By Jeff Moag
Photos by Aaron Schmidt
1. Learning is fun.
When I told my mom I'd spent the weekend at a sea kayak symposium, she didn't know what to think. She was asking about a post I made on Facebook about carrying a kayak paddle through airport security. "But why did you need a paddle? Isn't a symposium a classroom thing?" she asked. I sighed heavily. Look, I learned plenty at the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium. It's hard not to learn when you spend six hours a day paddling with some of the world's premier sea kayak instructors. But I didn't crack a book all weekend. We learned by paddling, and talking about paddling.
2. That glass is half-full.
After Friday's course in Tidal Race Paddling, instructors Paul Kuthe, of Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak, and Ryan Rushton, of Geneva Kayak Center, pulled us into a huddle to debrief. Paul asked everyone to share "one rose and one thorn" from the day's outing. Right away, I started running through my mental checklist. Yes, I'd gotten a little warm paddling from the Golden Gate to Angel Island owing to the 70-degree weather and the tailwind. But I wasn't about to gripe about fair winds or sunny days in January. The tiderace at Raccoon Straight didn't shape up as we'd hoped it would either, but the technique drills we did on the eddyline (try peeling out backwards with your eyes closed, and holding your line with a bow-rudder) were fun and challenging. So even though I grew up in the 80s and rocked as hard as anyone to Poison's power-ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," when my turn came to speak I offered two roses instead.
3. Sea lions surf better than you.
I was pressing buttons on my GoPro when everyone else in my group saw a gray whale breach just under the Golden Gate Bridge, but later I got to share a wave with a bull sea lion out at Yellow Bluff. I wasn't sure if he was being playful or getting ready to crush my kayak, but he sure made riding a five-foot standing wave look easy. Though just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands are full of wildlife. We spotted deer, skunk, coyote and a bobcat on land. At sea, one group of paddlers watched a gray whale spy-hop seven times from a distance of less than 100 feet.
4. It's good to push yourself.
The tiderace waves at Yellow Bluff stood up right on schedule as a big tide neared max ebb Friday afternoon. The afternoon took on a festive atmosphere as four or five classes, each with up to a dozen paddlers, congregated in the massive eddy. As a paddler named Jim cheerily told me, "Everyone did really well in our forward stroke class, so we decided to give Yellow Bluff a try." He went on to describe his swim and rescue, smiling the whole time.
5. Talking about a day of paddling is even more fun with a cold pint in your hand.
The Presidio Yacht Club is not nearly as pretentious as the name sounds. Even better, it's right upstairs from the symposium venue and the live music started every night just after dinner.
6. Hosteling is about like you remember.
Bunks at the Marin Headlands Hostel were $28 a night, and most out-of-town participants stayed at this converted army infirmary on Fort Baker. You never know who you'll meet. I woke up Saturday morning to discover that Scottish sea paddling legend Gordon Brown had been sleeping in the bunk below me. Even more improbably, in a room full of eight tired and be-pinted sea kayakers, not one of us snored.
7. It's good to push yourself, part 2.
On Saturday I joined GGSKS organizer Sean Morley and Roger Schumann of Eskape Kayak in their course on Rock Gardening Advanced Play. I was a bit nervous as we launched through a surf break near Point Bonita, a couple of miles outside the Golden Gate. These guys are some of the best sea paddlers anywhere, and what they call "advanced play" could very well mean "yard sale" for the likes of me. We started slowly, and as the instructors assessed our group's collective skill level, they began to egg us on a bit. Just before lunch, a couple paddlers took the bait on a tricky reversing pour-over. One paid with a broken Greenland stick, and the other wedged his boat in one of those spots where it's awfully hard to roll. The students got to pick up the pieces in surging three-foot swell. I've helped with quicker rescues, but these were good learning, and good fun.
8. Get back on the horse.
Both our swimmers kept charging throughout the day, making laps through a spectacular cave with two entrances, one of which was about as wide as two kayaks side-by-side. Both capsized again, and this time, both nailed their rolls.
Jeff Moag is editor and Aaron Schmidt is photo editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine