— Brinestorm

Guest contributor Krista Fechner races through a rapid in a sea kayak during the 2014 Cal100 adventure race.

Guest contributor Krista Fechner races through a rapid in a sea kayak during the 2014 Cal 100 adventure race. Photo by Tom Gomes.

[Editor’s Note: This is the first guest post on Brinestorm.com, by my significant other, Krista Fechner. She did an amazing job slamming a sea kayak down a river for 100 miles in 100 degree heat in a one-day adventure race on the US’s West Coast. Take it away, Krista!]

Last year, the folks behind Rivers for Change organized the California 100, a 100-mile adventure race down the Sacramento River in California, from Redding to Chico. Several members of our kayaking club (BASK) did the race and had a great time, so this year, I decided to give it a shot, even though it would mean getting up before dawn for a 6 am start and possibly finishing well after dark. I had only kayaked on whitewater twice. This race would be far different, though: I’d be using a full-size sea kayak. Other competitors would be using racing canoes, outriggers, ultra-fast surf skis, stand-up paddle boards, and of course, kayaks.

Course map showing checkpoints in purple

Course map showing checkpoints in purple

Training…and Injuries

To prepare for the race, I signed up for a forward stroke clinic with racing-trainer extraordinaire Susan Starbird and started planning gear, GPS waypoints, and food. In mid-March, Nathan and I headed up to Redding to do a race prep clinic—the first six miles of the river, covered twice. At low flow levels of 4,000 CFS (cubic feet/second) due to the ongoing drought, the rapids were easy for us.

Krista and Just Kayak More president, Jason Montelongo, confer on the right line to take during a training session. Photo by Tom Gomes.

Krista and Just Kayak More president/Sac River ninja, Jason Montelongo, confer on the right line to take during a training run. Photo by Tom Gomes.

In mid-April, I hit a snag in my training. Upon recovering from a cold, I went out for a jog and stumbled off a high curb, spraining my right foot (or so I thought). Four days later, we had our second race prep session in Redding. Our goal was to cover the first 50 miles of the river. Flows were identical to March, so I wasn’t worried about the rapids. I was trying a new hydration system (consisting of an MSR dromedary bag on my back deck) and new clothing. The first five miles did not go well for me; I capsized twice due to the shifting weight of the water in the dromedary and had to be rescued by my companions. My clothing was insufficient for the water temperature and I became slightly hypothermic. Fortunately, I was able to re-align my water bag, keep paddling, warm back up, and complete the rest of the day without further mishaps. We only covered 40 miles because the group was slowed down by strong headwinds. For several days, I thought my foot would fully recover, but instead I found out that I’d actually fractured my 5th metatarsal. It was into an orthopedic boot for me, and no more paddling for many weeks!

First place women's kayak finisher Priscilla McKinney asks: "What's this all a-boot?"

Krista and 1st place women’s kayak finisher Priscilla McKenney. Photo by Kristen Podolak.

Second Thoughts and Sanity Checks

At this point, I had no idea whether I’d be able to do the race, but I decided to prepare anyway as if I were going to. Thankfully, I was not in a cast, so I could swim for exercise, but all I could do was pulling, no kicking. I started piling on the laps, working up to doing a mile in 30 minutes as well as swimming for an hour without stopping. I was also able to do some kayak rowing machine workouts and weight lifting at home. I glued rings into my kayak’s day hatch to better secure my water supply much lower in the boat, and drilled a hole in the back deck so I could run a water tube out of it. A couple days before the race, I had another x-ray. The doctor said the healing was on track, but that I’d have to stay in the boot for another month. He gave me permission to kayak using an orthopedic shoe. I did not ask him whether paddling 100 miles was medically advisable, because it’s pretty obvious what the answer to that question is. I made the decision to do the race anyway, rigging up a foot splint (consisting of the orthopedic shoe, an ankle brace, part of a SAM splint, and an ace bandage), and using my right foot as little as possible.

