Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kayak Test Dive

July 6, 2008; My Aussie dive buddy, Glenn J., and I met at La Jolla Cove for a dive out at the Kelp/Rockpile area to the Northwest of the Ecological Preserve marker buoy. Just before putting on our tanks Glenn developed an equipment problem that would keep him from diving. We started to get out of our gear and were about to head over to our favorite eateries when I had a brilliant idea. I would utilize this opportunity to do a Kayak Test Dive. If he would act as surface support for me while I loaded, launched and dived from my kayak I would treat him to lunch.

Staying in our wetsuits we drove over to Marine Room Restaurant where I could launch my kayak and do a shallow dive. Parking on the street we checked out conditions. They were divable and the tide was low enough for there to be some beach exposed at Marine Room. Glenn and I carried the kayak down to the beach. No reason to be self-sufficient having a buddy along to help carry the kayak down. I loaded all the gear into my kayak, set up the anchoring system a grabbed my dive flag and water bottles. Glenn got in his free diving gear and snorkeled out past the surf as I paddled out to the 5-mph. buoy. Glenn hung on to my kayak for a short tow out. Towing a diver, even one that is steamlined, creates a bit of drag, especially when fully loaded with dive gear. He had to swim back under his own power.

I anchored and put my BCD in the water. I used a piece of line to secure it to the kayak while I got in. One thing that I learned at this stage was that having a wetsuit that zips up the front would be a good idea. Paddling out with a 7mm wetsuit completely zipped up is a minor problem. The thick rubber creates a lot of resistance for paddling. Having it down around your waist and zipping it up at the site is better. Zipping up a rear entry one-piece wetsuit on a kayak with out getting in the cold Southern Cal water is tough. Donning my snorkel gear I slid into the water. Slid into the BCD and adjusted the straps, checked all systems and started down the anchor line.

I kept the dive short and shallow, not wanting Glenn to have to wait too long on the surface. Surfaced and swam back to the kayak. I took off my tank and considered how best to put it up in the tank well. While in the water I tried to slide it up onto the kayak and into the well from the back. This did not work, as I could not get the kayak low enough in the water or lift my BCD/tank high enough. So then I bellied up onto the kayak and faced around backward and grabbed it by the tank valve and slid it right up. This was Glenn’s idea. I was able to do this without any assistance from him. That was one of the things I wanted to see. What I could do on my own? Though I usually dive with a buddy I believe that you must be prepared and capable of operating alone in case something happens where you are separated from your buddy.

The anchor was in sand so there was no problem pulling it up. Had it been in the reef there was a chance that it could get caught in the rocks. And this illustrates why you might want to use a line and reel system to get back to your anchor. You could check the anchor before surfacing or bring it up with you. This would avoid the possible necessity of having to go back down to get the anchor up. Especially important if you did a deep dive and are close to a decompression situation. It also might be a good idea for my to get something to wind my anchor line onto. For a shallow anchor where I only have about 25 of line this is not an issue. But if I had a long anchor line I would want something to keep the line organized and untangled.

So I learned quite a bit on this Kayak Test Dive. And I am now ready to go diving once again from my kayak.

Prepaing to Dive

After many months of practice and just plain fun paddling around La Jolla and Pacific Beach I decided that it was time to prepare to dive from my kayak. I checked out a few websites dedicated to the sport of kayak diving. Here are a couple I found….KAYAK DIVING & FISHING, Surfing, Exploring, and Play! & kayak diving. No reason to completely reinvent the wheel. Might as well learn from the experiences of others. In fact, this is one of the purposes in creating this blog.

One of the first problems to address is what to do with your kayak while you are off of it diving. On the websites I visited there were a number of different solutions. First was actually towing the kayak with you as you dive. And the other is to anchor the kayak. I chose to go for anchoring the kayak. Here is why.

