Friday, February 25, 2011

Paddling Blind

Tillerman's got another Group Writing Project going on, and it's a fun one. In honor of the eagerly anticipated US release of Tristan Gooley's The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer's Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill, the topic is, yup, "Navigation", and the directions are simple:

"Your challenge is to write a few lines about any aspect of navigation that interests you."

I've been thoroughly enjoying the entries so far. They run the gamut from odes, to entertaining mishaps, to chillingly close calls, to an explanation of how spring lambs a-gambolling can become a hazard to navigation.

I really hadn't planned to participate.

But that Tillerman is a sly fox, and in the quickest of Facebook exchanges today, I suddenly discovered I'd been buffaloed into beginning to write something that was Maybe, Just Maybe worth continuing. I was still at work, so I cut it short there & promised to continue tonight.

It all started with Carol Anne's entry, which I had originally not recognized as an entry. I thought it was just a very funny/awful chain of puns involving sausages and a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (bacon, sausage, same difference). I hadn't seen her comment on Proper Course that this was her entry, but of course the subtitle, or, how to get from here to there ... says it all. Anyways, she posted a link blaming me on my Facebook wall, and here's what ensued before I realized that I was getting in deeper than I usually like to get when I'm still at work (I'll write at work, but I try to keep it under control).

Carol Anne: Now look what you made me do!

Me: HA HA HA. And the great thing is that it got you into the Tillerman "Navigation" group writing exercise, too.

Tillerman: Navigation is a broad church. Which reminds me, don't kayakers have navigation tales to tell, Bonnie?

Me: Well, kayakers do, but this particular kayaker is honestly a bit boring on that particular front. I'm coastal, I'm conservative (at least in my paddling habits), I spend 99% of the time paddling the same waters, I always carry a compass, and when I go somewhere new I generally carry a chart that I've studied beforehand and take good mental notes so I can get back to where I started from. I'm blessed with a reasonably decent sense of direction and as long as I'm paying attention, I usually have a good idea of where I am and how to get home. All that adds up to no good stories.

Tillerman: I've always thought that the "sense of direction" is a mysterious and marvelous thing. What is it? Just a good memory for how many turns we have made and what angles they were? Or picking up unconsciously some of those "natural navigation" signs? Or something even more strange like an innate magnetic compass? Or all of the above working together? And why do some people have it better than others? Is it genetic?

Me: You're trying to get an entry out of this, aren't you? Well, you might have something there.

It's definitely visual cues for me, although since I started sailing dinghies I've become a lot more aware of the direction of the wind too. Trying to paddle straight with your eyes closed is a fun kayak exercise - couldn't do it much on the Hudson because there's too much going on & if you close your eyes for 50 strokes you could be under a pier or a ferry by the time you open them again, but there's an area just outside the Paerdegat that I like to do this...

aw heck. There IS a post in this, isn't there? I'm still at work. I'll finish this tonight.

So, to continue -

There's an area outside of the Paerdegat where I like to do this. It's well out of the channel and shallow enough that you really don't have to worry about being in somebody's way, no matter how off-course you go, and the lights marking at the boat channel into the basin are a perfect target (I usually find myself doing this on post-work solo paddles in the summertime, when I'm getting back at dusk if not dark). It's a simple exercise. You get yourself going straight towards your target - and then you close your eyes for however many strokes you choose.

I'm a good paddler, and with my eyes open, I can keep my boat on a given heading just fine.

Eyes closed, and it's a different matter. As I said, I have a reasonable sense of direction - but I know it's mostly visual. I have just about laughed out loud when I've opened my eyes after some of these blind paddling runs. I've found myself so far off-course that I had to turn my head to find my target. Ninety degrees or more!

Dinghy sailing has actually improved my blind paddling because it's made me much more aware of the wind as a directional clue. I'm pretty awful at reading wind shifts and such - it's why I'm one of the worst dinghy racers at the club - but I'm trying to learn to do it better. At some point it dawned on me that the blind paddling exercise would be a great one for reading the wind, too. It was a lovely warm night with a steady, light west wind blowing when I first tried it, perfect for the experiment. I got myself going along nicely, eyes open. I started paying attention to where the wind was falling on my face - and then I closed my eyes and instead of getting all caught up in trying to produce mechanically perfect equal strokes, I just paid attention to keeping the feel of the wind on my face the same.

I still had my eyes shut - but I didn't feel anywhere near as blind, and desire to open them wasn't nearly as strong as it had been when I'd done the exercise in the past. Even in this perfectly safe area, even on a warm, quiet night, my gut was always insisting that I needed to see, and it took some willpower to not have my eyelids start sneaking open. Paying close attention to a gentle, cooperative wind, the compulsion to at least sneak peeks was suddenly much less; I was able to relax and paddle much more naturally, and when I did open my eyes, after however many strokes I'd set myself as a goal(probably 20 or 25 for the first try), there were the lights of the basin almost exactly in front of me.

First time EVER.

I'll have to keep trying that this summer.


O Docker said...

Great story.

I posted last year about the first time I tried sailing at night - on a windless, moonless night, out of sight of any shoreline. It was pitch black, I was relying on the GPS, and it suddenly went out.

While I was fiddling to get it working again, the boat started doing tight circles and I had absolutely no sensation that it was doing that.

I think we have no built in 'sense of direction'. We rely on obvious visual clues most of the time and when they are gone, how well we do depends on how good we are at observing other signs. For you, the 'sign' was the wind on your face. But I guess Tristan's lesson for us is that there are hundreds of other 'signs' out there if we will only open our eyes and see them.

Pilots are taught to ignore their 'instincts' about direction - which are almost always unreliable.

Tillerman said...

Excellent. Dinghy sailors also used that "close your eyes" drill too. Try sailing a beat with eyes closed and staying in that perfect close-hauled groove. I guess there are other clues when you are sailing, the pull on the tiller, the sound of the boat in the water, the heel of the boat, the speed... that give you feedback on whether you are getting it right.

By the way, the US release of Tristan's book is not "anticipated". It's already out.

Thanks for entering.

ol philosophizer said...

I do all my paddling on the Hudson, a river that runs north-south, with visible banks on the east and west. So I never thought about navigation - at least not until one night in January several years ago when a friend and I got lost in fog so thick that we crossed the river without realizing it. Getting back involved tossing articles of clothing into the river to see which way the current was running (we got in trouble initially by paddling in a curve,and didn't want to do it again). We also kept our fingers crossed that we would not hear the fog horn of a tug and barge. I now carry a compass, even on the narrowest of streams.

O Docker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bonnie said...

There's always lights where I paddle, but fog is exactly I always carry a compass. I don't think I've actually ever had to use it to get home (thickest I've seen wasn't quite pea-soupy enough to obscure the lights on the Canarsie pier that's close to our basin), but there are a couple of stories at the club about people being caught out when the fog came in thick. One group ended up making a detour into Dead Horse Bay, and one of our racing paddlers spent the night on the island closest to the basin. Not a nice place to spend the night, and you don't pack a lock of comfort materials (extra clothes, chocolate, hot cider) on a surfski!

Tillerman, I was thinking as I was writing this that maybe I should try this exercise sometime in a sailboat. I get so caught up in the wind indicator.

And yes, I should have been clearer - the book WAS eagerly anticipated but IS out now!

Buck said...

Joan Druett's Tupaia is out. Haven't got it yet, but it's the story of Capt Cook's Polynesian navigator...