie Downwind is at its heart an Arts & Humanities endeavor. Thankfully, the rapidly growing wealth of constructive information being promulgated on learning to paddle Surf Skis, announcing races, and purveying all the personalities and accoutrements of the sport we love allows this site be more etherial, to focus on the soul of driving longboats on the open ocean. However, for the casual viewer, the writing, photos and video on the site and FB page might cause them to ask: “Is this not a little grave? Slow motion, dark music, the prolific use of Norse mythology, even the militaristic graphics -- what is this, a cult?”

Perhaps, but art is often a reflection of time and place, and I think the best way to begin to explain the story behind the winged boat and the passion I seek to express here is with this piece written in 2012 in my second year of learning to paddle the ski and forging the relationships that would go on to inspire the entire Valkyrie Downwind project.

Today in 2011, a few months after Operation Neptune's Spear, an Army National Guard CH-47D helicopter, call sign: Extortion 17, was shot down in Afghanistan with what is believed to have been a single RPG7 shot. Aboard was a quick reaction force, many from the same tier one unit that prosecuted Geronimo. All aboard were lost: five aircrew, three Air Force commandos, one K9 and 22 senior Navy door kickers.

When the Direct Action guys make the news for rescuing someone or eliminating public enemy #1, the local restaurants and broadcasts here proudly claim them as "VB's own." It is also a fact that a hit such as Extortion 17 leaves voids in gyms, bars, and neighborhoods....

I think all mariners, aviators and old soldiers eventually learn to live with an ancient truth of audacious endeavor: Luck can beat skill at any moment.

Here, in this place, this truth is almost palpable. People quietly leave and return...and, sometimes they don’t....but on the marsh trails, on the beaches, and on the water, athletes push just a little harder, for the buddy they’re racing, for an absent father, and for the the always smiling widow down the street whose husband you never even met.

Today push an extra one out for Extortion 17, for Red Wings, for Razor 01, for Super 64 for the countless other call signs that never RTB'd, or, just for AUDACITY...”

 arrivals, Norfolk International Airport

arrivals, Norfolk International Airport

The wings around the boat in our logo are Valkyrie wings, the armored arc angels of Viking mythology that descended on battlefields to raise the most valiant of the fallen warriors and carry them up to Valhalla, reuniting them to raid again with their friends and ancestors for eternity. War like? Yes. The descending blade has traditionally been used as a symbol of power from above; military symbology and the myth supports this. But, consider all of this a little deeper. When you finally learn to drive a boat by your own hand before a running sea, there are moments that you feel the boat fly as if it is being lifted by wings, and that is what the myth of the Valkyrie is really about isn't it? Putting your self out there for those you love, those that have gone before, and to be closer to those you have lost.

On a calm day at Heorot1 you can hear F18s practicing carrier landings, the drone of LCACs rehearsing amphibious assaults, and on windless nights, the crack of automatic weapons and the charge detonations of arguably the greatest maritime raiders in history crossing the beaches. But, when the NE wind begins to blow, it is all easily overwhelmed by the howl of the gods whipping up a raging sea.

WE ARE AUDACIOUS, we train hard, we play hard and we drive longboats on the sea with all of our arm and heart. If a random turn of fate should ever negate all of our strength or guile then,....

We'll see you in Valhalla.   "CUIV"

1 Note; Heorot is the given name of the boathouse from which much of this springs. The meaning of the name is the stuff of a forthcoming story the working title of which is: “Why My Boathouse is called Heorot- how a cat made me re-read Beowulf