16 April 2014

Travel with camera gear

With two expeditions planned in the near future I have been busy organizing myself.
My main focus for the new season will be improving my photography skills and trying to capture higher quality footage.
I believe that the best talent will shine with any half decent camera equipment and since I don't fall into that category I am justifying my average efforts with the lack of equipment.
The saying "A good tradesmen doesn't blame his tools" comes to mind tho...

On my previous trips my footage has been limited to point-and-shoot style cameras.
Occasionally I wished for higher quality (even if my use is almost exclusive to computer screen display) and specifically more control over focus and exposure.
Also my on-board of kayak footage on last year's trip to Sweden was limited to hand-held angles; I want to have the flexibility of varied angles for on-deck camera mounts.
I need light and compact.
At home I have a garage full of custom made deck mounts that often take too long to set up and are way too bulky for international travel.
I drool over footage taken with Steady-cams and dollies while I realize that it would require more than a one-man-band to schlep and use that gear.
After 5 different prototypes I have finally come up with something I can transport with me without having to pay excess luggage when flying.
I can now set up my system to any kayak deck within minutes (no custom molded carbon base for each specific location) and have footage steady enough, even in surf environment.
The mount is made of carbon and Kevlar plates to be light, but stiff enough to prevent wobbles when extended higher up.
Here is a sample short video of the angle I can get

While I am confident on my tinkering I am not sure how well it will really work for weeks of continuous use. Stuff breaks and it does, fittings come loose and carbon snaps when hit hard.
Next week's one-week trip will be a good test before I fly to Scandinavia with my rig.

 My biggest challenge: recharging batteries where there are no wall power outlets.
8 different types of batteries are really going to be a handful. Again I need the lightest set up possible.
Here in Australia I just shove my gear in the car and then set up at launch. Flying with my proposed equipment is however a very different story..
There will be a compact solar panel on deck during the day and this time I am trying a Lithium battery pack to power my chargers at night.
Ah, the good old days of film cameras :-)

PS no images are available yet, until I am satisfied with my work.

02 April 2014

VIDEO: Swedish Baltic coast

It rained all day and the wind was blowing hard from the land as we paddled to a remote island to meet with Pia and Erik. All we had was a name for a location that was marked on our map, no other details.
We were not sure if our friends would show up: conditions were not that great for camping.
In the afternoon the rain eased and the clouds parted to reveal a colorful sunset. Shortly after our friends landed to then join us for a few days on our 4 weeks expedition along the Swedish Baltic coast.

 for a better viewing experience select HD, if you aren't using a mobile device

I love the outer islands of the Stockholm archipelago with their polished granite shores.
The sensual shapes are very inspiring luring me back to experience them again.
This summer (Northern hemisphere) I will be kayaking again in the rocky labyrinth, possibly crossing to Finland.

Contact me off-line at gnarlydognews(at)gmail.com if you want to catch up.


17 March 2014

Photo: foam pile

Playing in messy conditions with waves coming from different directions is one of the best training grounds for improving my skills.

Gilligans MAR14_1

I was joined by Peter who has only recently learned how to roll.
It was so rewarding to see his improved skills that allowed him to go for the biggest waves, now that he can confidently come back up when tossed over by a wave.
We both had a ball.

13 March 2014

INTERVIEW: Johan Wirsen, the kayak designer

Johan Wirsen is today one of the most prolific kayak designers.
His home is in Scandinavia and his heritage of sea fearing Vikings is well represented with his skillful art of designing modern sea kayaks.
I was lucky to meet Johan in 2011 when I invited him on a trip to the Queensland tropical coast.
A very understated person with great insight, Johan is an incredibly likable character.
Humble and considerate in his thoughts and trusting by nature has not always been an advantage in the cut-throat business of sea kayak manufacturing.
He has been designing and constructing boats and kayaks since early teens and it is his livelihood.
Last July I visited him in his hometown of Borgholm on Oland Island, Sweden and he revealed to me that something big was brewing in his shed.
After years of designing and working for other manufacturers, fed up with some of their attitude and malpractices (he got ripped off several times)  he decided that it was time to launch his own brand: Rebel Kayaks.

Rebel ILAGA rolling1
Ann-Kristin Skinlo at Göteborg Boatshow_ image with permission from Lars Jönson

I took the opportunity to interview Johan Wirsen:

gdn) You have started a new brand of sea kayaks called Rebel: why another brand ?

