Friday, February 29, 2008

Paddling La Jolla's Caves

I'm excited to be going on a paddle today in La Jolla Marine Preserve. I'm visiting my dad in San Diego, and decided to check out the kayaking options while I'm down here. I don't have any equipment with me, but I found that there are a few outfits here that will let you rent equipment, or take a tour.

Here are three that I checked out:
  1. San Diego Bike and Kayak
  2. La Jolla Kayak
  3. OEX Dive and Kayak Centers

I chose a tour with number one, because their trip sounded like the most fun. I'll go out for a two hour paddle, and hopefully see some cool wildlife. When I was a kid, I would snorkel out here, and you'd see great fish life, like the garibaldi damselfish, out among the kelp. Today we could see sea lions and dolphins. I'll follow up after the trip, and we'll see if I get any good pictures. I had the option to either rent a kayak and go out by myself, or take the more expensive tour. I think this will be more fun to do with other people, so I'm going for the tour. It runs $45 for two hours.

After The Trip
I showed up at 9:30am for the 10am tour, and Mike signed me in and got me started on the paperwork. Turns out that I'm the only taker for this tour, but they will still take me out with my own guide. I decided to rent a wetsuit for an additional $10. The day was overcast, and not terribly cold, but the water temperature is about 60F. Since this is my first put-in through the surf, and on a sit-on-top, I decided that a wetsuit is a good idea to stay as warm as possible. After signing the appropriate forms, I just had to move my car out of the 90 minute parking zone, and I was ready to go. After I got dressed in my wetsuit, life preserver, and helmet, I was ready for a short training. Curtis took me across the street to a grass lawn and explained the basics of controlling the kayak, how to get back in if you fall off, and some safety tips. Then I headed out to the beach and waited for Mark, my guide to arrive with the kayaks.

Curtis drove Mark down with the kayaks in the back of a truck, and dropped them off right at the beach. The boat launch is right at the end of Avenida De La Playa in La Jolla (San Diego). I stuck my flip-flops under the webbing of the Ocean Kayak Scrambler XL, and walked my kayak into the surf. After I jumped in, which was easy, Mark told me to paddle out, lean back through the waves, and meet him at the white buoy closer to shore. I found the sit-on-top very easy to navigate. I also noticed that sit-on-tops were the only kayaks being used out there. There were a lot of fisherman putting in or taking out. I'll have to re-evaluate the pros and cons.

Mark paddled out and met me, and took me on the tour. We stayed close to shore, but out of the way of the breakers. As it was low tide, waves were starting to break a little farther out from shore than normal. He is a Geology student (Jr.) at San Diego State University and showed me evidence of the Rose Fault where one plate is pushing underneath another resulting in rising cliffs on one side, and a deep offshore ocean trench. There are a lot of caves here, but we couldn't go in because the sea was just a bit too rough today, and it was very low tide, so many rocks were exposed. We heard a lot of barking from the Sea Lions, and they were in the water all around us, some in small groups. It was excellent seeing so many sea lions hunkered on the rocks where the waves were crashing. Every now and then a sea lion would surface right next to us to take a look. At one point a cormorant flew right by in front of us with a big mouthful of sea grass. Mark said this time of year they are building their nests on the cliffs.

Then we paddled out over the kelp forest. This is an amazing experience, as you can look down and see the kelp "trees" going down quite a distance into the depths. Mark said that on a clear day that you can see down 40 feet. He also said that the kelp leaves, called blades, could be the size of a kayak at the bottom. Each blade has its own gas filled bladder that float and keeps the kelp close to the surface for photosynthesis. He said that the kelp can grow as much as four feet in a day! He also pointed out that kelp is the source of alginate, which is used in ice cream, salad dressing, tooth paste and other products. While paddling through the forest, I startled a harbor seal who was resting in the kelp. One way you can tell the difference between harbor seals and sea lions by the ears. Sea Lions have ears that stick out, Harbor Seals just have small holes for ears. Once you've seen a few of them, they clearly look different. Mark said that the seals like to wrap themselves up in the kelp, like a hammock, and just hang out. That's what this one was doing before I disturbed him. (Photo by Alaskan Adventure Cruises)

