— Brinestorm

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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As mentioned earlier on this site, I picked up a used QCC Q700x in preparation for an upcoming trip along the west coast of Vancouver Island. I had a lot of very specific needs as a result of my upcoming Vancouver Island trip and I found the Q700x a willing subject for some lightweight customization. Here’s a list of minor modifications I did to my Q700x that made it better fit my needs.

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Not Quite Commonplace

I’ve been in the market for a boat that fits in the FSK – fast sea kayak – category. This broad category of boats is typified by being very long, very narrow, very fast, and able to hold a healthy amount of cargo. I can neither afford nor store one expedition boat and one racing boat – I needed a kayak that exhibited characteristics of both but didn’t have huge tradeoffs that made it suck for both extended trips and competiton.

This is a burgeoning category for sea kayaks (filled with amazing boats like the Tiderace Xplore, Epic 18x Sport, Rockpool Taran, Current Designs Nomad GTS, and many more), yet in the big scheme of things, it’s a pretty niche market. Looking for such a craft in the Bay Area is like trying to find dedicated downhill-only mountain bikes in a Kansas bicycle shop. It was really hard to find any examples of these boats to try here in Northern California. It’s even hard to find common large-volume expedition boats around here, even the standard-volume Valley Nordkapp and the P&H Cetus HV!

An upcoming summer trip made me want to pull the trigger sooner than later, though: I’m not about to put my life in a craft that I’ve not gotten to know pretty well, and waiting for boats to arrive with unsure delivery dates felt like a gamble. (I’ll keep paddling competing craft as they become available!)

On the East Coast and in the Midwest, QCC is a well-known American brand, but you don’t see many here on the West Coast. Their kayaks are odd ducks for those of us that love ocean whitewater, rock gardens, and who use highly maneuverable day-tripping kayaks like the P&H Delphin. QCC boats have nearly plumb bows, little visible rocker (what QCC recommends should be called “upsweep” – whatever, we all call it rocker), and a rudder. QCC’s largest boat, the Q700x, is a full 18 feet long and only 21″ wide.

It was a good match for my needs. I wanted a fast, race-worthy boat that also could support me for at least a week at a time without resupply. It had a set of design compromises that I was willing to live with. I had a chance to use a friend’s Q700x for a test paddle, and then to buy one on the used market (this is the first used boat I’ve ever owned: Model year 2008).  Sold.

It’ll put me in a different class for competitions, but I’m ready for the (probably very humbling) challenge!

Overall Impressions

This boat had only been launched three times by its previous (only) owner, so it was in great shape. I found the manufacturing to be decent; there are gaps in the sealant around the rear bulkhead, and the deck seam isn’t as clean as those found on, say, Current Designs kayaks. Its carbon-kevlar layup is thin, make no mistake, more flexible and lighter than what I’m used to with British-style boats from manufacturers like P&H. I’m an ultralight backpacker, so weight capacity isn’t that big of an issue, but I’ll have to treat it with more care than my P&H Capella 163.

In terms of handling it feels somewhat similar to an Epic 18X, from an end-consumer perspective as a result of testing boats (meaning short amounts of time in the saddle of each). More on its first full day on the water is below.

I was pleased to see that this boat didn’t have traditional push-the-footpeg-to-turn rudder controls. The Smart Track rudder is quite effective for its size, and its toe-pedal steering is a godsend for those of us who are serious about leg drive during the forward stroke. For long crossings and racing, rudders offer an efficiency that’s hard to beat by reducing the amount of corrective strokes you need to take. I’ve not been in a ruddered boat for about three years, but I’m looking forward to something different after many British-style, skegged boats (which I still adore, and prefer, for day tripping).


Fit and Cargo

QCC boats have another interesting attribute: The cockpit sizes are the same across a wide range of boat sizes. I suppose that I’m considered a “smaller paddler” by manufacturers’ standards: 5’11”, 160 lbs., 32″ inseam, US size 8.5 (Euro 42) feet…and yet this long boat fits very well. Few kayak manufacturers seem to make  big-cargo boats for not-so-big paddlers, since most manufacturers scale up cockpit dimensions with hatch dimensions. Not so with the Q700x, which (for me) results in positive contact with the deck, making for more confident maneuvering, edging, and rolling.

QCC doesn’t publish storage or hatch volumes on their website, but in my initial packing tests, I managed to fit at least 70L of dry bags in the front hatch and 90L of dry bags in the rear, with many gaps that could easily be filled with other gear. I’d guess that these would be something like 85L front and 115L rear if published as manufacturer’s specs. There is no day hatch or “glove box” front hatch. While I won’t miss either, the large front and rear hatches are a burden to open and seal properly while on the water, partially due to how tightly they seal. This is good for peace of mind, and a challenge if a hatch needs to be opened in an emergency. Proper placement of possibly-needed items is going to be important.