JW) -You know, since 2001 I have been working independently with kayak designs for a number of companies. Of course I was building and designing my own kayaks before that so I more or less took the experience I had and transformed that from “one off” designs to a serial production. But as you know, the kayak business is also quite dirty and some of the companies I have been working with were also very greedy, so I have decided to terminate some contract with the “big ones” and start all over with this new little company Rebel Kayaks and try to keep the passion for the sport and paddling alive for myself.

Where and when will these kayak be available?
- For the moment we are that lucky that we have been contacted by so many high end retailers, dealers and customers that we can’t satisfied them all!! 
The truth is that we are too small and can’t produce that many kayaks, yet. When we shift our production to Poland we naturally will start to sell our kayaks here in Northern Europe.

Rebel kyk_Janusz
image courtesy of Janusz Kowalski from Rebel kayaks

What style of kayaks are you focusing on under your brand Rebel?

-    The first two models that we put into production are my two Greenland styled kayaks: the “ILAGA” and the ”T”. Those are the type of kayaks that I personally feel a lot for, and since they are well known they are like a signature for me. It feels important to me that I design and in the future build kayaks that I would like to paddle myself. 
Since our production capacity is not too big, we also prefer to put the effort into building light and stiff. – Why build something you would not want for yourself ?

Petra on Traunsee_c

Are you still designing for other manufacturers?

-Yes I still do some work for other companies, and for the moment I am working on a Coastal Rowing boat.

I notice a certain consistency of style in your creations even if the kayaks that you have designed have different goals in mind. How did you get involved in boat design and what is the driving force for your passion?

-Born on an island, and growing up with a father that had all kinds of boats (anything from fishing to sailing and even a water-ski boat) it is not that unusual that I got this interest and eventually I went to school to become a boat builder. I have always tried to build or rebuild my own stuff, even motorbikes! 
But boats and especially traditionally boats with smooth lines have always appealed to my eyes. And there is something special about boats and the tree dimensional shapes that should be put together in a smooth way (to achieve less drag).
For ex. The single coastal rowing boat that I recently designed where I had to learn new traits while listening to skilled rowers to get the ergonomics right. I am not a rower myself so there was a lot to learn.
Another kind of boats I love is our traditional wooden boats and of course to sail them. 

Johan sailing

 The picture shows my 17´ “Sandbacken” which is our traditional type of boats from our Island

What? Rowing boats???  

- Yes, this is actually really funny.
It started as a small project that then won tree medals in last World Championship!! (Gold and Bronze – men, and Silver – woman)
Mats Leo (rower and the owner of the project) asked me if I could help him to design a boat and together with one of the most skilled rower here in Sweden, Peter Berg, we got this far!!
-For more info check    www.leocoastalrowing.com

Peter Berg rowing
Pictured Peter Berg. Recently Peter Berg also won a race in Monaco

Sea kayak sailing: what do you think of that?

- I must admit that I have not experienced sailing with a kayaks before I visited Australia. But I really got hooked!  It is fun, it is energy saving and the “Flat Earth Sails” are working well. The position of the mast is not ideal on a sea kayak, however at the same time you don’t want it to interfere with paddling. But it works, and I recommend paddlers to try out.

Swede form or Fish form: what is the best hull shape?

- A quick explanation, or to say when and where is best would be hard to describe here in a short form. 
A Swede form (the widest part aft of centre of the hull ) creates less drag and wave resistant on the surface resulting in more laminar flow and less turbulent flow than on a fish form, that has the opposite shape. However there are also so many other things to be taken in consideration when designing a kayak or a hull.
In my current designs I concentrate on the thought of how strong we are as a paddler, and I try to make a kayak as fast as possible in the low speed area, let say in 3 – 4 pound drag area; because this is where most of us ordinary paddlers fit with our “touring sea kayaks”. 
If you would like more info please visit www.marinerkayaks.com and click the link at the bottom about designs. It does not tell every thing but can give you something to think about.
When I am working on a new design, in most cases I also build and test paddle my kayaks. It gives me the possibility to make adjustments before the kayaks goes in production, unlike many other producers today that make something up on a computer and then email it to a CNC-machine shop. Furthermore, in their catalog,  they will then tell you all about the kayak's advantages before they even ever built the first one.

Johan, you know that this is a passion of mine: What do you think of Greenland paddles?