After paddling through through the kelp forest, we paddled a little farther out and looked out for migrating whales. Even though late February is a little late for gray whales, there was still a chance. There were other groups of kayakers looking for whales. On shore, folks line up with scopes, and they're looking for any marine mammal activity. We didn't see any whales, so we paddled a little closer to Children's Cove, then back toward the direction of Scripts Pier. On the way we saw a harbor seal eating a big red fish, and a sea gull came down to get some scraps. Then we paddled around for a bit, until it was time to head in.

Coming in through the surf was fun. Mark gave me some pointers. He said, lean in the direction of the wave to ride it. I did ride in on a small wave for a bit, and though we could have played more in the waves, it was pretty cold and I was ready to go in.

This was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone in the San Diego area, no experience necessary. It's a great way to try kayaking. You'd be amazed at how easy it is, and how rewarding the experience is.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Getting Your Kayak to the Water

First there is the fun part of deciding where you are going to put in, but once you have chosen it, how do you get your kayak there? This is another elementary topic, but an important one to cover for new paddlers. If you have an inflatable or folding kayak, then this question is not an issue - the kayak travels inside your vehicle. But if you have a regular sea kayak, then it must travel on top of your vehicle.

Rules of the road require that your sea kayak is securely mounted on top of your vehicle with tie downs on the front and rear of your kayak. However, many mounting systems are secure without the front and rear tie downs. While I recommend them, and the rack literature will recommend them, you won't necessarily get pulled over if you haven't used them. If your load is unstable, then you will most likely get pulled over, and won't be allowed to proceed without fixing the problem (so have rope for tie downs with you just in case).

The kayak(s) must travel head-on into the wind - NOT at an angle. I've seen folks put their kayaks in the back of the pickup with the fronts leaning up against the cab. Then they tie this down. If you can imagine, the kayaks are facing into the wind at a 45 degree angle. This will put a lot of stress on the ties, the kayaks, and the vehicle. If you're going a very short distance and never exceed 25 MPH then this may be OK, but in no other situation should this be done.

How far are you going? If your put in is a short distance, and you don't have to use a freeway to get there, then you can get away with a short distance rig. I purchased foam cutouts that are flat on one side and concave on the other. I can place two of these on top of my '97 Honda Civic, and my Necky Looksha sits in them. Then I loop straps through the cabin, through my open doors, and I tighten these securely. This keeps the kayak very secure for short distances and low speeds (no faster than 30 MPH).

If you are going farther, you will need a rack. What kind of rack you need depends on what kind of vehicle you have and how much money you want to spend. Shop brands like Thule (my favorite) and Yakima. REI is a great place to start. Purchase two sturdy straps that have metal buckles with a thumb release. Bring along lengths of rope long enough to tie down the front and rear of all kayaks, in case you need to secure them.

Always check your rack installation before you load it up to make sure that all the fasteners are tight, and that the rack is secure. Bring with you any tools that you may need to tighten things up.

Kayaks should be mounted level on top of the rack, so that they point head-on into the wind. The bow or front of the kayak should point in the direction of travel. You can have the kayak either rightside-up or upside-down. This depends on your rack and your preference.

Once you have your kayaks on the rack, loop the straps around the kayaks and the rack in two places and tighten securely. Loop up the excess strap and tie this up with a slip knot. Flapping loose straps will cause annoying noises while you travel to and from your put in.

A final consideration is rack theft. Usually, it just takes a couple small tools to uninstall a rack, so consider getting one that locks into an unusable position. The Thule rack I use does this. Then when we are not kayaking, I uninstall the rack from the truck, so that while it is out in a parking lot, the rack is not a tempting target.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Planning A Paddle

There are several factors that contribute to whether or not you will enjoy your paddling experience. There is no need to learn them by trial and error the way many people do. If you have access to the internet, you can check conditions before you decide whether the trip is on.

