Comfort zone vs. danger? long-ish

-- Last Updated: Jun-09-13 10:11 AM EST --

Friends who grew up on the water advise that you never go out in conditions in which you feel really uncomfortable. Advanced kayakers advise that you break out of your comfort zone. Somewhere between the two there must be a boundary; I suspect that's individual.

I'm really an advanced beginner in kayaking. I can self-rescue, but it's not fun to do in cold water, so capsizing that is not for true practice isn't what I do for fun. I know I have much to learn and do take lessons. So I stay away from conditions that I feel will push me into discomfort to the level that I don't enjoy myself that day.

I own a wide rec kayak, which I've used in windy, wavy conditions on mostly flat water. I've also used sea kayaks, though not in the open ocean or bay. I'm in the process of finding where my zone for learning vs. being out of my depth would be, so that I can invest in the latter appropriately.

Yesterday on open wide water canal systems I was setting off with some friends on their SOTs (mine is a sit-inside). To my dismay, the same waterways were being used by power boaters zooming by with waterskiers. The wave action every few minutes was so severe as to make my rec kayak feel really unstable. The dock from which I as launching was very difficult to stand on when the waves were hitting. I became so uncomfortable that I just gave up paddling there altogether. But my friends, who are minimally experienced in their SOTs were able to stand it. It's not that I've never been around large craft in a channel, but this felt extreme. And I do know to aim my bow into the wave, BTW.

Was I wrong to give up? Is a SOT that much more stable? Would you have enjoyed the water with those power boaters?

IMHO - real progress requires
that I paddle in a decent sea kayak with a spray skirt and that I paddle a bit outside my comfort zone from time to time but only with other more skilled paddlers who are within their comfort zone so as to minimize, (but never truly eliminate), the risks. Just like anything else in life really.

You Want Comfort?
Get a reliable brace and roll in a calm lake or a swimming pool. Once you do you will welcome some rock and roll water.

Two things
Ignorance can be very calming. You know about the likelihood of capsize and hence have trepidation about it. Your friends in the SOT’s likely never thought about it, so that isn’t coming near bothering them. They were probably much more relaxed than you as a result, which by itself will help keep someone upright.

Most people I know who have flipped over supposedly uncapsizable boats - for example a Pungo 12 in 6 inch wavelets - have done so by stiffening up and thus taking the boat over.

That said, you also have to get over this thing of putting the nose of the boat into the wave. You can’t rely on the direction of the waves lining up conveniently so that pointing into them will get you where you need to go. We’ve had paddlers in our very mixed evening group get dangerously separated from the main group - and quick rescue - because pointing into the waves meant they had to wander way off the shortest path to the launch. And it left them in the channel for longer than than if they could take a more sideways angle, also a risk factor. You need to relax and let the boat move under you so that you can take them sideways.

All good advice above. Also…
I was once told that “boats don’t capsize, people capsize boats” and it is true. It lies behind the idea of loose hips. That having been said it is important for you to learn to brace. Rolling is fine but bracing is more important. There are many ways to brace. A strong forward stroke, maybe with a hip snap, works very well and is something you already know. A single scull (“sweep”) forward or backward also works well. Practice bracing in shallow water with a buddy tipping your boat randomly until it is instinctive.

Go back there to practice!
Go and practice in conditions that challenge you - where the location is safe (close to shore, onshore wind, clean water, warm temps, you are out of the way of the power boaters, and you have buddies to help you if need be, etc.)

As said, bracing skills are key. But in most boat wake situations, you don’t need to brace - learning to relax and separate your lower body from your upper body movements is often enoug. You stay centered and the boat “dances” under you, so you seldom lose balance.

I fully began to relax once I had a half-decent roll, so I could experiment with bracing, edging, leaning, etc. knowing that if I capsized I would be very likely to just roll back up. A 22" or so wide boat with a low rear deck helps a lot to gain confidence in your roll and is also more conductive to learning other skills.

