Who’s Your Sea Kayaking Mentor?

by Nancy Soares on April 1, 2013

   men’tor, n. (from Mentor, the friend and counselor of Odysseus
and Telmachus) a wise and faithful counselor
(Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary) 

Everyone needs a mentor, especially when undertaking a new and challenging endeavor. The Tsunami Rangers have mentored many sea kayakers. Tsunami Ranger Eric Soares introduced me to extreme sea kayaking in 1996. The first thing he did was make me paddle a Tsunami X-0, a small washdeck kayak without a rudder. This boat simply turns around in circles if you don’t paddle correctly. First I learned how to make it go straight. Then I learned how to surf and how to paddle in rock gardens and sea caves.

Eric’s rationale for making me paddle that boat was that I would quickly learn all the paddle strokes a sea kayaker needs to know by doing, without having to take a class. Either that or I would turn around in circles for the rest of my life. I went out when he went out, found a safe place and messed around in that little X-0 until I knew what to do. I received very little instruction and pretty much taught myself. It was an unconventional way to learn, but it was fun and it worked.

Me and my son Nick, age 9, with my first boat Stella Blue in 1996

Me and my son Nick, age 9, with my first boat Stella Blue in 1996

After about six years paddling the X-0, I went with the Tsunami Rangers on retreat to the Channel Islands. I was allowed to borrow Michael Powers’ beautiful yellow and blue Tsunami X-15 for this greater endeavor. The X-15 is the go-to boat for the Rangers. I fell in love. Oh my God, a rudder! I had no idea! I came back determined to get an X-15. Jim Kakuk, Tsunami boat builder extraordinaire, fabricated one for me, a beautiful sparkly blue boat with a silver trident on the front deck. I was thrilled. With the X-15 I could do everything I needed to do to paddle with Eric. Because I had spent so much time paddling the X-0, the X-15 with its greater power and the rudder factor was pretty easy for me to handle. Now I could take on bigger challenges.

Heading into a cave at Russian Gulch in my X-15

Heading into a cave at Russian Gulch in my X-15

In 2004, my friend Denise Vidosh and I decided to paddle the 2005 Tsunami Ranger Extreme Sea Kayak Race. It was time to graduate again, this time to the Tsunami X-3 Trident. Denise and I dubbed this boat “The Big Pig”. It’s 24 feet long and weighs 150 pounds. At first we could barely lift it. Eric couldn’t help us because he was recovering from his first bout of open heart surgeries and his upper body was still weak. He told us we would have to buck up and get stronger so we could schlepp the big boat around. He agreed to be our trainer, though, and as he mentored us he used the opportunity to coach himself back into good sea kayaking shape. He wanted to paddle in the next race too.

Beginning August 2004 Eric, Denise and I went out nearly once a week regardless of conditions. The first thing Eric told us was not to wear our seat belts. For us, rolling that big boat in tandem was not an option. Eric showed us how to synchronize tipping the boat over, falling out, flipping it upright, jumping back in, and paddling like hell. We got faster and faster at this maneuver. We practiced in the harbor at Pillar Point, and once we had it down Eric took us out to sea. We would launch from the harbor and paddle out the harbor mouth along the jetty to Sail Rock where the Maverick’s Big Wave surf contest is held. We did this in all weather. We would paddle along the jetty hugging the rocks, keeping as close as we could. This allowed us to keep out of the wind and experience the waves and surge along the jetty.

The lagoon and rock gardens at Pillar Point

The lagoon and rock gardens at Pillar Point

Once out at the reef, we’d look at conditions. Then we’d make our plan. We practiced falling out and getting back in over and over in all situations. Some days we spent more time in the water than out of it. We practiced landings and take-offs on the beach. If possible, we’d surf. Sometimes we’d paddle around the point through Maverick’s and surf or land at Ross’s Cove. We also practiced paddling through the slot at the point. These features are all part of the race course, so practicing here was warranted.

