Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Recent travels - update from the UK

Sea Kayak Georgia was great fun. We had a few days with wind and some good conditions. These faded, but the fun continued and there were still some nice clean waves on the last day. Russell gave a presentation on the “Vacation To Hell” Arctic trip this summer that was excellent. He’ll be in San Diego in March sharing the adventure again. Bryan Smith gave a preview of his upcoming DVD “Eastern Horizons” which was beautiful! He covers the entire coast from Canada to Florida and the videography is superb. The DVD will release this spring. Everyone was jealous that I already had copies of “This Is The Sea 4”, but we got to see the premier cut there too!

The coaches all stayed in an enormous house right on the water with a pool, beautiful sunsets and dolphins swimming past the dock. It was such a treat to launch our kayaks from the house and meet our students just a few minutes away. We’d paddle back home to a hot shower and cold beer.
Things were really uneventful until the last day when one gentleman opted to go the hospital suffering from shortness of breath. They were worried about a blood clot or other arterial blockage. Not long after, we holed a boat in my surf session (but I’m happy to say I wasn’t driving either boat!) There was a big pop as the bow of one Explorer went through the stern of another. It’s not a proper symposium until a boat gets broken (sorry Ronnie and Marsha)!

I had a long flight to the UK and despite taking different routes from Georgia, arrived at the same time as Fiona. This was great because she drove me into Manchester to collect my rental van. The airline had lost a couple of my bags which included my road atlas of the UK, so Fi loaned me her navigation system and I’ve been very thankful. It’s enough of a challenge to drive a stick shift on the wrong side of the road without having to navigate as well!!

I’ve spent the last 3 days coaching at the 3rd annual Storm Gathering. An aptly named event hosted in a different location every year.

This year Mark Tozer, an L5 coach from Wales, hosted the event in familiar territory at the center Nigel Dennis used to own on Anglesey. I’m currently sitting in the on-site pub called the “Paddler’s Return”.

The bunk houses are just a hundred yards away and the sea is a 5 minute walk. From there, the famous tide race Penrhyn Mawr is about a 20 minute paddle. It’s heaven. Over the weekend, the small pub was packed with paddlers telling tales from the day. Old kayaks, retired from amazing expeditions to cold and brutal places, used to hang upside down from the ceiling of the pub and in the good old days, these were used by drunken paddlers to demonstrate re-entry techniques. These days, it’s a little tamer, but still good fun. Above the taps is a row of caps from paddling shops around the globe – Body Boat Blade and Sweetwater and about 2 dozen others. The back wall is similarly adorned with paddling-themed stickers and one battered kayak remains above the pool table. The owner, Jim, always welcomes me warmly like a regular customer, despite the fact that I only appear every six or nine months. He asked me to pass on his regards to Shawna and Leon and others back in the States that have enjoyed his pub.

I’ve had 3 good days out on the water. Very appropriately, the Storm Gathering began with a tremendous storm. It was forecast to blow a force 9 (45+ mph) from the SW and it rained heavily. To use a british phrase, it was barking mad to go paddling, but we did anyway. We hid from the wind and swell in the Menai Straits, a narrow, river-like body of water that separates Anglesey from the mainland. The tide cranks through here and makes some good rapids over a rocky stretch. We paddled into the wind about as long as we could, but when we came around a corner and took a full 40 knots in the face, we decided to turn around and play on some eddy lines for a bit. It’s all a bit shocking to the system of a southern California girl, but so much fun! When the gusts came through, they tugged hard on my paddle blades and blew the rain horizontally. I could only put my head down and grin! The photo below does poor justice!

Things calmed down on the second day and the wind switched direction. I went out along the north coast with Aled Williams – a well known kayak designer and local paddler of amazing talent. Taino, a kayak coach from New York, was working with us. We had a somewhat mixed ability group who wanted to get a bit of rough water experience. We had that, and then some! It turned into the kind of day that reminds you why we train and practice and makes you vow to practice twice as much from now on!

Aled was more than happy to show our group some rough water and at the first cave, we quickly had a swimmer. It was still blowing over 20 knots and the water was confused and lumpy, making many in our group a bit wobbly. The group quickly began to drift apart as I towed Aled away from the cave while he got Phil back in his kayak. Once they were upright and safely away from the rocks, I left a capable paddler named Mike with them and gathered the group with Taino to move them upwind to a bit of shelter. I had no doubt that Aled and the others would quickly catch up and we’d carry on.
Many long minutes ticked by and we could see Aled, Phil, and Mike but no sign of progress. We eventually saw one of the kayaks separated from the other two and upside down. It was time to go back and see what the problem was. I dreaded turning the group around because the wobbly ones would be much more unstable heading downwind and their steering difficulties would only get worse, but it was clear Aled had his hands full. When we caught up with them, Aled was right-side-up but the other two were swimming and one of the empty kayaks was just drifting away beyond Aled’s reach and picking up speed fast. Nevertheless, Aled was smiling and said “I’m just going to fetch that boat back and we’ll be fine.” I hung around for a moment and decided he really did have the situation under control, so I carried on to a safe and comfortable place to park the group. We had a nerve wracking bit of water to paddle through to get there and I knew one more capsize was going to be one problem too many. Luckily, everyone did a fabulous job and we got to a sheltered cove where everyone could relax. I bolted back to Aled but he had the other 2 in a rafted tow and was making good progress. I chatted to the 2 towees while we paddled towards the cove and learned the details. It had taken a while to sort Phil out from his first capsize and Mike had clipped in to tow them off the rocky shore again. As he tried to re-stow his tow line, he capsized in the rough water and, wrapped in line, failed to roll. Phil was too unstable to leave unattended, so Aled had to do a contact tow to get to Mike but then promptly got him back in the boat. He then attempted a rafted tow with Mike stabilizing Phil, but the wind and waves split the boats apart and they both capsized. This time Phil became entrapped, having come part way out of his kayak on a roll attempt and then finding he couldn’t release his skirt. Luckily, Mike was now swimming beside him and freed him, letting go of his boat in the process! That’s the moment I arrived to find the 2 swimmers and the boat floating away!
Reunited, we headed back to the car park as a group, had a lunch, and decided to try again! We skipped the tour of the caves this time and had an easier time of it, although the tide had turned and at a rocky outcropping, the force of the headwind, combined with the tidal current, brought a few in the group to a virtual standstill. I clipped in a tow line and we started making slow but steady progress into a pretty bay with old brickworks on the hillside. We had one more capsize on the way home, but it was quickly sorted.

All in all, it was a pretty exciting day that kept me on my toes every second! It wasn’t exactly the day we had planned, but hopefully everyone learned a bit and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment after a difficult challenge.

The last day I found myself leading a group with Warren, another New Yorker. We had charge of a group of 10 who were pretty sure, but not entirely sure, that they wanted to experienced some rough water. Again, it was a pretty mixed bag of confidence levels but the conditions permitted a few more options than the previous day. We traveled along the west coast to Penrhyn Mawr and played among the rocky outcroppings along the way.

When the tide began flooding, the tide race began to develop and some members of the group were loving playing in it while others were a bit nervous. The waves were quite big in places, but very manageable in others. The huge challenge when playing in a tide race is simply keeping track of 10 people! With the current running fast, a capsized paddler can vanish out of sight among the waves very quickly! We had one swimmer, but I was close by and sorted it out quickly. Roz had a dramatic ride on a big wave that ended with her boat vertical and half out of the water. She rolled up though and went back for more!

We ended the day tuning up Eskimo rolls and Rebecca was chuffed to get 6 or 7 rolls in a row. She told me she’d been working on it all summer and had stumped every coach in her club. I’m pleased to say it took me 5 minutes to sort her out! I had the easy part though - the other coaches did all the hard work, but it earned me a pint in the pub!

Today I’m catching up on some work that’s been piling up. It’s rainy again and very cold – snow and a downpour of hail this morning. It’s nice to be warm and dry today!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

20th Anniversary of Aqua Adventures!

No, I haven't been working for Aqua Adventures for 20 years! That would have made me about 12 when I started (close enough!). But Aqua Adventures turns 20 this fall and it's worth pausing to take note and recall all the fun! I've put together a timeline and it's fun to see the evolution - some things have changed a lot, others have stayed remarkably the same! The founder, Eric Hanscom and I share some surprising similarities - Eric and I both have undergraduate degrees in science. We both started graduate school programs in science, but left only to spend our lives kayaking. We both hold BCU 5 Star awards (me for sea kayaking, Eric for surf kayaking). Eric met his first wife when she attended a Kern River class he was teaching. A few months later she moved from Orange County to San Diego and started working for Aqua Adventures. Many of you know that Jake and I first met 2 years ago when he was a student on a Kern River class. 4 months later I'd conned him into moving from Ventura to San Diego to work for me. He hasn't had a day off since, but it's been the best 2 years Aqua Adventures has ever had (and not bad for me too!).