The Race

The day of the race, flows on the Sacramento were 8,000 CFS, so the river would be faster than I’d practiced on, but slower than in last year’s race. Here are some notes on my race experience, broken down into the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the absolutely Wonderful. I’ll start with the Wonderful stuff first:

The Wonderful

  • I could not have done any of this without Nathan’s incredible support, which started before we even got on the road…we went out to put the kayak on the car, and my left front tire was flat! We were up against the clock to get to Redding for race registration, so Nathan whipped out this tire repair kit with a bottle of slime and a compressor that plugs into the car’s 12V receptacle. Talk about being prepared! That did the job, and totally held for the entire trip, even in the scorching Central Valley heat. He also got me to the 6 am race start on time (not as easy as it sounds), and helped me immeasurably at every checkpoint, driving to each spot, restocking my water, helping me change clothes, re-taping my hands, and applying sunscreen.
  • The volunteers at all the checkpoints were so supportive, cheering us on, braving the 100-degree heat, and helping all racers complete their portions of the race safely.
  • Little kids playing in the water gave me high-fives as I pulled into checkpoint 3. So cute!
  • This was a fantastically well-organized event. Major props go to John Dye and Danielle Katz of Rivers for Change, as well as Race Director Matt Palmariello and all of the folks who hosted introductory clinics!
  • Jason and Kasumi Montelongo shared their incredible knowledge of the Sacramento river and answered my numerous questions about the race and course.
  • Although I didn’t get to complete all of Susan Starbird’s forward stroke training sessions due to my injury, I know that what I’d managed to learn from her and Misha Riszkiewicz was what helped me take second place in my category despite being a gimp! I still have so much to work on…
  • Dave the shuttle guy held my hand to help me walk uphill on the dirt path to the parking lot after the race. It was pretty obvious that even with my boot back on, I was not in any shape to make it there on my own, while Nathan and Johnny Werbe schlepped my kayak (thanks, Johnny!)
  • The food at the after-party…WOW! How they managed a spread that scrumptious on top of such a complex racing event is truly amazing. Turns out fellow BASKer Daphne Hougard takes most of the credit! Acknowledgements of paddlers who stopped to assist others were awesome too.
Food strategy played a big part of Krista's success and morale during the long paddle.

Food strategy (and some hacked re-packaging)  played a big part of Krista’s success and morale during the long paddle.

The Good

  • For racing, I prefer real food and plain water to commercial energy products. Crushed-up sweet potato/carrot chips, spiced cashews, turkey jerky, banana chips, tangerine sections, and chocolate milk hit the spot. Homemade rice krispy treats made with hemp seed and brown rice syrup instead of marshmallows kept me fully fueled.
  • My food containers worked well for eating on the river. I used plastic spice jars with flip-lids, the perforated dispenser tops hacked open with flat-edged nail clippers; these allowed me to get a good mouthful using only one hand.
  • My hydration system, with all the kinks worked out from my practice run, was awesome. It was so nice to have water below deck rather than having to carry it on my back for that distance. I drank at least seven liters during the race.
  • I’d heard from last year’s participants that the last 50 miles of the race could be psychologically grueling because there are so few landmarks like bridges and rapids. I solved this problem for myself by setting dozens of waypoints on my GPS for side channels to avoid, feeder streams, and bends in the river. Whenever I checked my GPS, it was never more than a mile or two to the next waypoint. I always knew exactly where I was, and this kept me really motivated and less anxious about encountering 60 miles of unfamiliar river.
  • My kayak felt comfy for the entire race, although I’d been worried about problems with leg cramping, considering that I’d been getting very little leg-based exercise lately.
  • My aerobic training worked well. There’s no way I could have pulled off that distance without it.
  • A small sponge was perfect for dipping in the cold river and squeezing over my ventilated helmet or visor.
  • A liberal slathering of fragrance-free generic zinc oxide cream prevented chafing. I only had minor chafing in my armpits where I’d neglected to reapply it.
  • I used Leukotape (a type of runner’s tape) on my hands, ending up with NO blisters after 15 hours and 15 minutes of paddling!
Smooth sailing for long distances can turn into quite a mental challenge.

Smooth sailing for long distances can turn into quite a mental challenge. Photo by Lisa Thomas.

