Exposure, Stability, and Downwind
Expose yourself to challenging conditions in a controlled environment
My first day paddling in Hawaii was pretty mild and uneventful. The second day we took the shuttle up for a Hawaii Kai run. Before turning downwind from Hawaii Kai, we first went out to the China Wall area to play around and get familiar with the conditions. The minute we turned the corner around the point, I was in some of the biggest conditions I’ve ever been in. There was a steady trade wind all day and the waves and chop had really kicked up. I was definitely a bit tense and intimidated as we paddled into the wind and up and over the waves. Upwind felt scary and downwind was extremely challenging as I couldn’t get into the rhythm of catching the large and confused waves. Each day we continued to explore the China Wall area and while I don’t think the conditions actually changed that much, each day felt progressively smaller and less intimidating and by the end of the week, I was completely relaxed padding around the China Wall. I was simply amazed at how quickly the acclimation happens. Conditions on the ocean are all relative and once you’ve proven to yourself that you can handle conditions at a certain level, you become mentally much more relaxed and with that you are physically more relaxed and therefore much more stable. I suspect that this is mostly due to the fact that your brain has realized just because the swell is huge and maybe even confused, it doesn’t mean your going to capsize or even need to brace constantly. Once you realize that all you have to do is relax and paddle with a steady cadence, it seems like no big deal.
The Molokai experience is rare, but even for those of us on the Great Lakes, if you have a group that wants to do a big downwind paddle, think about pitching in and paying a buddy with a power boat to follow the group. Having the chase boat will add a safety factor and allow everyone to be a bit more relaxed.
Stability is all about technique, confidence, and a steady cadence
In watching the other experienced paddlers paddling around the China Wall, I quickly realized that the absolute key to stability is having a strong forward stroke technique. When you have a clean solid catch powerful stroke and timely exit, all you need to do is relax and settle into an even cadence and the stability will take care of itself. The more tense and timid your are, the more challenging the conditions will be. This is because you’ll be spending a lot of time taking brace strokes and ultimately you’re likely to have the paddle out of the water a lot more than if you just commit to a steady cadence. Keep in mind that it is nearly impossible to come out of your boat when you are in the middle of a strong stroke. Your stroke style will also impact your stability. Keeping your elbows down and your top hand lower (technique style taught by Oscar) and exiting no later than the hip, will add a lot of additional stability.
Downwind – don’t be in a hurry to brace
Hawaii was definitely very humbling for me as I was constantly surrounded by paddlers that were stronger and more experienced in open ocean paddling than I am. Whenever we would head downwind these guys would seem to effortlessly fly along while I struggled at times to get into a rhythm and link the runs. It forced me to really think hard about what I was doing and where I was coming up short in my downwind speeds. My conclusion was that the really good downwind paddlers are ultimately paddling a lot more and bracing less. I don’t know if it is laziness, lack of stability, or a little bit of both, but in many cases I was going into a high brace too soon and in most cases I was holding it too long somehow expecting the next wave to simply grab me or materialize out of nowhere. I think the difference between the elites and the rest of us, is that while the elites will occasionally rest with a high brace, that isn’t happening on every ride. When they do that, they are on a big wind wave or have just caught the swell. When they are surfing the smaller stuff they most often just keep paddling, albeit at a more relaxed cadence and level of effort
I know that one of the most common words of wisdom from the greats in downwind paddling is not to chase every wave and not to waste energy trying to catch every wave, and/or paddle up the back of waves. This is definitely very accurate and true, but as a beginner/intermediate level paddler I don’t think you can take it too literal. Downwind paddling is not a free ride, it definitely requires a lot of work, in most cases the waves won’t simply catch you. The big missing piece that prevents most beginner/intermediate paddlers from linking runs is holding a brace too long and not starting to paddle sooner. I know I am guilty of this. I like the simple explanation that Erik Borgnes uses about crests and shoulders of waves. If you’re in the small stuff that we most often have in the Great Lakes, very shortly after catching a run you are typically right into the shoulder waves. If you paddle strong through these you’ll keep your boat speed up and it will be easy to catch the next run. If you hold a brace too long and delay getting back into a hard stroke, your boat speed will drop quickly and you’ll find the waves passing underneath you and you’ll soon be wallowing and you will need to put in a very hard sprint to get back on a wave. Often this hard sprint results in catching the wave a bit late and/or going too far and you’re quickly back in the same cycle as the ride ends short and you wallow.
I was extremely fortunate to paddle with some of the world’s best paddlers in Hawaii. It was a huge learning experience for me, but I know there is still so much to learn and every time I hit the water I hope to come off just a little bit better by applying the concepts of Deep Practice.