Archive for June, 2014

Gear Review: Smart Track Rudder System

Installation of a new Smart Track Rudder system on my Pygmy Coho.

Installation of a new Smart Track Rudder system on my Pygmy Coho.

Gear Review: The Smart Track Rudder System


To rudder, or not to rudder? That was the burning question for many years. When I built my Pygmy Boats Coho in my living room (I was not married then) it was quickly apparent that the lines of the kayak were such that even in a partly finished state it would float in an un-aided straight line. Once finished and in the water that assumption was proved to be true. The Coho glides like a razor in melted butter. Turns with only minor body movements and paddle skills. For nearly ten years I have paddled without a rudder. I am a believer that in many ways the use of a kayak rudder is a handicap to paddling, not an assistance. It causes lazy paddling skill sets, or in many cases the complete lack there of. A rudder should only be an extra aid for when those certain situations occur that an aid to navigation is needed. They are not a substitute for gaining good paddle skills but should be partnered with them.

An example of this situation was when I spent months restoring a wooden kayak to new glory and attempted to sell it. The boat was rudderless and did not need one as it handled easily for anyone who could use a paddle. On more than one occasion I had to talk someone through how to turn the kayak around as they had only used ruddered kayaks and had no clue what to do without one. Selling the kayak proved to be a difficult task and re-enforced my opinion of a rudder.

I installed a rudder last week to my kayak. A decision based on many needs and factors. I am not as young as I once was, the sad fact of tendonitis have arisen, and looking towards the next stages in my paddling career it seemed a good idea. Most of the time the rudder will be up but I see those days when the winds gather against me, or crossing open stretches of current with the voice in my head repeating with every one-sided paddle stroke “do I want to work that hard?” No! Been there, done that  and if I can take some strain off my arms all the better. As a photographer I have had to lose great shots due to the awkward nature of navigating a kayak while focusing a shot. The paddle under the armpit method getting rather old. Then there is the underlying subconscious idea of entering the Yukon River Quest in 2015 and to navigate the river without a rudder would be exhausting if impossible. So there you have it, after some research and sampling of different systems I buy a rudder and last weekend I took her out for a couple of afternoon trips to get accustomed to the new addition. I have to say it is tough to turn off the brain and switching off the need to steer the kayak via the paddle. The first half hour was a struggle to stop myself from this, and just let my feet do the thinking while I concentrate on forward strokes. It will take a while to flip that switch on and off without thinking, but I will get the hang of it eventually.

The Smart Track Rudder works! In a word, it is the most polished rudder system as compared to the more basic pulley controlled rudders with sliding rail foot controls. The foil rudder mimics the design of world cup boats to achieve as little resistance and drag as possible. An adjustment knob allows the user to make easy changes for better performance depending on conditions. The two features of the rudder set up that made my day on the water were the foot controls and the single cord to raise and lower the blade. The foot controls are unlike anything I have used before. My argument with sliding foot peg rudder controls, the standard is that you lose optimum paddler positioning with your feet moving back and forth. Losing that fixed, locked in feeling that gives the paddler the most efficient strokes. The Smart Track foot controls put an end to that loss of stability and give the paddler what they want the most. The foot pegs are perminently in two modes. A set mount for your foot with a separate lever toe control for the rudder’s direction. This keeps you locked in place, braced well while the slightest touch to the toe pedal moves the blade.

Installation of the system was fairly simple and retrofitting it to my wooden kayak was easy with the addition of a mounting bracket from Chesapeake Light Craft (I purchased the rudder system from them as well) that allowed me to avoid drilling a pivot hole in the stern of the kayak. Using a long-pin version of the Smart Track rudder housing with that bracket offered only minor adjustments to the boat itself was done in an afternoon. To anyone considering the addition of an after-market rudder system the Smart Track is the way to go. Priced competitively to the old standard systems makes the decision even easier and the set up gives a paddler what they desire. Ease of use, and zero compromise to efficient paddling and comfort.



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Paddling the Summer Away

I declare it to be summer.

