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

GRANDMA, GUNS and GUTS: a boys early lessons in resilience, performance and love.

What follows is the Eulogy I wrote and delivered at the memorial service for my Grandmother. The descriptions and science behind Transient Hypo Frontality were largely drawn from Steven Kotler"s excellent book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.

Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Boston: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“I'll be god damn'd If I am going to be beat by a woman!”

Thus ends one of my grandmother's favorite stories. She told it to me many a time over the course of our lives. Set on a national match pistol range in the 1950's during a course of slow fire, her narrative was told almost as a parable (with a certain degree of pride). These words where uttered by a Marine officer in the lane adjacent hers as he packed up his shooting box mid match.

Sometimes in the telling she would include her thoughts as she stood there sliding a full magazine into her gold cup colt 45: “Oh, honey, that's unfortunate because you just were.” But before we condemn the poor marine officer, let us just for a moment consider what he was up against.

Taken at face value this simple story is a wonderful gem for us to hold. It says a lot about our matriarch. But recently I have delved a little deeper, and what I have found exposes much more about our queen as an athlete and a leader.

This spring I was on the Alawai Canal behind Waiki turning myself inside out trying to keep pace with the local high school girls' canoe team. Their coach Zsolt yelled across the water: “Ah Peter you are trying to drive the boat too hard.” (Zsolt a former Hungarian national champion came to the islands to cultivate the deep well of Polynesian paddling talent for olympic hopes.) “U need to let go, brudda, put down the power but let the boat run, brah.... flow.”

And thus, I began looking into the details of flow dynamics. Often called the “Zone” by coaches, the “Pocket” by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, “Peak Experience” by Abraham Maslow, or simply described by surfers as “surfing,” flow's scientific nomenclature is “Transient Hypo Frontality.”

Transient.... passing

Hypo....under active

Frontal.... in this usage, the part of the human brain that deals with time, conscious thought, and one's concept of self, i.e., the part we use all the time in our hectic lives.

Recently, in attempt to understand the massive jumps in performance made in the last few decades in disciplines as diverse as backcountry skiing, tow in surfing, various olympic sports, and even elite military operations, psychologists and physiologists have begun to make huge breakthroughs in the study of the places the minds of artists, athletes, and elite warriors go when they are at their best and most effective.

Traditional thinking has been that when we are performing at our best, when we say, “Man I was on my game that day!” we must be using more of our brains. However, what has been found through advances in brain scanning technology monitoring participants that are at the top of their crafts is that when we are on that cusp of breakthrough, completely absorbed with the task at hand, these moments when time slows or we loose track of time altogether, certain parts of our brain are being repressed or in fact circumvented all together. The frontal cortex is the one of these…. it is the main keeper of our notion of self. With the frontal cortex shut down, the parts of the athlete or artist brain that are normally pushed into the background, the parts that see creative lines, that respond directly to sensory inputs, and that track kinetic position of the body are suddenly free to be in charge. In essence, when we are in these “peak performance moments,” it is scientifically proven that we are selfless, timeless, our action and awareness merge, and the be'r and do'r are one.

Does anybody see where this is going yet?

So, in late spring as I picked through all the solid science out there on Transient Hypo Frontality, I was surprised to find that what was explained as an exponential advance in the understanding of practices as diverse as free solo climbing and military sniping prompted me to say to my self “Yeah, duh, no kidding.”

Where had I come to understand this approach, not as a deliberate practical process but as a general over all way of approaching life? Soul surfers I have shared the line up with? No. The artists and activists I was surrounded with during my upbringing? I don't think so. How about the navy SEALS I have occasion to work with.....nope.

My Training began when I was five years old and my grandmother came to live with us. Re was 61 then and a practiced Hypo-Frontalist.

They say that the path to great performance epiphanies are marked by four distinct phases: struggle, release, flow, and afterglow.

When Re came to live with us in 1974, struggle was an understatement. The loss of the love of her life just the year before had been sudden and turned her world upside down. I can only imagine how intense the suffering was, but she innately knew the only answer was release, re-engage.

Hard to do after such a blow, yes, but in fact this was nothing new to her. In 1952, Re had won the National Women's Pistol Championship. She had at one point outshot the US Olympic team.... she was competing at an elite level. Her favorite discipline of national match shooting was 45caliber slow fire. Two strings of 10 shots from 50 yards at an eight inch target. For those of you that have never attempted anything like this, let me tell you that walking to a line and aiming four pounds of steel 150 feet down range at a target the size of a salad plate is A STRUGGLE.... but, our heroine had mastered that by the time she was 40. Suffer, release, flow.... Bang!... Ten ring.... How did she know?