The Bad

  • Not being able to press hard with my right foot due to my fracture slowed me down and put extra strain on the right side of my upper body, but I knew this would happen and just dealt with it, pressing instead with my left foot and right knee.
  • I took a long time at the three mandatory checkpoints where we had to get out of our boats (I stopped for a total of 79 minutes!) But it was what I needed to do on such a hot day, in my condition.
  • There were long stretches of the race where there were no other paddlers in sight, which felt a tad uncomfortable at times. I’m used to social paddles! But I expected it to some degree, and didn’t let it bother me.
  • Paddling after dark on an unfamiliar river was scary. Well, this was an adventure race, so it came with the territory. Luckily that part of the river was flat and easy. If there were any hazards like submerged trees, I managed to avoid them. With a higher river flow and no broken bones, I’m sure I could have finished during daylight! I was fortunate, only having to spend 25 minutes in the dark…many folks finishing later were paddling in the dark for hours.

The Ugly

  • I had a brief bout of dizziness and nausea in the middle of the night after the race. I’m guessing it was due to dehydration exacerbated by exhaustion. I drank some water, fell back to sleep, and felt fine the next day.
Done. So very done.

Done. So very done.

Despite my injury, I managed to finish second among the women solo kayakers, no mean feat for someone with only one good foot! Would I do it again? Hell, yeah! But I’d love to be in a faster boat, or maybe part of a relay team, especially if I could convince some other kayaking gals to get in on this incredible event!

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Just because you might get an assisted rescue doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to be a comfortable, active participant in your own rescue!

Just because you might get an assisted rescue doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to be a comfortable, active participant in your own rescue!

No (hu)man is an island, so the saying goes, and so it goes with paddling: Solo kayaking is a pretty risky endeavor, so many paddlers go out in teams or groups. But even in a group, kayakers must learn to be reasonably self-sufficient in order to not just build trust and stay safe, but to have fun.

Self-sufficiency means being able to take care of yourself in the conditions you’re expecting. You’ll notice that this is all relative. This could mean knowing a paddle float re-entry or knowing 16 different kinds of rolls, depending on the kind of paddling you expect to do. Self-sufficiency breeds confidence in yourself and engenders trust in your fellow paddlers.

In the photo above, I am the one in need of rescue – that’s my hand and point of view from the water, as a swimmer. I ran a pourover and weighted my boat too far forward, landing nose first into a suckhole on the other side of the rock. (You do have perimeter deck lines on your kayak, right?) I blew several braces and rolls in active water in a rock garden (note to self, and readers: Sculling brace/roll probably would have worked great in that highly aerated water!), and I was assisted by two nearby friends. Had they not been there, though, I’d still have had a number of options. Swim with my boat tethered to me with a cowtail. Wrap my legs around my boat and swim with it to calmer waters. Wait until the hydraulics flushed me into an area with less surge and execute a cowboy scramble. Catch my breath and do a re-entry and roll. But, with two nearby paddling companions, we did a boring ol’ t-rescue. Because I knew I had other options, I was totally comfortable and not the least bit scared (and had the conditions been any bigger, I’d not have run that feature at all).

It’s All Relative

There is no one-size-fits-all Self Sufficient Kayaker merit badge. Self-sufficiency on a calm lake with no wind is different than self-sufficiency in coastal conditions with twelve-foot, 24-second swell and 30-knot winds. Both are equally valid, assuming your level of self-sufficiency is matched to the conditions that you find yourself in. (The subjective nature of risk is why I take care not to begrudge anyone their flat-water mellow paddles, nor dismiss stormy-weather paddling as reckless antics.)

I’d go so far as to argue that experience and judgement is more important than skill. Can’t execute a cowboy scramble rescue in active water? Then at least make sure you never get separated from your boat and paddle. Or, if help isn’t coming quickly, fall back to a paddle float rescue. When help does come, you can be an active participant in your recovery by following directions and communicating actively with your rescuer – heck, you can even tell your rescuer exactly what you want or need, if you choose to be recovered in a specific way. If you only know one or two rescue techniques, but you’ve practiced them enough to have them be second nature, then you’re probably better off than knowing a having been taught a dozen obscure rescue types that you never find the time practice. Remember, as stated in a previous article: You never rise to the occassion, you sink to the level of your training.