- In the beginning I did not find the Greenland paddles interesting. I had been using a Euro paddle produced from our Swedish brand VKV for many years and modified the size of the blade more for a touring paddling, since the original blade was too big for long distance paddling; I also made the paddle shorter and I was happy with that. 
When I started to become more focused on rolling and was paddling more Greenland style kayaks I had to re-think. I can’t say that I have a pure Greenland paddling technique and while I do more what is intuitive and adept to the situation I almost never use anything else than a “stick” today.  If speed is a concern the Greenland paddle is not limiting, and if we talk about feeling I have the biggest respect for that paddle. 
I love to hold onto a wooden paddle, even if I have had in mind to make some carbon ones. However hollowed ones made out of cedar are around 650 gr.

Johan in ILAGA
image courtesy of Janusz Kowalski from Rebel kayaks

- If anybody here in Scandinavia is interested in learning good rolling, or paddling techniques, consider Helen Wilson and Mark Tozer from Greenland or Bust in partnership with Rebel Kayaks, on their “Nordic Tour 2014”:  a three months long tour around Sweden, Denmark and Norway.  For more info visit www.greenlandorbust.org

I have seen you tool around with the shape of the Greenland paddle and I have seen an interesting twist to the traditional shape. Thoughts on that?

- I started to make my paddles like that a few years ago. I like the shoulder on the loom as a position for my thumbs; at the same time I just make the other (top) side smoother for my hand to hold onto. What is most important is that the edges of the blade should be sharp so the paddle works quietly. I also have my tip of the blade more rectangular and at a slight angle. Some of my paddles have been copied and are for sale at Rebel Kayaks now. The paddles are made of cedar with ash edges as a harder more durable wood. The length of my paddles is often around 2.18m total, while the width of the blade can vary. 

Johan JUL2013-cr
Last words?

 Well I guess that would be: With paddling try to make it your own journey.
 The experience I have is not “one size fits all”. We all have to listen to our self and it is not always that important what gear we are using or if we go to the most exotic places; your own bay is often good enough. Paddling or sailing is mindfulness in itself for me, and hopefully for you too. 
/ Johan Wirsén

Summer storm_c


27 February 2014

SHOP: DIY back band

Paddling comfort can make the kayaking experience great but an ill fitting cockpit keeps my mind away from truly enjoying my pursuit.
I have changed many seats in kayaks that did not fit me and often the back band is part of the equation.
In some kayaks the back band is directly attached to the back of the seat (Valley) while in others it is independently suspended by straps or webbing on the side cheek plates or coaming.

The seat of the Point65North XP was too narrow for my ass and too high up front; I replaced it by fabricating a new wider one out of carbon fiber.
The bulkhead on the XP is really close to the rear of the coaming offering just enough room for an electric bilge pump.

foam backrest_2

I did not like the original back band that came from factory; it was cutting into the carbon fiber laminate on the pivot points. I also did not like the large plastic tabs digging into my hips.
In some of my kayaks I have installed a Immersion Research backband with a ratchet buckle/strap system (similar to snowboard bindings): I love the support and the low profile it offers still allowing me to do laybacks.
In this kayak the bulkhead was so close to the seat that I could create a backband out of foam and have it resting directly against the bulkhead.

foam backrest_1

In some kayaks I have made a pillar from closed cell foam that is nested and jammed between seat and bulkhead; in the XP is wanted to try a floating foam block to be able to access the bilge pump.
As a prototype I wanted to use cheap foam and some discarded packaging from electronic goods was good enough for my first try. I laminated two pieces by gluing them together with contact cement.

foam backrest_5

This type of foam is very easy to carve with a sharp kitchen knife and in minutes I had a nicely contoured backrest shaped to allow layback rolls. My intention were to test the foam back first on a longer paddle and see if it fitted OK.
After some minor reshaping following my initial trial I was happy with the shape of it.

Initially I planned to use high quality closed cell foam for the final product but this cheap foam was working well enough to not bother with higher quality foam, like the one in a block used for yoga.
I just wanted to cover the rough surface with a bit of neoprene.
Again, I used contact cement to laminate the black neoprene.
I made a hole in the foam, the length of the block, to allow a bungee cord to secure it to the coaming of the kayak.

foam backrest_6

The bungee cord is attached to the underside of the coaming by little fiberglass saddles that I fabricated and bonded with epoxy glue. Alternatively small stainless steel saddles could be used instead.
I can tension the bungee with an olive cleat and while the backrest is firmly in place I can still access behind the seat to clear the pump from sand and debris.

foam backrest_4

The main advantage with this style of back band is that it does not end up under my butt when I enter the cockpit. I can slide from the back of the cockpit coaming rim and it will not get in the way, ever.
While some find the pod-style seats with no rear back band a great solution to this problem, I did not like that set up in one of my previous kayaks. I felt that I could not brace myself from sliding backwards when actively paddling and leg driving.

foam backrest_3


17 February 2014

Photo: turtle's perspective

This is how a sea turtle sees a paddler at close range


There are a lot of sea turtles where I paddle. I often see them surfacing, getting a couple big gulps of air while looking around to then disappear underwater again.
Occasionally I startle them as they might not see me coming; they pop out from below close to my kayak.
If I am paddling slow I have the time to observe them until they spot me.
But often I am just having too much fun to even see them...

