Putting the “Fun” Back Into Fundamentals: Sweetwater Kayak Symposium 2012, Part Two

By Johna Till Johnson

A short while ago I wrote about the first two days of my experience at this year’s Sweetwater Kayak Symposium in Florida. You can read about it here, but in sum: I learned more than I ever imagined, particularly about the “feel” of handling a kayak. Here’s what happened on the last day:

On the third and (for me) last day of the Symposium, we met up at the Weedon Island Preserve, a nature preserve just outside St. Petersburg. My paddling plans for the day included two courses: “Bracing, Sculling, and Rolling” in the morning,  then “Fun with Foster”, a mysterious course that course leader and kayaking legend Nigel Foster bills as “all the stuff the BCU doesn’t want you to know”. (There’s quite a lot. Keep reading!)

The day started clear and bright (growing to downright hot as time went on). We unloaded our boats on a grassy knoll…

Boats, boats, boats...!

More boats! And the Sweetwater van to the left...

The (nearly hidden) launch site....

We launched off a sandy beach nearly hidden by an arch of trees. Notice how relaxed and happy everyone looks: That Florida winter sun was WARM! And we were having FUN!

There were 3-star and 4-star assessments that day; those folks launched first, and we didn’t see them until the end of the day. I’d actually considered taking the 3-star assessment just for practice—I wasn’t ready to pass it. (Neither, as it turned out, was anyone else—the entire class of about a half-dozen didn’t make it.)

Anyway, I decided that practicing skills like bracing, sculling, and rolling was a better use of my time. And besides, who can resist a course called “Fun with Foster”? I was dying to find out what that entailed!

So a group of us set off with coach Don Thompson, aka “The Clown Prince of Kayaking”.  Hey, today was going to be all about fun, right?

If I had to characterize Don’s approach to coaching, I’d call it “releasing your inner goof”. Something about the way he describes the motions makes you just want to edge a little harder—and laugh louder if you overbalance and go “splash”. Where John Carmody (on the first two days) was Zen, Don was Laughing Buddha (not physically, I hasten to add!).

The class lines up...

Don gets ready to demonstrate a maneuver

Whether it was the warm sunshine, the shallow water, or Don’s cheerful attitude, I really got past my worries about losing control—and found it didn’t actually happen all that often. Okay, so a few times I managed to capsize (pretty embarrassing when you’re in a foot of water). But so what? I pushed myself back up (remember, I was only in a foot of water).

And when I ventured out into slightly deeper water to practice rolls and serious sculling, it was easier to play with that edge. Don was all about having fun, yes… but having fun with a purpose.

In the process, I was able to teach my body about the connection between a high brace and a roll (hint: a C-to-C roll is basically an underwater high brace coupled with a hip flick). Appropriately enough, the C-to-C was invented by someone named… I kid you not… “Mick Mouse”.

See why it pays to have fun in the water?

By the end of the morning I was drenched (but not cold, thanks to my trusty fuzzy-rubber top). I’d had more fun than was legal. And I’d picked up some tips about sculling, bracing, and rolling. The best one I remember: You’re not sculling for support until your nose is out over the edge of the boat. If you look down and see deck, you’re not leaning out enough.

Lunch was a picnic spread provided by Sweetwater (though many of us brought our own supplies). The highlight? A cake prepared by Russell’s parents, which doubled as a birthday cake for his teenaged niece, who was really awfully nice about sharing her special day with a bunch of smelly grownups.

The Sweetwater Symposium Cake!

Russell's parents, who had the seats of honor at the event

The great thing about having Russell’s family there was that it reinforced the fact that paddling is fundamentally a social sport. Yes, plenty of us pride ourselves on being “cats who walk alone” (and that’s why paddling with a group is so much like herding cats). But there really is a “paddling community”, populated by people who share (in varying degrees) the same sense of excitement, geekiness, adventure, screwiness, Zen, and pure unadulterated fun.