In San Diego, and most of California we have Macrocystis Kelp. If you are not familiar with this type of Kelp here is a brief (layman’s) description of the plant. The Kelp plant is attached to the bottom (or other solid structure) by means of a holdfast. This loosely resembles a root system of a tree growing in a mangrove. From the holdfast long strands of rubbery "vines" extend up through the water column to reach the surface and then lay across the surface. Depending on the density of the kelp bed there may or may not be channels of open water between the kelp plants. So, if you were to use the technique of towing your kayak while diving in Kelp this could lead to some very severe entanglement problems.

For the conditions most likely to be encountered in Southern California, I think anchoring is the best solution. At sites without kelp towing may be an option. However, doing this will restrict your freedom depending on how long you tow line is. Another option, which I have yet to explore, is to have a line and reel similar to what one might use while diving a wreck. This would have two benefits. You could tie it off to your anchor line and therefore make it easy to find your way back to your kayak. And it would also allow you to know if something was happening to your kayak on the surface while you are diving.

So I went to the local kayak shop and purchased myself an anchor. The sales person sold me an anchor with fold up blades. It weighs 3 lb. I also bought a dive flag, some wooden dowels and found some closed cell foam packing material. I attached the dive flag to the wooden dowel (4 feet) and glued on the closed cell foam. I put this in one of the scuppers to let people know that there is a diver below and that this is not a derelict vessel. After testing the flag set up I found that I must waterproof the wooden dowel or use plastic for the pole.

I took my kayak out in to Mission Bay to test the anchor. At the time there was a slight incoming tide and so a bit of a current to test the holding power of the anchor. There was little to no wind pushing against me while sitting in the kayak. The bottom of Mission Bay in this area is flat and muddy. There are no rocks or other features that the anchor can lodge in. I anchored next to a marker buoy so I could determine if I was drifting at all. Within a few minutes it was obvious that the anchor was not sufficiently holding me in place. This was frustrating. So now I had to figure out what I could do to solve this problem.

Being cheap (or frugal) I did not really want to purchase a new anchor. Besides, this one might work just fine in a rocky reef where there are bottom features it can hook onto. So what I did was to get one of my extra Zeagle™ weight pouches and a carabiner. I put a few soft weights in the pouch and shot it down the anchor line after the anchor. I tested this system in the ocean, with swells and currents and wind. It held me in place just fine, even with me sitting on the kayak and all the wind resistance that creates. And if I wish, I can swim to the anchor line and detach the weight pouch prior to surfacing. That way I avoid having to pull up a heavier anchor.

That problem solved now I wanted to practice loading my dive gear onto my kayak. I went to La Jolla Shores and brought my dive gear and kayak to the sand on the boat launch. Being by myself I had to leave the gear on the beach while I parked the car. That was a little nerve racking. But when I am really going to be diving I will have a buddy with me and one can stay with the equipment while the other parks the car.

I took the kayak loaded with all my dive gear and went paddling out. The dive gear does add quite a lot of weight and drag. Even though I am able to paddle my kayak from La Jolla to Pacific Beach and back I wonder how far I can paddle with a full load. I know I can do it from LJS to Scripp’s Canyon dive site, having done that many years ago. And I am in better shape now.

My Scrambler XL has a tank well in the rear for the tank BCD set up. My kayak has bungies going across the tank well. I did flip the kayak in the surf zone and found that they would hold. However, there is a chance that the bungy could come loose from the kayak and dump my gear. I think I will get some more secure straps. For my mask, fins and other peripheral dive gear I like to put it all in a goody bag and stow it up in the front equipment well. That way it is together and will not be floating away from me while driving out or coming back through the surf. I did notice one very significant benefit to having the dive gear in the kayak. When coming back through the surf I am tail-end heavy. This extra weight in the back makes it easier to get in through the surf to the beach without tripping the kayak.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Extending the Limits

The next time I took my kayak out I paddled over to the Children’s Pool (a.k.a. Casa Cove). That was not too bad of a trip. Being late fall the swell can come up. And on this day I would say that it was about four feet. Coming up on the reef just east of the Children’s Pool Breakwater I had to pay close attention to the swell. The shallow reefs in this area come very close to the surface in spots. And a large swell can turn from being a boil over the rocks to a breaking wave without much warning. These changeable conditions made it necessary to keep a watchful eye on my surroundings. On days like this with a swell you need to stay on the outside.

