Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium 2012
The Golden Gate Sea Kayaking Symposium (GGSKS) is one of the great West Coast gatherings. Held every year in February in San Francisco Bay and the nearby Pacific , it is an event worth attending if at all possible. While Lumpy Waters here in Oregon focuses on waves and rough water, GGSKS makes the most of the tides and currents around the Golden Gate as well as the rocky coastline. Speaking of the Golden Gate, GGSKS is based at Horse Shoe Cove, literally in the shadow of North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. There is no more beautiful setting for such an event anywhere.
As is usual with like symposia, the most difficult decision to make is which, amongst the riches of classes available, to take. This year, after some dithering, I chose Greenland Skills and Rolling with Duane Strosaker and Helen Wilson, Master Strokes and Paddling with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme and finally Intermediate to Advanced Surfing with Rowan Gloag and his friends from The Hurricane Riders and the Neptune Rangers.
So for the second year and, despite the emphasis on rock gardening, I have yet to take a rock class at GGSKS. Next year will be different. Part of the reason I decided to pass on the rock classes was my delicate Illusion (pace, Sterling) as well as my carbon Novorca Aleut paddle, both of which fare poorly (at my skill level) in shallow, surging, rocky waters.
Before I dive into the classes, just a few more words on the setting. Did I mention that it is stunning? The event is based at the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Once an army base and home to the NIKE missile systems, it is now set aside from development. Thank you GGNRA for your foresight!
HQ for the event is the GGNRA youth hostel, an ex army hospital, set in a Eucalyptus grove just up from Rodeo Beach. The spacious hostel is the venue for before and after paddling schmoozing, for the hearty meals (yes, a cliché, but apt none the less) as well as the snoring, I mean sleeping, facilities. Actually, this year I chose not to sleep in the barracks as the din from my 30 or so middle-aged bunkmates last year was extreme. I am lucky enough to have family in the region, so I have a free alternative for sleeping. I am not suggesting you avoid the hostel, the interaction with your fellow paddlers is one of the best parts of the event, but earplugs might be a wise investment.
I actually had arrived a week earlier and managed to get out a day or two myself on the Bay, so I was warmed up nicely for the event. Pulling into Horseshoe Cove Yacht Club on Friday morning, with my Illusion strapped to the roof of the car, I was greeted to the familiar sight of dozens of kayaks being unloaded by a legion of my fellows in red, blue and yellow drysuits and the cream of the kayak coaching world milling about in organized confusion. Soon enough all the neck gaskets were in place, zippers zipped and the panoply of boats lined up neatly on the beach. The yacht club is set on a hill above the cove. Inside the Yacht club were the registration folks and against the wall, all the raffle items on display. Pride of place was held by a cool new P&H Delphin Surf kayak.in custom colors.
Directly in front of the yacht club, on a wooden walkway, about ten feet above the Beach, Sean Morley and Matt Palmariello, lead organizers of the event, assembled the coaches with the seventy or so attendees directly underneath.
Sean opened the event with a moment of silence for Eric Soares. For those of you who do not know him, Eric was the founder of the Tsunami Rangers, a legendary Kayaking Club from California. Eric and his friends pioneered a style of extreme rock and surf kayaking that looked insane but was . . well . . . , actually it was insane. Despite that, Eric developed a methodology for assessment of conditions that let the insane become at least managed insanity. Eric was also a philosopher of life and a deep soul. He gave the keynote at last year’s GGSKS. It was a revelatory moment for me. At the time, I was familiar with him only through his rock gardening videos (hmm – Rock Gardening may be the wrong term. How about Rock Gonzomoshpitupsideyourheadheewhackyiyoyioy!!!!!! well, perhaps rock gardening is a bit easier to say).
So when he got up to speak, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, my first (mistaken) impression, early in his talk, was that he was bragging. He talked a bit of his hairy adventures and then started in on how some of his friends had died kayaking. I thought to myself, “He’s using the death of his friends for his own aggrandizement.” But slowly, then suddenly, I realized I was very, very wrong. I was becoming moved by his words and it seemed that mortality and life and beauty and especially friendship were the intertwined themes.
