Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium: I Survived The 2010 Tsunami!


Since the tragic earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami has been big news, I thought it would be a good time to tell the story of the tsunami warning we had for the West Coast during the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium last year. A magnitude 8.8 earthquake lasting up to three minutes struck the coast of Chile on February 27, 2010. It ranked as the sixth largest earthquake ever to be recorded by a seismograph.

The tsunami had been predicted to hit the Bay Area around 1PM. Our group which was taking the BCU 4 star leadership class with Gordon Brown had gotten off the water for lunch at Horseshoe Cove at 12:30. The situation happened to make for a good decision-making exercise. We stood around in our drysuits on the small beach under the pier, arguing about what we should do. A wave of 1 meter or less was predicted out in the ocean, but no one knew what it would be like in the Bay. The Coast Guard hadn't issued any warnings to evacuate, but we noticed that they had moved all of their boats out of the station to deeper water. And all the other kayakers seemed to be going about their business and classes continued as usual. Why did it seem like we were we the only ones worried? One woman in our group had been monitoring Channel 16 on her VHF all morning and seemed especially concerned. She thought we should pack everything up, get in our cars, and run for higher ground. Who knew how big this was going to be?! I don't remember if it was her or someone else, but someone there personally knew someone else who had witnessed the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Mr. Brown and our other instructor, Tom Bergh, said that they thought that the safest place was out in the water. Although that may have been true, I couldn't help think that there was a little bravado in that statement, like, "Yeah our skills are so rad, dude, that we can just sit out there waiting for that big wave, and when it comes, man, we will all have one awesome ride! " Mr. Brown did admit that, no, he actually did not have any experience paddling in tsunamis.

I thought to myself, If you guys really thought that it was safer out in the water, then why did you lead us back to the beach?

People kept talking and this went on and on as time was running out. We needed to decide. Soon. Finally I made a motion to take the kayaks up to the parking lot which was about 10 feet above the water and have lunch, and suggested we vote on it. We had less than 10 minutes left to do this. I didn't really care if my own kayak got washed away since it was a rental.

Later, as we ate lunch from our drybags, sitting on the sunny strip of soft green grass high above the water, 1PM came and went uneventfully, and all you could hear was the sound of water gently lapping against the shore, mixed with the echoes of children playing in the distance. Later we heard reports that a group paddling around Angel Island experienced 8 ft swells about that time, which may or may not have been related to the tsunami.

If there is a lesson to learned from that experience I think it has something to do with the synergistic power of paranoia. With very little information and a lot of unknowns, a small group of scared people can really work themselves up into a frenzy thinking about every awful thing that could possibly happen.

By the way, here is some video of yesterday's (3-11-2011) tsunami as it hit Sausalito. I am impressed by how much power a wave even a few inches high has because of the huge mass of water behind it.

The Golden Gate Kayak Symposium: Gordon Brown


I've attended the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium for a couple years in a row now and have to say that both times have been wonderful experiences. It's probably the best sea kayak symposium on the West Coast, possibly in North America, maybe even in the world! It's the combination of world class coaches, challenging paddling environment, and stunning beauty of the California Coast and Golden Gate Bridge that make it for me, in addition to running into a lot of people I already know from the Pacific Northwest. Sorry if I'm boring you by gushing about how totally awesome it was this year, all the cool adventurous and inspiring people I met, and all the rad parties we had. If you are feeling a little bad because I'm telling you that you really missed out (and boy, you really should have been there) well, I guess you better try to make it next time!

I'm actually a little doubtful that I'll go back again since it gets a little pricey to fly down from Seattle. It's not just the cost of the flight: there is also of course the rental car, symposium registration fee, lodging, and kayak/gear rental. Last year I brought a Greenland paddle with me, which, even as a two piece, was too long to carry-on, so I had to pay $45 to put it in checked luggage. One little secret I didn't know until later was that you can call a kayak dealer who you know will be at the symposium and arrange to "demo" a kayak for nothing instead of paying to rent one from an outfitter. Sterling Donalson of Sterling Kayaks was there this year offering me one of his beautiful Illusions for instance, but since I was taking the rock garden class, I declined. I needed something made out of rotomolded plastic I could smash up on the rocks.


In GGSKS 2010 I spent two days taking the BCU new 4 star training class with the world renowned Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures. People come from all over the world to take classes from Mr. Brown on the Isle of Skye, and came from all over to see him in San Francisco. In our group were paddlers from Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and even one guy who flew all the way from an island in Sicily.