I base that statement on the very real fact that if you can do the same outdoor activity two days in a row without uncomfortable weather conditions, it is summer. The lack thereof of any kinds of weather. Rain, high winds, coldness, big seas, and combinations of such make it unsummer. This chain of not-so-great June-uary weather took a long weekend over the past few days allowing me to get out in my kayak not just once, but two afternoons in a row! The only weather-ish item to greet me on my second outing was a slight northerly breeze that was actually welcomed as it was overly warm, another hint that summer has finally arrived.

I was keen to get out there. Not just because of the desire to sit in my boat, but I had spent a week retrofitting the stern end to accommodate a Smart Track Rudder System. The kayak really doesn’t need a rudder. It tracks like a razor through the water. I decided, if reluctantly to add one simply because I am tired of working so hard to ferry across currents and wind the old-fashioned way. I am not as young as I once was. The rudder will not get much in the water time usually, but for those above reasons and the fact that focusing a camera while the paddle is tucked under my armpit to attempt to steer…not easy. new rudder 2

I am a believer in paddle skills and after many years without a rudder, I have good skill sets so I don’t owe anything and will not rely on the rudder much, unless conditions require. Wind, currents, combinations of both and perhaps in the next year the flow of the Yukon River at my back. This leads to the subconscious decision-making while I explored the local islands over this lovely sunny beginning of summer weekend. As I worked hard against the tide cursing the fact that the kelp leaves indicated my opposing course against the forces of nature mt mind wandered to fanciful visualizations of paddling the 714km Yukon River Quest Paddling Marathon. I must be nuts! But the addition of a rudder makes any last excuses based on navigation on a river fade away. I find myself thinking more about logistics. Borrowing an extra tent so my wife has a place to sleep at the midway rest stop at Carmacks. What type of food will I have on the route? Making a list of gear I will need and checking it against what I already have on hand. I’m doomed! If I can muster the funds to enter the race next year, I’ll be on the river. Can I finish? Well that is the real question isn’t it. I’d like to think I have what it takes mentally to get from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the require time. I do have a year to prepare and a good friend offering his knowledge and assistance as my crew who has already paddled it, (2 1/2 times) finishing twice and last year winning his class. The list of reasons not to enter are shortening.

The Yukon River Quest 2014 edition begins in two days and I see in the roster of paddlers a few familiar names. I wish them well. As for me, I will paddle the summer away. Occasionally checking my speed to see if there is improvements and staying fit.

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She’ll Make Point 5 Past Light Speed!

In four days one of the longest, toughest paddling marathons begins. The Yukon River Quest draws the lunatics of paddling together for a 700km+ *about 444 miles* up the winding river from Whitehourse to the Gold Rush Mecca of Dawson City for more than two full days of non-stop kayaking or canoeing. new rudder 2I was up there in 2011 assisting as support crew for tow friends attempting the task. Sadly, the mission ended at the mid-way point of Carmacks due to injury. Being support for a team was truly difficult. Managing logistics, food, kayak, tents, and then there was personalities…need I say more? By the end of the week I realized that it was possibly easier to paddler the race than to support a team. Erase all of the above responsibilities and all that is left is “just keep paddling”.

A couple of weeks ago I took the plunge and ordered a rudder system for my kayak. I had paddle for nearly a decade in this Pygmy Coho, which I cannot say enough about as far as it’s over all performance and comfort. It tracks like a dream, so why add a rudder? Two reasons, I am a photographer and steadying a kayak while attempting to shoot is next to impossible, two, I am tired of working out so hard to ferry against the elements, and sure there are really three reasons. Somewhere in the back of my mind the idea of running the YRQ has been rumbling in my soul. Subconsciously, the addition of a rudder simply means I am committing to the idea of racing the marathon from Whitehore to Dawson. Can you tell I am talking myself into this mania?

New RudderToday, the first day of summer, the longest day turned out to be warm, sunny and virtually windless. What better opportunity to hit the local waters and drop that rudder to see how it performed and more importantly, how it changed the handling of my kayak. I can say as far as official review of the Smart Track Rudder System it is hands down the most polished rudder set up ever. A single cord controls the up and down and the set pegs allow for firm bracing while the sensitive toe controls work the rudder easily. Five stars for that, and gosh golly darn it that means not having a rudder was my only out for putting myself through the ordeal.

