VA - Chincoteague Sea Kayak Skills Weekend

Kayaking Inspired Gifts - Sales Help Support This Site held ACA Level 3/4 training in Chincoteague over Columbus Day weekend. Our base was a really nice 4 bedroom, 3 bath house with great views and a launch onto Little Oyster Bay about 50 yards away.

Several CPA members participated including myself, Bob Huber, Susanita Hicks, Mark Woodside, Al and Lisa Gardner, Tom Malone, Kim Neutzling, and Liz and Mike Ritoli. Steve Rohrs, Julio Perez and Rick Wiebush were the instructors. High temperatures ranged from 60 to 70, and the water temperature was about 68 degrees. The winds were outrageous the first couple of days. An outline of the planned trip is here:

FRIDAY: Sometimes You Can’t Get There from Here

When I pulled up to the beach house Friday evening, I was congratulating myself. I'd packed and left early, saved probably an hour not waiting for tolls at the Bay Bridge by having EZ Pass, and found the place without a single wrong turn. The house number wasn't visible, but Julio's sky blue boat strewn on the lawn alerted me where to park. The crew who'd already arrived offered me warm greetings and a cold beer, after which we started comparing horror stories about the traffic and miserable nor'easter weather conditions.

Soon our experiences all smacked of hyperbole as the weather worsened. Torrential rains driven by 25-30 knot winds screamed horizontally across the whitecapped seascape. Fueled by the full moon, the evening high tide was about 3 feet above normal, pushing water across the causeway leading into Chincoteague. As we later learned, Tom and Rick were each making the crossing right about that time. Both reported driving a four-mile stretch in white-knuckled terror, convinced that either their boats and/or their entire cars would get blown off into the surging waters. Just after they arrived at the house, the radio reported the causeway was about to be closed and would stay closed for 4+ hours until the water receded and crews had a chance to plow off the sand and debris.

Meanwhile, other members of our group were still making their way down Rt 13. By cell phone we relayed news reports, and offered our sympathies as we informed them they might have to hunker down on the mainland overnight. Al and Lisa, veterans of road travel, offered the little-known advice that Wal-Mart usually makes its parking lots available for overnighters. (Kim actually took this advice. Mark didn’t and got a motel room instead.) When the causeway was reopened hours later, Susanita braved the gauntlet into town and was grateful to know a real bed awaited her instead. The rain continued to fall and winds howled, shaking the house on its stilts. Needless to say, no moonlight paddle would happen on this night, which was only the first of many changes to the original carefully laid plans.

SATURDAY: Dabbling with the "Conditions"

Saturday morning's forecast did not promise better weather. Spurred by what could be called either optimism or denial, Julio launched his boat into Little Oyster Bay to check the conditions first hand. He returned soon after a furious workout that never got him more than a few hundred yards from the docks. Indeed, paddling was a no-go, and the three instructors huddled to figure out what skills they could teach us in the comfort of our living room.

Navigation and trip planning began the agenda. We read charts and distinguished latitude and longitude. Then we played with standard and lensatic compasses, comparing their accuracy, and triangulated our location from landmarks visible from the house. After that we divided into two groups, each given the same assignment: to plan a hypothetical trip into Tom’s Cove on Assateague Island and back. We read tide tables, plotted bearings, estimated distances and travel times. Our meticulous float plans went out the window when the gods – at Julio’s urging - bestowed ugly theoretical weather on our return trip, severely hindering our progress and forcing us to reconsider. After the manual trip-planning exercise, Steve showed us several high-tech ways to accomplish the same planning tasks faster. In addition to the science of navigation, we all took away the subjective wisdom of "Be prepared for anything."

After lunchtime the winds were howling at a lower volume (15-20 knots?), and the instructors figured they needed to get us off the couches and into our kayaks. A mad scramble ensued while we wriggled into wetsuits and drysuits, gathered every imaginable piece of emergency equipment including capsize kits, and consolidated boats onto a smaller number of cars. We caravanned first to the launch permit office (at the police station), then to the public dock just south of the bridge into town, and launched our flotilla of nine students and three instructors into Chincoteague channel. Although this area was pretty well protected from the northeast winds, the currents were daunting.

