Sea Kayaker’s Mind, Beginner’s Mind

by Nancy Soares on July 3, 2017

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
 Shunryu Suzuki

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Everything you know is wrong.
Firesign Theater

Bet you never thought of this option in a kayak

Bet you never thought of this possibility in a kayak

The ocean can change in a moment, especially in a rock garden, and when the shit hits the fan it’s always good to have choices. The quotes above apply to kayaking as well as to life. When out on the ocean would you rather have many possibilities, or few? Soft, flexible minds allow us to see abundant possibilities, giving us options. Open minds also expand the limits of our sport. Zen describes this soft, flexible mind as having an empty cup, a big mind, or beginner’s mind.   

TR Capt. Jim Kakuk: time to get flexible

TR Capt. Jim Kakuk took this photo of Banzai Bozo Dave Nagel rocking the rock: time to get flexible

Awhile back in an article about the book More Deep Trouble we put forth the proposition that instead of labeling ourselves as “advanced” or “beginning” paddlers we might try seeing ourselves simply as kayakers without embellishing the term in any way. When we apply adjectives like beginner or expert to ourselves right away we’re all in a box. This limits our potential. It can be helpful to put some space around any assumptions we may have about our paddling selves. This space allows us to hold many thoughts about kayaking (and ourselves) without having to stick to anything.

TR Deb Volturno: Hold those thoughts and gimme some space

TR Deb Volturno: Hold those thoughts and gimme some space

Eric often talked about the tunnel vision that can afflict a paddler when something extraordinary or unexpected happens. Adrenaline and stress can literally shut down our mental and physical operating systems. We run out of options because we can’t think. Sometimes we can’t even move. Eric had a great story about this. One day he was holding a rock garden class. He specifically told the class, “don’t go over there”. A person who shall remain nameless allowed himself to drift into the danger zone. A big wave came through and Nameless came out of his kayak and ended up on top of a small sea stack without boat or paddle. Another wave could have come through any time, but Nameless didn’t move. Eric started yelling at him to get off the rock.  “Jump, jump!” Eric ordered. Nameless still didn’t move.

Steve Sinclair of Force Ten - now would be a good time not to freeze up

Steve Sinclair of Force Ten – now would be a good time not to freeze up

Finally Eric paddled over and threatened to climb up and throw Nameless off the rock if he didn’t jump. That did the trick. Nameless jumped off the rock and swam in. Calamity averted. But the point is that according to Eric this person had gone into a whole other zone. His mind had divorced itself from reality and he wasn’t able to act until from sheer force of personality Eric broke through that mental fog and made Nameless save himself. Eric’s theory was that on the ocean forces can become so overwhelming that some people shut down in a protective mechanism that may prevent them from freaking out but additionally prevents them from acting to save themselves. In the Deep Trouble books we see quite a bit of that phenomenon.    

Kayaking and life, it’s all the same; once we start down a particular mental rabbit hole our ideas can congeal into rigid ideology. Rigidity is typically counterproductive, unless you’re talking about concrete and steel and even they can be too rigid like when they don’t stand up to earthquakes. When we get locked into a certain point of view it can screw us up.

TR Misha Dynnikov: no paralysis here

TR Misha Dynnikov: paralysis in a cauldron may get you killed

When we get narrow we also stop learning. Giving up the great burden of opinions that we are not obliged to carry (thank you, Thomas Merton!) allows us to tap into little nudges from the universe that can guide us. By practicing nonattachment, nonjudgment, and nonresistance we get “big mind”; we see options and can quickly adapt to changing conditions. On the ocean adaptation is the name of the game.

Now would be a good time to keep an open mind

Time to keep an open mind

In the end, I think that mentally assigning descriptions to ourselves is something we all do, but it gets in our way. As we develop as paddlers, we create images in our minds: I got certified in X, Y, Z. Now I’m an Expert. I’m a kayak instructor. That makes me an Expert. I’ve demo’d 40 different kayaks, 30 drysuits, and 20 PFDs. I’m an Expert. On the other end of the spectrum: I’ve been kayaking for 20 years and I still can’t roll. I suck. None of these statements is necessarily true.

