We solicit feedback for the Gales every year to try and understand how to make the event better. We evaluate what we can do to be better coaches, event organizers, and pass that on in an experience that makes things better for people who come to the Gales.

I’ve said this at several Gales before. It bears repeating. I made the Gales to be an event I would want to attend. I was a young man when I first got into kayaking (late twenties). There were no sea kayaking instructional events that focused on playing in rough water on the Great Lakes back in 2000. The original Gales, for which we are named, was more of a sink or swim, (mostly swim) for attendees. It was suffering without fun. I wanted to make an event that was fun. I didn’t want any stories of broken boats and near death experiences on Lake Superior.

Our image has unfortunately been tarnished by our incident. And as the organizers, we took it very seriously. We heard all of the accounts, from both the coaches and the participants. We documented them. We posted them publicly immediately after the event. We learned from it. It was the fine edge of fun or disaster. The fun was immediately sucked out of the event that year. We had to work hard to both understand our failure and to course correct. Some of that change was not pleasant. But it is my job to take it on the chin when someone criticizes our safety.

You can still read the entire account if you so choose. There are specific lessons from that incident to be learned. My aim in writing this is to put forward a lesson learned from all 8 years. If I had to put forward Lesson #1, it is fun. Where is the fun? Who’s going to have it? How are we going to make it fun?

Here’s a secret no one wants you to know. You can have a gas with very little conditions. While we may have photos of people pitchpoling and dodging rocks. Riding a tiny swell over a big rock is just as fun as dropping down a steep face. We’ve learned that it takes very little to challenge even students who consider themselves “advanced”. If the conditions are easy, we can simply increase the difficulty on tasks and all the sudden we have people totally engaged. However we cannot dial down conditions. Without the ability to shelter students, the fun is gone. Fun is a very fine line. And it’s always better to get smaller than it is to have unavoidably larger conditions of wind and waves. We want to make a mountain out of nothing, rather than have a mountain be able to do nothing with it.

Last year’s gales was a prime example of making great challenges out of small conditions.

Below is a short series of images depicting paddlers running a fun slot between rocks in Marquette’s Middle Bay. The water was going up and down about a foot and a half. We spent most of the day doing this with various challenges of how close to the rock, how big the wave was, running it dry, running it high, no paddle strokes, hitting a turn on the inside, running it backwards. Alec Bloyd-Peshkin and I gave increasing levels of challenge. Our students had a mix of aims and ability and we managed to make the most out of not very much. To me this was a pretty picture perfect Gales afternoon. People were warm, happy, engaged and having fun with very little drama. Finding this sort of fun is a #1 lesson learned for the Gales.

Over the weekend some of us went out and paddled a couple of rivers in Southwest Michigan. First warm day of the season, and the rivers were still pumping. While out paddling, we were all obviously playing like river otters. But there was also focused practice taking place. We were all trying to ferry across the river and hit specific targets. You look across the river and see an eddy behind a rock and you aim for the rock. If you don’t aim, you miss the rock and drift downstream.  This is the essence of focused practice.

All the way back to my days playing soccer [football], everyone loved doing a scrimmage or 5 v 5 in front of the net. Even hitting a dead ball towards the net was more fun than some skills. No one liked doing focused practice on movement skills without the ball. The problem came when we were forced to exercise these skills in play.


How many times do you think he (Gareth Bale) hit the ball from that position before he could hit the ball up and over the wall (yellow metal cutouts) and down into the corner of the net?

Certainly this being Gareth Bale he does have talent. But I can tell you, he’s hit that in training thousands of times. Thousands. It’s crazy to expect expert level performance of ourselves as athletes from only having been introduced to skills briefly in a coaching session. I want to repeat that. It’s crazy to expect expert level performance of ourselves as athletes from only having been introduced to skills briefly in training.

In the video above where the woman peels out of the eddy, this is a skill we should all practice until it is fundamental. If this is the first time you’ve seen the skill why would we expect that you should be able to do it first time. And further keep doing it precisely without focused practice? Each of the skills is about timing, pace, and a dynamic environment. They are in fact way harder than the look on TV.