For committed wilderness campers, note that the front compartment would fit a bear canister, but the front hatch is 1″ too narrow…while the rear hatch will swallow one but the rear compartment is 0.5″ too shallow. If you fit one in front of the footpegs, be warned that you can’t put the footpegs farther than four notches forward without the rudder controls pushing against the bear canister, preventing the rudder from working properly. You’ll probably need an inseam of 30″ or less to make that work. I’ll be getting several flexible Ursacks in order to properly prevent critters from being fed while on camping trips.

On the Water

As of this writing, I’m still finding my way around the Q700x, but I opted for a rather intense maiden voyage: A 34-nautical-mile non-race endurance event called “The Gonzo,” in which paddlers must reach every island in the San Francisco Bay (there are about 15 of them).


Winds were never over 12kt and generated wind waves less than 18″ high, but they varied from abeam to following to headwinds. I paddled it with a Greenland paddle (84″ long, 20″ loom, 3.625″ wide) and a wing paddle (set to 210cm), carrying only about 10 pounds of cargo.

The boat was well-mannered in these conditions. I’d characterize the Q700x as having low-to-medium primary stability at rest, excellent primary stability underway, and medium secondary stability. It has a nearly rounded hull and soft chines of good height, adding to its stability on edge, and its low deck prevents excessive freeboard when unloaded. It fits my paddling style and sense of balance quite well. It’s the kind of boat you need to stay loose in, and just let it ride, trusting its inherent ability to stay upright. It loves to run downwind and can surf even the tiniest of following waves or swell. Sure, it’s an 18′ boat with little rocker, so it doesn’t turn on a dime, but edged it turns decently considering its length, especially when the rudder was retracted.

Speaking of its length: Hell yeah, it’s fast. It’s already earned the nickname “Bottlerocket” after the first paddle. Long + narrow + soft chines = speed, usually. With a wing paddle and a strong paddler, it’s like a javelin, especially on downwind runs with small following seas.

The small cockpit fit well, and its low front deck allowed for comfortable low-angle cruising strokes. Its narrow beam made high-angle sprints a breeze. The boat is long enough that I could carry my full-size Greenland paddle as a spare with no overhang past the bow!

The rudder is extremely effective for its small size, and the gas pedal style footpegs were easy to reach and actuate. I can see why the Smart Track system has a loyal following. I should have remembered to retract the rudder foil and test for weathercocking, but I did not. With the rudder, if it weathercocked, it was not noticeable in the least. The Q700x has little freeboard for a kayak of its size, which might also help.

I found a little water in the rear hatch after 8 hours of splashy paddling, but I am guessing that came in from my cockpit via the bulkhead instead of the hatches due to some sloppy finishing described earlier in this article. The hatches do seal tightly – so tightly that one must take care making sure that the boat is laid flat somewhere for sealing and opening the hatches. A lot of leverage is needed to pop the hatch seal. Confidence-inducing, but it takes some work to remove!

This all bodes well for getting this boat into more exposed coastal waters and bigger conditions, which will definitely happen in the coming months! It will be interesting to see how it holds up on a 2-week trip alongside the other long, large-capacity boats of my paddling partners, including the Current Designs Isle and the Current Designs Infinity.

Up Next..!

My next article will cover some minor modifications to the Q700x that made it work better for me – and keep an eye on the blog this summer for more info on my adventures that will involve this interesting fast touring boat, and how my assessment of its behavior and performance evolves in different conditions. Stay tuned!

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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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A bird on the foot is worth two in the stern. Or something.

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LazerBrite: Far more flexible, bright, and useful than glowsticks, and way less disposable.

LazerBrite: Far more flexible, bright, and useful than glowsticks, and way less disposable.

Ever stop to think what happens to those glowsticks that you use for night paddles, outdoor raves, and other silly and sundry purposes? Well, you kind of just throw them away. They’re not treated as hazardous waste…but they probably should be.

Diphenyl oxalate, also known under the brand name Cyalume, is what makes many glowsticks work. It has been poorly studied regarding its environmental effects, but is widely known as an irritant that burns soft tissue and isn’t meant to be ingested. So that can’t be good. Non-Cyalume glowsticks may even use phthalates, which are seriously bad news, environmentally speaking. Regardless, they’re single-use items entirely made of plastic. Yay, humanity! Good job! I can’t, in good conscience, use them anymore.

Enter Lazerbrite.

