Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Kayak Lesson

Last night from 8:00 to 10:30 PM, I took a kayaking lesson, the first in a series that I could take. The company that offers these (Confluence Kayaks) does them on lakes and (for the more advanced classes) in rivers, but you can also take them in the pool at the University of Denver, and that's where I was.

this girl should have her head tucked further towards the bowThe first thing they taught us was the "wet exit," which is how you get out of an overturned kayak if you need to. When you get into a kayak, you are wearing something they call a "skirt," which is made of wetsuit material, and fits around your torso, with a flaring part (like a skirt) with a rubber lip at the bottom. You use it to create a seal between yourself and the opening in the kayak.

Wet exits seem scary because they really wedge you into a kayak (so you can control it with your body) and you wonder if you'll actually be able to get out. We were taught to execute the wet exit using these steps.

  1. Lean forward until your face is against the skirt. In a real situation, you'd be wearing a helmet, so this is to protect your face from rocks or other things in the water.

  2. Bang three times on the sides of your kayak. This is to let people know you're trapped upside down.

  3. Rub the sides of your kayak with your fists. (This is useless for a wet exit, but practice for the bow rescue.)

  4. Reach to the front of your skirt, where you hopefully left the tab at the front facing out, and pull the skirt right off the boat.

  5. Put your hands on the kayak near your hips, push it off like pants, and do a forward somersault out.

If you're not intrinsically afraid of being trapped underwater, which I'm not, this doesn't sound so scary until the first time you try to do it. (It's not difficult, but it is a bit panic-inducing.) There were 7 students in our class, and we each practiced one at a time (taking turns) until we were comfortable. Everyone went twice, and one woman went three times. I wasn't completely sure I was comfortable after doing it twice, but I didn't feel like doing it again.

Next we learned a few basic kayaking strokes, with time to practice them. As with paddling a canoe, you want to paddle by rotating your torso rather than by pulling the paddle with your arms. (I feel like this is even more possible and necessary in a kayak, but I'm a beginner at both.) Our teacher seemed legitimately impressed by how fast we learned all of the strokes.

I tipped over by mistake while doing the forward stroke, so I got to practice another wet exit, this time under slightly more realistic conditions (i.e., while surprised).

The next thing we learned was the "bow rescue" or "eskimo rescue" - a way to get righted in your upside-down kayak without having to do a wet exit. We practiced this in stages and, frankly, I was fearful of each stage (I was very very tired by this point, especially because of my accidental wet exit and the ensuing exercise of getting the kayak out of the water, getting myself back in, etc.)

our boats were shorter and stubbier than these, which are more optimized for going straight for long distances

But the basic way this rescue works is that, after you flip over, you signal for help by banging three times (as above), and then you wait patiently while rubbing your fists or arms along the sides of your kayak. The reason for the rubbing (so mysterious earlier) is so that you can feel the other kayak when it comes to you.

Your rescuer approaches you at a right angle, and when you feel the bow of their boat, you put your hands on top of it (he showed us how, if you accidentally wrap your arms around it instead, your head will be under their bow, which is unworkable) and pull your head out. He had us rest our head right on their bow.
see how this guy is real calm and just getting ready to do his hip snap?
Your kayak itself is still upside-down at this point (though dry inside because of the skirt), and even though you feel like you want to just pull yourself up, that's not possible with an upside-down boat on top of you. You have to use your hips to flip your boat back upright, which is actually pretty easy. (In other words, you want to push your boat beneath you, not try to push yourself up over the boat.) It's hard to remember that this is what you want to do, but fortunately your head is out of the water, so you know you have until your arms give out to think about it, so it's not too hard not to panic.

We practiced this in five distinct stages, so we really eased into it. By the final stage, my partner would be off across the pool and I'd flip over, bang, wait (trying not to worry, because of course I could do a wet exit if I got desperate), and then when she hit my boat with hers (never on the side I expected, because flipping over is so disorienting), frantically dig my head out, think/struggle, then flip over. Whew, upright again.

The lesson was exhausting, but great fun. The feeling of being in a kayak is somewhat magical - the way your hips can rock the boat side to side so easily (and you don't capsize as long as you keep your body separate and over the boat - exactly opposite to how you do a bike). And all that time upside-down in the water was pretty special too. I felt the sensations of it all as I was falling asleep.

In the second class, they teach you how to roll.


Debbie said...

You called it "being in a kayak." I call it "wearing a kayak." I've never done it myself. I did get rather comfortable with canoes for a while--I could never do awesome controlling j-strokes, but I could rock a canoe with control, power one with a pole, and I even saw people sailing, with one canoe across another, sideways, catching wind as the sail.

I enjoyed reading these adventures. It looks harder that I thought, and I already thought it was hard.

It looks like you might not get bruised much, unlike with the dead fish flop manuever in canoeing. Actually, I think I learned not to bruise myself doing that; I don't remember now. Nor do I remember if I learned to turn a canoe upright with another person (both people are underneath it, breathing in the air pocket, then they grab the gunwhales and fling it up into the air, flinging one side with a bit more force than the other.

I haven't done any of that stuff in 22 years.

Phill said...

I went for one of these sessions tonight at my local pool - was fantastic fun. Didn't get as far as the eskimo thingy, but I did the release, both with and without the skirt (which they call a 'spraydeck' here in the UK)