Monday, June 7, 12021 HE
There was a plug for the Road to Ambleside Tide Rip course in the Week 4 Virtual Tuesday Night Race debrief (click the link or see the video below which is queued up). The course is for surf skis, but the mention of waves in Vancouver sparked my interest. I have been exploring downwinding and the description and visuals of the tide rip seemed like there would be similarities. But I have to admit, Mike’s warning in the video did tweak my Spidey sense. Not knowing much about rip tides I thought I would do some more research.
After some internet sleuthing, I came to the following conclusion. Bear in mind, as will become clear if you read on, this is all theoretical on my part. I have not yet experienced these conditions. And as with anything in life, use your judgement and due diligence to evaluate the accuracy and safety of the information provided.
My sleuthing concluded that the Ambleside riptide occurs when you have a strong ebbing tide coupled with winds from the west or northwest. In the case for the First Narrows geography, the ebbing tide results in a fast and ebbing current since the volume of water exiting Burrard Inlet from east of the narrows is forced into and through the narrow opening between Prospect Point in Stanley Park on the Burrard Peninsula and the X̱wemelch’stn territory (or unfortunately more commonly know by its pejorative western name the Capilano Indian Reserve) on the North Shore. If this seaward flow of water is met with an onshore wind, then the opposing forces result in larger standing-type waves. My searching left me wondering what the contribution of the Capilano River was to these conditions? How do factors like the river flow rate, temperature, and sediment affect the ocean current?
While searching for information about the Ambleside tide rip the majority of sources referred only to surf skis. That left me wondering what I was missing about this. Was this some phenomenon that the SUP community was unaware of? I doubted that. The thought of that possibility reminds me of a cartoon meme I saw in which a gentleman searching the internet from his home calls out to his wife to come and look at the piece of information that he has discovered that all the scientific experts in the field had previously missed. Not impossible, but highly improbable. In this case, the more likely conclusion was that there was a reason that SUPers weren’t heading out into these conditions.
But to complicate things, I did come across this post on the Paddle Surf website that opened the possibility of SUPing in the rip. In the comments to the post, there are two names, Mike Darbyshire and Norm Hann, that I recognized as SUPers. Now the comment doesn’t explicitly state that they were paddleboarding in the rip, but given that it was on a SUP site I was ready to make the mental leap. But to be sure, I figured the safest bet was to reach out to the course organizers/promoters, one of which happened to be the very Mike mentioned in the blog post, and see if SUPers would be able to join the course.
The response I got back helped me to understand why there only seemed to be a surf ski presence on the Ambleside Rip scene. My question was eventually forwarded to Mike, and when he got back to me, he essentially informed me that while it was not impossible to ride the rip on a SUP, the hull speeds required to get into the waves through the oncoming current were much more conducive to surf skiing. So my hopes of joining the Road to Ambleside Tide Rip course were dashed. But as a consolation, Mike offered a private SUP lesson via Deep Cove Kayak as an alternative to refine some more advanced techniques. And to me, that sounded like a great alternative. To date, I had not had any formal SUP training and I figured that now would be a good time to gain some more insights to build on my current skills. I have always been a believer in self-learning as a foundation to then build upon with expert coaching or input.
Unfortunately, no one else in my paddle crew was able to attend. The private lesson was able to accommodate up to three students. My schedule and Mike’s worked for a Monday. We planned to meet Monday morning at the Deep Cove Kayak Centre and do the lesson in Səl̓ilw̓ət (Indian Arm).
The morning had salty skies with frigid temperatures. Mike’s confirmation email had warned me to wear clothing that I would be comfortable getting wet in. After a bit of self-debate, I decided to go with my drysuit. I had fallen into the Arm on Saturday without a dry suit on and was pleasantly surprised by the temperature. But things felt a bit cooler today, and then the prospect of multiple dips made me think that being dry would be much more comfortable.
After a brief dryland session about goals, background, and basic paddle skills (e.g. paddle length, stroke mechanics, and stroke technique) we were ready to set out on the water. Here is a link to a more academic paper on SUP stroke biomechanics that has some good links to some less academic posts on SUP stroke biomechanics. The best of which is this one from SUP-Guide.com that includes an excellent video of the anatomy of a SUP paddle stroke by the team at Quick Blade Paddles that is below. The video is from 2011 but still brings out some great aspects of the paddle stroke in my opinion.
As we set out to grab our boards I overheard Mike call out to a colleague asking if it would be okay if we took out a pair of the “XR4’s”. After a quick search post-paddle, I was able to find the boards that we were riding, the Cascadia XR4. I have gotten very used to my inflatable SUPs (Blackfin Model XL 2019 and 2020) so I was curious how both a hardboard and a different board (shape, length) would feel.
Right off of the bat I could feel the difference in the glide for the board (or at least I thought I could). It felt like it was just skimming across the water. Rather than more of a plow through the water that I most recently recalled for my board. My paddle from the day before was in more choppy conditions so perhaps my recent recollection was wrongly being remembered. I would have loved to do a more direct comparison.
For the lesson as we made our way out of Deep Cove, we started into the first drill. The focus for this drill was to not overpull during the drive of the stroke and finish with a late exit. Essentially the premise is that the further your stroke goes beyond your feet the less efficient it becomes for forward propulsion. This is due in part to the orientation of the blade angle which will rotate past vertical beyond your feet and result in more lift of water than pulling/pushing of water. This is one of the reasons that the angle of the blade is offset from the shaft of the paddle. The angulation results in a more vertical blade face when the paddle enters the water than if it ran parallel to the shaft, as well as a more vertical blade face in the drive phase of the stroke.
