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February 2009
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Ocean Surf Class with Kayak Academy: Part I

David Desertspring and George Gronseth at Pacific Beach.
David Desertspring and George Gronseth at Pacific Beach.

It had been quite a while since I played in the surf zone. Even though my previous experience in the surf was not that bad (I never had to wet exit), I am still haunted by memories of the first time I got pummeled by the waves at Neah Bay. I vividly remember the anxiety in those moments bobbing up and down in the swell outside of the surf zone, waiting for my turn to paddle back between the waves, attempting to make it to shore without getting totally thrashed. Somehow my timing was always off and before I knew it a big wave would pick me up, turn me sideways and throw me toward shore in a big pile of foam.

Well, I figured it was time to confront those fears again, so I signed up for a weekend ocean surf class with George Gronseth’s Kayak Academy. One of the best features about Kayak Academy classes is their small size. There were only two other students in our group and both had taken the same class before in the summer.

 

Heading out into the waves.
Heading out into the waves.
George Gronseth holds his classes at Pacific Beach. The gentle slope of this beach consistently produces friendly−sized waves close to shore no matter how big the ocean swell may be. Huge waves could be breaking a mile away from shore. They reform, break and reform again, producing smaller, manageable waves closer to shore.
 
George has you follow a progression to get the feel for handling a kayak in the surf. The first thing he wants you to do is swim and body surf with a paddle, PFD and helmet on. It gives you a good sense of the power of the waves and gets you used to the cold water -- important because you'’ll probably spend some time swimming, especially if your roll isn’t bomb proof. It’s hard work and you quickly realize how difficult it would be to swim any meaningful distance in those conditions.

 

Sit-on-top surf kayak. It has thigh straps but I couldn't stay in long enough to roll after a capsize.
Sit-on-top surf kayak. It has thigh straps but I couldn't stay in long enough to roll after a capsize.
The surf goes way out there.
The surf goes way out there.
 
Next he has you paddle a self−draining sit−on−top surf kayak. I tried a couple different sit−on−tops, a Wilderness Systems Kaos and a wider one. Both were equipped with thigh straps that gave you the ability to edge the kayak or even roll it. Whenever I capsized in them though I fell out immediately so I never rolled either one. It was easy enough to jump back on it and get surfing again anyway.
 
Once you become comfortable with the sit−on−tops you progress to a whitewater river kayak. The kayak I was in didn’t handle in the waves as well as the Wilderness Systems Koas did. It would catch a wave but I found it harder to keep it from spining around once it got to the bottom. 
 
By the end of the day I was sitting in a sea kayak. Of course you can’t expect a sea kayak to handle as well as the smaller boats in the surf. It's much more difficult to turn that thing around for one thing, especially when the waves were close together. My goal was to practice going out and back through the surf under control, timing my advance to avoid waves breaking on top of me, or getting surfed back in. At Pacific Beach there was actually no getting completely out of the surf zone for me. I only went out as far as I was comfortable before turning around.
 
Occasionally I would spot George out playing on the bigger waves. He shared with us some impressive stories about paddling in really big surf during the La Push Pummel one year. The waves were 25 ft high and he was one of only two kayakers who showed up for the event. He needed to paddle a mile out to get beyond the surf and would sit and wait in the huge swell until smaller sets would come in. Not only were these waves high but they had a lot of “back”, meaning they were very thick and carried a tremendous amount of power. Just imagine trying to paddle out against that, trying to avoid having a thousand of pounds of water crash down on you, knock the wind out of you, and surf you backwards and upside down at 20 mph.

 

The famous Aloha Tavern.
The famous Aloha Tavern.
We ended the day at the famous Aloha Tavern, a Pacific Beach landmark that dates back to the 1920s. I’m guessing it was started by some surfer, thus the name. This place is the real thing: friendly locals, dogs sleeping on the floor, pool tables, rustic tables made from slabs of fir, Christmas lights year-round, and posters of bikini−clad girls all over the ceiling. They serve beer in Mason jars. Honestly, I didn’t think places like this existed anymore. I assumed that the entire country had been Starbuckified by now. As I tried to sneak a picture of the painting of "The Clam Digger's Sweetheart" over the bar one of the locals asked me, “Hey, is that one of them new iPhones?” Not a place where I would normally hang out (latte−sipping, Prius−driving suburbanite that I am). After a Bud Lite though I felt right at home.

 

The Aloha Tavern. Painting on the left: "The Clam Digger's Sweetheart".
The Aloha Tavern. Painting on the left: "The Clam Digger's Sweetheart".

Shaw Island Sea Kayak Circumnavigation

 

The actual GPS route for my clockwise Shaw Island circumnavigation.
The actual GPS route for my clockwise Shaw Island circumnavigation.

All over Friday Harbor now there is a 2 hour limit on street parking. I wanted to launch from the marina and paddle around Shaw Island so I ended up paying $4 for a day parking pass in the marina lot plus $5 for a kayak launch fee. Seems a little annoying to pay just to drop your boat in the water. If it’s quiet and you’re inconspicuous you could probably sneak into the water using the nearby fuel dock for free, which I’ve done before but only out of ignorance.