Tides - It is critical to know how the tide will impact your trip. There are up to two high tides, and two low tides every day. When the tide is going out, the current will take you out. This is called the ebb. On the way in, this is called the flood. In between tides, the water is still, and this is called slack tide. The impacts of tides are very localized, so you can get very strong currents. These can either work for you or against you depending on your planning, or lack of planning. For beginners, it is best to go out and in again during the slack tide. For experts going out on longer paddles, you'll want to take advantage of the tides to take you further on your way out, and bring you back in. Use the internet to find tide tables for your area. I recommend The closer you can get to your exact put-in spot, the better. (More about tides)

Temperature - Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. It is important to know how long you can survive (click here then scroll down for the table) in the water before hypothermia sets in. If the water is below 50 degrees F, then you will want to be sure to wear a wetsuit. Make sure you have practiced re-rentry before you go out in water that is too cold for you to survive in for more than an hour.

Wind - Very much like the tide, the wind can either work for you or against you, and it is more unpredictable than the tides. Wind patterns often repeat a daily pattern, so your best bet is to be observant of how the wind pattern varies from day to day. Usually, we prefer to kayak when there is minimal wind, which I would define as 10 MPH or less. Above 10 MPH you will be fighting the wind in one direction or the other. For fun, you might carry an umbrella or a kite to take advantage of the wind when it is blowing your way.

Sunset - Always be aware of how much daylight you have, and be prepared to be out after dark if you're pushing it. That means having the appropriate signaling gear (lights and a whistle) on board. Also, make sure you have enough warm clothing in case you are out after the sun goes down and it gets colder, and the wind picks up.

Boat Traffic - If you're paddling in an area where scheduled boat traffic can be taken into account, then be sure to know those schedules. Where I often put in on the Napa River, we have ferry service that is easily predictable. You don't want to cross the path of the ferry if you know it is going to coming by. Always stay out of the way of boat traffic.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Kayaking Equipment

You know you'll need a kayak, but there's a lot of other stuff you'll need. I'll list it all here. (everything is required unless it says it's optional)
  1. Sea Kayak - There are lots of options and considerations. The more expensive you go, the lighter, and the easier it will be to cut through the water. But you don't need to spend a fortune either. Check out Craigslist for used kayaks for sale. You can get a deal. Some considerations though; How much will you kayak? What kind of transport do you have? Inflatables have poor performance, but can stow in a trunk and may suit someone who just wants to try it. For serious, frequent kayakers, folding high performance models are available. Another consideration is rudder vs. skeg. There is a difference of opinion here. Some feel that a rudder (controlled with foot pedals) is inefficient and indicates the the paddler doesn't know how to use the paddle properly. I use a skeg, and steer just with paddling. The skeg (retractable for landings) keeps the tail in line when blown by the wind, and is a must. Without it, my kayak doesn't track straight lines that well. Sea kayaks are designed for straight line travel, not like a white water short kayak. When you try on a kayak, you want to adjust the toe pegs so that your pushing your thighs up inside the rests in your cockpit. You should have lower back support for comfort. You use your hips to rock the kayak for stability, and to assist with turns. You can always try a number of kayaks by trying friends' boats, and trying them out at your local store.
    Wilderness Systems Tsunami 145 Kayak with Rudder

  2. Paddle - Almost as obvious as the kayak. The kayaker's paddle is a shaft with a blade on either end. I bought one with three locking positions of the blades relative to each other. You set the position so that when one blade is going into the water, the other is moving forward at a feathered angle; meaning it is cutting through the wind, not flat against it. My paddle also comes apart in the middle which makes it great for stashing in the trunk of my Honda Civic. They make paddles that are carbon fiber, and the weight will make a difference, but it is a question of how much you want to spend. The $100 paddles that I have are reasonably light. Don't even think of a wooden one; just too heavy, though it will look good on the wall.
    Werner Skagit Paddle

  3. Personal Flotation Device (PFD) or Life Vest. I recommend you get one with reflectors on it, and lots of pockets. I spent money here because I wanted to emphasize safety, but it doesn't hurt to wear one that looks flashy too.
    Stohlquist mOTION PFD