Odd man out
Someone isn't in sync!

Six of us in the advanced group, with Steve and Julio as our instructors, split off from three in the intermediate group who went with Rick. Kim, Liz and Mark went downstream with Rick and found a little (40 x 100 ft) protected inlet where they could work. They spent the next three hours refining basic strokes, stretching their edging limits, learning low brace turns and high/low braces, experimenting with contact tows and then working on in-line tows out in the channel. This was all under the watchful – and sometimes amused – eyes of the folks having an early dinner in the restaurant that was adjacent to their playground.

Our group went upstream. We practiced picking a ferry angle to get across the channel against the current, which I overshot slightly, allowing an easy drift into my target. From there we persisted, playing with forward stroke cadence and currents in different parts of the channel to make the most efficient progress.

We ducked into a sheltered marina with a long, narrow alley. Two by two, we practiced contact towing. Al and I proved to ourselves that, during contact tows, the more the victim can lean the boat onto its side, the closer they'll keep the bow to the rescuer's hull. The victim can even help with some directional control. In pairs we practiced towing with a tow line, and we formed groups of three for assisted tows. Once we'd grasped each skill in our protected passageway, they ejected us out into the strong currents to do it "for real." Those drills culminated in a long-haul towing exercise, where we rotated between two paddlers doing the actual pulling, for a short but exhausting distance upstream and into a sheltered cove.

After a stretch break and recap of what we'd learned that afternoon, we nosed back into the currents and coasted back to the city docks. Later that evening we scratched a moonlight beach walk off the original plans as well, assuming there wouldn't be much beach left to enjoy.

There should be a section here on how we actually spent our evening, being treated to a huge dinner, drinking wine out of Lexan cactus martini glasses, and laughing for hours. But it was one of those times that are the most cherished and the hardest to express, suffice to say you just had to be there... So next time, be there!]

SUNDAY: When "Manageable" Turns "Epic"

Sunday's weather looked more promising, but we knew how wacky and unpredictable the tides and conditions could be given the recent deluge. Our instructors huddled once again, then delivered our game plan. We would paddle as a group out to Assateague Point and practice rescues, then split up into two groups. The advanced group would head out to find surf, and the intermediate group would stay behind for more Level 3 skills practice. The caravan headed for Chincoteague Point, where we launched and picked our heading.

Meeting at the first channel marker, we noted headwinds starting to brew. We moved out as a group but quickly divided into two units, those who'd deployed their skegs and those who hadn't. I'd borrowed a Chatham 17 for the weekend and had never driven a boat with a skeg before. After a few minutes of frustration, smarts outweighed stubbornness and revealed the uncommon factor in my lack of directional control. All of us who'd made the same mistake retracted the skegs and relied on our steering skills to get back on track. When we arrived at the beach, Julio scolded us with a physics lesson: skegs reduce your control in a headwind because they act like a pivot, pinning down the tail of the boat while the bow gets blown in all directions.

We snacked, then launched to demonstrate more rescue skills. First we did an Eskimo rescue with paddle presentation; I flipped, and Bob deftly got me upright again. Next we tried a T-rescue with tow assist, and this time we voted Susanita as the one to get wet. While Bob rigged a tow line to keep us from washing into the clam beds, I dumped the water from Susan's cockpit and got her back into her boat. The one step we forgot was to remind Susan to unhook my tow line; not a flawless performance, but nonetheless another good learning experience.

The groups split up again, and eight of us set a course for Fishing Point. But when we got close, we spotted 2-3 foot standing waves in our path. It looked like a beast that would eat kayaks for lunch. We ducked to the inside of the point to gawk, analyze, and display false bravado. Steve explained we were witnessing a "rip," strong currents exiting Assateague Channel and hitting the standing waters at Chincoteague Inlet, which created a zipper effect. The churning was awesome to see and intimidating to cross.