One week later (12/17/07) I headed North along La Jolla Shores towards Scripp’s Pier. It was a clear, clam day with the swell down to one or two feet. Just south of the pier I ran into a small pod of dolphins playing just outside the surf zone. They were traveling in a northerly direction and I continued to follow them. Found myself north of the pier in the area of Scripp’s Canyon. This is the site where I first dived from a kayak back in 1994. Soon the dolphins disappeared. They probably stayed where the baitfish were, that they often feed on. I continued on past the Torrey Pines Gliderport as far north as Torrey Pines Golf Course. Round trip about 6 miles.

Over the next few months I would stretch my trips a little further each time. First out to the Kelp Bed west of Children’s Pool. A very popular place for the many kayak fishermen I see out there all the time. By mid January I was kayaking as far as Marine Street beach and back. In February I was reaching as far as Bird Rock. Sometimes on the way south if the sea was flat calm I would paddle among the many caves down below The Coast Walk east of La Jolla Cove. On a calm day I’ll paddle in and out amongst the caves, testing my maneuvering skills at close quarters. Or I will watch the Sea Lions playing in the water or sunning themselves on the rocks.

Another thing to do on the way west and south is to stop in at The Children’s Pool and watch the Harbor Seals splashing in the pool, or resting on the beach. It has been sometime since I have dived at this site. But I have many great memories of my close encounter with these creatures. These very curious and even affectionate animals have often approached me. Though we are able to use the beach to dive I hope to use my kayak to access sites off this area without disturbing the seals on the beach or those who think it is their job to protect them. And there are many sites in this area that I would like to dive that are a very long swim from the shore.

On one particularly clear day in March I was paddling down towards Bird Rock. That was my farthest trip on the kayak so far . Out of the light haze to the south a long structure appeared. As I paddled towards it I realized that it was Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. Wow! Could I make it there? I felt good and not too tired. I thought if I just take it slow. I paddled past Bird Rock, past the surfers at Tourmaline Surfing Park, and on past Palisades Park, and on until I was finally at Crystal Pier. At the pier I took a rest for a while, drank some water and mentally prepared for the long trip back. Taking a line of site heading on the point of Bird Rock I navigated back to La Jolla. By the time I reached Marine Street I was definitely feeling tired. But once I turned the corner at Children’s Pool and La Jolla Shores came in sight the swell was at my back and giving me a nice push just when I needed it. After what I estimate was a four or five hour trip I made it back to shore. Hopping out of my kayak in the surf my legs turned to rubber and would not support me. For the next month I would try do this long paddle once a week.

On April 13 I once again paddle down to Crystal Pier. It was an unusually calm day and I did not have to fight any swell or current. When I got to the Pier I took my usual break. There was a large pod of dolphins swimming just out past all the surfers waiting for the next set of waves. I followed them south a bit. Before long I noticed I could see the Mission Bay Jetty. Could I make this? I thought I could and started my trek across the ocean surface. In less than half an hour I was there. After another rest I turned back north towards La Jolla. While taking my heading I noticed that the Lois Ann was out at the Yukon dive site. I was really feeling good and rested. I knew I could make it. And I began the paddle out. I must have got my second wind. I was not just taking a leisurely slow paddle to the site. I was driving out there at a good clip. I was just a quarter mile out when the Lois Ann pulled up anchored and motored off. But there was another dive boat out there. I visited them for awhile, had a snack, and headed back to La Jolla. Round trip time 6 hours, including breaks. How far was this I really do not know. But it was at least 12 miles. My longest trip. But it was not the last time I would do this.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

