Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Building a Better Bulkhead

Bulkhead footbraces have become standard issue on most river running and all of the creeks boats on the market. The reason is for their strength, durability and adjustability. It’s hard to have all of those things in one package that works on all boats. Most of the manufacturers offer different sized foot plates to allow longer legged paddlers use of the boat. If the small bulkhead is used by a shorter paddler, often there is a large gap between the bulkhead and the deck and hull of the boat. This can not only be uncomfortable, it can be dangerous in a piton situation.

If you hit something hard enough, especially when creeking and running waterfalls, with a bulkhead that is too small, your feet can slide past the foot brace and trap your feet between the brace and the hull of the boat. Some people have broken various leg bones from the impact of a piton (hitting a rock with your boat and immediately coming to a complete stop…like hitting a brick wall with your car) in a waterfall.

You are not likely to generate the force to cause any serious injury while running class III drops and below but you might consider beefing up your bulkhead if you’re running anything harder. Here are some tips to help you make your bulkhead footbrace more bomber than the bulkheads on the supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Stabilizing the Bulkhead
This is useful for everyone using a bulkhead. It will help keep the footbrace from moving around while you are paddling. It is amazing how much more balance and power you will have by reducing the movement of your bulkhead.

Move the footbrace to the place this is right for your foot and comfortably holds your knees into the thighbraces. Measure a 2 inch or thicker piece of foam and trim it to completely fill the area in the hull when pushed against the footbrace. Cut U-shaped notches in the foot foam that allows the adjustment rails to fit where they need to be to reach the footplate part of the bulkhead. This usually is about an inch or two away from the side of the boat. You want to foam to be against the sides of the boat. Glue the foam to the footplate with contact cement. For additional lateral stability, add a foam shim to take up the space between the side of the boat and the rail.

Waffle House Special
In our area there are a lot of technical creeks with good drop and sometimes a hard rock landing. If you’re going vertical, and need an extra cushy shock absorber, order up a Waffle House Special. This type of bulkhead got its name from looking like a waffle and our tendency to stop at a Waffle House on our way to and from the river.
The concept is simple and effective. Glue several small blocks of foam onto your bulkhead. Make sure you leave plenty of space between the small foam blocks before gluing them in place. Glue on another large piece of foam shaped like your bulkhead, (don’t steal your buddies bulkhead foam!) so that it looks similar to this one.

If you are in a crunch and don’t have small pieces of foam, order a couple of extra waffles on your way to the river. Duct tape them into place. The waffles serve double duty, working almost as good as the foam and are a great backup in case your day trip turns into an over nighter. Mmmm, tasty.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Joys, Aggravations, Lessons and Chinese Buffet

When our “Kid’s Weeks” camps were approaching this year I quickly reminisced on last years adventures and thought about how big of a smile it put on my face at the end of the week. First, for the great times I had just experienced, and second, handing the children back over to their parents with a new perspective on life. Many of the newbie instructors received advice from me on what to expect, “It is a constant test in patience and humility, as well as a contest for the kids to find out how many different ways they can ask the same question.”

The premise of our “Youth Kayak Adventures” is to build confidence in a special week of “camp” packed with fun, adventure and kayaking all in a supportive environment. This could not be closer to the truth. Our core instruction programs from novice to advanced focus on skill progressions to become better paddlers, whereas “Kids Weeks” focus primarily on group awareness, support and fun. In my typical clinic format I have a tendency to focus on skills and drilling, where everything is focused and goal oriented. This is a common quality of an adult world. Kid’s just wanna have fun, and if they learn something… cool! I do find however if you brief children on daily expectations, what to anticipate, group awareness and group safety, they will have more fun and they will learn their lessons from the river as they go along. This aspect of “Kids Weeks” has taught me the virtue of play in my daily instruction.

The coolest thing about working with children is their raw emotion and their ability to express their feelings, as opposed to adults who for the most part are largely guarded with their emotions on the water. This requires us as instructors to do a lot more talking to either feel out, encourage or reinforce particular skills or emotions on the water for adults. Simply stated, with children you just do not have that. I am not saying that it does not happen, but in large part the majority of children and teens wear what they are feeling on their sleeves. They will let you know when they are not happy, if they are bored, hungry, scared, ecstatic or tired. They do not need the constant reinforcement of what they are doing right or wrong (on the water). To them, if they are smiling, they are doing something right. And if they are not, something is wrong. Our biggest job during these weeks is to facilitate a positive experience and reinforce this positive experience with some hard skills and soft skills that they have unknowingly learned.