Me, Denise, and "The Big Pig" finish the race at Miramar

Me, Denise, and “The Big Pig” finish the race at Miramar

Eric was really good at coaching. He’d tell us what to do, watch, give simple, concise feedback, and send us out again. He was calm and supportive. We improved greatly over the eight months he worked with us. When race day came, Denise and I did well. We weren’t trying to go fast; we just wanted to paddle the course without screwing up. It was actually one of our easiest days, and we managed to get through all four surf zones without crashing. We came in 23rd out of 32 boats and were pretty darned proud of ourselves. Eric raced successfully too.

Denise, Eric, and I after the race, Miramar 2005

Denise, Eric, and I after the race, Miramar 2005

Because of Eric’s mentoring I learned how to kayak in sea caves, rock gardens, and surf. Because of Eric I was able to successfully paddle the 20th annual (and last) Tsunami Sea Gypsy race. Because of him I have had many amazing, magical sea kayaking experiences. He opened a whole world of people and places to me that has enriched my life immeasureably. I will always be grateful to my wonderful sea kayaking mentor, Eric Soares.

Who’s your sea kayaking mentor? Give that person props by clicking below!

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Fat Paddler April 1, 2013 at 4:40 am

What a great post. I’m a big fan of mentoring but we don’t have too many people around to help. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have paddled with experts in all facets of paddle sports throughout my travels, including Capt Kuk who has been a pillar of support for Team Fat Paddler, but otherwise we are pretty much on our own in the mentoring stakes and we don’t really conform to the formal club structure of certification.

What we’ve done instead is what I’d call “group-supported learning by doing”. We are constantly learning about paddling, surf, rock gardening, rescues and associated goodness and do so with friends around us, often not knowing what the hell we’re doing but throwing ourselves into the deep end with mates keeping a close eye on each other in case anyone needs help. Sometimes we mess up quite badly… a fair bit of blood has been spilt, and some hairy situations discovered… but in the end that journey of discovery (and scar-creation!) is what we cherish the most.

I was also very lucky to have had Eric mentor me via email for close to a year. I’d email him about something we’d done, sometimes send him video of it, and he’d point out what we should have done or what needed improving (and often chastise me for being needlessly reckless!). He may not have known how much his advice was appreciated, but t most certainly was. I miss his sage, and usually funny as hell, replies! Cheers, FP

Nancy Soares April 1, 2013 at 8:11 am

Thanks so much for your comment, FP. It sounds like Team Fat Paddler is following firmly in the footsteps of the Tsunami Rangers in the “group-supported learning by doing” mode. That’s one of the main reasons the TR’s came into existence – they wanted to do things on the water that required teamwork for fun and safety. So actually, your team mates are your mentors which just goes to show that a mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who is better than you – a peer can be a perfectly satisfactory mentor.

Interestingly, Eric never once suggested I take a conventional kayak class. When Denise and I were training for the race, Greg Barton came into town to teach a stroke clinic and Denise is the one who urged me to go with her. We took the class, and it helped us synch up our strokes. Denise was bigger than me, and so my turnover rate was a little faster even though I thought I was keeping time with her (she was always in front).

But Eric was no fan of what you refer to as the club structure of certification. This was partially due to the fact that no one in that structure was doing the kind of stuff he and the TR’s were doing. FP, you are very fortunate to have a group of like-minded mates who are willing to go out and experiment with you. In the ocean, no two situations are ever exactly alike, and I think there is tremendous value in going out to see for yourselves, and then coming back and debriefing. It’s not just the experiences, but the discussions engendered that really boost your knowledge and capabilities. And “messing up” in my opinion is a really good way to learn. As my dad once said about skiing, “If you’re not falling down you’re not learning”. If you push your limits you’re gonna screw up. Check your ego at the door. And hey, “scar-creation” makes great stories, don’t you think?

Fat Paddler April 1, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Scar-creation definitely makes for the very best of stories! 😉

Micaila April 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

Great story. Yay for you, Denise and Dad! Dad was an excellent coach, I remember his calm concise methods when teaching me to drive a stick shift and, earlier, swim in a pool. Love that cute picture of you and Nick. Wish I had an X-15, it probably wouldn’t get nearly enough play but they are awesome, beautiful boats!

