Uncle Sam Strikes Back
Norm Sanders’ comparison of Australian and North American kayaking hit on some good points, but judging North American sea kayaking on the West Coast scene around Seattle and Vancouver is like judging Australian food on lamingtons, pavlovas and vegemite sandwiches.
My wife Merry and I were introduced to sea kayaking 5 years ago by a trip along the east coast of Lake Superior. Some Australians may be under the delusion that we were on sheltered waters, but Lake Superior is big enough to create its own weather, which it does with a vengeance, particularly in the colder half of the year. Only an idiot would venture onto Superior without checking the weather on the Canadian Coast Guard VHF channel, and monitoring it regularly (at least twice a day).
I can recall standing on a beach near Eagle River on the Keweenaw Peninsula (south shore of Superior) in late September 1993. Tubey 6 ft swells were breaking about 100 yards out, and if it wasn’t for the wind the surf could have been described as ideal. I turned to Merry and said: “A surf like this in Australia would have me thinking about challenging fun. Here, the only thing it makes me think of is death.” Water temperatures around 4 degrees Celsius are not uncommon in Superior, especially if there’s been an inversion.
After 5 glorious days in all kinds of weather, camping on pristine beaches, seeing the Aurora Borealis the first night out, passing no other vessels except a sailboat on the first day and a canoe on the last, we were well and truly hooked. As soon as we got back to Detroit we hotfooted it around to Great River Outfitters, sponsor of the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Club, and signed up for the Great Lakes Sea Kayaking Symposium held each year at the beginning of August at Grand Marais on Lake Superior.
Stan and Ema Chladek, owners of GRO, rented us plastic Skerrays for the symposium. At least half the people there had VCP boats, and rudders were conspicuously absent. We had a paddling lesson from VCP founder Frank Goodman (who paddled around Cape Horn with 3 mates in Nordkapps in 1977 ); rescue, eskimo roll, and boat handling workshops with BCU qualified instructors; and tried out all the VCP boats plus some local product, including skin boats. By the campfires at night we heard war stories about the Gales of November. Each year around Halloween the hardcore members of the GLSKC celebrate the end of the paddling season by setting up camp at Agawa Bay on the east coast of Superior, opening their bottles of Captain Morgan rum, and performing mystic rites to induce Nanook of the North to send down the gales. Sometimes they get what they ask for. Storm surf on Lake Superior is not for the faint of heart, even when it’s small. The water is bloody cold (dry-suits are the preferred mode of dress), the waves steep and close together, and there are a lot of rocks.
On our return to Detroit we bought a fibreglass Skerray and ordered a customised Pintail from the factory. Later that year we went to our first “Gales,” but it was a quiet year. Some of the old hands blamed me for offending Nanook by using Ouzo in the rites. Maybe they were right -my kayak mysteriously flipped over on a ripple, and in the freezing water I was barely able to wet exit, let alone try to roll up. I wasn’t wearing a dry suit. I wasn’t even wearing my wet suit. I was wearing my warmest clothes, and rubber boots! I didn’t die, but it took me 3 hours to get warm in the sauna. It was about minus 5 degrees Celsius on the beach. The water was warmer.
At the end of July 1993 we quit our jobs, fired up the VW camper, hitched up the kayak trailer, and headed off on a 21-month trip around North America, following the coast as much as possible. That trip confirmed what we had been told about North American kayaking: in the east the tendency is to VCPstyle boats, and in the west, particularly the northwest, to wide, flatbottomed, ruddered boats.
But a tendency is all that it is, nothing more. There is a much greater variety in kayak styles and building materials in North America than there is in Australia, and the kayakers range from those who can (and have) paddled from California to Hawaii to those who shouldn’t be left alone in a bathtub.
Some of Norm’s observations are certainly valid, but only up to a point. We would probably agree with him about a lot of things, particularly the skills of some kayakers. For example, at the West Coast Sea Kayaking Symposium at Port Townsend we observed what was to us a very strange and puzzling phenomenon, until we hit on the reason for it. We were helping a west coast outfitter demonstrate VCP boats (this was a small sideline for them -their primary product was their own boats), and at least half the people trying them out would step into the small VCP cockpits, then try to sit down, and get very confused when they couldn’t. Apparently this was the method they used to enter the huge cockpits in some of the locally made boats.