Kayak dock at Friday Harbor Marina.
Kayak dock at Friday Harbor Marina.

The kayak launch dock has a couple small slips which make it easy to get in and out of your kayak, but in order to get there you have you carry it down a ramp and around a couple tight corners, which could be a challenge to do alone unless you have wheels or a lightweight boat. Another thing I don’t like about the kayak slips is that they have big metal dock cleats around the edges which tend to be an obstruction and threaten to put a ding in your boat when you are lifting it in and out of the slip. Who uses cleats anyway? Kayaks don’t come with docklines!

Selfie, somewhere north of Shaw Island.
Somewhere north of Shaw Island.

I planned to paddle around Shaw Island clockwise and timed my launch to take advantage of a weak flood current in San Juan Channel. Like the morning before, the wind was blowing from the southeast, which gave me a little boost. By the time I reached Wasp Passage at the northwest corner of Shaw it was slack in the channel. It was a pleasant paddle along the northern shore of Shaw now that I was sheltered from the wind. The forecast predicted lighter winds later in the day. Occasionally I could feel it still blowing, like when I crossed over to Blind Island for lunch.

Ferry in Wasp Passage.
Ferry in Wasp Passage.
Blind Island beach, Orcas Island ferry terminal in the background.
Blind Island beach, Orcas Island ferry terminal in the background.
Rocky cliffs on the northeast shore of Shaw Island.
Rocky cliffs on the northeast shore of Shaw Island.

The northeast shore of Shaw Island is very scenic −− rocky and undeveloped. When I started heading south again the ebb was beginning in Upright Channel. I took a break at a gently sloping sandy beach called Indian Cove. I wanted to take a peek at the campsites there in case I wanted to stay there in the future. By the time I started crossing over to Friday Harbor the ebb in San Juan Channel was probably at its max so it took a little bit more effort. Not too exciting, but overall a good day's paddle.

Sandy beach at Indian Cove, south shore of Shaw Island.
Sandy beach at Indian Cove, south shore of Shaw Island.

Sea Kayaking From Roche Harbor to Stuart Island

Actual route from my GPS, departure in red, return trip in green.
Actual route from my GPS, departure in red, return trip in green.

I had planned on circumnavigating Stuart Island but ultimately decided against it because a strong wind started blowing from the south east in the morning.  While crossing Spieden Channel from Roche Harbor steep waves hit me at my aft quarter. These waves would have been pounding the exposed southern shore of Stuart and reflecting off the cliffs. The wind would have been opposing an ebb current which would have made for tricky conditions around the Turn Point lightstation, the halfway point of the circumnavigation. So instead I paddled in the lee of the islands as much as I could  -- along the northern side of Spieden, behind Johns Island and finally up into protected Prevost Harbor (the red path above)

In the summer Prevost Harbor is typically filled with yachts.  I found only one lonely ketch moored by the dock.

While stopping for lunch I thought I might make a fire and warm up, since the last person at the campsite left a bundle of firewood by the fire ring.  Instead I boiled some water on my stove, poured it back into my water bottle and stuck it inside my coat.  Ahhhh.  It's a quicker and much more efficient way of warming yourself than building a fire. I should try it with a large rubber hot water bottle next time. 

Prevost Harbor.
Prevost Harbor.
Sandstone formations characteristic of the northern outer San Juan Islands.
Sandstone formations characteristic of the northern outer San Juan Islands.
Mysterious longhouse
Mysterious longhouse

Roche Harbor in Winter

The Company Store, Roche Harbor Marina
The Company Store, Roche Harbor Marina
The entire time I was in the San Juans last week I didn't see another kayaker on the water  -- not one! The only other kayaker I saw at all was Matt from Body Boat Blade. He walked up to my car while I was waiting to get on the ferry to Friday Harbor. I had run into him a few days earlier at the Room of Doom in Deception Pass. He had been doing some kayak surfing at Neah Bay for a past few days and was on his way home.  

Friday Harbor seemed dead. A number of restaurants were closed for the season or renovation, including Front Street Cafe, which is known for their espresso and for having a part in the movie Free Willy 2. I was hoping to grab some breakfast there.  

The weather was not pleasant most of the time: temps in the 40s, overcast with a few showers, and winds 15-20 knots in the morning then easing in the afternoon. And except for a couple seals I saw very little wildlife. 

Originally I had planned to do some camping but fortunately I found an awesome deal on rooms at Roche Harbor: $49/night for the entire month of March! This was for a deluxe suite too -- the ones with two flat panel TVs (alas, no WiFi). Plus they gave me a $75 voucher for the Afterglow Spa or McMillin's Dining Room for booking three nights. The economy is so bad they are practically giving rooms away!  

I was hoping to use that voucher for their Detox Treatment: 

...begins with a detoxifying algae and seaweed bath, followed by a full body wrap using live spirulina algae to nourish the skin and reduce the appearance of cellulite.  An application of marine firming body cremé completes the experience.


Unfortunately I was always getting back from my own all-day "marine body firming experience" too late to take advantage of that.  