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superfuzz_mensYES! Level Six was on somehow on the wavelength I was when I wrote my Rethinking Upper Body Insulation article. They announced their new Superfuzz line: Heavier insulation where your sprayskirt tunnel isn’t!

Brilliant, and about time.

It could STILL be better: Why not heavier fleece on the arms? Why not wool, so it won’t stink?

But that’s just nitpicking. It’s great to see a manufacturer really understand real-world thermal layering for paddlers. Active paddling PFDs have lower placement of floatation, making the shoulders more exposed, so placing heavier fleece on the chest and shoulders seems super smart! Comes in Men’s and Women’s, too! Hell yes, I’m ordering one!

Why is it the Canadians get it right so often, eh?

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towingTales2Towing is one of the least-practiced skills in sea kayaking. People seem to think deploying a tow line is a rare and serious occurrence. While deploying lines always complicates things, towing is an essential skill that has some uses of which many paddlers aren’t aware. Towing needn’t be only used in dire straits or emergencies!

I never, ever paddle without both a full tow line and a cowtail/short tow. Here are two short examples of why I think this is a best practice for all paddlers, and how towing can often mean what you least expect.

The Psych Tow

I once towed a paddler in a skin-on-frame boat with neither skeg nor rudder. We were in strong crosswinds abeam crossing a strait, and the paddler couldn’t hold a course, even with what she thought were aggressive edges and strong corrective strokes. I volunteered to give her a “directional tow,” just to keep her kayak on the right course. We paddled across and the towing was effortless. We rafted up so I could unhook, and that’s when someone pointed out why it had been so easy.

The rope was slack and in the water the whole time.

The paddler made it across all by herself. What she needed was a visible connection between the boats and she edged more aggressively and took better corrective strokes, as she could focus on a shorter-term goal of just aligning herself to my boat, not to a distant shore or less-visible goal. It wasn’t a directional tow after all: It was a psychological tow. She was thrilled and rightfully proud when this was pointed out to her!

Sometimes a visible link and even perceived assistance can make a big difference. In my case it was a tow line, but in other cases it can be an extra cookie at lunchtime, a drink from your water bottle on the water, or some other small gesture to demonstrate a sense of camaraderie and trust amongst paddlers.

The Urban Tow

We took a pair of friends paddling who had never been in kayaks before. We gave them some instruction and planned to do an incredibly mellow, flat-water paddle. While they surprised us with their fitness and ability, within the first 5 minutes one of them capsized. He was doing a good thing, exploring the edge of stability, but in a way that was overzealous, and FLIP! In he went. Dressed for immersion and a former surfer, he was embarrassed but comfortable. Ms. Brinestorm proceeded to provide a T-rescue.

Then a weird thing happened: A scenario we had in a class actually came to pass.

In a class with Helen Wilson and Bryant Burkhardt, we had a scenario involving towing two boats while a rescue was underway, to prevent the rescue boats from drifting into rocks along the coast. However, here there were no rocks, nor coast: Instead, there was a fishing pier. Of course, the first time a t-rescue is done with someone who is unfamiliar with it, it takes a while, and a strong ebb current was pulling the rescuer and the swimmer towards the pilings.

Since they couldn’t take action to get away from the pier due to the activity of the rescue, I simply paddled over, clipped my short-line cowtail onto the rescuer’s boat, and paddled backwards to move them away from the pier. Decidedly undramatic, incredibly easy, and took basically no time and little effort. But not having done so would have caused complicated situation, especially for the swimmer, especially with many fishing lines cast into the water in their path. Drunken, angry fishermen are bad.

Now, certainly, with newbie kayakers a tow line makes good sense. But I had no way of guessing that I’d be applying it to my own significant other’s kayak during a rescue. And while we’d practiced this before, I certainly didn’t expect to use it within 20 meters of the beach. But I was ready, equipped, and it came naturally…as a direct result of practice.

I’ll Have Your Back if You Have Mine

So there we have it: Two really mellow, non-drama situations in which towing was incredibly helpful. Towing isn’t just for complex extractions and injured paddlers and lassoing orcas. It’s flexible and handy, but only good if you know how and have practiced it. As stated earlier, practice also breeds better judgement about the use of ropes and lines in the water, which can cause their own problems.

But while I’m willing to practice towing and always wear my towing gear in order to help my paddling pals, I would rather strongly prefer that my paddling pals have their own tow ropes and also know how and when to properly use them. It could be me that’s in trouble for any number of reasons, and knowing that I can be ably assisted – and that I can ably assist – is a major foundation for trust between kayakers…and, in fact, in almost any human endeavor.

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Damn, water, you scary.

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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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