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Southern Outer Banks Sea Kayak Symposium

Posted Jun 08 2006 12:00am
Well, we’re off! A 3 hour drive should give us plenty of time to get on the beach this evening before the waves settle down for the weekend. In Wisconsin you pray for rough weather to kick it up. (well, I do anyway!) I may get in a post Monday before we head up to the Inland Sea Symposium on Tuesday. Sometimes we write about paddling. . some times we paddle. . Thanks to Thomas For sending me this overview of the Outerbanks Sea Kayak Symposium or I would have had to write an educational article about packing enough underwear to always have a dry pair when you get off the water. . . . and who wants to go there!??

Over to you Thomas. . .

Barrier Island Kayaks
Southern Outer Banks Sea Kayak Symposium
Swansboro/Bogue Inlet, NC6-4-06
- Guest Post From Thomas Duncan

Barrier Island Kayaks in Swansboro, NC was the site of the Third Annual Southern Outer Banks Sea Kayak Symposium on June 1-4, 2006. Lamar Hudgens is the man behind the shop, organizer and host of this event. With more than 20 years and 25,000 miles behind the paddle, Lamar is a BCU 5-Star coach, excellent teacher, and all around great guy. Watching Lamar ply the waves in his kayak of choice, an NDK Romany, one is reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings where the Elf Legolas is seen treading lightly atop the snow as the rest of the fellowship trudges along waist deep while climbing a pass on the mountain Caradhras through the storm wrought by Saruman’s spell. Seriously.

Around 9AM on a sunny Thursday morning, folks gathered in Atlantic, NC from as far away as New Zealand to cross Core Sound destined for the pristine heart of the real Outer Banks at Drum Inlet, NC. Located between the south end of Portsmouth Island and the north of South Core Banks, this inlet is now nearly un-navigable to most vessels due to the extensive shoaling from recent hurricanes.

The result is a sea kayaker’s paradise, a dynamic inlet free of traffic where the swell comes across rolling shoals and cuts, begetting waves that graduate from about a foot near the bay side to, on this day, four to six foot clean, spilling breakers off the beach in deeper water. Something for everyone. We were not disappointed, being greeted by crystal clear green water in the 75°-80°F range that revealed hundreds of horseshoe crabs mating in the shallows, and an adult sea turtle as well as a recent hatchling.

After a hasty mid-morning snack on the beach, we took to the swell and enjoyed a fine day of wave-riding in long boats. Countless cries of sheer pleasure rang out across the hissing surf as a horde of nearly 30 sea kayakers surrounded the three small boats carrying local anglers who watched the procession with faces that registered astonishment to wonder, but lacked any reflection of annoyance.

All too soon the orange on white Explorer of Bob Patterson, Barrier Island Kayak guide appeared on the crests in the outer break where a handful of us, lost in our pleasure, failed to notice the long train of kayaks leaving the inlet. “Time to go” said he. We caught our last rides and with wistful glance over the shoulder, set out for the mainland. A blissful drive through the Down East countryside while buzzing with the afterglow that comes from good paddling, soon delivered the fellowship to Swansboro where we checked into hotel rooms and campsites.

Friday morning broke clear with a light wind and we split off into groups for BCU 3- and 4-star training under the expert tutelage of Nigel Dennis, Tom Nickels, Lamar Hudgens, Russell Farrow, Kevin Black, Mark Schoon and Mel Rice. With my trusty Greenland sticks, I joined the group heading out with Nigel and Tom for 4-star training. The class began by gathering at the shop for some navigation and chart work. We learned to pinpoint our location, plot courses, and decipher the coding on a chart. Checking the weather and tides, we made a float plan and left it with Christina, another of Lamar’s long-time guides.

Trailer loaded with all our kayaks and kit, we set out for a park and play spot on the Point at Emerald Isle from which we launched into Bogue Inlet for a day of boat control in the gnarly zipper zone, capsizes, rolls, rescues and towing exercises. I quickly learned to attach my towing carabiner with the gate facing up to prevent it being pressed open against the deck as pressure is applied on the line. Adding to my day’s lessons, Tom called out the next scenario. Wendy, a researcher with NOAA, and I were to paddle into the gnarl and both capsize on the far side and “sort it out”. Being the larger of the two of us, I held our boats together and stabilized them for Wendy to climb back in hers, then do a T-rescue for me. It worked, but took a long time. Tom suggested that next time, it might be faster for one paddler to do a re-entry and roll, then T-rescue the other and raft up to pump out the rolled kayak. I realized I had just gone with my first instinct and not thought through the situation fully which gave me some insight into how I needed to be thinking.