The instructors huddled, and Julio once again selflessly volunteered as crash test dummy. Fortunately we didn't have far to go, and we hoped the zipper could be avoided entirely by hugging the shoreline. The rest of us watched him cruise easily around the bend, and noted how quickly his bow got swept away from the waves and in the direction he needed to go. He gave us the go signal, the rest of us could do it safely. One by one, we donned our helmets, rounded the corner and plied cautiously into the surf zone.

Steve had described several drills we should attempt in the surf. The touch-and-go -- surfing in, touching the beach, and punching back through the waves to open water -- could be done both forwards (bow first) and backwards (stern first, which is actually easier because you can see and adjust for the oncoming waves). Breaching, paddling the boat parallel with the waves, required strong bracing skills or we'd almost certainly risk capsize. If your bracing and turning skills were solid and quick, you could wait til the precise moment the wave was underneath you, pivot as as skier would turn on top of a mogul, and ride the wave in.

The groups split up again, and eight of us set a course for Fishing Point. But when we got close, we spotted 2-3 foot standing waves in our path. It looked like a beast that would eat kayaks for lunch. We ducked to the inside of the point to gawk, analyze, and display false bravado. Steve explained we were witnessing a "rip," strong currents exiting Assateague Channel and hitting the standing waters at Chincoteague Inlet, which created a zipper effect. The churning was awesome to see and intimidating to cross.

The waves we found were mercifully small, so everyone experimented and played, and quickly expanded their comfort zones. Only once did I let my attention lapse, and I went over. One hand instinctively reached for the grab loop, and I had just started to figure out what to do next when I realized my other hand was on the bottom. I was in shallow water, so I pushed off the sand and righted my boat with a hip snap. We got braver and giddier as the afternoon went on, leaving some of us wishing for bigger waves. But time ran out long before our enthusiasm or adrenaline levels, and a paddle signal called everyone to the beach. It was time for a break, then we'd have to chart our way back to the cars.

Our return trip gave us flashbacks to our trip planning scenario. Unpredictable currents and winds threatened to push us off our heading and make us work too hard.

We beached again, the instructors huddled, and next thing we knew we were slogging and trudging, carrying the boats further back along the shoreline, then putting them in the water and walking them further yet. Positioning ourselves deeper into Tom's Cove, we'd gained a better attack angle, by which we hoped to cross the cove without getting blown out of it. Paddling past sandbars occupied by brown pelicans, we wound up on tidal flats at the wrong time of day.

Rather than get stuck, Lisa and Al got out of their boats and walked, which from a distance looked like an impressive biblical feat. Finally we found the channel laying a path to where we wanted to go, but we'd be paddling against the current. Steve taught us to finesse the edge of the channel, where the water was deep enough to paddle but not flowing at an energy-sucking speed. A few who didn't catch this clue dropped behind, spent what energy they had left fighting the current, and started trading tow lines. Noticing their absence, Steve and I circled back to meet and accompany them to the ramp at Chincoteague Point.

There we met up with Rick and his crew, who were practicing bow rudders in the protected harbor. They had come back about an hour earlier after getting frustrated in their attempts to practice in more exposed water. Every time they worked on something new, they would get blown a half mile downwind toward wide open water and then spend the next 15 minutes paddling back to the semi-protected area where they'd started.

While heading back to the harbor, they had their own little adventure that turned into a major learning experience for everyone involved. Rick tells the story like this:

"We wanted to practice some T-rescues on the way back to the harbor so that everyone could feel what it was like in more exposed conditions, and to get a chance to practice it with a tow to keep the whole operation in place. The first one went well. The second one didn’t. Mark, who had been the rescuer on the first one, was the designated victim for the second one. As the rescuer, he had done a great job taking control of the whole rescue. But this mentality carried over to the second attempt and he tried to control the rescue operation from his victim position in the water. Mistake number one. Mark’s telling the rescuer (Liz) what to do threw her off her normal rhythm and routine and she never really took charge. This affected what occurred next.