Nancy Soares April 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Hey Micaila, if you guys come up we can go for a paddle. You can try out the X-15 and the X-0 on Emigrant Lake 20 minutes away (the Trident is staying at Michael’s for now). Warm water in the summer. I’m actually thinking about going out there and teaching myself to roll out of a book just to see if I can do it (Eric did). Stay tuned.

Micaila April 3, 2013 at 9:46 am

Let’s do it this summer! Sounds wonderful.

Rainer Lang April 1, 2013 at 10:18 pm

It’s been my experience that formal instruction can quickly lay down a solid foundation that I could build on with “learning by doing.”
Trial and error learning can have high consequences when it comes to ocean self rescue, and rock garden & sea cave paddling.
I’ve taken classes in Basic Skills, Eskimo Rolling, Kayak Surfing, River Kayaking, Navigation, Rescue & Incident Management. I’ve also been returning student in the Tsunami Classes. Eric and Jim were certainty my favorite teachers. I’ll always regard Eric as my mentor.
In the end I’m still learning; I try remember the the lessons, and my teachers. As I’m out there, solo paddling or surfing, it’s the “mindful attentiveness” that reminds me I am still a student, and I need to stay open to the lesson. The goal of instruction, is that I can go out on my own and practice (do).
Esoteric? Probably…
When I crashed my touring in Big Sur, it was in my friend’s shop for several weeks. I still wanted to go out and play, so I paddled my river kayak everywhere. Out the Gate, down in Big Sur, Mendocino. A short boat taught me a lot about paddling, stroke and control. While I don’t discount the value of a Stroke Class, I’ve learned more about my forward stroke by paddling into strong headwinds, I had instant feedback on my technique.
Rambling? Certainly…

Tess April 2, 2013 at 1:26 am

Hmmm….this post is about mentors, which is different to taking a class.
Mentors are wise and trusted counsellors who offer guidance. A mentor may be formally qualified however mentoring occurs outside of structured classes over a period of time. Mentors are very special people who live next door or across the ether and in my experience, the most awarded or loudest voice is not necessarily the wisest one to learn from.
Structured classes have their place. Having belonged to clubs and taken classes myself, I have learned the most about sea kayaking through mentoring experiences and by just doing it (and crashing).
Readers of this blog and those who knew Eric will not be surprised that he mentored kayakers like FP, me and other Aussie kayakers. Eric’s generosity when tutoring made sometimes embarrassing incidents perfectly ok and humorous learning experiences.
Another of my mentors is Greg Schwarz, a respected local Greenland rolling artiste. Greg and his equally skilled wife Moira live a short drive from me and have been “hands on mentors”.
My goal is not to compete in a Greenland rolling competition but as someone who doesn’t have time to be in the water every day, Greg & Moira’s mentoring fast tracked my quest to feel more confident underwater in my kayak in all conditions, which helped my kayak surfing. I also had a lot of fun.
Warren Williamson has also mentored me from afar regarding the use of Greenland rolling techniques in rough water http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfuVuSoHdXI
While not mentors as referred to above, I must give special mention as learning co-pilots to Graham Rudd and Damiano (aka Gnarlydog), They learned along with me and encouraged me to think outside the kayak norm, trying different boats and gear and introducing me to Aleut & Greenland paddles.
Damiano in particular assisted my kayak learning by exploring remote coasts and islands with me and surfing and kayak sailing with me. During these times, Damiano often took photos or video of me so that I could get a different perspective on what I was doing out there – sometimes, it wasn’t pretty!
I are changing the face of mentoring with contributions by a highly skilled pool of folk who are willing to help us continue our sea kayak journeys from wherever they are in the world.
Thanks for writing this post Nancy, see you on the water soon.