He spoke of his friends, their lives and deaths, some by kayak, most by the passing of the years. He spoke of his own aging and his battle with a cranky heart. And then when he began talking about the quality of the water in the rock and surf zones where he played, and how what looks to be the most terrifying aspect of it, the crashing waves and the billows of white spray, is after all just foam, and that foam cannot hurt you, at that moment, I found myself with a lump in my throat — and it is there again now as I write these words — and I realized that I was in the presence of a beautiful man. Rest in Peace.
After Eric’s memorial, Sean kicked of the preceding in regal fashion, welcoming us and introducing the coaches. As I said, it was veritable who’s who of sea kayaking. I will not repeat the entire roster, which is available on-line, but there were a lot of heavy hitters. I’ve mentioned the folks who I signed up with already, amongst the others were Gordon Brown, Nigel Dennis, Reg lake, Jeff Laxier etc. etc. With all the horsepower gathered in this location, a sudden tsunami would have set our sport back decades.
Opening formalities past, I trotted with my fellow Greenlanders over to the station that Duane and Helen had set up. They divided the class up along lines of experience with Greenland techniques. I was paired up with Mark Boyd, a great guy who paddles with the Neptune Rangers. It turned out the at Mark and I, as well as my old friend Steve Hufstadter, paddled in the same classes for the entire symposium. The continuity was nice.
Mark and I started out the day with Helen. Now, this is not the first time I have had a class with Helen. In fact, this might be class number three or four, truthfully, I have lost count. For those who do not know, Helen, along with Dubside, Turner Wilson and Alison Sigethy, is one of our discipline’s truly great rolling instructors. If you get a chance, take a class with one of these folks.
The first thing Helen had me work on was my balance brace. Now as everyone knows, I cannot do a balance brace. It is not for lack of skill or lack of trying, it is just that my body is not right for this move. I believe it has something to do with the ratio of my femur length to my shoulder width. I have actually had this checked out by doctors [see image]. In any case, it is outside of my control and something to which I am resigned. I told Helen this of course, but Helen is a bit slow, or perhaps hard of hearing, so she basically ignored me. So what could I do? I had to humor her, after all, she is engaged to Mark Tozer, who is like a BCU 5 guy, pretty strong, and British (i.e. He probably gets drunk and beats people up).
Anyway, Helen told me to recline in the boat, arch my back hard, keep my shoulder flat and slip my left hand under the gunwale. “Be sure to push hard with your knee,” she said. I reclined a bit, just to humor her, noblesse oblige and all that. Helen fiddled a bit with my arm and pushed under my back to accentuate the arc.
“Helen, Helen Helen. Poor, dear little Helen. This won’t work. You are wasting both of our time,” I thought to myself, chuckling a bit, anticipating Helen’s coming humiliation as a failed coach.
I was in the brace position, but that was just because she was holding me up. I glanced over to her and saw she was quite some distance away. Hmm. That’s odd she must have really long arms or perhaps she is holding me up with her paddle? But, No! I was locked into a really solid balance brace. I cannot do this. Hmm. I guess I can. Drat that Helen! I’ll get even with her someday!
I wish I could say that I had other such dramatic breakthroughs with all my other rolls. I didn’t really, but I came out of the morning much more solid on my existing rolls, especially my “off-side” rolls. While the balance brace is very cool, the off-side is critical for safety in surf and rocks. By the end of our session, I was doing continuous “off-side” rolls , three, four, five time in rapid succession without pausing. It felt good.
After lunch, we switched off, Mark and I with Duane and the rest of the group with Helen. It was great as usual working with Duane – he is really an excellent Greenland paddler, veteran of many long crossings and epic battles with assorted sharks and the like. He is also a darn nice guy – and a pleasure to be with. He essentially told Mark and I that we were already pretty good Greenland paddlers, it was nice to hear it coming from him. Still, I picked up some techniques – especially Duane’s aggressive back paddling style.
Day 2 saw Steve, Mark and I join up with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme for their Master Strokes class. Shawna and Leon are another power couple I have seen at many kayak symposia but from whom I had not yet taken a class. Like Mark and Helen, they announced at GGSKS that they were getting married. I guess Spring was in the air this year.
We began with strokes practice in Horseshoe Bay, working on rudders and prys as well as combing strokes. I have had such training before, but they are excellent teachers and we all benefitted. They were assisted by Greg Berman, another Neptune Ranger and a well-known sea kayaker. Greg does the most excellent turn combining extreme edging and braces. I tried, with some glimmering of success to master the turn. Leon and Shawna also introduced us to flying kayak mounts, essentially running your boat forward into the water , leaping onto the back deck and then quickly cowboying up and into the seat. It is fun, not hard to do and looks really cool (though a fail would be equally spectacular but in an embarrassing way). Beyond the fun, this is a great technique for getting out through dumping surf.
After lunch, it was out into the Bay first for game of follow the leader along the rocky shoreline and then, out into the Yellow Bluffs tidal race. Yellow Bluffs is a perennial favorite place for the coaches to take their charges at GGSKS. Depending on tide , wind and current, the race can be gentle and forgiving or pretty hairy. Like many tidal rips, it changes character rapidly and the dynamic water can be daunting to paddle in. Also, fun.
We arrived at Yellow Bluff on the ebb. This was only my second time there, so I cannot say whether this day’s conditions were much bigger or smaller than normal. I can say that it was pretty exciting. In tide rips, waves can come from every which way. You have to position yourself to catch a ride on the wave, while at the same time watching for breaking waves coming at you from an odd quarter. Good bracing skills are a must. The hardest skill in many races on the ebb, is staying up front. Unless you can maintain a position on the foremost waves, you loose your momentum and get sucked back and out. You must catch and surf almost every wave. It is hard but a great skill builder. Have fun.
My greatest “Learnin'” from day 2 was just what excellent coaches Shawna and Leon are. If you can find the time and resources to take one of their classes at Body Boat Blade, do so!
The third and final day, I chose Advanced Surfing with Rowan Gloag. Rowan, for those who do not know him, is one of the leaders of The Hurricane Riders, a group of long-boat surfers from up in British Columbia. They specialize in tidal races and surf and seem to have a special affinity for Skookumchuk. Definitely check out their videos, they are both inspiring and beautiful.
The day’s class was to be held at the surf break just off the town of Bolinas. If you have never heard of Bolinas, don’t worry. It is a beautiful little coastal town known both for its laid-back uber-Marin attitude and also its secretiveness. There are no road signs pointing to Bolinas for the simple reason that the residents tear them down as fast as the Department of Transportation can put them up. At this point, they may have simply stopped trying, so if you don’t know where it is, too bad. (Actually, Google maps may just end their self-imposed Shangri-La bliss).
Rowan and The Riders are past masters of surf; he challenged us to try to more than just point our boats forward and go ballistic. He assembled us on the beach to try to master a basic surf maneuver- the cut-back. He had us all in our boat on the sand and . . . You know what? Rather than trying to explain it, let’s just watch Rowan demonstrate in this video. The Blog isn’t over, no leaving when the video is done.
OK. Thanks Rowan.
Needless to say, I didn’t look anything like that. Moreover, because the swell was rather small, I had trouble even catching rides. This was interesting and quite instructive. Turns out, the problem is that I don’t know how to surf.
But wait . . Your blogs . . . all that stuff about giant waves . . . you were lying?
No, hold on there and let me explain. Here in Oregon the swell is big and the beaches are steep. That means the waves tend to rear up quickly and then dump violently. It is not hard to get in front of our Oregon waves. You basically paddle out into the surf zone, turn around and then, “Look here comes one. Ahhhh!” Bang! “Woah.Did I survive ? Yes! Hey, I rock. I’m a surfer!” [see diagram-left]
Off of Bolinas that day, not only was the swell gentle, but the angle of the beach was rather shallow. That meant that the waves come in and begin to spill rather than dump. It was much harder getting on the waves, it took timing, and once on them, it took skill to maintain position. That is called “surfing.” I had a hard time at it.
Well all things come to an end, even GGSKS. It was another great learning experience, great coaches, great classes, excellent companions. We all owe Sean and Matt a debt of gratitude.
Eric’s death was felt by all, but the aura of gentleness and love which he left behind, meant that his was a soft absence that brought as much joy in his memory as it did pain at his loss. May we all be remembered in such a fashion.
Jon Turk ‘s keynote was eerie and somewhat disturbing. Steve Wilson, the kayaking troubadour rocked the house. (but what happened to my flag?)
Oh, one final thing. Remember that boat I mentioned earlier, the P&H custom surf kayak? I won it at the raffle. Way! I drove back to Portland happy with two boats strapped to the top of the old Subaru.