Wednesday, 30 June 2010


After a long period of work & family inspired absence from any club-based instruction, I got back out on the water on Sunday with my club mates from the NSWSKC.
The event was an intro to sea skills weekend at the club's stalwart venue, Bundeena & its iconic Bonnie vale campground. I put my hand up to help out on the Sunday with some instructing, after checking that Nic was happy to look after the kids on one of her precious Sundays (thanks again darlin'...)
The NSW club was where it all began for me as a paddler back in 2002, turning up to yet another Bundeena weekend organised by Rob Mercer to do a - wait for it - intro to sea proficiency weekend. I clearly remember telling Rob, Nick Gill & Andrew Eddy about some of the things I'd been up to solo with my dodgy, Napoleon Dynamite skills, in combination with an over-endowment of confidence (hey what's changed...) and watching their experienced eyes roll in unanimous disapproval. These guys took safety & skills acquisition seriously, and there was none of the dressing shed celebration of recklessness that provided most of the entertainment when I was running around Coogee Oval. Clearly, my ambition was writing cheques that my ability couldn't cash....
Back then it was the sea proficiency award, and the skills taught have evolved almost to an unrecognisable format from those first experiences for me of formal instruction. 
What hasn't changed is the selfless volunteerism of the club, the eagerness of novice & guru alike to share experiences & take part in what is essentially a fantastic entity for meeting like-minded folk & sharing in this amazing sport we call sea kayaking. 
A broad church - Matt Leonard in his timber boat with stick, off Jibbon Beach
On Sunday I had a group of reasonably inexperienced paddlers who were clearly dedicated to turning themselves into sea kayakers. The inescapable thing about sea kayaking is that if you're not out on the sea, well, it's just kayaking. The joys & rewards of our sport are magnified in the challenging environment of open water, but with that come the risks to manage, the skills to garner & the mental attitude to get committed. I'm a big believer in the old euphemism that you truly get out what you're prepared to put in. If you want to be a true sea kayaker, be prepared that you'll have to earn your right to safely progress to a skill level where you're not going to be a liability to your own safety or the safety of your paddle mates. I reckon it's very liberating deciding you're going to do something properly, and then knuckling down to do it right from the beginning, & ticking off the boxes as you acquire your skills.
The sea skills award in it's current incarnation is a very comprehensive course. You need to present your boat to a sea-ready standard. You need to be able to competently handle surf & self rescue, perform rescues on others, carry & understand the necessary safety kit, understand the weather forecast & it's application to the area in which you're paddling, and log a couple of decent open water paddles. Some think it's an unnecessary bureaucratic set of hoops, but I see a list of essentials for any aspiring sea kayaker, who doesn't want to end up hanging out of a Westpac chopper or worse. At the end of the day it's skill, not gear, that gets you through.
Owen Walton keeping a close eye on a rescue demo
The eight paddlers in my group ran through some basics of good rotation in forward stroke, & how that skill learned properly then makes it very easy to translate to a paddling system of blended strokes, that rely on the power of your torso to control your boat. We worked on some dynamic low bracing techniques, and then covered the several approaches to rescues. It was about 12 degrees, and the water was not too much warmer, yet everyone threw themselves into the exercises, dunking themselves into the wintery water, practicing rescues as the rescuer & the victim, and generally pushing themselves to the magic tipping point.
We finished off with self rescues, of course in my opinion there is no such thing that works in dire straits better than a good roll, and I think the point was proven as less than half of the willing participants managed a cowboy scramble, or whatever it's called nowadays. 
This club based training is great for visually getting a consolidated idea of what constitutes good technique. It gives new paddlers an opportunity to get into a supportive environment & learn new skills, but in reality it really only gives you a tiny taste of what's really required. Every paddler I know who has graduated to be a really competent ocean kayaker has worked & worked on their skills in a variety of conditions to get to where they are. My own development as a kayaker was accelerated by one-on-one sessions with paddlers much better than me, asking live questions in live conditions & 'learning by immersion', if you get my drift. The onus is really on the individual to get stuck in & get committed to a high standard, with short guide lights like club weekends or good commercial instruction there to correct course. What my club, the NSW Sea Kayak Club has goes far beyond a 'service based' training program. I get annoyed by people who sign up for the 'free training' then bugger off after a year, but maybe that is the nature of a consumer culture where we are constantly asking 'what's in it for me'?
I actually think the most valuable thing you get from a club like the NSWSKC is not the training, but the opportunity to get out on the sea safely & with more experienced paddlers on their terrific trips calendar. All of my own instruction in recent times has been trips based, I've never been a big fan of the 'gather 'round little paddlers & watch me while I do this' method of instructing. On a trip, you get to make your own mistakes & work things out for yourself, within the parameters of the basics that a good formal instruction session will provide. A novice paddler with a few good sessions of expert commercial instruction would be off to a flying start in a club environment.
My club has a sense of community & common purpose, it's a place to find peers with shared goals in their own paddling, and has a long & distinguished history of making the sport safer. I've had mates interstate telling me about the great gains being made by the Tasmanian Sea Canoeists (if you're from Tassie you get to call yourself a sea canoeist...), the VSKC & the burgeoning Queensland Sea Kayak Club, so these organisations are out there wherever you may be, to join up to, learn from, & hopefully contribute toward in return.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day on the water, and regret that for the moment three kids under 6 and three equally demanding business leave me with little time to contribute to the club. Thanks to my bunch of paddlers for a great day.....

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