The alternative (to learning) is to get a sit on top, which is arguably safer than a comparable sit-in due to the fact you can just climb back on top if of are in decent shape. Nothing wrong with that - just enjoy the ride. Though I have seen total beginners, a tad overweight to be fair, who somehow managed to capsize super stable recreational sit on tops during a relaxing flat water sight seeing trip. And they could not climb back on on their own. So, make sure you practice that and that you can, with the equipment you have on your back, remount reliably, in the conditions you plan to paddle, before you assume you can :slight_smile:

You were absolutely correct to give up
-But don’t worry about it.

The old adage: “It is better to be safe then sorry” comes into play here

The more you paddle the more secure you will find yourself.

I started fifteen years ago with a wide 9’ long rec kayak and in the beginning I felt just like you.

As time went by, I realized that the kayak was a lot more stable then I gave it credit for.

Eventually I got a longer, skinnier kayak and got used to that also.

Now I paddle a 21" wide 18’ long one, and am very comfortable with power boat wakes and white caps.

The same will happen to you if you enjoy the sport and keep paddling.

For what it is worth: My criteria now on going or not going is the weather report, which hopefully will be your criteria eventually.

Jack L

Paddle in groups

– Last Updated: Jun-09-13 1:21 PM EST –

Find others to paddle with, those that are better than you.
Try different boats, understand their differences in hull shape.

A wide flat bottom boat gets "rocked" hard
when waves are tossing it about, to and fro.

Ditch the rec boat
Aside from relaxing and bracing, a British style kayak with rocker is fun and stable in confused wavy waters. There are many good ones for even beginners ( 23-24" wide).

I agree
I have a wide range of boats in my “fleet” and in my opinion the wider and flatter the boat the less stable it feels in rough water. A wide flat boat wants to follow the surface of the water, if the water is rough, the boat is rough. If you have not worked on your “hips on a swivel” it may feel very unstable.

There are a lot of boats available that feel very stable for somebody in the beginning years (I have kept a Necky Manatou for this very reason as a loaner boat) and are able to navigate on water shared with power boats safely.

you did right
I am a strong believer in listening to your gut. if it said it is time to get off the water, you should get off the water. The SOT folks had it easier in that they din’t have as much worry about flipping - they just had to scramble back on and keep going, where your rec boat would require a lot more effort (draining, which probably means swimming to shore) to let you keep going.

Experts say you need to push your limits to grow is true, but has a caveat. You always want to paddle in conditions that you can be rescued. if you are paddling solo, it needs to be in conditions where you can self rescue. If you are paddling with others, you can expand the conditions some to be ones where you can be rescued by them.

Of course, you need to be sure the folks you are with can do rescues. The average paddler is much like you - for various reasons doesn’t get out and practice their rescues. That is one of the reasons why I like the various symposiums - these bring together the absolute cream of the crop experts, who have a lot of experience rescuing folks from difficult conditions (and also knowing when to allow you to push your limits, and when not), allowing for us regular folks to push our limits as far as we want to go.

controlled risk
Pick a spot to practice maneuvering and rescues with some waves and wind but also a safe area you will wash up if things go badly. A canal with speed boats is not that place.

Getting out of your comfort zone is essential if you want to progress. But you need to pick spots with little consequences of screwing up and go with a some people who know their stuff.

However, there’s not much progress to be made in your average rec boat.

Comfort zones
Not exactly answering your Q, but I want to say that people’s reactions to being out of their comfort zone vary a LOT. Some people totally fall apart and either freeze up or keep doing something that isn’t working long after it’s clear something else should be tried. It’s like their brains aren’t designed for handling those kinds of situations.

What’s strangest is that this person might be the one who always seems to have everything completely planned out and in tight control otherwise. But when the stuff hits the fan, they unravel and go into panic mode, often spectacularly (yes, I’ve seen this happen with the same person in all kinds of situations both paddling and non-paddling where something didn’t go “right”–sometimes where it really wasn’t dangerous but merely an obstacle yet they react as if it’s a crisis).

What’s even stranger is that the person who usually seems a little scattered/distracted/unfocused often functions better in these kinds of situations. Priorities and necessary actions suddenly become crystal-clear without any conscious thought involved.