Suite at Roche Harbor.
Suite at Roche Harbor.
Suite at Roche Harbor.
Suite at Roche Harbor.

Sea Kayaking Around Burrows Island

I spent the last few days of winter paddling in the San Juans. These pictures are from trip from Washington Park in Anacortes around Burrows Island. It's a trip I usually take when I miss the ferry to Friday Harbor, which I did that day. Burrows Island has a beautiful, rocky undeveloped shoreline teeming with underwater life.

As you can see I'm paddling my Epic. I've been using an Epic small-mid wing paddle but keep my Greenland paddle on the deck as a spare.  I know it's a strange mix of styles but the Greenland paddle fits neatly on the deck. It's also serves as a bit of a psychological crutch even though I've re-learned how to roll with a feathered "spoon blade."

 

Cliffs just south of Green Point at Washington Park in Anacortes
Cliffs just south of Green Point at Washington Park in Anacortes
View of Burrows Island from Burrows Passage.
View of Burrows Island from Burrows Passage.
Burrows Island
Burrows Island
Burrows Island Light Station.
Burrows Island Light Station.
My Epic 18X Ultra
My Epic 18X Ultra
Cliffs below the Burrows Island Light station
Cliffs below the Burrows Island Light station

Sea Kayaking in Deception Pass: The Room of Doom

Sea Kayaking in Deception Pass: The Room of Doom from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

I played at the infamous "Room of Doom" at Deception Pass the other day for the first time! The "Room" is an area just east of the bridge on the Whidbey Island side of the Pass where the water boils up and forms large whirlpools during a flood current. Yes, this is where the big boys (and girls) play! I brought my Greenland boat at slack and waited for the current to build. Quite a few other kayakers showed up as well.

At first I thought the idea was to paddle through the boils right next to the cliff and peel out into the current. Later I realized that you want to let the huge whirlpools that form between the main current and boils suck you in and see if you can stay upright and escape them. Have you heard those horror stories of paddlers coming out of their boats and getting sucked in up to their necks in the whirlpools? This is where it happens!

Warren Williamson told me that over the years he would go to the Room of Doom on big flood and challenge those whirlpools to hold him down so he couldn’t roll up. This is where he developed the technique of not trying to roll all the way up, but just get to a sculling brace. In a big whirlpool it can be impossible to recover with a complete roll, but one can usually get to a sculling brace. He said that there have been many times when he was stuck upside down in a really big whirlpool and he would get to a brace to catch a breath, lying on his back and looking up at the sky. He could feel the whirlpool grow stronger, as if to say, “I’ll get you yet, you little f**ker"!”

Warren has requested that after he dies his body be cremated and ashes put in a little container, and that his friends take him to the Room of Doom on a really big flood and throw him into the biggest whirlpool. Maybe then if you listen carefully you'll hear the whirlpools say, “At last, we got that little f**ker!”

I sat out the strongest part of the flood to shoot this video. The soundtrack is the Gothic Blues song "Room of Doom".


Reskinning My East Greenland Replica Kayak

East Greenland replica kayak, at Dash Point beach.
East Greenland replica kayak, at Dash Point beach.
 
Here are some new pictures of my East Greenland replica kayak, built from Howard Chapelle's 1948 Greenland kayak survey published in Adney and Chapelle's book The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America (figure 208).  She has a new nylon skin!
 
I cut the old skin off in October because it was peeling and I wanted to make some small adjustments to the frame.  After repairing the frame I let it dry out for a while and eventually got around to putting a new skin on, but then left it unfinished for several weeks over the holidays.  I never did get up enough enthusiasm to finish the project.  Luckily, Ricardo had been skinning a kayak at Bates Boatbuilding and offered to finish the project for me.  So I brought my kayak and skin kit over to their shop and he and one of the students finished the stitching, dyed the skin and sealed it with Corey Freedman's famous two-part polyurethane Goop.  And it didn't cost me a thing!  (Although to show my appreciation for all of their hard work I bought a copy of Woodstrip Rowing Craft for the Bate's Boatbuilding program's library).
 
She seems faster now. Maybe it's because she's lighter since the frame is dry and no longer waterlogged. I think taking off the protective rubstrips helped a lot.
 
This time I wanted the seam in the center of the deck instead of having it wander around randomly. The skin turned out a little more wrinkled on the deck than it did the first time although it doesn't make a difference in performance.  I added a couple thin, flexible cedar floorboards to replace the foam pad I was using as a seat. They are actually quite comfortable. I think it's a big improvement in the seat since the foam pad took up a lot more room and prevented water from draining out. 
 
The dye is Jacquard Acid Dye, 1/2 ochre, 1/2 brown and a pinch of amber.  You never know what you are going to get with this dye but the color came out exactly what I wanted, which was more of a rawhide look, translucent enough so that more of the frame shows.
 
Now that I know how much work goes into to reskinning a kayak, I'm going to take much better care of this new skin!
 
Glossy new skin, with middle seam on the deck.
Glossy new skin, with middle seam on the deck.
I replaced the foam seat with thin wooden floorboards.
I replaced the foam seat with thin wooden floorboards.