We all met back on a shallow sandbar for lunch and discussion. Lance, a new face in Barrier Island’s guide ranks, described a good way to handle a simultaneous capsize–while swimming, grasp a bow toggle in either hand, with your arms crossed. Push the bow in the weaker hand down into the water and drag the other bow across it, un-crossing the arms. This scissor action forces the dragged kayak over the hull of the lower kayak, draining most of the water and turning it right side up easily. Then the other swimmer can hold onto it while you re-enter and roll the still upside down kayak. Lessons learned.

After lounging for a bit in our own private spa that looked for all the world like a tidal pool, we headed back out for a bit of surf play after lunch, learning to control out kayaks better in the waves. Before long we gathered around Tom’s vertically raised paddle, took bearings on landmarks across the estuary and made our way back to the shop, ferry gliding across the current. Soon Lisa, Lamar’s wife, and son Josh had a roaring mound of coals burning in the grill and everyone swapped stories over burgers, chicken and cold beverages under the tent. We watched a wonderful sunset and retired to our various quarters.

Saturday morning, I awoke before the alarm with that strange sensation of being “misplaced” that often visits travelers opening their eyes in a motel room in the pre-dawn. Next was the realization of where I was, brought into focus by the sound of wind rattling the palm fronds outside my window, closely followed in further lucidity by the fact that although I had to go to work today, it would be work of a different sort. And that was just cool with me. As I dumped Starbucks House Blend into my french press and heated water, I peeked out the blinds at a gray dawn where dozens of kayaks lay damp in the yard next to the hotel, the American flag was flying straight out from it’s post and puffy gray clouds scuttled across the sky from the southwest. The weather forecast did not lie, and I considered briefly wearing my drysuit, but opted instead for the hydroskin. Glad I did. Soon I emerged hot coffee in hand, and stood on the dock, facing into the wind, breathing that good sea air. It was windy, but not too cool. The coolness would follow that night with the passing of the front, as I again stood on that dock, shivering this time, coffee in hand reflecting on the day, watching a skiff with headlamps hunt flounder across the ICW.

However, now was the time for donning the damp PFD and skirt and shoving off. So our group of aspirant 4-star paddlers went over the bulkhead into the warm water and set out once again for the inlet. The first short leg down the ICW saw the wind from the starboard aft quarter, and we made good time on the falling tide. Soon we turned the corner toward the inlet and took the full brunt of the wind across the fetch on the nose under darkening skies.

I stowed the long stick and brought up my short storm paddle which proved it’s design well allowing me to lazily kick along at the 4-knot pace, driving from my core with short sliding throws of the paddle while my companions labored along to greater and lesser degrees with their big Werners and Lendals. I don’t think anyone had a particularly hard time, it wasn’t a downright slog since the tide was helping us, but I did catch several comments bordering on mutiny: some in the group wished to divest me of my paddle as men once plotted to snip Samson’s locks! Others declared their intent to acquire one soonest. As I recall it, at one point, I even paused to light a cigarette and allow the others to catch up! ; ) A profounsatisfaction enveloped my spirit, and I felt the need to remind myself of the Euro blades apparent superiority in catching waves, power on demand and crispness of maneuvering strokes lest the feeling become pride. One thing is sure though, the old Inuit boys sure knew what they were doing and the magic stor paddle served me well on this day.

We neared the inlet’s “soup kitchen” to be greeted by the sight of heaving seas shrouded in flying foam and spray amid a spitting rain. Gray and forlorn, Bogue Inlet bared it’s teeth a little bit for us on this morning, and made us work for our lessons. Our group, under the all-seeing eyes of Nigel, Tom and Russell, began by surveying the area. Our plan was to go up-sea to work; in the event of the weather going south we could make a fast down-sea run to shelter on the Point.