You’d better know which of these two extremes you tend toward before interpreting where your comfort zone boundaries are!

Good post.

Some answers
Lots of good stuff above!

SOT vs SINK. Stability wise, it is a wash. Rec style SOT are very stable, but so are rec style SINKs. The major difference, of course, is that SOT will float when flipped while a SINK will have only the built in floatation, be it in hatches or float bags.

Comfort zone - you should never venture into any conditions without a solid rescue plan - either solo or assisted rescue, and I am not talking rescue by emergency services here. Getting out of comfort zone to practice skills that were developed within comfort zone is essential to develop as a paddler, but the risks have to evaluated and managed. It is usually advised to paddle alone as a group typically has more rescue options, of course a competency within group is assumed here. “32C” - three to sea is the old mantra here.

Would I have been comfortable surrounding by boat wash and waves? - absolutely, but I worked reasonably hard to develop skills suitable for these conditions.

Paddling is not rocket science, everyone can figure things out on their own. That said, for most people, taking an introductory class into kayaking may be money well spent. During a typical class basic strokes, including braces, are covered. Students get to practice rescues as well

For the record
Lots of great info here and I appreciate all of it!

Neither of my friends is skilled at all in rescue and I knew that. While we were within reasonable swimming to shore distance, I was not interested in having to do this unnecessarily! I can self-rescue with a paddle float, and my rec kayak does have front and rear float bags. That still would have essentially had me on my own if I had flipped.

I have some lessons under my belt, but do not feel edging and bracing skills are very good at all. Need more practice with instruction on these. Was aware that this contributed to my feeling of discomfort in the situation. I’m going to have to work on this harder.

But given the advice above, I will work on this in safer conditions and work up to it, hopefully not solo!

I was shocked at how fast and strong the wave action from the powerboats was. Have dealt with some wave action and wakes in harbors before, but wasn’t prepared for the frequency, height and energy of these waves. At least now I don’t feel like a total chicken…

Thanks, all.

also - learn about topography
You may also want to learn about waves and topography. For example, when a wave works its way into shallower water, the height of the wave builds. So certain areas will have taller waves than other areas. The wave also slows down, which is what causes the wave to fall over on itself at a certain depth (a breaking wave).

When a wave hits the shore at a beach, the energy is mostly used up. But when it hits a wall, it bounces back. This wave then heads back toward the source, and intersects with other waves. When the waves intersect, the wave heights of the two waves add together, making even larger waves. This is often called clapotis (though I think the scientific term clapotis only refers to certain incidences of these reflecting waves).

It is quite possible that one or both of these were taking place, making the waves there even more challenging than you had seen before.

Stay away from the sea wall
A newbie to the sport can get seriously bounced around

being near a seawall when powerboaters cruise on by

Reflection of waves
As alluded to, if you are near a solid barrier like a sea wall you get the wave coming in as well as it being reflected back. That makes the peaks closer together, hence it feels choppier.

There are two tracks running here given what you have said about your longer term goals. One is that you need to get comfortable letting the boat rock around under you without it disturbing your center of gravity. But the other is that a skinnier sea kayak simply does this better than a rec boat, and is better for learning to brace and edge.

I get the sense that you are trying to get comfortable in your rec boat then use that to decide what’ll be a fit in a sea kayak. For some aspects of kayaking that can work. But for learning waves/dimensional water, you might get this under your belt faster if you look around for a transition boat at least, something narrower than your rec boat. It doesn’t have to do much more than float, just so that you can spend time in a boat with a more representative response to the water for what you will be dealing with longer term.

Overall, if you are as tense as it sounds like you were, you have a capsize coming at you. So it was probably a good idea to get off the water. But if you specifically go out and spend time in waves letting the boat wiggle under you and learn to relax, without the powerboats dashing around (that couldn’t have been quiet and peaceful) you could find the same situation less alarming on a second try.

or better yet go for it!
Seawalls actually make great spots to improve you boat/blade/paddle dynamics skills. Don’t do it in a rec boat. One of those unworthy sit-on-tops might be just the ticket. Get knocked over, climb right back on and do it again.