The images we create of ourselves as paddlers determine to a great extent what we expect both from ourselves and from other paddlers. If we stick to “small mind” we may disregard or disrespect others who don’t do what we do or like what we like. For example, lots of people back in the day thought the Tsunami Rangers were crazy, irresponsible, stupid, or all of the above. But nowadays all kinds of people are out there smashing and bashing and having a blast. As people’s minds have expanded, so has the sport. Now, there is truly something for everyone in sea kayaking. That there is so much cross over is a sign of an expanding collective mind.

Running out of options? I think not.

Running out of options? I think not.

My yoga teacher has a lovely image that describes the way we view the world. He talks about a pot. You place a pot in the middle of a group of people. Everyone sees the pot differently because everyone is looking at it from a slightly different angle. What each person sees is true and real but it’s only a small part of the story, or of the pot. Thus, everything you know is literally wrong, at least to some degree.

I’d like to close with one more of Eric’s kayaking stories to illustrate what I’m talking about and why it’s so important. Eric and another Ranger (I think it was John Dixon) were out at Maverick’s one day. They saw a guy in a kayak behaving in a manner they thought was sure to get him killed. Normally Rangers don’t interfere with other paddlers but in this case they felt it was worth a mention, so they paddled over and had a chat with Doomed Guy. He took offense, and mentioned that he was a student of someone who shall not be named and that therefore he “knew what he was doing”. The Rangers shrugged their shoulders and left him to his own devices. They found out later that the next day Doomed Guy had gone paddling and somehow managed to come out of his kayak and drown. No one knew what actually happened, but had that guy sustained beginner’s mind and not locked himself into a point of view that had no bearing on reality he might still be alive. Free your mind, baby!

Have you ever experienced a shutdown on the water, either in yourself or others? How’d that work out? Share your story below!

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Why Do We Test New Rangers?

by Nancy Soares on June 5, 2017

by Captain Jim Kakuk

Why do we test new Rangers?

I remember as a young scruffy kid hanging out with my friends down by the river in a tree fort. We were always coming up with big plans and scheming on who would get to join in our gang as there was always a need for enlisting new recruits for various nefarious endeavors.

Commander Eric Soares administers the TR test for candidate Misha Dynniikov

Commander Eric Soares administers the TR test for candidate Misha Dynniikov

Later in life, as young braves on a remote beach wrapped in tatty clothes, sitting around a smoky campfire staring into the fading flames, Eric and I shared our plans for a kayaking gang. Smoking cigars and passing a jar of whisky, we wondered if there were other people like us and talked about building a team of kayaking adventure companions. So late in the night, lying in the dirt, we laid out our plans for the Tsunami Rangers ranking system.

Candidate Steve El Rey King on a pourover under guidance of the camera

Candidate Steve El Rey King on a pour over under guidance of the camera

We started by giving ourselves rank and it was arbitrary to begin with. Eric wanted to be Commander Soares, because he identified with Commander James Bond, 007. I claimed the title of captain because I identified with the explorer Captain Cook. Eric suggested we qualify new “recruits” by evaluating their skills before giving them rank starting at the entry level of Lieutenant JG.

Jeff takes the role of leader when discussing The Plan for the day

Jeff takes the role of leader when discussing The Plan for the day

Eric then structured and ran the first tests on willing friends. Eric’s background in the US Navy was instrumental in why we started to use the Naval ranking system and he developed a testing procedure to establish rank for the new members of our team. Later, Commander Eric Soares and I initiated the testing procedure with our first recruit, Glenn Gilchrist.

Candidates El Rey and Scott Becklund display their prowess as foragers as part of their test

Candidates El Rey and Scott Becklund display their prowess as foragers as part of their test

Rank is necessary to determine where you fit in the command structure and decision making when on the water with team Tsunami Rangers (note: your TR rank does not transfer into personal relationship situations). The ranking structure works by using diverse skill sets to keep the team together, especially when in difficult conditions. Decisions are made by the senior officers and relayed to the rest of the team. It is not a group decision or a democracy. 