Presently we split into sub-groups and Tom pointed to a sandbar quite close to the main channel as our destination. Upon nearing it Tom declared that I was to paddle ahead into the gnarliest stuff and capsize, whereupon Wendy and Lance were to come to my aid with a rescue and tow to hold us clear of the channel. The rescue went exceedingly well, we were like clockwork man. Back in the boats and pumping out within a minute and then I look down and to my utter horror, my favorite Greenland paddle was gone. By that, I mean it was not there anymore. I had laid it across my lap, pinning it under the lip of my PFD while I pumped out, rafted up with Wendy while being towed by Lance. In my fervor to empty my cockpit of the sea, I must have let it wash away. I was absolutely mortified as letting go of paddle or kayak is grounds for automatic failure.

Luckily this was a training day, meant for mistakes and lessons. Allowing my kayak to drift in the wind and swell momentarily, I took up the storm paddle again and set off in the direction I was blowing, trying to spot it. How long was it drifting? I couldn’t remember; I knew not when it left my kayak. Every dark spot in the water beckoned, and my head swiveled around like a man possessed. I was never going to spot it in the following seas, so I sprinted ahead, turned out in a low brace, and slowly came back up-sea. There it is! The red-brown cedar glistened in the swells. I think it was happy to see me again too. Shaking my head I stowed the storm securely and re- joined the group noted by the questioning eyes of Tom. I peeked up at him from under the brim of my hat and shamefully admitted that I had lost my paddle, but I found it now! I perceived the tiniest bit of derision in his eye as he acknowledged the reason for my sudden excursion from the group.

Back in action again, we ran through several other rescue scenarios that went off well. Another simultaneous capsize, and this time I quickly re-entered my boat and rolled, and performed a T-rescue. Again I pumped out and yet once more I let go of my damn paddle! Again! I realized it much quicker this time, but Good Lord! Twice in a half hour?! Then my heart nearly stopped as I looked up and saw Wendy sculling sideways toward me with my paddle on her lap. I think she smirked as she handed it over. I was mortified by this point, and resolved never to take my hand off it again unless it was visibly and doubly checked to be secure under the deck lines.

We paddled out through the rain and crossed the now ferocious zipper zone several times, demonstrating control in seas that were determined to knock us down. This took careful timing, speeding up and slowing down to thread our way through the breaking water without being side-surfed into one another. Once, my kayak was squirted completely airborne as three separate waves came crashing together under it. Yeehaw! I observed this happen to an adjacent paddler also.

Finally dropped paddles and missed towline clip-ons were forgiven and we called it quits to set our bows downwind, using transits to keep our course back up the inlet and across the bay. Riding on the following swell, we made it back to the shop in record time, and were all glad to get a little cooperation from the water and wind in the end, after it’s failed conspiracy to send us all to Davy Jones’ locker earlier.

After a shower and short rest I emerged from my room adjacent to the shop refreshed, pleased to find a festive scene under the big tent with Celtic music setting the mood for cold beers with funny names. A Low Country Boil soon poured out onto newspapers atop a picnic table. Everyone gathered around, plates in hand, and helped themselves to as much shrimp, corn, potatoes and sausages as they cared to consume. Lamar knows how to throw a party, and his wife Lisa knows how to feed a bunch of hungry paddlers!

Dining in the rain that evening as the cold front sent it’s last breezes through the yard, I reflected on the days exercises and lessons. The rescues had gone well, and despite paddles adrift, Lance’s towbelt coming apart, and a few other minor bumps, it was an amazing day. Bogue Inlet was the biggest I’d seen it in a couple years, and we had done great deeds out there. The standard Greenland sweep, butterfly and reverse sweep rolls had me embracing each capsize with warm affection and quickly back in action without fail. We learned efficient ways to put people back in boats and keep them from drifting into danger zones while doing it. Skills were taught, but mostly we enjoyed our celebration of sea kayaking.

Later, with the yard now quiet, I ventured out onto the dock again, and considered it all, shivering slightly in the dropping temperature and light breeze. The water had become mirror smooth in the ICW three feet below my sandals, and I caught glimpses of light darting around in the water. I could not tell if it was bioluminescence from some unseen creature, or starlight shining intermittently through the breaking cloud cover. All in all, I decided it was a fine wrap on a
great day, and headed inside to study up for tomorrow’s 4-star assessment. I had no fear of passing the practical paddling part with ease, but I felt a building nervousness at my sparse knowledge of charts and navigation, and these were the subject of the web pages I pulled up that night before exhaustion took me.