The key to all of this is effective self-assessment and risk assessment. This is a multi-faceted challenge: One must balance self-confidence with knowledge of one’s limits, fully consider worst-case scenarios without getting psyched out, and weigh the benefits of pushing your limits – which, of course, is how we all learn – while retaining a reasonable margin of safety. How this is done varies person to person, but the important thing is that it must happen. Risk blindness and overconfidence can put people’s lives in danger, not the least of which could be your own.

Self-Sufficiency and Group Paddling

But here’s the thing: If something really does go wrong and you’re paddling with a group, you’re not on your own, are you? Everyone will surely rally to help, right? That’s why we kayak in groups, after all. So how does self-sufficiency matter if most of us tend to paddle in mutually-supportive groups?

Imagine a scenario in which there are multiple capsizes in a short amount of time; this could be due to a sneaker wave, sudden winds, or a panicked swimmer. Alternatively, conditions could split up your group, creating individuals that are too far apart from each other to render assistance. These scenarios are all very real ones. The reality is that shit happens, and you may need to stabilize your situation before anyone can help you.

If you are self-sufficient and you’re not as bad off as others in the situation, executing your own recovery puts you back in the game and adds you to the resources your group has in an emergency. You can do whatever you are able, be it simply looking outside for more big waves or helping get people back in dry boats doing t-rescues. Either stabilize your own situation or that of someone else. Just don’t be a liability. (Heck, in BASK, we have an annual Rodeo in which a team-based “all-in” capsize scenario is a game, which is a great way to learn these lessons!)

Make Recoverable, Responsible Mistakes

We all need help from time to time, and no sensible kayaker can argue against that. Errors in judgement happen all the time; usually the cost of these errors is minor, but not always. The sea is a fickle mistress. Mistakes happen. However, it’s your responsibility to both assess the potential worst-case scenarios to any decision, and to reasonably be to able look after yourself and recover from casual mishaps for the given conditions you encounter. Learn from every mistake. Invest the time to post-mortem rescues, recoveries, and mishaps. Be open to well-intentioned critique without getting defensive. Over time you’ll make fewer mistakes, build trust with others, and most importantly, you will build trust with yourself.

Your fellow paddling partners are putting their trust in you: Don’t betray that trust. Otherwise you should hire a guide who is obligated to watch out for you regardless of your skill level.

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“Under pressure, you do not rise to the occasion; rather you sink to your level of training.”

This is apparently written on the wall of the Navy’s “Top Gun” jet fighter school in San Diego. During my ACA Instructor Development Workshop (IDW) in 2013, I found first-hand that this is true.

I was lucky enough to be trained by world-class instructor trainers Bryant Burkhardt and Sean Morley, through California Canoe and Kayak. It was a fantastic experience. But while running through on-the-water scenarios involving trip leadership, navigation, and rescues, all simultaneously, I had some mind-numblingly bad lapses in decision making. I got the left and right direction of drift confused while ranging during a crossing. I forgot to secure a deck hatch prior to launch. Heck, I stood in the soup zone during surf-zone drills with my drysuit’s relief zipper open. And those are just the ones I remember now.

Leadership and responsibility have myriad layers. One must lead by example, keep a group confident in your abilities as an instructor, be patient with slow learners, be patient with overly eager paddlers, watch for boat traffic, keep an eye on the group energy level, and convey information in a compelling and accurate way. All at the same time. All the while being of good humor. I was intellectually aware of all this going into the IDW, but not fully appreciative of the reality of trying to keep this all in mind.

So what happened? I was so distracted by all these new responsibilities and balancing acts that I forgot some of the fundamentals.

Some things that I can do easily and calmly on daily, friendly paddles I just couldn’t keep in RAM or “volatile memory,” to use a computer analogy. However, it’s not like during all this I forgot certain paddle strokes or maneuvering techniques. There was one simple reason for this: I spaced on things that I hadn’t drilled in as instinct, or dialed in as second nature. What I hadn’t used extra effort on during training was lost in under heavy cognitive load of the moment.

