Sunday, June 10, 2007



I took a recreational kayaking class. "Recreational" is the term they use for people who aren't doing anything competitive (racing) and who aren't doing anything crazy (whitewater). The purpose of the class was to learn the basic strokes and control of a kayak.

The class went from 8:00 AM to about 4:00 PM, with a break for lunch. There were seven students, and two instructors. We met at the "put-in" point on the Chattahoochee River. The first couple of hours were spent on land. We first unloaded all the equipment, then waited while a few people dropped off their vehicles at the "take-out" point a few miles downstream. Then the instruction began.

The equipment is pretty simple to understand. First, you've got a kayak, which is a small narrow boat with a small cockpit, a seat, and a couple of pegs to put your feet on. For serious kayaking, you wear a skirt that seals the cockpit from water, but we didn't need that for our class. The kayak has some inflatable airbags in the bow ans stern that will prevent the boat from taking on too much water if it capsizes or goes under a wave. Kayaks range in size from long "sea kayaks" to the very-short whitewater kayaks. Recreational kayaks are between those two extremes.

Next, you've got a two-bladed paddle. The blades are offset at an angle from one another so that when you've got one in the water, the other blade is not flat against the wind. Kayakers must twist their wrists as they go from one side to the other so that the blade in the water is at the right angle. Serious kayak racers have their blades at a 90-degree angle to minimize wind drag, but to avoid wrist injuries, most kayakers use a less extreme angle.

Finally, you've got a "personal floatation device" (PFD), which is a fancy name for a lifejacket. Depending upon the weather and likelihood of getting wet, one might also want a spray jacket, thermal underwear, a wetsuit, or a drysuit, but it was a muggy 90-degree day, and nobody planned to flip their kayak, so we all had minimal clothing.

The instructors covered some safety information. We were told that if we fell out of the kayak, the best thing to do would be to float on our backs with feet pointed downstream and out of the water. Smashing against rocks with one's buttocks may not sound pleasant, but it is preferable to hitting your head/face against them by trying to swim face down. You also don't want your feet to get caught on anything because you could get stuck and then get pushed underwater by the current.

The instructors talked a little about how to control the kayak, but it was surprisingly little information. Instead, they told us to get into the kayaks and do our best to paddle out and meet just past a bridge downstream.

I quickly concluded that there must be something wrong with my kayak, as it would always turn when I wanted to go straight, and go straight when I wanted to turn. The other students' kayaks were similarly defective. But we all managed to reach the designated point, and then the instructors taught us the basic strokes.

This took a couple of hours, and by the end we were all in fairly good control. We stopped at a park and took a break for lunch, then got back in the kayaks.

The afternoon was spent in some small rapids. These are known as "Class 1" rapids. The classification system goes up to 6, but anything over 3 is for experts.

The instructors covered some features of rapids before we got into them. One feature is rocks. Obviously, one does not want to hit rocks, but a good feature of a rock is that behind each rock is an area of calm water known as an "eddy." Eddies are good places to rest or to wait for the rest of your party. The only problem with eddies is that at the boundary between the eddy and the fast-moving current, the current pushes one away from the eddy, so it takes some finesse and strong paddling to get into an eddy and to exit one gracefully.

Another feature of rapids is a "strainer," which is something that lies across the path but which the water does not go around. An example would be a fallen tree. Strainers are bad, because a boater can get trapped, unable to get out due to the strength of the current. Stay away from strainers.

We went through a few rapids, and it was fun. However, I had the distinction of being the guy who fell out of his boat. I got turned sideways while going through some bumpy water and started tilting back and forth. During the safety lecture earlier, the instructor had mentioned that if you fall out of the boat, it's better to fall upstream than downstream, so that the boat stays downstream of you and will hit rocks and such, instead of sandwiching you between itself and a rock. So, when I started getting unstable, I deliberately leaned upstream to avoid falling downstream, and I guess I leaned too far.

I managed to hang on to my paddle, and grabbed the capsized kayak. This was right in the middle of some rapids, so I had little choice but to aim my feet downstream and keep them out of the water, as instructed earlier. My butt did hit a few rocks as I went down the rapids, but the rocks were all smooth and covered with moss, so there was no pain or damage.

When I got clear of the rapids, the instructor was rowing up to me. He tied a line to my kayak and towed it and me toward the shore. I dragged the kayak up on the beach, drained the water out of the kayak, and then put the kayak back on the water and got in.

We went through the rest of the rapids without incident. We weren't making good time; the river is low these days and the current doesn't flow very fast. So, for what seemed like an hour or so, we rowed and rowed and rowed until we got to to the take-out point.

We packed everything up and shuttled back to the put-in point, and that was it.

It was fun, but I was completely exhausted when I got home. I remember getting out of my car when I got home. The next thing I remember is waking up on the couch three hours later. Even after that nap and some dinner, I still felt woozy.

My legs were very sore for a couple of days. One might think that a kayaker doesn't use their legs, and that their arms would get sore, but that's not how it works. If you are paddling correctly, you twist your hips and torso, and so you rely on the strength of your legs to hold you in your seat.

A few days later, I feel fine. I'm thinking about signing up for the whitewater course. I'm sure I'll end up falling out of the boat again, but as they say, if you don't fall out, you aren't trying hard enough.

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