Your boat may be hung up in the rafters for the winter, but there are a lot of things you can be doing to maintain or even improve your skills for next season. At the very least, look at ways to keep up the level of fitness and muscle tone that you have achieved during this paddling season. Ideally, you can be using a kayak ergometer for exercise over the winter (like a rowing machinge that uses a kayaking motion instead of a rowing motion). These machines can be purchased for home use. If you don’t have the extra money available to get the ergometer, you can at least find a rowing machine at the local health club (if not in a dusty corner of your basement sitting unused for years). As a last resort, find an old weight bar, sit on a bench, and carefully imitate your paddling motion. Speed is not as important as form in this exercise. Not sure what good form is? There are some excellent DVD’s that you can get to help you with this – “The Kayak Forward Stroke” by Greg Barton and Oscar Chalupsky; “Brent Reitz Forward Stroke Clinic”; “Ben Lawry’s Forward Stroke Clinic”; “Nigel Foster’s Sea Kayaking Series, Volume 5: Forward Paddling”. It can also be helpful to have someone video your practice. Most digital point and shoot cameras can take short video clips that you can watch on your computer. You may think that you are rotating your torso, until you see yourself on camera.
If you want to work on some other skills, winter is a great time to learn how to roll, or improve a weak roll before next spring. Get Ben Lawry’s DVD, “Dr. Ben’s New & Improved Rolling Elixir” and find a spot in your house where you can put a kayak on the floor. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn about rolling without putting your boat in the water. This brings me to my next suggestion for a way to spend money this winter. Consider buying a whitewater kayak. They are much smaller and easier to cart around to local pool sessions in the winter. They fit in your living room better when you are practicing Ben Lawry’s “dry land” rolling exercises, and I highly recommend doing some whitewater kayaking in the spring to develop better bracing and rolling skills for your rough water sea kayaking. Whitewater paddling also greatly improves your river reading and understanding of what is happening in the water from the clues you see on top of the water. (Not to mention, you may just enjoy whitewater kayaking for its own sake.) You can usually find a used whitewater kayak somewhere if you want to save money. Lately, I’ve seen several “old school” whitewater kayaks for sale for very reasonable prices.
Whether you get a whitewater kayak or not, consider attending open pool sessions in the winter to work on rolling, bracing, and rescues. Locally, Badger State Boating Society offers sessions during the winter. If you are willing to drive, you may find some indoor rolling lessons and you can use the open pool sessions to practice. You also may find someone at a pool session who is willing to take some time to help you with your developing roll. At the very least, a pool is a great environment for you to get comfortable with the concept of being upside down, underwater, and staying in your kayak in preparation for learning to roll. Too many people sign up for rolling classes before they are truly ready to begin learning to roll. If the idea of being upside down in your boat makes you even the least bit nervous, you have some prep work to do before spending money and time on rolling lessons. Get yourself a dive mask, capsize near the side of the pool, and then use the side of the pool to hip snap back up before you run out of air. Learning to hip snap is also a major determinant in the success of your roll. Spend the winter developing a strong hip snap (weight transfer if John Browning is your instructor) and you will have much better success with your roll.
Not insterested in learning to roll, you can also work on wet exits, bracing, and rescues in a pool during the winter. This can be extremely helpful to those of you who might be nervous about performing these skills out on a lake or river. Most people feel more at ease in a warm pool. Practice wet exits until you can exit in a calm and controlled manner keeping both your boat and paddle in hand as you surface. When your solo rescues/recoveries are getting too easy, ask someone to get in the water and rock your kayak simulating waves and rough water. You can use a 4-step progression to work on bracing skills. I will explain that progression in a future post.
If you don’t want to get wet, you can still work on the mental skills of kayaking like learning how to read charts, navigation, or reading tide and current charts. What it really comes down to is this, winter does not have to be the “off” season for paddlers, even up here in the north. It can be a great time to focus on the development of particular skills without the distractions of good weather and great local paddling destinations that plague us in the summer.