On Sunday, I awoke with a pair of butterflies flitting around my belly. Time to put up or shut up. Russell Farrow and Tom Nickels were to assess our group of seven today, putting us through our paces while Nigel Dennis assessed them for coaching awards. We murmured our good mornings to one another as we picked among fruit, oatmeal, bagels and sugary coffee cakes. I stuffed a small selection of fruit and bagels in my drybag to eat at lunch, no time for a store run this morning.

Quaffing my styrofoam cup of OJ, I helped with some clearing up and our group met over the hood of Tom’s truck to do our chart work problems and lay out all our kit for inspection. To my encouragement, Tom replied with an affirmative when I gave the answers to my chart questions. One butterfly down, one to go! Having borrowed kit from Dawn and Noah, I soon was through with the inspection of the contents of my kayak and questions from Russell, and began to feel genuinely like I might pass this thing.

Shortly we were once again lashing our kayaks on the trailer and soon after schlepping them over the dunes at the Point. we launched and ran through ever scenario and order our coaches prescribed. Some which we’d never practiced. It was all good. The highlight of the assessment exercises for me was was an on-water repair exercise on my boat, which Tom marked with a baseball sized X at the site of the “hole”, right in the side of my cockpit by my thigh (ouch). I dumped out, Wendy and Lance took my boat onto their rafted foredecks, I climbed on their aft decks and rooted through Lance’s dayhatch for his repair kit, they “repaired” it, and had me climb on their foredecks, enter my kayak and do a backwards seal launch off their
decks. Neat!

On the way back in Russell and Tom stopped the group on flatwater and we all demonstrated our various strokes and rolls. At one point, Russell had me paddle ahead and told me to turn whichever way I wanted, so I smoothly inserted one blade of my Greenland paddle against the bow, holding the paddle out and forward with one hand, and levering the trailing edge out from the hull a bit, to coincide with an edge in that direction. My kayak carved a smooth curve across the water which elicited a low call of “Sweeeet!” from Russell. That got Nigel’s attention, and soon “The Man” from Wales was experimenting with this stroke! That strange feeling of satisfaction crept back over me a little bit. Russell wrapped up by demonstrating how he could stand up in his Greenlander Pro, and several of the group attempted this trick which quickly resulted in a lot of swimming, laughing kayakers.

The pressure of the testing lifted, we paddled the rest of the way home with light hearts. Our coaches set a time for debriefing, and revealed that while they still needed to confer among themselves, everyone had done really well, and most of us passed.

Later, in a circle on the lawn under the shade of a palm tree, we sat with focused solemnity and listened as comments were made and advice given. Nigel proclaimed that Saturday’s training conditions were at the top end of 4-star conditions, crossing into 5-star territory at times–when the storm scraped by us and wind, waves and rain increased. Sunday’s assessment was solidly in 4-star conditions, said he, with the passing of the cold front overnight, the seas cleaned up a bit and calmed down a little to 3-4′.

It turned out that all of us won 4-star awards except one. And only just barely. Apparently Nigel had not been satisfied with her roll, and although that in itself is not necessarily a reason for failure, he felt that in the interest of her continued safety that she should work on that and present again for the test in the future. Yet he assured her that in other facets she was a competent paddler, and quite good in some areas. I think we all felt a bit sorry for her as she exhaled that breath of consignment, for she really was quite a good paddler, and worked just as hard as the rest of our group, if not harder. It was just that one nagging doubt, but I have no doubt that she will pass next time, and be better for it.

Several others attained 3-star on calm water, and some got first rolls under the expert tutelage of Mel Rice and Mark Schoon. It was a grand symposium and a great time was enjoyed by all. For anyone looking for a place to learn and share great times paddling in the middle of the east coast, take a look at Barrier Island Kayaks.

–Thomas Duncan

*Montage photos credit variously to John Flowers, Dawn Stewart, Lamar Hudgens, Thomas Duncan

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