Initially I had a hard time coping with all of these ideas, especially when my kids decided that they would rather swim in the rapids as opposed to ferry, peel out or eddy out. Afterall, if this was any other clinic these basic skills would be the primary focus of the first day for a novice. It personally frustrated me that they would be so immature as to jump in the river and play instead of learn. Then it hit me like a brick wall. The children were actually learning to become comfortable with their new environment and were learning the most fundamental self-rescue skill. Maybe if I jumped in the river a little more often I would not be so petrified to swim! An opportunity had suddenly presented itself and a teachable moment arose from the ashes like a phoenix. Before too long I had the kids doing aggressive swimming techniques and understanding how their “play” is useful as a tool. This is also where I realized I cannot control the entropy of the group dynamic, but instead have to find a way to fit into it.

Let me clarify some things before I lead people to thinking that these weeks are some scary, disorganized blob of children screaming, kicking and biting their way downstream. We focus tremendously on group responsibility and awareness. On the first night of a clinic we spend some time establishing group goals as well as individual goals and how the group will have to work together to achieve them. As Jon Clark so succinctly puts it, “you have to have the respect talk.” In my past experience with team-building we would have called this a “Full Value Contract.” Though I never do anything as structured as a “ Full Value Contract,” It is always good to have a verbal agreement with the group to bring those individual and group goals back into focus.

The most important aspect of our “Kids Week” is simply, play. We as adults get so wrapped up in our “real world” that we have forgot the virtue of play and how much it teaches us. When an adult begins to play like a child there is some level of embarassment or immaturity associated with that person. However my personal experiences learning and teaching, the student always learns best when smiling, laughing, or playing. Children typically will listen when they are ready for a lesson, and we as adults can take a lesson from our children.

“Family Fun Day” is where the kids are reunited with their families after five days and the fun and chaos takes a float down the Nantahala River. This has to be one of the most spectacular sites on the “Nanty” as a group of fifty kids, parents and instructors start moving downstream. This becomes a great time for the kids to showcase their newly acquired kayaking skills to their parents. However, what stands out above all to me is that despite their families being there, they pay more attention to their new friends in their respective groups and make sure that everyone is together and safe. This makes me beam like a proud parent because I feel this is the effect we have as instructors here at NOC. This demonstrates that our instruction with the kids not only showcases kayaking skills, but life skills such as self-reliance, group responsibility and awareness. Not too mention social skills that they utilize to make new friends throughout the week. In conlusion and after all of this being said, “Kids Week” is on the top of my list for best times on and off the river. Head Instructor Rob Barham sums it up pretty well, “Woohoo! Kid’s Week… Chinese Buffet! Woohoo!”

All photos courtesy of Jon Clark

Sunday, July 29, 2007

When it Rained

Rain finally returned to Western North Carolina last week and the excitement in the office was palpable all week long. Everyone was buzzing with speculation on how much rain was coming, which rivers were running and where they were going paddling.The prospect of paddling a river with water in it just felt good. So I put together this short video of some of my favorite creeks and rivers at good water levels. Just some good eye candy that will hopefully get you all fired up to go paddling. Be safe.

When it Rained from Christopher Port on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Tucking Forward, Chilling out and waiting for the "Hands of God"

A couple of weeks ago Jon Clark was given a special assignment, Harry Hurt the 3rd, writer of the Executive Pursuits column in the New York Times Business Section, was coming to NOC for a crash course in whitewater kayaking. Jon's mission was to get Harry through Nantahala Falls with only two days worth of lessons. While not our usual speed for getting rank beginners Class III skills, check out how successful Jon's efforts were in this story and video on the New York Times web site, click here.