At college age Re had made her way to art school. This was in the 30's before women in art school was cool. Wait, I take that back, it wasn’t widely accepted, but it was probably really cool. (Some of us have seen the pictures and heard the stories to support that.) I suspect that the beginning of her ability to lose her self in practice was in the form of creative application.

Additional evidence of Re as a fierce competitor can be drawn from her daughter's recollections of her going about housework all the while holding a coke bottle filled with sand straight out at arm's length. So on that windy Quantico range, as she fired her first shots, hyper beta brainwaves of struggle gave over to the relaxed yet alert alpha waves. Nitric oxide flowed through her veins flushing out the nervous jitters of adrenalin and cortisol. For our poor Marine officer not so much....

I can tell you now, that becoming a flow guru does not explicitly lend itself to the nine to five grind or a stable family life. Lucky for me (and I would dare say many of us here) and due to the legacy of her true love, our matriarch was never so encumbered. She was free to roam as she saw fit.

It is said that the chase of the peak experience, the lure of the loss of self to task, if only for a moment, is addictive. I do not contend that my grandmother was not a flow junky, but in her post competitive days, the form of her practice became the gift to all of us of herself, her creativity, and, yes, her appetite for adventure. She was ALWAYS available for any creative project, any undertaking, no matter how extreme....sailboats, cars, jeeps, horses, fishing, hunting, skiing, gin, beer, wine, storms, fires, explosions!! and on down the line.... Everyone here most likely has a story or five in which our matriarch is somehow complicit!

When I was in my teens, grandmother or “gram” to the Maryland crowd, recognized that I should have some sort of siblings in my life, so we regularly took the trip together down 95 to visit my cousins Patrick, Molly, and Caitie. At some point in this era, I started to ski with them. While Re was my ride, sitting in the lodge was not to be for her. She began to ski also. I remember sitting at her kitchen table as she explained to me that at night she imagined she was skiing, feeling every turn, the condition of the snow, the coldness and force of the wind, the sound of the edges carving. Sounded logical to me at 14. Years later I realized that my 68 year old grandmother had introduced me to the value of visualization in kinetic sport. I have learned since that the brain knows no difference between doing a thing and good detailed visualization..... that the imagination of perfect practice creates the same neuropathways that ACTUAL practice does.... but this was old hat to her. Re had the ability to tap flow all around her. She rejoiced in it as she watched Patrick ski perfect parallels down a mountain, she felt the muscles of her beloved horses as her paint brushes traced their likeness onto fabric, and she knew the exact quality of touch and tone that could sooth a being in distress.

Back on the range. Re has reloaded for the second string and reengaged; now she is in a deep flow state. Her brain is operating in the theta and gama wave lengths. This is the realm that many only experience in the precious moments just as they fall asleep. The loss of inhibiting notions of self, and the ability to quite literally bend time, she is now watching each fired bullet slowly make its way down range and through the X ring. Flow is the ultimate performance enhancer and on a windy range in the crucible of competition among professional military and policeMEN, my 40 year old grandmother had learned to hack directly into it. Bang.....Bang......Bang..... it was too much for the Marine to take, he packed up and left uttering his immortal words.

She broke him.

Caitie, where does Caitie fit?

In my experience, Katrina, the baby, the youngest of the cousins, was the second great love of my grandmother's life. The bond that they shared was intense. I believe now that while her love for all of us helped Re to recover from the loss of Poppy, Caitie was the key factor. But Caitie was a challenge. As a child Katrina had the ability to present a relentless string of questions that defied answer without the conscious and soul wringing introspection of self: “Gram, how do you know there is a god? Gram, why can't you live with us? Gram, are you mad God took Poppy? Gram come ski the intermediate slope with me--or--Gram when are you going to die?”

But Re was a pro.... and usually these interrogatives were met with a chuckle, “Oh Katrina.” The covers where lifted up, Caitie would crawl in bed with her grandmother, and the blanket pulled around both of them.

It was after Caitie's memorial service that Re asked me to “say nice things at hers.” I don't think either of us imagined I would have this long to prepare them.

My mother confided in me during the last few months of Re's life that while she could be here in our world quite lucid and content, as time went on, more and more she seemed to go to a place that was not of our world. She displayed no fear, and she seemed quite happy. My mother wondered aloud where this was, what was there.

But I know, I know it quite well; my grandmother had been leading me there by the hand since I was five years old.

