Reflections from the Cockpit February 2007
"Paddling In Organized Chaos"
A few years ago I was leading some friends down the Na Pali Coast of Kaua'i. The conditions that day would be rated rough by the average paddler. Some in the group were pushing their envelopes. The greatest frustration expressed by those who were new to such conditions, was the inability to keep their boat on a straight course. The next day in camp, after a good night's rest, we discussed their frustrations. They wanted to know how to keep their boats on course. That is when I came up with the term "Organized Chaos."
First I need to explain the conditions we had for that day. We were land locked the day before because huge sets of waves were pounding the shore. On this day the waves decreased in size but it would mean a very confused day along the coast because of the reflecting waves off of the cliffs. "Na Pali" means "the cliffs." I had been kayaking this section of coast for almost twenty years. Some on the trip had been there before. We had four in the group who were new to paddling in Hawaii. As a side note, I fell into a trap that I warn others about. Know the skill level and attitude of the people you have with you. I trusted the word of one of the regulars who vouched for another. This will the topic of reflection in the future.
The day of the big waves kept everyone out of the water, even the commercial tour operators. I did take advantage of the waves for some exhilarating body surfing. With surfing fins and a "hand gun" ( a planing device used on your hands) you can get some great rides on big waves. The life guards were telling folks "we recommend that you stay out of the water because of the tremendous undertow." The beaches are very steep and if you are too close the incoming whitewater will knock you down and then receding water, that knocked you down, will suck you right off of the beach. Then you end up in the beach break, which is a nasty place to be. Needless to say was no kayaking that day.
One of the other factors of paddling the day of the big waves was not only the launching, it was the possibility of landing. Our planned destination was getting a full frontal assault from these waves. Landing at that beach would not be pretty. There would have been no way to land the boats without getting knocked off. We use sit-on-tops (SOT's) when we paddle there because of the surf. I had thigh straps and I doubt if I would have been able to land in the surf that was at Kalalau Beach. I have see big surf there before. I would have gotten to shore and the kayak would too but we would not be together. The biggest concern is the length of the surf zone and the amount of whitewater one would have to swim through. The whitewater get very aerated and doesn't provide much buoyancy to a swimmer even if they have a PFD. In some cases one is better off without a PFD so they can swim under the whitewater, in the blue water, to get to shore or out through the surf zone. Given the length of the zone it would be a very long breath hold. In my mind this was the greater concern.
On the day we paddled the surf started as moderate in size with good windows for launching between waves. The reports had the waves dropping and the winds in our favor blowing at 15-20 MPH. Early that morning one of the two main commercial operators launched a group to paddle the coast. Our group saw the launching and figured they could do it. I also got a report from a local (who I have known for years) about the landing at our planned destination. He was there yesterday and informed me there was a small section of the beach that had a deep channel near shore so landing was doable with smaller waves. Knowing we could land, launch and get blown to our destination meant my safety concerns were satisfied. I explained my concerns to the group. I also gave then a very candid description of what conditions would be like for the day. I said, picture being in a washing machine for four+ hours. If you are prone to seasickness you are going to wish you were dead. Once we launched there was no way we could get back so you would have to stick it out. I knew I could tow two down the coast if I had to do so. I indicated that I would stay on our present beach for another day and leave tomorrow when it would be a casual paddle down the coast instead of a working one. The group decided to go.
We made it and the less experienced in the group found out what I meant by a working paddle. Some decided to go to bed and skip dinner because they were tired. During breakfast we had a debrief about the frustration paddling in those conditions. The best way I could explain how to paddle in such confused seas was using the term "organized chaos." Trying to keep your bow on course in large reflective waves is virtually impossible. Your goal is to maintain a general heading knowing you will be bouncing from side to side. One minute you will be surfing to the right. The next your kayak will be surfing to the left. It could be three rights and then two lefts or any combination of zigzags. The key is to think about making headway. Are you moving forward? In fact, if we didn't paddle at all, the wind would have eventually blown us to our destination, but it would have taken a lot longer. If we all rafted up we could have made some makeshift sails with paddling jackets and paddles and moved along the coast. However, we were there to paddle and paddle we did.
The biggest mistake made by the less experienced paddlers was trying to stay on course using stern rudders. Yes it puts you on course, but it kills your momentum. The slower you go, the more you get bounced from side to side. Therefore, if you use a stern rudder for course correction in these conditions, you are not only perpetuating the problem you are enhancing it. Also, the more you bounce around the more you feel unstable. The more unstable you feel the more you tense up. The more you tense up the more likely you are of capsizing. In addition, you expend a lot of energy in that vicious cycle. If you feel like you are going to capsize, you will be spending more time bracing than paddling forward. This also adds to being bounced around.
I explained to the group the seas seemed chaotic. However, if you let go of the need for control at every moment, you can begin to feel a rhythm on the water and then you can flow with it. There are times you need to stop paddling and let the water take you. There are times you are paddling just to hold your position and not trying to make headway. Then there are times when you can get a burst of speed because your paddling and the waves are working in the same direction. Again, you may not be heading directly toward your target, but you are making headway in a zigzag pattern. The best goal you can hope for is have smaller Z's in your zigzag. The best training for these confused conditions is learning how to master paddling in following seas. A topic for future discussion.
Another little trick is waiting for the right wave to move you toward the zig after you have zagged. There are times when it is easier to correct your course than others. Paddlers new to these conditions, often waste too much energy trying to stay on a straight course even if they are using forward corrective strokes. The energy they are using to get immediately back on course is better used in trying to make headway. Something else to keep in mind, in this circumstance, is we were following the coast line. We were not on a compass heading without landmarks. It was easy to see the general direction.
The message I want to relay is to view this chaos as an organized mess. If you can relax in those conditions you will begin to feel a rhythm. If you allow your kayak to be bounced around while moving toward your goal, you will not only get there, you will do so at a faster pace than trying to over control your kayak. A place to get a taste of these conditions is to practice paddling in front of a sea wall where you have these reflecting conditions. If you paddle back and forth in front of the wall you can start learning how to relax in such conditions. See USK article "Learning In Chaos" for more information. Remember, paddling is supposed to be fun. If you are too nervous to enjoy the trip why be there? Therefore, get out and practice so you can enjoy more diverse conditions.
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