In Search of the Perfect Solo Canoe

Our Review of the Esquif Zephyr

Our instruction team set out in search of the perfect whitewater solo canoe. In our search the Zephyr had much appeal so we decided it was a good place to start. The boat is not the perfect canoe for everyone (obviously) but seems to be one of the best for intermediate to advanced paddlers. Small (140 pounds or less) beginners will enjoy the boat very much, especially the light weight which makes car top loading and carrying to the put-in much less of a chore. The following is a brief synopsis of what we found.

Our Rating System
The Zephyr was rated on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being the worst possible score and 5 the best. We compared the boat to other solo boats available today.

Overall Stability: 3.5
Initial: 3
Secondary: 4
Compared to other solo canoes, the Zephyr has about average stability. If you’re an “old school” canoeist, the initial stability will probably seem low but with some of the new paddling techniques, this boat is very stable. Even when I blew my line and bounced my way through a 270 degree turn in Wesser Falls, the secondary stability was amazing for a boat this size and width.

Speed: 4
This boat has a length of just over 11 feet but boat carries speed well and accelerates quickly feeling fast for its length.

Dryness: 4.5
This is one of the biggest strengths of the Zephyr. It is a very dry boat which allows you to paddle harder whitewater more comfortably due to the lack of water in your boat. If you’re running the big stuff it’s very dry for an open boat.

Turn/Carve: 5
The hull is very responsive and turns quickly while the boat is sitting flat and carves well on the edges. One of the things I enjoy most about the boat is that you can “hip surf” a wave. Just by shifting your edge from side to side, with some practice, you can carve the boat back and forth across a wave without taking a stroke. I think that is very cool.

Outfitting: 4.5
When the boat first came out two years ago, there was some concerns about the outfitting coming loose from the boats. From what we can tell, Esquif has worked out any problems and the factory outfitted boats have bomber outfitting in them this year. The placement of the thigh straps and seat provide a firm ride for a wide variety of sizes in paddlers. I personally really like the stock Esquif outfitting and enjoy being able to paddle their boats “right out of the box.”

Weight: 5
Any time you have a canoe weighing in at under 40 pounds completely outfitted, you have to stand up and cheer! Except for composite boats, it’s the lightest thing out there and much more durable for the weight.

User Friendliness: 4
Due to the sharp looking chines of this boat, it would appear to feel “edgy” with constant tripping over the edges of the boat. This doesn’t hold true though since the sides of the boat are beveled and reduce the amount of water piling up on the side of the boat during a turn or moving across the current.

Additional comments:
This is a great boat for the intermediate paddler or even lightweight beginners. If you are paddling an older model solo boat or converted tandem boat, this will be a sporty little rascal that will offer some challenges along with many rewards for your whitewater paddling career. The boat shown in these photos has been cut down an inch over the entire length of the boat to make it easier to paddle by smaller people. We also added the wood gunnels for added lightness and aesthetics. Although it was added to our fleet specifically for smaller paddlers, we find paddlers of all sizes and skills have enjoyed this boat. There has been some concern about the long term durability of the boat and it is holding up well for our instruction programs. We haven’t experienced any problems with our Zephyr’s this year and they seem to be lasting better than the vinyl covered ABS plastic boats. For the most part these boats are on class II-III whitewater and only an occasional class IV rapid.

The Bottom Line
So the question is raised again, “did we find the perfect solo open canoe?” The answer for some, yes! Lightweight paddlers of all skill levels and advanced paddlers will love this boat. Others will find the boat slightly above their skill level, especially if they are of the “McDonalds Generation.”


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Surf's up!

This Fall, NOC is teaming up with two of the nation’s top kayak surfers to offer a first of its kind instructional program - The NOC Outer Banks Kayak Surfing Class. Two-time National Surf Kayak Champion, Spencer Cooke, and Two-time US Surf Kayak Team qualifier, Philip Aschliman, will be teaching beginner-advanced kayak surfing skills at Cape Hatteras North Carolina on October 19-21. North Carolina’s Outer Banks are known for their favorable surfing conditions and have been the site of multiple surf kayak national championships.

Basic skills such as how to paddle out through the surf zone and catching a wave will be part of the curriculum. Intermediate and advanced skills will include using the power pocket, cutbacks, bottom turns, top turns, floaters and aerials. Any paddler is welcome so come join us for a fun weekend at the coast and hopefully some good surfing conditions.