Mr. Brown literally wrote the book on sea kayaking. He authored the chapter on sea kayaking in the BCU Handbook, and also published a beautiful little book titled Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers. More recently he has produced an instructional DVD. I own a copy of the DVD, and the book sits on my coffee table to impress guests, but I confess I never actually have watched the DVD or read the book. Why should I? I had been there, taking classes from the Gordon Brown in person!

Actually, the number of things I learned in that class I could probably count on one hand. To be fair, it wasn't a skills class, but a leadership class. So we spent a lot of time talking about being a leader and a decider. It wasn't the kind of class you should have taken if you wanted to work on surf launchings and landings or determining a running fix, for instance. It was assumed you already knew all that. For instance, Mr. Brown had us observe paddlers getting ready on the beach for about an hour and just talk about what we saw -- how people handled themselves and their gear, what people were doing that we thought was wrong or dangerous. Already I was developing a critical eye for minutiae, and was ready to tell anybody just how wrong they were -- a coach in the making! I imagine that all that sitting around talking probably bored the poor Sicilian out of his mind, since his English wasn't very good. He was probably thinking, when the hell are we going kayaking already?

Another interesting exercise Mr. Brown had us do was to split up into pairs and have one person act as a leader and direct the other paddler around a sea stack by yelling directions at them while they had their eyes closed. "Go left!" my partner would say as I blindly and anxiously paddled, trying to orient myself by the warmth of the sun on my face. I obediently turned left. Then he said, "Go right! Go right some more! Now HARD RIGHT!" I lurched forward as my kayak jerked to a sudden stop. My bow crunched into the side of the rock, leaving a dusting of white gelcoat behind. That was only one of two times I opened my eyes. The other time was when a big wave came surging in and someone yelled, "INCOMING!" After taking turns going around that sea stack a few times, we practiced the exercise again going past the point in the chaotic, churning seas under the Bridge.

Mr. Brown said that the whole purpose of the exercise was to get you in tune with your anxiety level, which we were asked to rate on a 0-5 scale, with 0 the equivalent of lying half naked on a warm beach with a tropical drink in your hand, and 5 the equivalent of staring into the lights of a semi truck that is about to run you over. Were you more anxious as the leader or as the blind follower? The idea was that as the leader you were probably more anxious than as the follower, but you were anxious for the person you were leading and tended to forget concerns about your own safety. As the follower, we learned that by practicing things with your eyes closed, they will seem a lot easier when you do them with your eyes open.

Later we were presented with a problem to think about. Suppose you are leading a small group of paddlers with varying levels of experience and need to bring them around a headland. There is a strong current around the headland and you can't see around to the other side. How would you do it? Would you lead people one at a time or as a group? How would you position yourself? We came up with a number of ideas and in the end, Mr. Brown, demonstrating that he was not a dogmatic kind of man, said, "There are no right answers." The point was that you just need to think about it. I couldn't help thinking to myself, with all your sea kayaking expertise and experience, can't you just tell us how you would do it?

It is true that Mr. Brown is quite soft spoken and not dogmatic at all. This in contrast to the reputation he developed years ago among the traditional paddling Greenland cult, when someone posted a particularly incendiary excerpt from his book Sea Kayak and set off a firestorm of controversy. I won't repeat Mr. Brown's offensive comments here. Doing so would just reopen a lot of old wounds and probably destroy the delicate truce that we have all enjoyed these past few years. Not a good idea. If you really must know what he wrote you can always buy a copy of his book.

I am willing to admit that attitudes have changed since then. But a few traditional paddlers are still a little sensitive about the mistreatment and insults (actual or perceived) that they have suffered at the hands of the BCU crowd. You know how persistently people hold grudges. Personally, I haven't experienced any of that, but I've heard some outrageous stories. I should note that not once did Mr. Brown make a comment about my "wooden lollistick" or look at me funny. On the other hand, one of the students said to me, "I see you have a Greenland paddle, but where is your Greenland boat?" Another one said, "Back when I first started paddling I used to use a Greenland paddle", as if to say, "... but then I grew up and learned to use a feathered bent-shaft Werner".

OK, honestly, the whole reason I went through all the trouble to bring a wooden Greenland paddle in my checked luggage to one of Mr. Brown's BCU classes was to see for myself if it would really elicit any snide comments like those.