Sea Kayaking philosophy
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
Everything you know is wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BASIC TESTING POINTS:
- Equipment used and why, a quiz on conditions, use of vocal and hand signals.
- Strategy for the day – they lead a mission with us through a field of operations.
- Initiate launching, landings and keeping the team together throughout the day.
- Negotiate complex rock gardens, caves and evaluation of the course.
- Seal landings on a rock, running pour overs or blow holes.
- Surf landing, launches, surfing, surf zone etiquette and ability to self rescue.
- LUNCH and a story from their past kayaking experiences.
- Rescues – the usual things that you should know plus swimming survival skills.
- 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.
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.
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!
Editor’s note: This post is a follow-up to The Last Sea Kayaker which appeared on this website on March 17, 2014. I’ve been receiving Adventure Kayak for almost two years now, and it makes me very happy.
After Sea Kayaker Magazine shut down I was excited to receive my first edition of Adventure Kayak. What a cool magazine! Great photography, interesting articles, and a positive, inclusive vibe. With regard to photos, I like that they showcase stills with captions from a variety of locations. The messages conveyed are variously uplifting, thoughtful, or humorous and show the sport of sea kayaking over a broad spectrum. I appreciated the message in that first issue about the editorial shift from service to stoke: why we paddle is more important than how or where. I couldn’t agree more.
In that issue I was interested in the article about kayakers who help scientists with research in order to understand ecosystems in aid of stewardship. One of the things I love about kayakers that most of them take stewardship seriously. Many of us clean up the environment regularly as an aspect of our sport. Check out PacOut Green Team as one prime example.
I was really happy to learn about the Ladies of the Lake Symposium. I’d never heard of it even though it’s been around for 10 years. The event reminds me fondly of Reef Madness’ sea gypsies and pirates. I love people who don’t take themselves too seriously. The Tsunami Rangers don’t take anyone or anything too seriously, including themselves. Just check out this one from our archives: https://tsunamirangers.com/2010/12/08/sea-kayaking-should-be-fun-not-s-e-r-i-o-u-s/
I enjoyed reading about the first Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium. It was great hearing about the challenging conditions: Paul Kuthe doing “a series of cartwheels that had onlookers cringing at the audible thuds of his bow and stern striking submerged rocks”. Yeah, baby! It was also good to know there were a variety of classes and conditions so not everyone got creamed. And as with the partnership between kayakers and scientists, it made me happy to hear about another opportunity for the kayaking community to help others as the Fundy area is socioeconomically depressed and the organizers of BOFSKS hope to reinvigorate the region’s tourist industry through the symposium.
That was my first issue. Subsequently, I have continued to enjoy Adventure Kayak Magazine. Virginia Marshall does a great job as editor and I love her articles. Her prose is simple, clear, and unpretentious. I also enjoy Tim Shuff’s pieces. Articles like “We Don’t Need No Education” and “Finding the Real Florida” really appeal to me, speaking of why we paddle. In fact, I enjoy all the magazine’s writers. One of my favorite issues of the magazine to date is The Green Issue, Spring 2016. I ate it up. From the photo of the Ontario Sea Kayak Centre’s gear cave (so organized!), to Neil Schulman’s piece on “Succession Planning” (that’s an interesting way to think about kayak touring and it was nicely followed up by Charlotte Jacklein’s “Catching the Late Show” encouraging us to go kayak camping), to the story about Nova Scotia’s Islands of Enchantment becoming protected as wilderness, the whole issue just felt so positive. Adventure Kayak’s message is simple and consistent: go out and have fun! See how beautiful the world is! Look how people are making positive contributions to make sure we can protect beautiful places so we can keep going out and having fun! There’s so much good stuff here you don’t have to be a kayaker to enjoy the magazine.
One other thing I‘d like to say about Adventure Kayak: I love that it comes out four times a year. I dislike getting monthly issues of any magazine: it’s just too much and I don’t have time and it kind of bothers me to have to toss them once I’m done. Four times a year in accord with the changing seasons is perfect for me. So that’s my two cents on Adventure Kayak: positive, inclusive, philanthropic, articulate, and timely. Thanks, guys, for all you do!
For more information on Adventure Kayak and Rapid Media’s other publications, check out https://www.rapidmedia.com/adventurekayak
An adventure is an outing where the outcome is uncertain. – Bryant Burkhardt
This book does not disappoint. Bryant has done it all, from dodging icebergs in Alaska and exploring the Channel Islands to creeking in L.A. and captaining the U.S. National Kayak Polo Team. His kayaking resume is truly amazing. It’s a testament to how one person can not only dedicate his life to the pursuit of paddling but cover almost every aspect of our sport in the process.
As I read the book, I learned to both like and admire Mr. Burkhardt for his thoughtfulness, commitment, and sheer determination. The book covers his introduction to kayaking and the subsequent development of his skills into those of an all around master of the sport. But the book isn’t just the story of how to develop all those skills; it’s the story of someone who discovered his path in life through his passion for kayaking. Along the way, Bryant develops a philosophy of life through kayaking. I enjoyed the description of a student kayaker turned teacher. As a teacher myself, I loved his discovery that teaching makes you better. If you want to get better at kayaking, teach it. Teaching also nets you paddling partners.
I also loved his emphasis on the importance of appropriate paddling partners. Getting to know “sonofabitch” Pedro and others who assisted Bryant on his journey was fun. Without our paddling buddies where would we be? It was great too reading about his introduction to surfing and the story of his first wipeout – ah, yes, the first big trouncing at the hands of the sea.
One of the things that made Bryant’s story really stand out to me was how he describes the lessons about ego he learned on his journey, particularly during his experience with the UCLA Instructor Training Course and during his kayak polo years. “Pride is a delicate thing,” he writes. Ego can drive you to succeed but it can also wear you down. In one chapter, Bryant compares an outing with a team of friends on the Merced to kayak polo: “If it had been a polo game, the morning would have been a harsh defeat. But that’s the difference between competition and recreation, between losing a game and facing a setback. It’s also the difference between men fighting for their egos and a group supporting each other against adversity. When bad things happen on the river, everyone comes together and turns it into a win.” Good stuff.
A Paddler’s Journey is a well-written story of one person’s discovery of a life path through kayaking but one of the things that made me like his book the most was Bryant’s emphasis on how important the human element is to our sport. In the beginning, it’s push, push, push to learn the skills, meet the challenges, and keep raising the bar on personal achievement. All this is admirable, but as he understands at the end of his solo expedition to Haida Gwaii, it’s the people, not just the paddling, that make kayaking so special: “No longer worried about accomplishments, kayaking became a means to an end and not an end in itself; a medium to reach other people and enjoy beautiful places. Part of me still wanted to push myself, to use my skill and experience to do something cool. But not alone this time.” And again, “The drive to reach a goal had taken away some of the pleasure (of the trip). That drive can be a good thing, urging you to greater heights and personal accomplishment. But a focus on results undercuts the joy of the journey itself.”
Follow Bryant through the highs and lows of a career in kayaking: self-doubt, fatigue, injury, and burnout vie with the satisfaction of plans carried out, the thrill as each new skill is mastered, the joy of meeting like-minded people, and the sheer jubilation of accessing the amazing places only accessible to kayakers. This is the best of good kayaking. For Bryant Burkhardt, kayaking has truly been a path to understanding, acceptance, and maturity. Buy this book, and don’t forget to check out Bryant’s blog at www.paddleca.com. Thanks, Bryant, for a wonderful, entertaining read!
You can purchase A Paddler’s Journey by going to http://www.bryantburkhardtkayaking.com/bookindex.html I highly recommend it.