But — and this is a very big but — at the same symposium there were people handrolling my Pintail.
The so-cal’ed west coast style of kayak developed because a lot of the waters around Seattle and Vancouver are sheltered, and deceptively calm. This can be a real trap for the unwary. This area is home to some of the world’s strongest currents, and anyone who ventures out on them without carefully consulting tide tables and current charts and checking on the weather can easily get into serious trouble. It’s also a good idea to consult the Canadian Government publication on the local weather patterns, a real eye opener for anyone contemplating paddling anywhere around Vancouver island or anywhere else in the “sheltered” coastal waters between Washington and Alaska. I’m rather surprised that Norm calls these waters benign. It’s a great place for paddling, but it bites when you aren’t looking.
Despite the apparent predominanca of big beamy kayaks (people actually take webers and bags of charcoal on trips), there are a lot of serious sea kayakers in the northwest. Our first kayaking experience in Washington was at the invitation of some people we ran into in a campground parking lot. We joined them for “Babette’s Feast,” an annual surfing/feasting event on the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The surf wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to be challenging and good enough to have some fun. About half of the paddlers used whitewater kayaks, and the rest used sea kayaks. It was thefirst time I’d been able to compare the Pintail’s surfing performance with a variety of boats. It won easily.
Just like the Great Lakes kayakers, the west coasters have their crazy time. It’s called the Surf Pummel, and its held in the middle of winter on the Washington Coast at a place called La Push. This is serious stuff -Hawaii size waves, usually accompanied by a storm. And they use real kayaks, not wimpy sit-on- tops like the Tsunami Rangers paddle.
The waters of the Pacific Northwest are magnificent for sea kayaking, but it starts raining in mid-October and doesn’t stop until March. By mid- November there was mould inside the VW, and we suspected it would soon st~rt growing on us. So we headed south for some cleansing sunshine, stopping only to resample the amazing variety of hand-made cheeses and ice cream at the Bandon Cheese Factory in Oregon and some of the magnificent ales at the many microbreweries along the way. (Believe it or not, some of the best beer in the world is now being brewed in the home of Schlitz and Budweiser!)
The coast of Oregon was being pounded by huge storm waves, and by the time we got to California the surf was awesome. (This was early December 1993, when Mark Foo, one of Hawaii’s top big-wave riders, was killed at Mavericks near San Francisco). There were hordes of board riders wherever the waves were accessible, and we suspected they wouldn’t take too kindly to having a sometimes out-of-controI17 ft kayak in their midst. We kept heading south, hoping the surf would still be up when we got to Mexico.
But then one afternoon we were sitting around writing letters at the San Clemente marina, one of the few sheltered spots between LA and San — Diego, and a couple of greybeards
rolled up in an old Chevy with two serious sea kayaks on the roof and said: “Why are you guys sitting around here? The best surf in 20 years is rolling in!” “Didn’t think there was any room for kayaks in the surf around here,” we replied, “so we’re heading for Mexico. We figure it won’t be so crowded down there.” “Well, we’ve been surfing all day, and a bunch of us will be hitting the waves again tomorrow. If you’re not doing anything more important, like writing a letter to your mother, go to the state park at San Onofre, just south of here. It’s only six bucks to get in. The board riders let the kayakers have the section at the south end near the nuclear reactor. We’ll be there about 9.”
And they were. About 50 of them. And the surf was great -beautiful12ft swells -and those septic sea kayakers really knew how to handle it. And the water was actually a little warm near the reactor, so we didn’t have to worry about the Great Whites.
I’ve been kind to Norm so far because I can understand how he got the wrong impression he was distracted by all those women sea kayakers. But there’s one thing I’m not going to let him get away with -“In North America the waves are smaller.” Bullshit Norm. Pure unadulterated bullshit.