Some people have a distaste for the celebrity aspect of sea kayaking. Celebrity belongs in professional sports, politics, and People Magazine. Sea kayakers are usually paddling far and wide to escape that world. They have no need for it, maybe because they tend to be so fiercely individualistic. Or maybe because they're smart enough to see through the artificiality and hype involved in the creation of a celebrity, which is usually done to sell you something. Once in a while though you meet a person with such exceptional talent and personality that you simply must sit up and pay attention.
Recently I had the chance to chat with Freya Hoffmeister about her upcoming expedition, the “Race Around Australia” sponsored by Epic Kayaks. I guess everything sponsored by Epic has to be called a “race”, even though Freya is the only one participating.
I first met Freya at SSTIKS 2005. At the time I only knew her as the laconic woman in black who did head stands in her kayak and hung out with her “black brother” Dubside. I recall her complimenting me on my two skin−on−frame kayaks (they were black, of course).
In the few years since then, Freya has risen to full−blown sea kayaking super stardom. She has successfully fused traditional Greenland techniques with modern design (using both a carbon fiber Greenland stick as well as an Epic wing) and cultivated a unique persona: a striking figure in shiny black Reed Chill Cheaters and dark glasses. It resembles something like a cross between Xena Warrior Princess and Bettie Page. She boasts an impressive collection of ten or so custom black kayaks. They have names like SexyHexy and Sexplorer. She's gained membership in the elite club of the kayakers invited to perform in front of the camera for Justine Curgenven’s This is the Sea series, completed a number of expeditions, and is the most successful foreign competitor in the National Greenland Kayaking Championships, having won 8 gold medals. She has successfully landed dozens of corporate sponsorships.
Epic is supplying Freya a kayak for the circumnavigation: an 18X Sport modified with a stronger expedition layup, day hatch and the Track Master Plus rudder system. This will be this first time she has used an Epic on an expedition. (She's a little concerned that Epic still has yet to complete her kayak.)
The choice of the Epic is interesting. With its plumb bow, round hull and rudder, it looks nothing like the more "kayaky"-looking British boats. Don't kayaks need pointed overhanging ends for good rough water handling? Isn't a rudder just one more complicated mechanism that is bound to fail on long trip? Any paddler who knows corrective strokes and edging doesn’t need a rudder anyway, right? (By the way, the only other person to successfully circumnavigate Australia by sea kayak was Paul Caffyn 26 years ago, and he outfitted his HM Nordkapp with a rudder.)
Freya's success with this kayak might change the way people think about expedition kayak design.
I'm a fan of traditional kayak design, but I also believe in good engineering. These side by side comparisons of kayaks in rough water that Epic has recorded on video might get you thinking. I paddled an Epic Endurance recently and was blown away by not only the speed but also the maneuverability (even with the rudder up), light weight, comfort and workmanship. While paddling a state−of−the−art fiberglass Greenland-inspired kayak design at Deception Pass, Freya commented that it felt like she was “paddling in chewing gum”, compared to her Epic.
Another reason to care about Freya's Australia expedition is that it simply pushes the limits of what is possible for any human being. The trip is expected to take an entire year. She has to deal with sharks, poisonous sea snakes and vast stretches of cliffs with no beaches for landing. Crossing the crocodile−infested Gulf of Carpentaria alone will take 7 days. So how does one sleep at night during that crossing? There were so many questions I should have asked her, but I guess I was still trying to wrap my brain around it all.
The biggest question of all that I neglected to ask was, “Why?” Why risk everything? For adventure? To promote a kayak? Because after circumnavigating Iceland, Newfoundland, and the south island of New Zealand, no other challenges remain? Because a person who has jumped out of a plane over 1000 times (500 with her infant son strapped to her chest) lives on adrenaline and will simply shrivel up and die without it? The reasons she has given don’t satisfy me and I’m left wondering what inner demons she is possibly chasing or running from.
I just got back from a couple days paddling in the San Juans. I ripped the neck gasket in my drysuit and my Optimus stove stopped working, but I fixed the hatch leak in my baidarka and it has been feeling very smooth lately. I am totally convinced that round hulls are the best --excellent handling in rough water, and fast in flat water. More later. Until then Happy Thanksgiving!
I slept in and missed the morning pool session so at the last minute I decided I would go to Deception Pass. It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day and there were more kayakers playing there than I have ever seen (the picture below only shows a small part of the crowd). Most of the people were there with local kayaking clubs, not classes, so the skill level was high all around.
When Dubside was editing his movies he made a rule that he would only use his computer on odd days. Video editing is very labor intensive. He recognized from the day he let his Macintosh into his apartment, the monster of high technology would insidiously work its tentacles around every part of his life if left to wander around unrestrained.
The implementation of every new technology follows predictable phases. In the first phase it is a novelty, a shiny new toy that leaves you thinking, "This is really cool! But do I really have a use for it?” In the second phase you realize the full potential of this new tool, which eventually results in incredible savings in time and labor, and allows for a flowering of creative expression not possible before. It's nothing short of revolutionary. In the third phase it turns you into its slave. You can tell when you've reached this phase by the excessive amounts of time and effort you spend maintaining, upgrading, and feeding the system. The inevitable system crashes leave you bewildered, sitting in the dark. These moments force you to ponder: “What will we do without it? What did we ever do without it?” With prolonged deprivation, you might become intensely bored, moody, irritable and start trembling like a junkie in withdrawal.