Sailing Vixen2_c .

11 February 2014

TECHNIQUE: to roll or not to roll

So many paddlers regard the ability to roll the holy grail of sea kayaking.
I was one of them. I envied paddlers that could roll a kayak; it just looked so cool.
I will see them plop-in purposely and turn their kayaks upside down only to see them explode a few seconds later out the water with a mighty splash and be back up. Sometimes spectators would even clap :-)

Rolling Sunna (pc)

At the time I felt that there was a lot of mysticism around rolling and not many in my circles really knew how to roll; I had to learn how to roll.
I took several lessons and I paid instructors to teach me how to roll. Several months passed and many pool session later I was still struggling.
However not knowing how to roll did not deter me from going out at sea even if admittedly in a wide bay where waves don’t really reach much over a meter. I rarely fell in and I always paddled with others so I could be helped back into my kayak.
Trying to self rescue was not that pretty: I felt very unbalanced when trying to “cowboy scramble” into my relatively wide (56-58cm) kayak. They tell me it has something to do with being top heavy and a bit taller than the average paddlers; I think it’s poor balance.

Surfin' Bluey (c)

On the other hand I would also see my paddling buddies having a much easier time getting back in their kayak. We would regularly hit the surf zone and on days when the waves were not really pounding we were gaining solid skills. I would push myself and try to catch the steeper waves. I would regularly broach, often tip and end up out of my kayak. I also broke several rudders and realized that those pesky metal bits on the stern are not surf friendly; eventually I opted for skeg kayaks.

Currumbin_surfing10 (C)

I had no chance to re-enter my kayak on my own while the water was bumpy, not necessarily breaking waves but still dynamic enough to toss my kayak around a bit. I needed help to re-enter or swim a long way back to the beach pulling my flooded kayak behind me. I was getting tired quickly as where my paddle buddies of my clumsiness.

Now I really needed to learn how to roll coz on a bad day the surf was bringing more frustration than joy. There were some among us tho that could jump back in the kayak with very little fuss: a few seconds and they would be out of the water with a single big leap, plopping their butt into the seat, legs sticking out on the side to then bring them in one at the time through the keyhole cockpit.
I could not do that: I am just too big and slow. What I wanted was the sense of security of knowing how to get into the kayak in lumpy waters.

Sialuk in the chop (c)

While paddle floats would work relatively well for me in calm waters I found them useless in conditions that made me tip in the first place.
Relying on my paddling buddies was unfair and probably short sighted as on some of our trips we were not always very close to each other.

What I did have to my advantage is the water temperature that I paddle on.
All of my paddling was in subtropical seas where on a cold winter day I would "gasp" at 17C immersions. I feel totally different if I would have to deal with water that saps paddlers' energy in times of a capsize. I rarely wear more than just a light paddling top and never insulation paddling garments.
In winter I have to protect from evaporative cooling wind more than immersion.
I persisted with leaning to roll and eventually a skilled instructor thaught me the finesse of rolling.
I loved my new found skills and practiced a lot. I also discovered that rolling is not about the explosive power that a paddle might offer but is more about a blend of skills from being able to turn the boat with my body aided by the gentle support of my paddle.
I still remember Craig McSween saying: you should learn to scull first before you roll.

sculling Paprika (c)

Only now do I understand what he meant: sculling is the real roll for me where I can have a better chance of righting my capsized kayak in aerated water and windy wave conditions.

Is rolling really essential?

I am sure it is for me but I would not evangelically preach it to everybody.
As I witnessed many times paddlers recovering from a wet exit in the surf zone I now believe that rolling is not the holy grail, in Queensland waters.
If one can re-enter his/her kayak swiftly in all conditions and be able to empty a flooded cockpit in bumpy seas then rolling is not critical. If waters were much colder than I would think differently.
I still advocate to gain the best skills possible but there are many ways one can self rescue.
As long as a paddler can reliably get out of trouble in demanding conditions (I don't count calm waters one of them) then there is validity in the alternatives.

Cheryl and Bruce (c)

03 February 2014

Photo: warp speed

Not really "warp speed" but faster than I could ever possibly achieve under my own paddle power.
Gusting on 20 knots ripping it up with a 0.8 Flat Earth sail.

warp speed_1
using a Northern Light Greenland paddle in a Johan Wirsen design PT65North XP

29 January 2014

GEAR: outstanding customer service at REI

 As avid consumer of outdoor gear I have purchased enough stuff to fill a small house. OK, maybe not but I am getting pretty close.
It was not always kayaks; it used to be mountain bikes, backpacking and dirt motorcycles before that.
I haven't ridden seriously in years, backpacked much less lately but I still acquire light camping gear for my kayaking trips.
When I lived in USA the local REI shop employees thought that I was on their payroll, I was that often at their store. Eventually I took a job at REI, as Master Tech managing one of their bicycle departments. Half my wage would be "reinvested" directly into gear that the shop sold. I would not buy anywhere else as the warranty offered by REI was outstanding.

 I use my gear, some of it a lot. If a manufacturer offers lifetime warranty I have no reservation buying that item. I am confident that REI will honor a possible claim. Gear that I buy is not cheap, often the very best in that category and I believe in buying quality that lasts and offers the security of service when I need it. Cheap big box stores don’t appeal to me as I don’t like replacing failing items just because they are cheap while I have to deal with sub-standard equipment robbing me of my outdoor experience.

 REI sells excellent tents for hot climates under their own label, design and specification. Of course their tents are made in China, just like 99% of the most reputable brands are. I purchased two tents that were light, compact and sturdy, offering ease of pitching and good ventilation.

ex Cap_27

I used them on many trips and I never felt that they would not stand up to what the weather was throwing at me. They never failed, never broke a pole and never got wet in them. Solid, as I expected. Then one day the seam sealing tape of the fly of one tent started to deteriorate and peel off in chunks. The fabric became a bit sticky and the crumbling seam tape compromised the waterproofness.


I purchased that tent 5 years ago, online.
I was not sure if REI would really stand behind their promise of lifetime warranty since I often I hear manufacturers interpreting “lifetime” as lifetime of the tent. Nowhere is disclosed what that means and how many years that warranty is good for; it’s at the discretion of the manufacturer to establish that, of course after I have a problem with my item.
I contacted REI via email and told them of my problem. The next day (time zone difference) I received a reply that I should take my tent to my local REI store (they have over 130 stores, all in USA tho) or send it in for them to inspect.

Santa Rosa REI_c

When I lived in USA I returned a faulty item to REI and they replaced it there and then without any fuss. This time I was supposed to send my tent to USA; the postage via Australia Post would be worth half of the tent! (shipping from USA via USPS is substantially cheaper)
I asked if detailed images of the tent would be acceptable to REI for assessing my claim. They agreed and I supplied the images. Two days later I received an answer from the Technical Department confirming what I thought: the tent was found to be faulty in material and a refund was organized for me. They were kind enough to understand that sending the tent to them for assessment was not economically feasible and rectified the problem with a refund (they would not send me a new tent as it was purchased in USA and not originally shipped to Australia).
Now, that is what I call customer service!

Camp at Fraser (c)

It is in such a stark contrast with the service that I have received in a similar store here in Australia where the manager of the store belittled me, accusing me of causing the fault when a self inflating mattress delaminated and failed: he said I rolled it up too fast when deflating it (?). Needless to say his ignorance and arrogance ill served Kathmandu’s business and I no longer wish to shop there. After the manager shared his belligerent opinion with me he replaced the faulty mat anyway, so I did not understand his point/view of arguing with the customer anyway. Ego/power trip? Who knows…

REI has always met my expectations, often exceeded. Their gear is solid, maybe not the most trendy or desirable in the outdoor fashionista circles but nevertheless great value for money. And since it’s a co-operative all profits are shared back to its members in a yearly refund of approx. 10% (of purchase) , with a portion donated to environmental/community projects.


27 January 2014

Photo: sailing in wind waves

I wished for wind and overcast skies over the Australia Day long week end.
My prayers were answered but next time I should be more specific: 25 knots+ was a breeze that I could barely handle.
Today it calmed down just a bit so I could enjoy some sailing and surfing without having to battle.​

Sailing in following seas_c