Base jumpers, free soloists, extreme skiers, snipers, great artists, and true caregivers talk of how in the moment of elite performance--after the trials, the suffering, the giving over--focus on the task at hand is no longer necessary. The task, the practitioner, and the results have all merged; in this merge, the practitioner has ceased to exist and also exists in eternity. It is a death of a sorts.... and it is also immortality.

My grandmother dreamed of death as long as I knew her; she told me about these dreams all the time. Remember, we began to share a house at the point of release after a devastating loss, and I believe, in essence, she was living in a perfect state of flow the entire rest of her life. All the creativity, the gifts of time, love, humor, and faith to all of her family and friends was a result of her practiced ability to lose herself to the part of her spirit it is very hard for many of us to routinely call upon.

I think that in those last few months, she often went with Poppy and Caitie. I would also guess that she revisited a few places that none of us have ever known. But I know that at least a couple of times she was out on that windy range in Virginia.

On November 24 my grandmother shot a perfect match, and now we sit recovering in the afterglow.

I may be my father's craftsmen, I might be my mother's writer, but Ill be god damned if I won't be my grandmother's flow hacker.

How I Lost My Heart and Found My Form on the "backside" of Waikiki.

By nature of my work, I am lucky enough to spend a substantial amount of time over and in the Pacific Ocean. There are few types of aviation that evoke the flights expeditionary roots as driving prop aircraft over thousands of miles of ocean to visit tiny atolls and islands. Annually, a cumulative week or two of my time is spent on Oahu which is the first offshore stop on our way to the Western Pacific rim; we often overnight or reset our circadian clocks for a day in Waikiki. (Please remember these are propeller driven aircraft flying low and slow through the weather; they are loud and filthy and rattle you to the core for hours on end.)

Putting her down in the capital of the Marshal Islands.

 

Waikiki is a conundrum, walk past all the high end Burberry, Rolex and Coach boutiques lining Kalakaua Ave, ignore every surf industry anchor store you can name, resist the temptation of a million different restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and an ABC store on every corner, hook a right after the Moana Surfrider and you can still find the paradise of surfing's (at least in the modern era) birth place. Beautiful, warm, gentle waves, a beach boy who will rent you a board with no questions, no waiver and no PFD, and a leathery Vietnam Vet surf instructor who talks story of the Duke and for whom Rell was a sister.

For all of its consumer metropolis catering to hordes of Japanese tourists, Waikiki still retains its seedier heritage as a military R&R spot. A block off the main drag tattoo shops and bars abound, the police sweep the streets clean of drunks and prostitutes at 0200, and if a military age male stands in one place long enough, he will be propositioned by at least one of these working girls and a drug dealer or two.

But it was just one more block over on the Ala Wai canal that I fell in love with “Town.”

I had been paddling a surf ski for about two seasons. For the un-initiated, once you learn to sit in the craft and not immediately fall off, you must grapple with the highly technical nature of the articulated wing paddle that is used to propel a ski. Like swimming, there is a very distinct relationship between effort, technique and speed when it comes to the foreword paddle stroke. A neophyte swimmer often jumps in a pool for the first time to bang out 1000 meters only to find themselves completely gassed after one lap; likewise the beginning paddler will be astounded at how quickly and almost effortlessly his more experienced mates leave him flailing in their wake. On your own, progress can be awkward, exhausting and very slow, average speed creeping up at a snails pace if at all.

I found myself at a particular plateau. I had done everything right. I had started out in a wide stable ski. I had spent countless hours on flat water, interspersed with beatings in the surf. I had learned to stay loose in heavy conditions, and I had developed a bulletproof remount. But having just moved up into an “elite boat,” my speed gains were not as magical as I thought they would be after dropping 10lbs of boat weight and 4” of hull width.

I jogged along the Ala Wai canal in the evening as I often did to atone for the traditional night out with my aircrew mates. A lone figure stood on the launching ramps of one of the community outrigger canoe clubs talking to several teens who looked up from K1 sprint kayaks floating in the water below. Broad shouldered, and authoritative, it was apparent he was their coach, and what was more, a few of the kids were in ski's! I knew that skis had a history in the Islands -- the annual Molokai channel crossing race finishing just the other side of Diamond Head -- but I had searched in vain for available boats on Oahu. The beach boys had looked at me incredulously when I had inquired about renting a ski. If I was not mistaken, the coach was a pro, Molokai veteran Zsolt Szadovski.

 Evening on the Ala Wai.