For paddlers, some of us really like doing focused practice. Others just want to paddle. Understood. But to actually improve at anything, you need to have focused practice sessions where you spend 10-15 minutes executing a skill repeatedly.

For any skill worth doing here are some thoughts on how to setup focused meaningful practice.

  • Get coaching to be able to fully understand the skill to be able to use it in context.
  • Setup practice in an area where the skill would be useful.
    • Sometimes the environmental factors as in the case of the peel out depicted above in the video need to be present. Make sure that the conditions are reliable and not too challenging, it’s about having an area to execute the skill easily. If it’s too hard, you won’t progress, if it’s too easy you won’t progress.
    • While you’re learning make it easy on yourself, warm safe learning vs. cold scary dunking where possible.
  • Set a time limit, 10 minutes then rest.
  • Set visual targets for your skill. rocks, trees, features in the water. You have to aim to miss.
  • Focus on getting the skill so that you can make it look easy. Don’t stop when you hit it, stop when you hit it with style and you’re relaxed.
  • Vary your practice, if you’re doing something methodically every time, try doing it fast, or the reverse.
  • Because it’s kayaking don’t do something on one side and not the other, do it on both sides.
  • Keep adding to practice and learn new stuff.

While we do say get coaching, the purpose of this is definitely about making sure the coaching is effective through practice. Without the practice the coaching is wasted. And we love to see students come back with skills they got just through practice.


Faffing – Just Don’t Do It

Inevitably, in a group of paddlers there are one or two people that are extraordinarily gifted at taking forever to get ready to launch or to finish packing up at the end of the day. In the UK the term Faffer or the act of faffing is used to describe these folks. Roughly translated it means to do everything except the thing you need to get accomplished.

Causes of faffing relate predominately to either being distracted or being disorganized.

You may be a faffer if:

Everyone in your group is loaded and ready to go and you’re still walking around in your drysuit.

You’re standing around in your paddling clothes talking to someone else who is loading their boat or getting changed.

You’re talking politics in a wetsuit.

You’ve looked 3 times under the car seat for that glove.

You spend 10 minutes deciding which layering piece to put on.

You’re fiddling with your windshield wiper blade while everyone else is carrying boats to the water.

Next level faffing:
Worse than just being and individual faffer is if you’re a faffer who causes a faffalanche – your initial faff causes another to faff and they cause someone else to faff and on and on. For example, you announce to the group that you’ve decided to add a layer under your drysuit, someone else rethinks their decision and also stops to add a layer, someone else decides to go for one last pee as long as the other two are changing. Faffalanche! Now you’re launching half an hour later.

To reduce the faffing factor try these tips:

Develop a routine. Doing something consistently the same way can make you more efficient and make it less likely that you’ll forget something.

Be organized. Keep your gear sorted and organized in different bags. Things that need to get packed in the boat in one bag, extra clothes in a different bag, things you’ll wear on the water in one bag. Make a checklist if you need to, either mental or written.

Just shut up and get your stuff done. There’s lots of time for socializing at the pub, on the water or when everyone is ready to go. Not many people can tell a story AND unload a boat or get dressed. If you make someone else stop what they’re doing to listen to your story, you’re spreading the faffing virus, don’t do it. This doesn’t mean we need to be antisocial while getting ready but we do need to stay focused.

Just make a decision. You’re no more likely to make a good decision after mulling it over for 10 minutes than you are making the same decision in 30 seconds.

One anti-faffing strategy for the end of a day of sea kayaking:

  • Land on the beach, pull that empty mesh gear bag out of the hatch and load all the gear from the hatches into the bag and walk it up to the car.
  • Go back and tandem carry 2 boats with a partner
  • Load the now empty boats on the car or trailer
  • Get changed, load wet gear into appropriate bags or bins
  • Drive away

It’s not hard to avoid being a faffer but it may take some intentional focus if faffing has become habitual.

Greetings! Last year we hit our 5 year anniversary for the Gales. It was a landmark year. One that I felt was very important for our fledgling event to hit. We had great conditions, great students, and some amazing growth opportunities. This article is a note on the purpose of the Gales.