We threw a party to celebrate the event and my Dad surprised me by showing up completely unannounced from clear across the country! I wouldn't own Aqua Adventures if not for the generous support of my parents and it was really fun to have him here! Thanks to everyone who came to celebrate with us!

Here's a quick history of the milestones in the evolution of Aqua Adventures
Eric Hanscom quits grad school to compete internationally at kayak surfing
(Jen graduates high school)

Eric wins his first World Championship title and decides to try to make a living at his passion.

Eric opens Aqua Adventures with $3,000 and "six very, very old kayaks"
(Jen attends Colorado College, studying geology)

Eric's philosophy is to guide where he wants to paddle. An enormous variety of trips appear in newsletters as experiments. The core lessons and trips appear early, prove their value and last for decades. More ambitious trips appear and dissappear just as fast. destinations include Big Sur, Kauai, Nepal, Tetons, Merced River, Kern River, Costa Rica, Baja, Lake Powell, Vancouver Island.

The Perception Dancer XS is considered "the hottest surfing kayak around"

A 2 hour private roll class in a pool cost $70 and a 3 hour tour of Mission Bay cost $45

Kevin Montgomery headed up the San Diego kayak club and for $7.50/year you could subscribe to the bi-monthly newsletter.

Guides included Marla Hettinger, Joe Hettinger (haven't heard from them in ages), Steve and Karen Jewel (still hear from them from time to time), Jim Kuhns and Christo Matthews/Kuzmich (still see them regularly!)

The offices/headquarters is an industrial warehouse and Aqua Adventures fills a growing nitch by using primarily sit-on-top kayaks

Eric Hansom decides to "get a real job" and sells Aqua Adventures to Greg Knight who promptly moves the company to a new industrial warehouse.

Greg, desperate for new guides who work for beer, hires Jen Kleck

The Perception Pirouette has replaced the Dancer as the "hot boat" and that's what Greg paddles (he doesn't own a sea kayak). Jen paddles a Perception Matrix (which she got really cheap) and a Necky Narpa.

WaveSport begins a whitewater revolution with planing hull kayaks. The Kinetic and X are the hot boats of the day.

Jen and Greg being the process of becoming certified sea kayak instructors with the ACA and our fleet has a growing number of sea kayaks.

Aqua Adventures incorporates and makes Jen a shareholder.

There is talk of merging with Southwest Sea Kayaks owned by Ed Gillet & Katie Kampe, but the hurdles are too significant.

We find 800 square feet of waterfront retail location on Mission Bay late in the year and just as Southwest is shutting down, we're opening up. We still close when the surf is good or there's a good winter storm blowing the sea up.

Scott Fairty shows up seeking dealers for Valley and NDK. He assesses Greg and Jen for their first BCU award.

Our tiny shop is home to a growing community of paddlers. And a great group of guides and staff come and go with the seasons.

A 2 hour private roll class costs $100. A 2 hour guided tour of Mission Bay costs $35 (except on Thursdays when it costs $15).

A big retail space opens up across the parking lot and we jump on it. We spend long winter nights moving walls, laying carpet, painting, hanging fixtures, building counters and buying product to fill the new space. We bribe friends with beer and pizza and while the work goes slowly, it's cheap labor!

The average whitewater kayak is a "playboat" about 7' long.

Jen buys Greg's share of the business and takes it on solo.

Jake Stachovak attends a whitewater class in September. Jen invites him paddling the following week and cons him into working for her a few months later. Aqua Adventures has never had a more competent and hard working manager and thrives under his influence. Jen does too.

Jen passes her BCU Level 5 Sea Coach award, becoming the first person in North America to achieve this level of certification.

Aqua Adventures adds canoes and standup paddleboards to it's fleet as we look forward to an ever evolving future!

We're looking forward to what the next decade brings - stay tuned!