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The Piling Slalom

Last fall I paddled one of the many sloughs off the Columbia River which are
studded with pilings left over from the days when these sloughs were
gathering grounds for logs waiting for transport to the mills. We had ridden
the ebb tide out to the river but found ourselves fighting it on the return
trip. Because the best place to paddle when fighting the current is in the
eddy close to shore we moved to within a paddle-length of the beach only to
find the way ahead blocked by an endless sequence of ancient log-boom
pilings set into what was now shallow water. The rudder on my Telkwa was
useless because it would hang up on grass or the branches of fallen trees so
I pulled it up and aimed for the outside of the first piling and, when it
was next to my right shoulder, pushed my right knee up against the deck
padding and threw the kayak onto its port edge and aimed for the inside of
the next piling.

As I paddled up the slough I found myself moving from edge to edge and
letting my boat finesse its way around one piling after another while
paddling faster and faster. It felt like running a slalom course on skiis
and it was FUN!

This morning I got to thinking about edging in kayaks and how much fun it is
as well as what a useful tool it is to any paddler; whether in a sea kayak
or a white-water boat. And why many new paddlers are intimidated by the idea
of putting what already may feel like a tippy boat onto its edge. But edging
is a valuable tool to a kayaker.

I bought my current sea kayak, a Nimbus Telkwa HV, from a mere slip of a
girl in Newport, Washington who said that she had paddled around Alaska in
it together with her boyfriend (in a separate boat, I'm pretty sure). I'm
6'2" and 210lbs and have size 12-1/2 feet and when I sit in the cockpit the
HV feels, well.... big. I cannot imagine that little girl paddling it around
Alaska but I have no doubt she did it. But I'm sure she must've been adept
at edging because no other technique would have seen her through that sort
of adventure.

A long time ago when I was obsessed with going up and down rock faces I
watched another mere slip of a girl finesse her way up a pitch that I had
muscled my way up gracelessly a few dozen times.  She was blonde, cute and
slender and I could have probably picked her up and broken her with my bare
hands. But she went up that pitch with a grace and agility that I knew with
absolute certainty I could never match. The crux of that climb involved a
shuffling of feet and a scramble that she made look like a ballet.

That's when I learned that strength wasn't everything.

Guys do have a tendency to train for strength and then use that strength.
Women's bodies seldom can attain the same physical strength men's bodies can
so they have to learn how to do it better. Balance and agility contribute to
grace on a rockface. Edging does it in a kayak.

I have no quarrel with rudders; on a long straight paddle or in a nasty
crosswind I love to just set my course with my feet and let rhythm take
over; planting one paddle and then the other and only varying the cadence
when I want to rest or pick up the pace. If you're a guy in a boat without a
rudder the tendency may be to just paddle damn hard on one side or the other
to get that bow to swing. But there is an easier way; and there are times
when it's just plain fun to move the boat around with the same sorts of
movements you'd use to carve a delectible set of turns down a mountain slope
on skiis. All hips and knees and shoulders moving at the same time in the
right direction.

Edging doesn't require strength at all; just balance. And the better you are
at balancing your kayak on its edge the more fun you can have carving turns
with it. The fact that your boat turns easier when on edge comes from the
fact that there is more "rocker" on the side of a kayak than there is on its
keel. Turn your kayak over and look at it. The keel is long and straight
and, at least on most sea kayaks, it's pretty flat. Get down on your knees
alongside your boat and sight up and down on that keel and you'll see little
difference in height from the bow to the middle to the stern. This lack of
"rocker" is one of the design factors that makes a sea kayak track well.

But the edge of your kayak - even a long straight sea kayak - is all curves
from the bow to the cockpit and then back to the stern. Now, if one of the
design factors of a quickly maneuverable boat is more rocker (imagine a
rocker on a rocking chair), you can see that if you substitute the side of
your kayak for the bottom of your kayak you can turn it more quickly. And
this is exactly what the maneuver called "edging" does.

Some kayak shapes even have the ability to dig into the water and carve a
turn when they're put up on an edge. White-water kayaks, in particular, but
some sea kayaks and virtually all hard-chined kayaks have this trait.

If you've never put your kayak onto its edge then the first time will seem
pretty darn uncomfortable. The best way to practice is in the water next to
something you can hold onto for balance. A nice warm indoor swimming pool is
forming a picture in my mind. But a lake next to a floating dock works too.
Line your boat up with the edge of the supporting structure and reach the
hand closest to it out and rest your fingers on the top. Try not to lean on
the dock or pool edge but just use it for support. Now lift your opposite
knee and push it up into the padding under the deck and twist your hips to
hold your body more-or-less upright. You should be able to get the boat to
about a 30 degree angle with almost no supporting pressure with your
fingertips on that dock. Just nicely balanced.

This angle isn't important by the way, because every kayak is different and
every person in every kayak is different. It all depends on whether you
carry your weight higher or lower. The important issue here is to find out
where that balance point is. Other than just flat, of course.

The point of edging is to be able to continue your paddling on either (or
both) sides of the boat with some curved surface (with "rocker")
substituting for the kayak's keel (which doesn't have much "rocker"). Your
paddle blades give you the support in the water that your fingertips gave
you on the dock. If you feel unbalanced you just dig in harder ("brace")
with the paddle to counteract force that's unbalancing you. Your kayak - and
almost any kayak - will turn more easily like this.

When you feel comfortable with your kayak on edge next to the supporting
structure, try it in open water. Since you can overbalance and tip over you
should be practiced at swimming out of your cockpit (a "wet exit"). If you
have never done a wet exit before, please do it before you try edging.
Especially with a spray skirt on and most especially in open water; and
critically in cold water (and wear appropriate gear). I ask new paddlers to
sit in the cockpit on the dock with the spray skirt fastened tightly around
them. Then I tell them to close their eyes tightly and pull the spray skirt
loose and push themselves out from the cockpit and back. Then I ask them to
do this in the water... upside down. It's always great fun ... at least for
me.

As far as which way to edge, I don't think it matters on calm water. I think
that the boat turns better away from the lean; that is, the boat turns best
to starboard when it's on its port edge and vice-versa. But there are times,
especially in breaking seas or white water, when you want to keep one side
or the other of the kayak higher. So it's a good idea to learn to turn both
directions when on each edge.

Out in a moderate sea you can experiment with carving turns across the faces
of waves. I warn you that the rush you get from doing this can be addictive.
I sometimes start to think I'm a seal or a fish or ice skater when I'm in
the groove and dancing with my kayak across the waves. This is, in my
opinion, the main attraction to white water kayaking and the new white-water
sport called "play boating".

No matter what kayak you paddle, I guarentee that it will turn faster on its
edge than it will paddled flat. What's more, your ability to put it on that
edge and make the boat do what you want will make you safer no matter how
strong your muscles are. The difference between finessing your way around
the water and muscling your way around it. Find a slough or estuary with
some pilings in it and let your imagination run wild as you lean your way
through the course.

Craig Jungers
Royal City, WA