NATO, of all groups, has a pretty great paper on the topic of human behavior under extreme stress. There is literally a rehearsal mechanism at play in the human brain when responding to a circumstance. It’s looking for historical pattern matches. The problem is that, under dynamic situations, this system slow to respond with rational action when there is no match. When I found myself spacing on the left-versus-right directional drift when ranging, it was like my neurons had been dropped into molasses. I can even now recall the experience, and it wasn’t even that stressful. Imagine if someone was actually in danger!

So, back to that quote at the top of this essay: The only way around this is to train hard and train broad in order to absorb all that a posteriori knowledge into second nature. You don’t gain insights or become brilliant under stress: You go back to past behavior patterns or become hyper literal when interpreting situations or instructions. Your reptile brain is jonesing for immediate action, and your mammalian brain is searching for answers, leading to gaps in judgement or sluggish decision making. You sink to the level of your training.

The key, then, is to ensure that your level of training is deep and broad enough to make you comfortable taking unusual actions in the situations you find yourself in. That can mean practicing towing just for the heck of it. Or specifically wet-exiting in a tiderace just to practice self-rescue. Or meticulously calculating a perfect float plan, complete with headings, ferry angles, and speed over ground estimates, for a paddle route you’ve done dozens of times without a float plan. Make a game of it! Create silly acronyms and mnemonics! Write songs to sing to remind you of your pre-paddle checklist! Have friends do it too, and compare notes over beers afterwards!

Make every part of your paddling an opportunity for deeper mastery and approach it with vigor and a light heart, and never overlook the details. Under stress, that can make the difference between effective response and poor judgement…or even just having the surprise of seawater tricklin’ down your britches.

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I paddle most often in the San Francisco Bay Area. In these winter months, our Mediterranean climate brings rain, and around here that means that the coastal waters are about to become far more polluted than normal. What causes this increased level of pollution, and how is a paddler to cope?

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Hey, Outdoor Clothing Industry: Can you please consider putting heavier-weight materials on the arms of your upper baselayer garments, and lighter-weight materials on the torso?

We paddlers wear PFD’s on our torsos, as well as spray skirt tunnels. Including a jacket/drysuit and a base layer, my body’s core is wrapped in four layers of material. This keeps the body’s core quite warm. When we’re in cold water, the torso tends not to get as cold as our arms. Even on cold days, after paddling for a few minutes, I get overheated in my torso, even if it’s so cold that I can’t feel my fingers.  Sweaty backs and numb hands is a really uncomfortable combo.

I’ve experimented with wearing the thinnest synthetic or wool t-shirts with fleece cycling sleeves, but this is fiddly at best and sometimes those sleeves are a bit constrictive. Low blood flow means colder arms, so that doesn’t always work out.

Imagine having a top made of Patagonia’s Capilene 1 on the torso and Capilene 3 on the arms. Or, even better, wool that’s two to three times as thick on the arms than the torso. This would help thermo-regulation in a major way and not create redundancy in terms of weight or material. A jersey cut would reduce chafing and let the sleeves cover the shoulders, which are not kept warm by most active-cut PFDs on the market.

The lesson here for paddling clothing and gear manufacturers is to think about undergarments as part of a larger system, the system of gear all us responsible kayakers are already wearing. This would help backpackers as well, who have half of their core covered in a pack, and cyclists, who need to vent from their backs on hot or intense rides.

You’d sell more vests, too! 🙂 I accept product royalty payments in turkey jerky and rye whiskey.

If you’re a paddler who’s found interesting ways to balance warmth and comfort while paddling, chime in with a comment below!

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Wayne Horodowich published a guest post on the Tsunami Rangers blog about being a kayak escort or safety boater for swim races or triathlons. Wayne asserted that kayakers are often untrained and unprepared to serve as escorts, at least in a way that can make a difference and not make the kayaker him/herself a liability to the race organizers. I agree. I’d also like to address the problem by helping paddlers understand what’s involved, what can go wrong, and how prepared you need to be.

I’ve done several escorts for full swim races and triathlons, and have enjoyed every one. The intense gratitude shown by the swimmers afterwards is powerful. They can be cakewalks, or filled with drama, so are as variable as any other kind of paddle you might take. However, if you’re considering doing so – or if you’re a race organizer who wants to optimize the escorts you’ve assembled on race day – here are some observations and tips based on doing escorting in and around the San Francisco Bay.

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