The second mistake was that Mark wanted to try to get back into his boat by coming up from between the two boats, using the straddle and lay back move. But Liz wasn’t familiar with that method, didn’t tell Mark to do otherwise and, as it turned out, didn’t have the leverage or strength to hold Mark’s boat stable while he tried the reentry. After about 15 seconds of wobbling around, Mark’s boat is on its side and water is pouring into his cockpit. This further strains Liz and, in spite of her attempts to stabilize everything, she ends up going over and we now have two victims. This whole exercise is quickly heading south (both figuratively and literally since we were heading downwind in about a two knot current), so I decide to step in. I tell Mike to get Liz while I get Mark. We both get to the victims quickly and start the rescues, but I have this vague feeling that something isn’t quite right. It finally hit me when I saw the bow of Mike’s boat (rescuing Liz) about two feet away from Mark’s head, pointed directly at it.

Mistake number three: in my rush to get this sorted out, I didn’t take the time to create some physical separation between the two rescue attempts. If the conditions had been any rougher, Mike’s bow could have easily been slamming into Mark’s head, creating a situation far worse than the one we were trying to remedy. (I had a fleeting vision of 5 Star training in the zipper at Tybee Island last year, when Ciaran Lesikar suffered a couple broken ribs as a result of getting stabbed in the back by Tom Bergh’s boat.) All I would have had to do was to get Mark to grab on to my boat – while maintaining his hold on his own - and then tow us 15 feet away before starting the T-rescue. It would have taken maybe 30 seconds to get us safely out of the way.

Fortunately the only thing that happened was that a couple people got wet and several people were very embarrassed. The other good news is that embarrassment is a great teacher and the three of us who made the mistakes are a lot less likely to repeat them. ""

MONDAY: Calm after the Storm

Monday dawned with still air and a spectacular sunrise. Some had left for home, so we were a few cards short of a full deck but still eager to play. Steve let us apply our knowledge and plan our own 5-7 mile trip for the day. Since we had to be out of the house by 2PM, we decided to toss boats off the end of our road into Little Oyster Bay and explore Morris Island, with the option to pause somewhere for roll practice. Judging tides and currents to determine our course was a crapshoot at best, so we let Steve's guesstimate outweigh the rest, and went counterclockwise around the island. As we poked through marsh grass and floated past roosting cormorants, conversations waxed philosophical between quiet pauses. We detoured into a cove on the back (west) side of Assateague Island and spotted a herd of ponies; they grew in number the longer we watched.

Susanita and I took artistic photos of the flora and fauna, though I recalled Steve's quip that you shouldn't forget to capture the happy expressions on your paddling companions' faces, and made a point to aim the lens at them too.

Loading our boats for the last time was a sober task. Though as people said goodbye and drove away, I congratulated myself again. I'd been motivated to come on the trip by the challenges of new skills in unfamiliar conditions, and I found those. What exceeded my expecations were instructors whom I'd gladly follow into worse conditions, priceless lessons and experiences seared into my memory, and the kind of willing spirit and generous cameraderie that makes excellent companionship on any adventure. I felt incredibly lucky.

New Things I Learned

- how to use a lensatic compass, and why it's preferred (more accurate)
- where to get free charts and trip-planning tools on the internet
- how to do contact and rope tows, with and without assists
- how to do an Eskimo rescue with paddle presentation
- how to launch in the surf, and point the bow by leaning the boat on its side
- how to play in the surf (forward, backwards, and sideways)
- when not to deploy a skeg
- where to position your boat in a channel to maintain speed going against the current
- what goes into a capsize kit
- recognizing rips vs. rip tides
- store natural peanut butter upside down to avoid stirring
- how to close the empty slot gizmo on my new laptop

"All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience." -- Henry Miller

Gina Cicotello




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