As I told a friend a few years back, there are as many different ways to paddle as there are paddlers. Some folks are in it for the adrenaline or speed, as whitewater paddlers or racers. Others like the artistry of being able to maneuver efficiently. Still others like to explore–and love the idea of loading up a kayak, instead of a backpack, for a long camping trip to parts unknown. Others fish, or surf, or play polo. But regardless of the specific aspects of paddling that enchant us, that sense of enchantment is in itself a bond.

Sean and Jeff telling about their two-week excursion

And that sense of enchantment extends to kayaking stories. One of the best parts of the symposium was the after-hours programming.

In the evenings we had lectures. The first was by a couple of the Sweetwater guides, Sean Fitzgibbon and Jeff Fabiszewski, who had done a two-week paddle along the entire Great Calusa Blueway. Maybe not world-shattering—except they had a hell of a lot of fun. And one of the guys (Sean, holding map) is missing most of one leg—not that it slowed him down a bit during the paddle.

The next evening, after dinner at the Weedon Island Preserve…

Dinner at the Weedon Island Preserve nature center

… Nigel Foster presented the story of his circumnavigation of Iceland, starting with the prehistoric era. (My favorite line of the evening: he discovered early on that paddling around things was a good way to impress the chicks… so he just kept on doing it!)

Nigel Foster starts his presentation

More pictures from the symposium are here (Vlad and I are in a few).

Speaking of Nigel Foster, if you’re a kayak geek, you’ve probably read this far to find out what hidden secrets I learned during “Fun with Foster”.

Too bad, I’m not telling. :-)

You’ll just have to take the course yourself, and find out what string theory has to do with paddling, how a kayak paddle can sometimes have three blades, why a crossbow rudder is more fun than a bow rudder, and how to make the boat go backward using just a forward stroke. (No, I’m not making that one up—the boat goes backward while you paddle forward.)

You’ll just have to experience it for yourself. I couldn’t possibly do it justice. And best of all, it’s never the same course twice—Nigel just throws in whatever strikes his fancy when he’s with a group of paddlers. True to his pitch, a lot of what he has to teach isn’t 100% aligned with the BCU curriculum—but it’s almost all useful as well as entertaining.

Nigel Foster lectures on string theory (and its applications to paddling)

Okay, okay… here’s one final Nigel Foster story.

When we met up for his course, Nigel took one look at me and said, “Stand there and don’t turn around.”

So I stood, facing the rest of the class, which was arrayed in a semicircle in front of me and looking at something I couldn’t see behind me.

Then they started giggling.

I tried to turn around to see what they were laughing at, but Nigel said, “Don’t turn around yet!” Then he handed a camera to Russell and said, “You have to take this picture…”

The Devo twins! (Except mine's real... well, sorta...)

Turns out Nigel sells a line of visors covered in fuzzy spiky-blond hair with black roots (and other colors). You can buy them here. So for the rest of the afternoon we had matching hair (I’m missing the visor, though… might need to get one of those).

Speaking of getting things, I was inspired enough by the symposium to pick up the box set of Nigel Foster’s Sea Kayaking DVDs. They’re great. I highly recommend them.

I know, I know… I’ve always said that I don’t learn from videos! And I really don’t—at least, not until I’ve been able to give my body the feel of what to do.

But whether it was the afterglow of the symposium, or having watched the DVDs, I’ve detected a measurable improvement in my paddling. On the last Manhattan circumnavigation, when I needed to raft up to Vlad for lunch, without thinking I just spun the boat around and did a draw stroke: Quick, easy, and just like that.

So that’s my experience with the Sweetwater Symposium: It edged me into artistry, and put the fun back into fundamentals.

Can’t beat that!

3 responses to “Putting the “Fun” Back Into Fundamentals: Sweetwater Kayak Symposium 2012, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Edging Into Artistry: Sweetwater Kayak Symposium 2012, Part One | Wind Against Current

  2. Great post, Johna, a whole new world for me! And the matching hair – hah!


  3. Johna Till Johnson

    Thanks! And yeah, the matching-hair thing was pretty good. Nigel’s sense of humor is effervescent–he loves teasing and pranks, but without an iota of malice.


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