Evening on the Ala Wai.

When anybody gets into performance paddling, REALLY into performance paddling, they are apt to spend a huge amount of time searching the web for video clips of good paddling. Paddling fast can look very different from individual to individual, but if you look carefully, the same fundamentals are always there in a fast stroke. It wasn’t ideal, but with the relatively undeveloped state of ski paddling in the continental US back then, watching video of others was really the only model I had; there were not a whole passel of club racers or pros at home for me to chase. It was during one late night YouTube session that I found the form that served as my first model. It was a five minute film by Jason LaBranch of a loan paddler in a ski paddling around the San Francisco Bay. The film was  well edited and the form was clean, smooth and powerful.

Zsolt had grown up racing K1 in Hungary, where flat water kayak racing is huge. A top level professional paddler and olympic hopeful, he had barely missed the 2000 Olympic team and had eventually found his way to OC6 paddling in the San Francisco area, then back into the skinny boats out in Hawaii where his knowledge of paddling, a passion for the island culture and support from Epic Kayaks had landed him a position as coach of a group of very motivated, athletic kids of the Hawaii Canoe Kayak Team. Here at the club house they have a small area to lock up their boats and twice a day they gather to work out and be guided by Zsolt.

 the Z man working out in a K1.

the Z man working out in a K1.

I Introduced myself, and when the he replied with a Eastern European accent and slight island undertones, I knew I had found the possessor of that form I had been watching. I enquired about a few tips and how I could get in to boat on these legendary waters. The reply: “tomorrow seven a.m.” I jogged back to the hotel and went to directly to bed.

I had slept through allot of Waikiki dawns, but not this one, and as I sat on the picnic tables drinking an exceptional cup of coffee, something in me moved in the warm tropical morning. The outrigger canoe kids were the first to show up at the club. Drifting towards the club house in groups of twos and threes from bus stops or out of the backs of old pickup trucks, they conversed freely, carrying paddles the way suburban junior high kids back on the mainland carry lacrosse sticks. It was when the coaches gathered and focused their youth into crews that slid the heavy six man canoes into the water, gliding away and calling the sing song chant of the paddle stroke, their small frames tiny in the big canoes, that I felt a piece of my heart leave with them. Zsolt's kids arrived next, older, lithe, their backs and arms sculpted by determination, endeavor and drills. They waited quietly while he unlocked the gate to the kayak racks, and with few hushed words they one by one put in and left the shore. As I watched these kids stretch out into the smooth morning water I saw in each of them, large and small, boy or girl, that same limber relaxed stroke that had captivated me. I had fallen in love with these kids, their austere boathouse, and this city park on a waterway where the signs caution against swimming or eating the fish.

“Peeta, your ski is over there, jump in and warm up.” I joined them. It's a long story. . . and many journeys. I think Z's first comment after he looked at me that first day was “oooh Peeta we are going to have to take you apart a leetle and put you bock together ,...but it is not hopeless.”

It was not hopeless; I was full of hope, and after some hard work and lots of time, my physiology changed, my timing fell together and I started to “let the boat run.” Now, when I visit, I often make the passage alone down the canal, through the Ala Moana harbor to the legendary and beautiful waters off of Diamond Head. But my real love of Hawaii is around the cages of that unassuming little canoe club -- those dedicated and beautiful kids, their coach riding a bike along the edge of the water yelling to them in a voice that sounds like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clyde Aikau. I have not spent a night partying in Waikiki since. I have not wasted a morning again.

  Chasing unlimitted OC's pushing into the trades off of Diamond head 

 Chasing unlimitted OC's pushing into the trades off of Diamond head 

 

 

 

 

Rise Of the Longboats: A brief history of the boat division in the Cape Story Paddleboard Race

Early summer, 2010, I was dragging my surf ski to the beach along the tree lined paths of our neighborhood. A golf cart buzzed up along side me carrying local surfboard shaper/professional mariner Ray Barnett and his loyal sidekick and daughter, Molly. “Hey Kayak guy,” he called as Molly handed me a flyer, “Check it out, we're having a paddle race, come out.” As he pulled away, he looked at my first generation V8 and said over his shoulder “That's a nice kayak.” They buzzed off, and I didn’t have time to inform him that it was not a kayak but a surf ski...so...I let it go. Six years later, Ray would know exactly what a surf ski was because he would be paddling one in the very race he founded.