Participants are required to have a competent whitewater kayak roll. We welcome any skill level from novice to expert to join the class. Basic whitewater skills are a good start for surf kayaking though you will learn surf specific skills that are not encountered in a river environment. Paddling in the surf is great fun and will make you a better overall paddler .


Any whitewater boat is possible to surf in though some are better than others. For starters, bring a boat that you are comfortable in. If you have multiple boats bring your fastest boat with carving rail. If you have one lying around, older play boat models may excel as surfing kayaks. Some examples are: Riot Glide or Booster, Necky Switch, Zip, Jive or Rip, Perception Shock or Amp, Liquidlogic Session+, etc… If you are a competent paddler on difficult whitewater or a high intermediate to advanced play boater you may consider renting or buying a surf specific kayak. A great starter surf kayak is a Riot Boogie, affordable and an excellent performer. Contact Spencer at johnspencercooke@earthlink.net for more information about boats.

*The class will be capped at twelve students so sign up now to secure your spot.

Dates: Oct 19-21

Cost: $600

Includes: Lodging, Lunch, Transportation to local venue

More details here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The next step in your paddling career…add breadth as well as depth

Sheena enters Nantahala Falls

As our students leave a clinic or a day of private instruction we are often asked, “How do I keep improving?” This is an obvious and appropriate question and I suspect that most of our instructors answer in much the same way. We say something about “Paddle as often as you can.” This is the obvious and appropriate answer. I would like to add a little more detail to that response.

I believe the competitive urge and the natural upward progression implied by the class 1 through class 6 scale of difficulty leads most people to seek to move onto more and more difficult rivers. I call this progression “seeking depth.” The new paddler believes that experience with more difficult rapids will translate directly into developing greater skill. While there is truth to this expectation I don’t think this is the only path to greater skill.

Lines up for the drop

If you want to increase your paddling skills consider seeking “breadth.” There is value in paddling many different rivers of similar difficulty. For example, many of you have run both Big Pillow on the French Broad and Nantahala Falls. These are both class 3 rapids but they teach very different lessons. Big Pillow offers the paddler a line that is pretty open but filled with very fast current and large waves. The line demands balance and comfort moving around in big waves. The class 3 portion of Nantahala Falls is really a quick precise move between two ledges that demands exact control and acceleration across the flat between the ledges. Two rapids of the same difficulty teach two very different lessons.

Takes a stroke through the hole

Yes, moving ever upward in difficulty will teach many of these same lessons but the learning occurs in an environment with an ever smaller margin for error. Consider the value of paddling many very different rapids, all within your comfort zone. You will cope with different eddy lines, different sizes and types of waves, and different maneuvering demands. Each run can be a lesson broadening your skill set.


If you live in a place with few paddling options then look forward to paddling your home river at many different levels. Remember, though the higher levels appeal to our “Yeehaw” instincts, those runs when the river is a bit low can teach lessons too.

Windy Gordon

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nantahala Cascades

From Nantahala Cas...

Rain finally arrived here in the Nantahala Gorge and the Cascades ran with a great water level. Being that I could not join the fun, I figured I would do the next best thing and take pictures of the action instead. Here are some pictures for those who, like me, need to satisfy their paddling blues vicariously at the moment.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

On Fear Management

Let me start out by saying that Laura hates this picture and I thank her for letting me use it in this post. The one thing this picture illustrates really well is that special blend of fear and euphoria that comes with whitewater paddling. Mitigating fear is a skill, and like any other skill it can be learned and managed. No matter your skill level, there are practical tools that will help increase your enjoyment and success in the sport of whitewater kayaking.

Novice paddlers are aided tremendously by exposure to the basics of kayaking in very controlled environments. The skills that usually generate the most anxiety for beginners are flipping and swimming. Once they are practiced in the lake and river they become a lot less anxious about them. Novice kayakers can also address some of their imagined fears about kayaking with a basic understanding of the principals of paddling and knowledge of river hazards and features. Beginners learn quickly that the reality is often a lot less scary then what they once believed.