The other reason to avoid pulling beyond the line of your feet is that the power development there is much less efficient than in front of your feet. Mike demonstrated this by having me perform a few strokes with my blade entry starting at my feet and only driving the paddle back from there versus pulling from a more standard entry point. I was convinced before the demonstration, but the power of the demonstration was not lost on me.
Our first drill then was paddling with a focus on finishing each stroke before my feet. The functional translation to paddling would be to finish each stroke at or before your feet.
As we rounded the point at Cove Cliff we started our second drill. The focus of this drill was to get a solid entry of the blade into the water so that you would be most efficient in the drive phase of the stroke. For this drill, the focus was to bury the blade completely and then focus on getting an early pull. To do this, Mike had me divide my stroke in half and only pull in the first half of the stroke. He had me mark this off by the stern side end of the board’s bungee straps.
It was at this time that we passed a pair of kayakers paddling north. They informed Mike that the area west of Grey Rocks Island was still being search. After they had paddled on Mike explained to me that a scuba diver had gone missing the day before. It seemed that the crews were still searching. We decided we would steer clear and changed our course towards Boulder Island.
It was at this point that Mike told me that my stroke had a lot of extraneous movement in my top hand during my recovery. As soon as he pointed it out I could see what he meant. My stroke resulted in a fairly large sweeping circular motion of the hand to my top arm. For racing or paddling efficiency this would be inefficient. We did one quick drill to correct this and in addition, he gave me two cues to help correct it too.
For the drill what I was to do was to release the paddle with my bottom hand and only recover the stroke with my top hand on the paddle. This would force me to reduce the circular motion of my top arm to keep the blade out of the water without the help of my bottom arm. The cue that went along with this was to imagine that I needed to be able to see the time on a wristwatch on my top paddle arm. The other similar cue was to imagine that my two arms on the paddle formed a window that I needed to be able to see through throughout my paddle stroke.
As we crossed toward Boulder Island I focused on having a high hand during recovery with a small circle.
The fourth drill focused on the engagement of the hips. Here the focus initially was to drive the hips forward into extension after the exit of the blade before the next entry. The extension could be seen as a means of forcing the board forward, allowing the knees and hips to have a break from flexion by allowing full extension, and allow to the board to glide by unweighting the board at the end of the stroke drive. Arguably, if done well this could result in a dolphin-like oscillation of the board over the top of the water.
One thing that Mike pointed out that I struggled to get a grasp of was that the extension of my hips was uncoupled to the recovery motion of my contralateral hand. Ideally, the two movements should have been more synchronous, but for me, my hip was going into extension before the recovery of my hand. After Mike pointed it out it was obvious to me. But surprisingly, I found it quite difficult to break the habit. This was going to be a drill that would require a bit more thought and practice.
The last stroke drill that we did as we made our way back into the cove was to emphasize the hip rotation and leg drive. Simply put, you can think of it as turning your pelvis (think belly button) away from the side that your paddle is on to get a bit more reach for the blade entry. And then during the drive phase of the stroke, the belly button or pelvis is turned back towards your paddle side.
More technically put, because your feet are fixed in place you are performing a relative lateral rotation of the ipsilateral hip to your paddle side and a medial rotation of the contralateral hip while the pelvis is globally rotating away from the paddle in space. Once the blade enters the water and the drive phase is coupled with a strong ipsilateral hip medial rotation and contralateral hip lateral rotation. As a cue to exaggerate the movement Mike suggested finishing with my ipsilateral paddle leg straight.
By focusing on hip rotation to increase reach rather than hip flexion you can offset the posterior weight shift that would occur during increased hip flexion to maintain balance.
Mike did a recap on what we covered as we paddle into Deep Cove and offered to send me an email summary. I accepted the offer.
And now it was time for some footwork drills.
He started by going over the parallel stance for SUP. This stance is great for controlling roll, but things get trickier when you introduce pitch. For SUP, the pitch becomes a factor in bigger wave conditions, e.g. surfing or downwinding.
So from there, we went into using a staggered stance which is ideal for downwinding. With one foot slightly in front of the other, you are then able to control the pitch of the board better. As you start to descend a wave you can then weight your back foot to lift the nose of the board and prevent it from pearling (or nosediving).
And then the last stance we covered was to go fully into a surf stance. From here we did a bit of walking on the board before we transitioned to pivot turns.
My first pivot turn was epic. I am not sure if it was the hardboard, the narrower tail, or the board’s overall narrowness, but as soon as I went into my pivot turn the back end sunk much too rapidly for me to maintain my balance. I wasn’t able to recover, so I went into the water, and the board launched into the air! Mike joked that my inflatable board wouldn’t do that. There was a group of kayakers paddling in who got to witness my SUP space launch. But the upside of my fail was that I was able to get super valuable insight as to how to recover from the tail of the board sinking too quickly. The key, Mike told me, is to drop to one knee on your back leg! As soon as he said it I could feel the light going off in my head. Why didn’t I think of that! Because in the moment of losing my balance all I could (and can) think about is how not to fall into the water. After he demonstrated the technique and how it will bring your weight forward and the board back to rest on the water I gave it a try. It worked beautifully and I can’t wait to try it with my board on my next paddle.
And here is the sad news. Later when I got home I looked up the details of the missing scuba diver and found out that he had drowned and that the underwater recovery team had found the body. A sad story, but a stark reminder to not underestimate the dangers of the water.