The South Sandalwood Paddle Board Race was originally created by Ray for prone paddle board enthusiasts in the Virginia Beach area. It was a real neighborhood race, a labor of love that attracted a small group of paddlers and gave a great vibe to the Cape Story By the Sea neighborhood beach. Facing north on the Chesapeake Bay, the venue was perfect for near shore adult and kids' races and always featured a great family atmosphere.

As Ray tells it, what originally started as a prone race also coincided with the explosion of stand up paddle boarding, and in the first yearly iterations of the event, the prone surfboard paddlers were quickly joined by a growing number of SUP paddlers. The race that Ray and Molly invited me to enter was the Third Annual Cape Story South Sandalwood Surfboards Paddle Board Race, and by this time, stand up paddle racers way outnumbered any other class which included sit on top kayaks and that year, for the first time, a couple of surf skis. Four to be exact, and on that day In July, I met Chuck Conley. I had heard the name before when I bought my ski from a local kayak shop and the staff (who at that time were not ski paddlers) referred me to Chuck if I needed any help figuring out how to drive the thing, a substantial affirmation considering Chuck is the rep. for a competing brand. Chuck soundly beat me that first race, but we became friends, and over time, fiery competitors at local races. The next year I met Nik Miller, it was one of his first events with a double bladed paddle, he was hooked, and we all bore witness to his passion and strength over the following years. Nik is now a member of the US Para Olympic team in the K1 sprint kayak.

My first Cape Story race hooked me to. Not just because it gave me a competitive goal to chase but also because a tight group of paddlers had formed out of it, and I have no reservation in saying they have provided me with some of the greatest times in my life. Ohana gets used allot but we are are truly family up here on the north shore of VB.

When I say that Ray's race was a labor of love I mean it in the truest sense; he would begin months before the race shaping a beautiful longboard to be raffled off. Weeks before, he began to make the coveted wood surfboard trophies, insuring that there were enough so every racer in the kids' divisions went home with a prize. Then, on race day, the Barnett family golf cart was buzzing back and forth to the beach long before dawn and did not stop until long after every one else had loaded up and gone home.

 The year we  realized we had a ski division.

The year we  realized we had a ski division.

Each year the race grew -- more SUPs and slowly, by ones and twos, more surf skis. At first we ran with the stand up paddlers around the rectangular course. Then we started to do two laps of the course. There were many nice gentle years that the stand ups loved; then there was the big year of 15knot winds that had Chuck, me and two other CSPBR regulars: Murray Kirk and Tara Gill screaming for joy on the downwind sections. I continued to chase Chuck. Gradually the number of paddlers and sponsors of the event expanded, and the Barnetts' neighbors and friends took more and more of an active role. A few years ago, Bill House's un-tiring enthusiasm took what was now the Cape Story Paddle Board Race to a new level. At that time it looked to me like we would have a pretty good ski field and I created the Cape Story Cup, a trophy for the over all surf ski finisher that would be held by the current winner until passed on to the subsequent year's victor. That year a good boat and flat hot conditions, allowed me to get by Conley.

 Chuck and I after a hot, flat one.

Chuck and I after a hot, flat one.

Last year we had the biggest boat turnout of all with some 13 surf skis and outrigger canoes lining up for an independent Le Mans beach start to a genuine offshore race three miles out around a channel marker that lies on the edge of the shipping channel and finishing back on the beach. The team of Chuck Conley and Tara Gill took the cup in a tandem ski.

 The boats head out in last year's offshore race.

The boats head out in last year's offshore race.

The Cape Story Cup returns again this year. The course is again an out and back run around the offshore G3 buoy, a six mile all out open water sprint that will go in all weather (except lightning). The over all fastest boat takes the Cup.

 The first version of the Cape Story Cup. The ski was moved to a much bigger base last year when I realized we needed room for each years winners names.

The first version of the Cape Story Cup. The ski was moved to a much bigger base last year when I realized we needed room for each years winners names.

The Cape Story Paddle Board Race is now a whole weekend event. House has lined up some impressive sponsors and clinics. On the surf ski side, Chuck and I will be collaborating to provide some opportunities other than turning yourself inside out in the race. Chuck (Virginia Beach Paddlesports) will be offering his instructional skills, honed by decades of guiding and a lifelong dedication to education, to help any motivated paddler break down their foreword stroke and improve technique. After some water time, we'll head down to “Heorot on Long Creek,” my boathouse and shrine to the ski, where we will review video and I will go over boat outfitting and the more etherial art of predicting wind tide and swell in order to line up some of our great local downwind runs. 

A nice easy downwind day on the waters of the Cape Story Cup.