In an effort to answer the proverbial question “why the Gales?” we are writing a series on coaching philosophy. This article is titled “feedback loop”.

Many events will provide instruction, and even great feedback. But feedback to students is why they are there. Students crave feedback, but they want it at the right time and in the right circumstances, with the right intent. We’ve strived at the Gales to be as dedicated to giving the right feedback, at the right time, in the right tone.

Here are some thoughts on feedback from our perspective that may help you understand why this event is so special.

Feedback has to be timely, thoughtful, and make an impact, or to use a made up word “impactful”.

A few thoughts on timely feedback.

Feedback has to be given at exactly the right time. The right time is relative to when the student needs to hear it. Picture skiing down the slope at high
speed and having someone shout, “face your torso down the fall line”. Maybe helpful, or thoughtful, but certainly not timely.

The timeliness of the feedback is relative to the student and the skill. You have to think first, why am I providing feedback? Is it to improve performance, note/reinforce a good performance, make an important note about safety, or is it just to fill empty space? If you are interrupting an activity that someone is engaged with to provide feedback, do you really need to to do that? Probably not? When we think about the right time to give feedback to a student you have to be thinking about how they are perceiving the skill, or task they are performing. If the task is hard, and they are struggling, they will look up and seek a way to improve. If the task is easy, they will do the task and then probably either move on to doing it in a more difficult manner, or sit with their paddle in their lap.

They key point is that we are watching you to see when you are looking for feedback, and trying to give it at the moment you make eye contact, to ask a question, or even just to confirm that you completed the task.

There are sometimes environmental considerations involved where giving feedback is really challenging. Surf is the big one where the environment is so dynamic that you have to sometimes wait for long periods to get back to shore to give feedback. Or wait until you are way outside the breaking zone to give any feedback.

It’s important for us to not try to give complicated feedback in a dynamic environment, because you’re not going to hear it anyway, you have to wait until people can focus and think. In current this is often in the eddy where the water is holding students in place.

Next a few thoughts on thoughtful feedback.

Simple direct feedback is often best. There is a great apocryphal story about Einstein getting a golf lesson. I don’t even care if it’s remotely true for the record. Einstein goes to a golf pro to get a lesson. He’s trying to learn how to drive, so the guy is telling him, tilt your hips, swing your arms, keep your eye on the ball, follow through etc. He keeps giving what he thinks are helpful tips on driving the ball. But Einstein is clearly getting more and more frustrated. Einstein finally picks up the basket of golf balls in frustration and throws them at the Golf Pro, and says, “catch one”.

Thoughtful feedback should also be taking into consideration the student’s aims. This is especially important to understand for the Gales. While it is regarded as a rough water paddling event. Rough water is relative for every student. We are not interested in frightening students, we are interested in challenging students. And that is different for each person. So, if a student’s aims are simple, such as;”I just want to get comfortable in little waves”, our feedback should be centered on comfort, not performance. “You looked very loose, and you braced well in that clapotis Larry!” Is probably enough. While, feedback such as “You might really need to think about, upping your cadence and dropping your hands more”, might be less thoughtful as an example. Or if a student is trying to learn how to get comfortable in waves. Where if we are working with a student in an environment where they are confident and they are working on performance, that feedback might be just what they need.

Impact, or our made up power word of “Impactful” feedback is last.

When you are going to make an impact on the student’s performance you have to make a decision about what the biggest problem is and choose to say only that.
This should be based on paddling fundamentals, (posture, power transfer, connectivity), but this is a whole separate article. Suffice it to say our coaches are always thinking about the most concise, impactful, nugget they can give based on the students aims. Often this is based on observation and other good coaching practices. This impact, is what we hope makes a difference to our participants, and make you come back for more. I know I’ve had that impact statement from many coaches, and it’s what makes me love the coaches and their influence on my time on the water.

And this is where we have to plug the coaches we have for the Gales. We have been very fortunate to have the BEST, coaches in the midwest and from around the country, they have consistently demonstrated over a long period of time that they can really bring it.

We look forward to seeing you in October.