Tess April 2, 2013 at 1:29 am

perhaps I need a techno mentor – the last paragraph should begin with “social media sites and blogs like this one are changing the face of mentoring……”

Fat Paddler April 2, 2013 at 4:17 am

Well put Tess!

Nancy Soares April 2, 2013 at 7:19 am

Wow, thanks guys for such thorough and well-thought out comments. I realize that my own experience is pretty unique – almost 17 years kayaking and only one formal class under my belt, so it’s interesting to hear your thoughts. I did take several of Eric’s classes (Rainer, I think you were in one of them), but they were pretty scrummy although I learned a lot and had fun. @Tess, Denise and I were videoed by Greg Barton and I will say it only took one viewing – it was so mortifying we immediately improved. Luckily we’re both fast learners – our second go-round Greg couldn’t find a fault!

It is interesting to me that all 3 of you have found your skills most improved in the “learning by doing” department, and of course, it’s helpful (and safer) to have buddies to give feedback. Speaking of feedback, nature can be your teacher too. Rainer, the paddling into a headwind thing is truly instructive; you’re right about that! I remember paddling across Pillar Pt. Harbor in howling winds, bent forward as flat as I could over my boat and holding my paddle at the flattest angle possible to minimize wind resistance. What a weird way to paddle, and yet if I had raised my paddle, my paddle would have either been wrenched out of my hand or possibly blown out my shoulders. If I had straightened up I would have started going backward as my body acted like a sail! Necessity is the mother of invention…

Tony Moore April 4, 2013 at 6:19 am

Great article and subject, Nancy. Eric had to be the best mentor anyone could ever have for kayaking! I never really had a mentor for kayaking specifically, but 2 people come to mind for areas related to paddling. My dad, who was an Eagle Scout, taught me how to swim the right way. I see so many well-meaning parents teaching their kids to keep their heads high out of the water. This can result in a fear of being underwater. My dad taught me to swim underwater first, but even before that, he had me just duck under, eyes open, not holding my nose. Next I ducked under and bobbed back up repeatedly, exhaling while under, and inhaling above. Then I was ready to glide underwater, followed by a simple kick, and later arm stroke. Finally, the stroke and kick with rhythmic breathing. This way, I never developed an unreasonable fear of being underwater, and this proved invaluable later in diving, spearfishing, and eventually kayaking. The other person who was a mentor to me was the physical ed. director for youth at the Boston Huntington Ave. YMCA. Lifting weights, wrestling, gymnastics, snorkeling, spearfishing….all of these endeavors were accomplished with an intense zeal, and to this day I approach any physical undertaking with the same “Gung Ho!!!!” attitude. And though I do wish I had a kayaking-specific mentor, these two have at least given me a firm foundation in being a capable “water-person”.

Nancy Soares April 4, 2013 at 10:09 am

I love your story about learning to swim, Tony! It reminds me of how Eric learned to swim – his dad threw dimes into the swimming pool and Eric had to dive down and get them. In other words, he learned to swim underwater from sheer cupidity. And I agree with you that swimming well is invaluable to kayakers. Too many kayakers seem to think that swimming is inconvenient, embarassing, undesireable, whatever. For me, swimming while kayaking is part of the fun. Like most of the Rangers, I always start a day on the water with a swim. Then I get in my boat. I have an amazing custom wetsuit that allows me to swim distance easily if necessary while staying warm. I jump off my boat to swim and cool off or stretch my legs frequently. I swim to recover from nausea (I occasionally get a little seasick especially if hung over). Eric explained to me how to swim into caves to scout before kayaking in there and he used to tell me never to kayak where I couldn’t swim. In fact, factoring in the distance a kayaker has to swim to shore in case the boat gets lost is part of the Sea Conditions Rating System Eric developed. All this stuff I learned from Eric. Kudos to your dad! It sounds like he taught you well. BTW, Tsunami Ranger Dave Whalen and his son are very much involved in Scouting as well.