For Intermediate paddlers one way to reduce fear is by building on small successes. One example of this is to challenge your skills by finding the hardest or most complex route through a rapid that you are already comfortable in. The Falls on the Nantahala are a great example: being able to catch eight eddies through the Falls takes a lot more skill than just paddling through them. This practice of catching eddies through rapids not only builds self confidence but also teaches a critical river running strategy that helps alleviate the stress of running unfamiliar rapids. Breaking down rapids this way and taking it "one move at a time" is one of the best ways to control anxiety while paddling a rapid.

Advanced paddlers often develop personal routines that help them manage anxiety before running difficult drops. My personal mantra is PREP, short for Posture, Rotation, Vision and Positive Mental attitude. This simple acronym is my way of reminding myself of the very basics of paddling and revving the engine so to speak. Reciting my mantra takes just a second but it is key in helping me focus on the here and now and creates a positive mental environment that allows for optimum performance. In the upper levels of paddling, deciding whether or not to run a rapid is less about fear management and more about risk assessment than anything else. Underlying that risk assessment takes experience and knowledge about whitewater factored with the personal skills and limitations of the individual paddler. One more important aspect regarding fear is its affect within a group. It is important to realize that within the confines of a group, fear is contagious. If several members of your paddling group are nervous about a rapid that you are thinking about running, there seems to be a tendency for your personal tension to increase. It also can work the other way around with the group being very confident and the individual paddler feeling pressure to run a rapid he or she would otherwise walk.

Ultimately it takes courage to kayak, but courage is not defined as the absence of fear - it is defined as the ability to act in spite of fear. Acting in spite of fear is an integral part of kayaking and whatever skills you use to deal with it, being able to focus that energy in a positive, productive and fun direction is liberating.

All photos courtesy of Jon Clark

Here is a link to another great article about fear written by Chris Joose, click here.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Cartwheel Pointers and Progression

Learning to cartwheel is like learning to ride a bike. Both are learnable skills, but not necessarily teachable ones. Think about it - no one taught you how to ride a bike, you finally just did it, although you probably crashed numerous times before reaching that “I got it” moment. Cartwheeling is the same – there are some pointers we can give you, but ultimately it is something you must just “feel” for yourself by building muscle-memory through repetition – lots of repetition. And, like riding a bike you will of course crash many times along the way.

The good news is that you don’t need to learn any new strokes to cartwheel– the forward and reverse sweeps are the only strokes you’ll need, and I’m sure you already have those in your paddler’s toolbox. Even the magical “double-pump” is nothing more than a forward and reverse sweep linked together while on edge.

Before we get to the strokes though, let’s focus on vision and rotation. When running a rapid, vision is of paramount importance. The same is true for cartwheeling – lead the move with your eyes. Your eyes should be looking at the next “point” before your paddle blade gets there. I cannot stress the importance of vision enough. Good vision serves a two-fold purpose – it aids in the all-important edging and also facilitates the body rotation required to generate enough strength to get the ends down. Yes, cartwheeling requires some strength. If you’re only using your arms (with those puny bicep muscles) to execute a sweep stroke it will be very difficult to get the ends down. Engage the larger muscle groups like your pecs, abs, and obliques. The easy way to engage these muscles is to rotate through your sweep strokes.

Here’s a cartwheeling progression we often use with our novice playboaters, and something that is best done on flatwater. Pick a side to practice your cartwheels on – we’ll choose the right side for this example.

Stare at the front right portion of your bow while at the same time edging towards that “quadrant” as well. While maintaing that edge, do a reverse sweep on the right, trying to get water to wash over the front-right portion of your bow. It’s ok if you can’t get a lot of water over the bow right now. (See picture on right)

Now, look over your right shoulder towards the back-left portion of your stern. This will help you weight this back-left edge. Now do a forward sweep on the left, (while edging and looking in that direction), trying to get water to wash over the back-left portion of your stern. This stern point is much easier to sink under water than the bow. (See picture on left)

Once the stern goes under, switch your edge back to the right, weighting and staring at the front-right portion of your bow, while doing a reverse sweep on the right.(See picture on right – look at the rotation and vision) Can you see that you’re back to the starting position? Congratulations, you have just done a low-angle cartwheel, or “pinwheel” as we call them. Practice this progression very slowly, concentrating on your vision, edges, and rotating through the strokes. Once you have this muscle-memory down you can speed it up. Don’t worry if you don’t get the bow down right away – concentrate on getting the stern down.