Navigating a departure route into the sea

Navigating a departure route into the sea

Rank is determined by your knowledge of your equipment, handling your boat, interaction with others on the water, understanding the sea conditions and leadership ability. The highest rank we give new Rangers is lieutenant and they can increase in rank over the following years. The ranking system we use is based on the centuries’ old Naval system developed by merchant and military seaman.

It's all about the food...

It’s all about the food…

We also take into consideration courage, initiative, compatibility, self sufficiency, camping skills, what he/she can add to the team and what emoji’s they bring. After the first few tests we started to require that lunch be provided; we wanted to see if a candidate could pack food, keep it dry and feed a group of people. This was useful to know what their culinary tastes were, and of course the bonus of getting a free lunch for our work.

Celebratory lunch during Paula Renouf's test - she did a great job!

Celebratory lunch during Paula Renouf’s test – look at that table cloth! Elegance!

To clarify something…we only invite people we recognize as being the same in spirit and ability, and we discuss the new prospect over a period of time. After many outings together and several camping trips we make cogent observations of their skills and what they would add to the team before we talk to them about joining the Tsunami Rangers. The test is set to showcase their skills, knowledge of the ocean and environment; it is not a hazing ritual and no one fails.

Paula navigates a pourover on her TR test

Paula navigates a pour over on her TR test

The invite is usually formal (around a campfire or walking on the beach) and if they accept our invitation we then discuss time and location. Usually the test is in about a year, but in some cases can be the next day. Senior officers suggest who should administer and assist with the test. 

Seal landing - check!

Cate’s seal landing – check!

On water discussions happen during the test and on the way back to camp. After landing, there is a wrap up with the testing squad and senior officers wherein rank is determined.

Cate received a shiny new knife as part of her TR swag

Cate received a shiny new knife as part of her TR swag

At night there is a ceremonial banquet with lots of food, gifts to the new Ranger and story telling of the high tales from that day. The party follows late into the night, with drinking, smoking cigars, reveling in the day’s adventures and telling more stories from when we were kids.  

And there was much rejoicing...

And there was much rejoicing…

What we look for is what all ocean white water kayakers should be able to do. The following is most but not all of what we cover in a test.


  1. Equipment used and why, a quiz on conditions, use of vocal and hand signals. 
  2. Strategy for the day – they lead a mission with us through a field of operations.
  3. Initiate launching, landings and keeping the team together throughout the day.
  4. Negotiate complex rock gardens, caves and evaluation of the course.
  5. Seal landings on a rock, running pour overs or blow holes.
  6. Surf landing, launches, surfing, surf zone etiquette and ability to self rescue.
  7. LUNCH and a story from their past kayaking experiences.
  8. Rescues – the usual things that you should know plus swimming survival skills. 
  9. Meandering back to camp we look for play spots, do stunts, go fishing, diving, foraging, and see what  comes up for photo ops; a good sport is always a good show off. 
Jeff rocks the rocks as part of his TR test

Jeff rocks the rocks as part of his TR test

Scott’s Two Cents: The obvious is that new inductees will be given an entry level rank regardless of their skill set. This rule seems to never have been as glaring as having both Cate and Jeff become Rangers. Their individual and team skills are above and beyond what anyone could expect in a leader in any group. My other comment brings me back to a time with Jim and Eric. The rank system was designed to work on the water, whether in an extreme situation or not. Both totally accepted that they would follow it. To the point, as Eric said, ” If a superior officer gives a command (can’t remember his exact word here) you follow it OR then live or die by your decision. But it’s yours!” And he said that the ranking system stays ON THE WATER. On land we become The Tribe. 

Welcome to the Tribe!

Welcome to the Tribe!

For more on recent Tsunami Ranger tests, check out the reports on Paula Renouf, Jeff Laxier, and Cate Hawthorne! The Rangers have been busy! Also, don’t miss Eric’s post on How to Become a Tsunami Ranger

Questions? Comments? Let us know below!


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Share To me, it’s all about connection and compassion…Once we lose one or the other, or both, the world becomes a much less pleasant place, and a more dangerous place, to live in. – Jon Turk After reading this book the first thing I thought was Wow. This book should be read. Why? For one […]

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