MantaMan April 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I discovered the existence of the Tsunami Rangers in a borrowed copy of Adventure Kayak magazine. The issue I read contained their tribute to Eric Soares, an amazing man by all accounts, and one I wish I had known. After buying “Kayaking Ocean Rock Gardens a Tsunami Ranger Guide” on VHS (people complain about how many times I watch it), devouring Extreme Sea Kayaking, and reading the posts and articles on this website; I decided to post something. I have so much respect for this group and its founders, particularly Eric.
Currently my mentors are three older surf kayakers, the youngest of whom is 63. I have a Wilderness Systems Kaos, and have enjoyed surfing with them. They are teaching me some things, but I learn for a Matrix style information download. I really want a kayaking Yoda to come into my life. I have read many books on kayaking, and try to grow my skills as best I can, but that only goes so far.
Should I wait around and try to find that teacher so full of wisdom and experience that they are just waiting to spill it into a young gourd?
Or should I pay someone to give me lessons?
I feel that kayaking knowledge is something that to a large degree should be given away for free…
Am I being naïve or should I pay for “professional instruction?”
Thanks for keeping this site alive, and to all those who contribute – reading on this site is extremely informative, entertaining and interesting!

MantaMan April 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm

it should be “yearn” not “learn” in the line about the Matrix

Nancy Soares April 24, 2013 at 9:43 am

Boy, MantaMan, your post brought a tear to my eye. This is why we write. Love the story of how you found the Rangers. Sorry you never got to meet Eric; I can tell by your comment he would have dug you. Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

There is a saying: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear”. It is true. My own experience in martial arts, kayaking, and in life bear this out. When Eric first walked into my dojo he was consciously looking for a teacher. He found one and spent the rest of his life (16 yrs) practicing.

There’s nothing wrong with paying for instruction, especially if there’s something specific you want to master. But the best education does in fact come from a different kind of experience. My greatest learning experiences have been free. That is to say, I have often paid a price for my knowledge, but it wasn’t in dollars.

I think if you set a conscious intention and stay open you will find your mentor. Don’t have expectations, be patient, and keep faith. The flow of life will bring you what you need. Good luck and best wishes. Thanks very much for commenting and please let us know when and in what form your mentor appears 🙂

MantaMan April 26, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Thanks for responding to my post, it means a lot to me!
I really appreciate what you had to say, I really wish I had met Eric too, and for your advice. Especially about having expectations! I live in the San Luis Obispo area, and have a great set of places virtually right in my backyard!
Your advice confirmed my own feelings about what kayaking is all about….
At this point I am working on my surf skills ( which from all that I’ve read and seen are one of the major keys to becoming a good ocean kayaker), and putting myself out in the paddling community — making connections.
Once again thank you so much for your response, and keeping the Tsunami Rangers alive, vibrant and kicking.

Nancy Soares April 27, 2013 at 8:19 am

Hey MantaMan, you’re very welcome to whatever we have to offer. A couple of thoughts: first, Eric and Jim mentored each other when it came to learning to kayak. Jim had the whitewater skills, while Eric was into sea kayaking and they came together in the formation of the TR’s and extreme sea kayaking. Other kayak teams (see the links on this webpage) are now following in their footsteps by getting together like-minded people to pursue different styles of kayaking. You might consider creating your own team – people you like and trust and who have a similar philosophy of kayaking to your own. Of course, you have to get out there and meet people to make that happen.

Second, you can let Nature be your mentor until the universe sends you a human one. I am also a yogi, and one of the things that yoga philosophy teaches is that nature is the ultimate guru. By paying attention to the way the world works, or in kayaking the way the ocean works, you can learn a lot. When to yield and when to press forward, where there’s an opening and where there isn’t, where it’s safe and where it’s not, all these things and more can be learned by observation and practice. In my little X-0 I learned that if I wanted to go over there…I had to do such and such. No one taught me. Doubtless there are plenty of paddlers that blow me away in the skills department, but who cares? I have my fun and the last thing I’m interested in is impressing anyone 🙂 I have a feeling you’re going to do just fine.

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