This describes the experience I went through with my new iPhone, which I am using to write this today. I passed from Phase One to Phase Two within a couple days. Now I can post to my Facebook while sitting on the toilet -- and can't imagine what I used to do before that! I'd be lost without my iPhone, having become so dependent on it to organize my entire life, keep me connected, informed and entertained. I expect that in the future it will be indispensable in navigating through the inevitable age−related cognitive decline.
Dubside knows of the power and dangers of new technology. He is a true Luddite. His refusal to own or drive a car is well known. It's probably not surprising then that it took a great deal of effort to get him to use a cell phone for the first time. At first he insisted that someone else hold the phone, and he would speak to the other party through the person holding the phone. As far as I know he still doesn't surf the Web or use email. I am pretty sure that he will never read this post or any of the other things I've written about him unless someone prints it out on paper and hands it to him. But his mistrust of technology didn’t stop him from using a video camera and Final Cut Pro to communicate and popularize Greenland style kayaking. In the end he had the strength to turn it off and walk away, having declared victory in accomplishing what he and Tom Sharp had set out to do -- documenting on video Greenland traditions in three movies: Qajaasaarneq, Greenland Rolling with Dubside, and Modern Greenland Kayaking.
Recently I subjected my family and myself to an experiment. For one day a week we would not use the computer: no electronic games, no Internet, no email. We got bored quickly on those days and discovered that there were several hours in the day that cried out to be filled with something. You can only play board games by candlelight for so long. Unfortunately, everyone filled the time watching TV or taking naps late in the day. After a few “no computer days” my son declared that the whole experiment was pointless and started immediately playing World of Warcraft again with the awesome new Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack. Total failure.
It’s time to face the fact there is no simply no turning back time and going back to playing board games by candlelight, unless you want to live your life like Ted Kaczynski, or unless civilization as we know it collapses. Those of us who can't walk away might as well embrace this technology fully, completely, and unapologetically. We will remain slaves to the machine, but hopefully not without occasionally reaping some benefit from these enormously powerful tools. Someday maybe emancipation will come, when the Internet reaches the fourth and final phase: obsolescence. Then a newer, shiner toy we can scarcely imagine today will have emerged, perhaps setting us free once more before luring us into its own trap.
I finally met Justine Curvengen and bought an autographed copy of This is the Sea 4 from her! At $27 it was an awesome deal. Plus the pizza and beer at the premiere was free, so it was an all around great experience. Also spotted at the event: Leon Somme and Shawna Franklin, George Gronseth, and Nigel Foster.
My friend Richard Lovering got into a nice long chat with famous kayak designer Nigel Foster (without knowing who he was) and proceeded to tell him all about the kayak he was designing.
I tried to tell him: "You know, Nigel has also designed a few kayaks himself." But he didn't get the hint and kept right on talking.
Afterwards I filled him in on who he had been talking to.
"Oh, you mean he was that Nigel!" Boy did he feel stupid!
Here are some pics of the frame after I took the skin off my Greenland kayak, based on fig. 208 of Adney and Chapelle's book The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. I took a block plane and shaved off any residual polyurethane where the skin adhered to the gunwales and chine stringers.
Pulling the skin off took some big chunks off the keelson, so I ended up completely replacing the keelson. First I cut all the lashings which held the keelson to the ribs. Then I cut the keelson off the stems by sawing the pegs in the joint between the keelson and the stems.
I happened to have a piece of cedar ready that was the perfect dimensions for a new keelson. It was left over from the build two years ago and I had been using it as a batten for lofting my sailboat. I attached the new keelson by extending the notch in the bow and stern stems and pegging it in place. But it wasn't as simple as all that: the old keelson was unfair and had quite a few unsightly humps and valleys, so I spent a lot of time fairing the new keelson with fairing blocks (between 1/8th and 1/4 inch deep) placed between the new keelson and ribs. The old keelson also was crooked near the stern, which explained the tendency for the boat to pull to the left.
On the deck I moved the forward deck stringers closer together medially. This way my knees would hit the underside of the deck skin lateral to the deck stringers. Previously my knees would hit the stringers themselves which was a little uncomfortable. During rolling my knees sometimes would slide off the stringers, but now the stringers would help keep my knees from sliding.
In the cockpit I lashed in a couple floorboards. The idea here is to keep my butt from making a big lump in the skin which might slow the boat down. I'll be sitting on a doubled-over foam pad. If the floorboard turns out to be too uncomfortable I can always cut it out.
Another modification I did was to bring the forward ends of the chine stringers up about an inch to give the bow a finer entry. It will be interesting to see if this affects the performance in any perceptible way.
Lastly I brushed the frame with a couple generous coats of tung oil. I was happy with the choice of tung oil because it's thin and penetrates like water but hardens to a dry finish -- much better than the linseed oil I've used on previous kayaks, which is known to promote mildew growth anyway.