  4. Spray Skirt (optional but highly recommended) - This goes on like a pair of coveralls with suspenders. The skirt seals around the hole of the cockpit, and it keeps spray out of the cockpit. I used to paddle without one, but I found that the skirt cuts down on the wind resistance, and make my kayak faster. I opted for a used one. A nice feature to look for in a spray skirt is a front that bows, to prevent water from pooling. Note the loop at the front of the skirt. If you capsize, and need to get out of the kayak, this loop needs to be on the outside of the skirt, so that you can pull it to peel off the skirt. An incorrectly attached spray skirt, with the loop on the inside, will be a lot harder to remove in an emergency.
    Seals Tropical Tour Spray Skirt

  5. Paddle Leash (optional, but highly recommended) - Your paddle will float, but if you are ever in trouble, for instance if you capsize (tip over), you will have to choose between swimming after your paddle or holding onto your kayak. You should choose your kayak, but if the paddle has a leash, you won't have to choose, and you won't find yourself up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Often when a kayaker requires rescue, it is because they have lost their paddle. So, this is $7 or less worth of common sense.

    But if you want to spend more you can on the cool coiling leash, which will keep the leash out of the water when you paddle:
    North Water Coiled Paddle Leash

  6. Booties (optional) - You'll want some kind of close-fitting foot-wear. Feet get wet for beach landings, but not for dock put ins and take outs.
    Warmers 3mm Lo-Pro Pull-On Paddling Booties

  7. Wetsuit (depends on water temperature) - A kayaker adage is, dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Nobody plans to capsize. When you do, you want to have the best protection against the cold that you can have. I use a farmer john sleeveless suit when the water is cold. Remember that a kayaker is all about the arms and a wet suit with sleeves will limit your motion, and perhaps cause discomfort and chaffing. I am an experienced swimmer and have a lot of confidence getting back in my kayak when swamped. Most people underestimate the difficulty of getting back in, so practice it in a safe place with paddling companions to help you if you get exhausted.
    Zoot Fuzion Sleeveless Wetsuit - Men's

  8. Pump and Sponge (optional, but highly recommended) - When you capsize, your kayak cockpit (this is not an issue for sit-on-tops) takes on water. The pump goes on the webbing on deck (not in a hard to get into hold), and pumps water out of the cockpit fast. The sponge is even more optional, and gets out the last gallon or so by soaking and wringing.

  9. Dry Bag (optional) - If you take things with you that you want to keep dry, like a wallet or a change of clothes, a towel, a phone, etc. then you will need a dry bag to keep it dry. You roll up the end that opens and fasten it shut. I keep a camera and phone in my life vest pockets inside sandwich Ziploc bags. If the dry bag is in the cockpit with you, make sure it is attached to the kayak so you don't lose it if you take a spill. Same goes for everything you want to hold onto.
    Seattle Sports Glacier Clear Dry Bag - Medium

  10. Signaling Devices (optional) - Imagine you're out for a paddle and a sail boat just turns about and is heading right for you. You'll want to get out of his path, but it is also nice to have a whistle or a horn to make yourself known. For bigger ships, just stay out of their way, they can't turn fast enough to do you any good. If you lose your paddle or otherwise require rescue there are optical signaling options. There are some pretty good strobes that can be seen for miles, laser beacons, flares are expensive and short lived, but you can fire them when you hear an airplane or boat near. These are all for that one time when something has gone wrong, so good to have.
    Greatland Laser Rescue Laser Flare - Magnum

  11. Bow and Aft Lights (required for night paddles) - Full moon paddles are wonderful stuff. Paddling to a restaurant on or near a dock is also a novelty evening for the adventurous. Sunrise paddles are inspirational miracles. If you're on the water and it is dark, you have to have a white light in front, and a red light in back. I also recommend a hand held light for getting attention if you need to, and the previously mentioned whistle.
    Paddlers Supply Company LED Kayak Deck Light with Suction Cup Base

  12. Other Stuff- Of course, there's a lot of stuff you need that is not specific to kayaking. You need sun protection (sunblock, glasses, etc.), water, food, and all that jazz.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate with various retailers on the internet, so I may make a commission on the purchase of certain items that I recommend.