First Trip 9/23/07

On Sunday,September 23rd, 2007 I purchased my "new" Scrambler XL kayak. And I was excited about getting out on it. I bought a few essential pieces of gear such as a paddle. The sales person asked if I needed a Personal Floatation Device. I said that I did not. My intention was that I would be using it only for diving and therefore would be in a full 7mm wetsuit. There is no way that you could possibly sink while wearing this. It was then that I was informed that the United States Coast Guard (an organization of which I was once enlisted) considers a kayak a vessel. Therefore everyone on board must have a PFD even if they are not actually wearing it. So I bought the least expensive PFD that is Coast Guard certified.

I drove down to La Jolla Shores and launched my kayak for the first time. Paddling out through the surf was exhilarating. The cold, salt water splashing your face as you drive through the surf, rushing over your legs. I then made a course over to the Cliffs just to the east of La Jolla Cove. From there I went west out to the first marker buoy of the La Jolla Preserve. Then I steered a course back to the beach. I did not want to over do it the first day.

As I neared the shore I paused just outside the surf. Now was the real test. Could I get back in without spilling the kayak in the surf? I watched the surf for a lull and went for it. Paddling quickly towards the shore I noticed my rear end being pushed out from behind me. Paddling and trying to correct my angle to the surf turn the kayak back perpendicular to the wave. Over I went in a wash of salt spray. Something that I would have to work on. And something I still work on, sticking the landing.

Little did I know that I would enjoy this so much that I would be out paddling nearly every weekend for the next year. I had created a monster. And each time out I would push my limits just a little further.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Kayaking?

I have been Scuba diving in since I was a 'teen in the early '70's. Over the years I have had the chance to dive with many interesting people both here in San Diego and while traveling to exotic destinations. Through the years my diving frequency has waxed and waned depending on what I was doing in my life. But it has always been an important avocation in my life. Since about 1992 I have been diving on a regular basis. I do between 50 to 100+ dives per year.

In 1994 I had a couple of dive buddies with kayaks that were set up for diving. They were kind enough and patient enough to introduce me to this new adventure. My first experience was a success and great learning experience. My buddy Andy K. and I loaded up the kayaks at the boat launch at La Jolla Shores, Ca. We then paddled north beyond Scripp's Pier and out to the dive site of Scripp's Canyon. Even though this was my first time on a kayak with full dive gear I had no problem staying balanced a top the kayak and never once tipped over.

Securing our kayaks we donned our dive gear and headed into the Canyon. After a very nice dive we returned to the kayaks. At that time I was diving in an integrated BCD called an ATPAC, one of the first integrated BCDs. I easily secured my BCD and tank in the tank well and proceeded to climb aboard my kayak. This is when I ran into my first problem. Getting the kayak balanced in the water was not as easy as balancing it on the beach. I would sit on top trying to get stable for thirty seconds and then flip the kayak. I continued to try to stay atop. Soon I was becoming exhausted. Andy, being more experienced, took my kayak and I took his. I was able to stay atop it and we paddled back. I learned later that having my weight still in my BCD raised my center of gravity enough to make me unstable. From then On I would remove the weight and put it down low in the kayak while paddling. From then on with the lower center of gravity I had no problem.

Time passes and buddies move on. I did more kayak diving in 1995 but that was it for many years. Then in 2007 I took a trip to New Zealand. It was here that I again did some kayaking. And as soon as I returned from my trip I started my search for a kayak to dive from. I found myself a used Scrambler XL that was nicely equipped for diving. And for one year now I have been practicing my kayaking skills and increasing my stamina by slowly increasing the length of my kayak trips, and working on the problems specific to diving from a kayak.

Recently I did my very first kayak dive test dive. It was another success. Using our local diving website I put a call our for others interested in kayak diving. I have found quite a few people interested in joining me. And now it just remains for us to get together and start on this new adventure.

I hope that this will let us reach dives sties along the shores of San Diego that are not easily accessible from the shore.