My thoughts were that if I deleted the paddle control and added a rudder I would be able to focus fulling on forward motion, and even though I am out of shape today, I did manage to add a bit of speed to my average flat water pace. Maybe the old girl will get me to Dawson next year? Time to start conditioning, training, paddling and maybe I can get the woodie past point 5 at light speed after all.


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Kayaking for a Good Cause, Paddle For Health

A few years ago I stumbled upon a grass-roots fundraising team dedicated to the support of those facing cancer. The ring-leader of the group as I discovered during a few emails back and forth had very similar experiences with the disease to that of my own. In fact, the parallels were astonishing between our lives. I began to invest in that year’s fundraising paddling event on the waters near Victoria BC, but alas the weekend of the event landed on my first wedding anniversary. As relaxed as she is about my needs to be on the water, skipping our event for a fundraiser seemed inappropriate.

My story begins on a late August weekend at my mother’s home in Qualicum Beach. I visited her often but on this sunny afternoon she dropped a bomb. The cancer was terminal. She had dealt with the illness for many years, and by Christmas of that year there was little anyone could do. By Easter she was dying in the Nanaimo Hospital and I literally postponed my own life and became a live-in caregiver at the palliative ward. She was stubborn in her leaving and after over seven weeks of steady decline she passed away. Spent, probably unemployed by now and in a haze I returned to my island home, dizzy. It was not long after her passing that I was in my kayak paddling with friends on the outer coast of Vargas and Flores Islands in Clayoquot Sound. In my dry bag at my feet was a small glass jar containing some of her ashes. I had planned a scattering at the right moment some time during the week-long paddle trip, but no idea until rounding the point before the beach that would be our first camp.

As the guys landed one at a time in the shelter behind an islet facing the now setting sun, I turned the opposite direction and paddled out towards it. I drifted, admittedly struggling to reach the handle of the bag with my now cramping big toe and free it from the gear surrounding it. In time for the last flash of sunlight I held the jar firmly, said a few words to the horizon and the sea she and I both loved, and tossed the ashes. I recapped the jar now holding a message and tossed it as well. The note had my contact information. But my message in a bottle bobbed twice and sank to the bottom. Such is life.

My weeks in the hospital were revealing and an awakening to the difference even just a bit of outside support can bring to a family, or a patient. At times, too stressful for words, and at others moving beyond anything I could imagine. To go through something so intimate and astonishing as that and not be changed is impossible. As an advocate, son and paddler the organizer of Paddle For Health, Don Lowther and I are one in the same. I scattered her ashes to the sea and Don honours his mother with an annual fundraising event bringing laughter, love of paddling and much-needed cash to those who need it most.

This year is a different story and thankfully the paddle fundraiser benefitting the new Vancouver Island Family Support Program and to aid in expanding the levels of support to Island-based families who have children with cancer is on a different weekend than my anniversary! And I am glad to be taking part, raising some funds with a goal of a mere $500 and of course, recruiting a few more paddlers to do so as well for this September’s day on the water.

Below are a couple of links. One is my secure fundraising page. The next link is to Paddle For Health’s website so you can learn more and hopefully, sign up and join the fun.


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Lets Go Exploring: San Juan River Estuary.

The last ever frame of the cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes had the pair sailing off on a sled into a white background, parts unknown. The caption simply read, “Lets go Exploring!” Three little words that ran through my head as we four unloaded kayaks, paddles and enthusiasm on a sandy access near the Pacheedaht campground at Port Renfrew, BC. The idea to paddle up into the San Juan River Estuary was one a couple of us had bandied about and on a recent day trip to the coast I was tasked with some recon. This consisted of driving back and forth over the single-lane bridge over the river’s mouth peering over the railings to see upriver to the first elbow. Other than a powerline stretched over the river decorated with red and white balls so planes won’t get snagged I had no idea how far anyone could paddle upstream. When asked back at home by those interested in joining the trip I said it was totally, “doable”.

The estuary by definition is at the mercy of a rising and lowering tide fed in by the perpetually windy Juan de Fuca Strait. The open mouth of the river turns into a shallow maze of sandbanks and submerged logs at lower tides. An exposed sand bar blocks the outflow to the sea completely at this time. Wind waves bashed ashore against it, but on the river side things looked calmer. The tide would rise considerably by the time we planned to return so simplifying our path to the launch site.

On the water, the wind found us, and the paddling to that first elbow in the river’s course was done by riding high on some substantial swells. The winds were forecast to increase overnight but for some reason we all assumed amnesty on the river from their effects. Around the corner the open ocean and its nasty winds were behind us. The air was warm as was the water and the tops of trees swayed. The water became quite deep in places in rich emerald green and so clear that the stones on the floor were visible. In a moment, the deep would disappear and then suddenly shallow signified by the noise as my rudder blade pinged off small round river-polished stones. Fallen old growth trees lined a section of the shore like sleeping giants side by side one by one like toppled dominoes. Dwarfed we were in perspective. With only a vague GPS map to guide us along the trip upriver was one of true exploration fed by the curiosity of what may be around the next corner, the next gravel bar, the next rapid.

Rapids, a word or two about them. I am a sea kayaker. If I see tidal rapids I tend to find a new course. I am not a white water adrenaline guy and none of us had ever been river paddling before. It was good that we all read from the same page on this account as there was not one person who had done them before and therefore egging the group to jump in the deep end only because they feel comfortable there. We paddled against the flow. Most of the river sections were flat, relatively calm and deep. The current, and there was current was barely noticeable on these stages. Until of course, we were met with a step up in elevation. The flow increased and more often than not it was so shallow that getting good paddle traction was impossible. I wondered along the way if it had been a better snow year would we be in for more flow, and certainly deeper water. Even the smallest rapids stopped us in out tracks and the portage beyond the obstacle at one spot was a mere five feet. The sweeper rapid on a sharp corner we all avoided and on the way back down it was the only one we got off the river to carry the kayaks to safer waters. The rest of the steps were fun, slow-moving drops.

For three hours we worked out way up river stopping only to walked the river shore often to see if the next bend was to be our last. Inevitably it was not and we continued. A log jam standing about ten feet high nearly stopped our progress completely if not for a one meter gap with a bunny hop over a slightly submerged tree. On the return I led the group enjoying the faster water and using my rudder to steer the gauntlet and through the gap without a single paddle stroke. From that point we eventually found the short channel that lead into Fairy Lake. Here we met a man with a small canoe and a kite he was attempting to fly in the gusts swirling around the bends from time to time. The tops of the Alders bend and hushed whispers sounded in their leaves with each padding gust of wind. A reminder that our last leg in open water may be difficult indeed. I assured the group, and told myself to believe it would all die down long before we reached that point.

The afternoon drew on, the sun came out to greet us as we wandered, paddled, walked through deep brush, ate plump berries (wondering if the bears noticed) and fell into tranquil self-absorbed silences in out kayaks for long periods of time. It was noted on a particularly dreamy patch of slow-moving deep green water with high walls of forest highlighting the slot of open sky a mist shrouded mountain that we all could be floating on any bit of water, on any bit of British Columbia, at any time in history. The mist cleared, and a unmistakable logging scar appeared shaking us back to the present and thus ruining our delusions. We paddled on.

The hour became late, we landed upon a gravel island in the middle of the river. A mild rapid flow peeled away from one side of it causing a convenient eddy to allow easy landings. The four of us basked there in the sunshine, the first we had seen all day. All was quiet, all was calm. I exhaled in more than just breath. Not much was spoken on that hour perched in the center of a river with so much ahead of us to explore until I broke the silence with the reminder of the one we had left behind in camp, and the fact all the food was in the trunk of my car. It was time to paddle home. The time back was less than half that of the upriver paddle even with gusts of wind that to my prediction were not nearly as violent when we rounded the bend into open water. The tide was high and a shoreline short cut was to be had.

A look at the map when I got home shows how far we had paddled and how much potential there was to continue had we left earlier in the day. Fairy Lake was just the tip of the iceberg and I plan to return with Hobbes and Calvin and anyone with a kayak to see what lay beyond our lazy gravel bar. Next stop Lizard Lake…Let’s Go Exploring!



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