How I Got Started

When my partner and I moved to Vallejo, we made friends with a man named Marc, who has a sea kayak and a canoe. He took us out onto the Napa River, putting in at JFK Park. He showed us what we needed to know, how to get in and out of the kayak, and we took turns paddling it. With two in the canoe, and one in the kayak, we made our way up to downtown Napa for lunch. That was fun. We locked up the canoe and kayak to a tree, then walked up to the restaurant, Downtown Joe's, with our paddles. "Excuse me, but do you have paddle check?" We had a fantastic lunch, then paddled back down the river.

Marc and I were in the canoe, and Kevin was in the kayak. Kevin was some distance ahead, paddling moderately. I suggested to Marc that we paddle as hard as we could, the idea being that we would pick up such speed that we would blow by Kevin, thus showing him up. Marc and I are both very fit and we both paddled as hard as we could, and we could not catch up to the kayak. Even though Kevin didn't know he was in a race, he won the race. It was this that convinced me that the kayak is superior to the canoe. It offers a lot less wind resistance.

One day, when Kevin and I were hiking in Briones Regional Park, we were talking about where we wanted to go on vacation when Kevin suggested that we take the money that we normally spend on airfare, and instead, we buy sea kayaks. I thought this was the best idea I'd ever heard. We chose California Canoe and Kayak in Oakland. They rent kayaks all Summer, then they sell the previous year's rentals at great prices. Then you go in there, and they are like family. The folks working there are experienced kayakers. They have all the equipment you need; new and used. They give classes, and offer a lot of free advice. When you buy a kayak there, you get to take it for a test drive. They have a deal where you can pay a flat fee, then take any kayak you want until you find one you like, then the fee goes toward the purchase price. No, I don't work there, they're not paying me to say this, it's just a great shop.

We bought two Monterey Perceptions. These are 13 feet 6 inches, and I found that it is a great kayak, but my legs are a bit too long. So, I took it back to the shop, and exchanged for the Necky Looksha that I paddle now. It is 14 feet 4 inches, which is just right for me. Both are sit inside kayaks, not sit-on-tops. This is my personal preference, but I won't bad mouth sit-on-tops because I haven't tried them. One nice thing about the Perception is that it has a retractable skeg. It actually has a slot in the hull, and this is a great feature. You can retract it for loading on the truck or storage. Retracted you don't have to worry about the skeg injuring anyone, or getting damaged. The Looksha skeg sticks out, so I remove it before and after every trip. Both of these kayaks have fore and aft storage compartments. We've used them to hold sleeping bags and tents for camping out on Angel Island, but that's another story.

We've gone on numerous of trips since the beginning. I'll tell you about them in other posts. We're lucky to live near so many great waterways. There's Tomales Bay, Petaluma River, Lake Berryessa, and more. I can't wait!

Row Your Boat (Intro)

When I was a young lad, I was in the Boy Scouts, and a good Scouting friend of mine, Chris, had a knack for taking commonly known songs and changing all the words to make it more scientific. For instance, "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat" became:
Propel, propel, propel your aquatic craft,
with little effort through the flowing liquid solution,
with happiness, with happiness, with happiness,
existence is but an illusion.

We thought this was hysterical when we were ten. That was when I started paddling. First it was canoes. Troop 135 from Pacific Beach, San Diego, would drive out to the Colorado River towing a trailer loaded with those aluminum canoes. We'd put in up stream, then paddle down river, two to a boat, for two days. We'd camp by the side of the river, and at the end of the trip, we'd have fresh air in our lungs, tanned skin, and great memories to last us a lifetime.

As much as I love canoes, now, it's just about the sea kayaks. I have had two, and I'm loving my Necky Looksha. In this blog, I'll share with you everything I know and love about kayaking. I'll try to get you psyched into kayaking yourself, and tell you how to get started, and everything I think you should know. At the same time, I'd love to hear about your kayaking adventures, cautions, favorite places, and techniques.