Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Mind the Gap - Preparing for open ocean crossings.

Here's an article I posted in the lastest NSW Sea Kayaker's club magazine, Salt.

I have made something of a transition lately from being a notoriously short attention span, park & play coastal pilot, to embracing & getting a bit addicted to the committing open sea crossing.
I wrote after completing my first big one, a 95km journey from the top of Fraser Island out to the tiny Lady Elliot Island:
You'd be forgiven for thinking that crossings of this nature are boring. There is nothing to look at, the horizon is endless & the miles are there to be made, no other option. The truth is that constantly surfing, trying to link runners, watching the troughs as they appear in front of you, watching your heading, having a quick drink plus another dozen multi tasks becomes all encompassing.”
Put the idea of a thirteen hour paddle with nuttin’ to see but the horizon to me three years ago & I would have rolled my eyes, just prior to them glazing over.
However like most things that aren’t easy, the feeling of commitment, that lovely sense of being very small that only oceans & mountains can provide, and the satisfaction of preparing for and then pulling off an open sea crossing, is quite compelling.

I think there are three elements of preparing for a crossing that need to be considered.

First of all you have to be fit. I know most of us aren’t in this sea kayaking caper for the chiseled abs and VO2 ratios, but thorough & targeted conditioning is the most important element in successfully completing big days on the sea. I’m particularly time poor, so in preparation for trips involving big distances I use short, sharp sessions with extensive interval training, cross training like running, swimming & biking, & I never train for more than about an hour. I have a plan, and I stick to it as well as I can, with the bad little fairy in my conscience chirping away reminding me that I don’t want to be the guy that lets his mates down by tanking.

When I asked more experienced paddlers about the best way to prepare for big miles the majority view seemed to be ‘miles & miles & more miles’. Unfortunately my life doesn’t allow that sort of time commitment so I prefer a more intensive alternative. Now that I’ve used my model for a few different trips & events, I can honestly say even if I had the time to ‘do the miles’ I wouldn't change anything. The reason is simple, the big mileage days carry with them a hangover of extended recovery, and if you’re doing them once or twice a week you’re bound to develop some form of over-training injury.
I save the longer training days to the end of my preparation, and they’re all about making sure my arse isn’t going to hurt after four hours in the boat, and tending to other issues that can occur on the sea (such as changing a water bladder or putting on another layer, anything that might present a challenge in rough water).
In practice, my aim is be able to operate at a much higher level of intensity than anything I’d be doing on a day’s sea paddling, and the result is that mostly the going feels well within my limits.

Secondly you have to have your technique ironed out. Trip reports are littered with episodes of a slow burning swollen wrist, incapacitating shoulder soreness etc. These things are entirely avoidable if you spend some time making sure your forward stroke isn’t putting any power down on an overextended joint. If you’re not sure you’re capable of sorting these technical aspects of your stroke out by yourself, get some good coaching.
Remember also the extra torque required to propel a loaded boat, and factor that into your preparation. You can do this very easily by extending your paddle shaft a couple of centimetres past your normal length, using a larger paddle blade, putting a bungee around your hull, or deliberately seeking out headwinds. Any of these adds a surprising amount of resistance.

Thirdly, you need to know how fast you go. I know it’s basic navigation, but you shouldn’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of overestimating your ability to make ground. There are plenty of optimists who have stared at a little island failing to get any bigger, wondering if maybe an uncharted current has got them, while their realist buddy sits alongside knowing exactly how much longer there is to go. Only one of them is enduring self inflicted head messin’…

Again I prefer to measure my ability with something more scientific that ‘Geez, I felt good today’. I systematically record my training speeds & my output, via a heart rate monitor, on each training paddle.
Why? Here’s a scenario. 20km from your destination having covered 30km in 4 hours, a headwind that was predicted, freshens beyond the forecast wind speed. Your speed through the day has been good, over 7kmh, but the headwind threatens to slow you down to 4kmh, and that last 20km suddenly looms as a 5-hour epic.

With my preparation, I know that running along at 7kmh thereabouts I’m well within the threshold of effort that will fatigue me. I’ve done this first 30km without going near any reserves. So, considering I’m well fuelled, I know that I can lift my effort from a rate where I’m cruising at say, 125 heartbeats per minute, to one substantially more demanding at 135 beats per minute (and still be able to comfortably maintain that output for a few hours). I don’t need the electronics in front of me to tell me where that next level is, my training tells me where it is. Lifting the tempo should increase my speed to somewhere around 6kmh into the headwind, & I’ll drop two whole hours off that final exhausting stretch to safety.
 And therein lies the key to it all. On a crossing of any kind, speed equals safety.

Now that you’re well prepared, know your capabilities, and have every confidence that you’ll be able to sort out any problems you might have by yourself (if you have to), you sit in your little kayak on the sand and stare out at the expanse you’re about to commit yourself to.
It’s a daunting feeling, but at the same time it’s liberating. That moment where the preparation is done, and now you’ve just got that big stretch of water to get stuck into.

My advice for people having a go at a decent crossing for the first time is to embrace the challenge, understand & manage the risks, and accept that if your preparation is piss poor then so too will be your performance. The flowery term ‘embrace the challenge’ means ‘make sure you want to be there’. I know from my time playing sport that you could always spot the guys who stepped up a level but didn’t really want to be there, and they rarely succeeded.

I remember vividly the first time I looked around & couldn’t see anything except water.


There aren’t that many moments in our cocooned modern lives where there are very real consequences for stuffing something up. To me this realization that ‘there are consequences here’ is the essence of adventure.

And don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you it’s boring…!


  1. Isn't it funny how opinions of things change when give them a try? Only then we find out what has attracted other people to whatever it is that we have rejected, in your case ocean crossings and I think you also had a bit of fun with exploring Greenland rolling. I wonder what else we miss out on. With that in mind, maybe I should give surf skis, rum and oysters a fair go. Well, maybe just surf skis.

  2. Rum -
    Oysters -
    Surfskis - give me a shout!


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