Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wrestling my big yellow alligator: Cowboy scramble up the Boreal Baffin in Canada's cold waters

It's that time of year again, MAY! Yeah! Time to get up close and personal with the sea kayak, paddling gear, and that wet stuff I didn't spend any time with for the last six long months of Canada's finicky weather.

This year, I didn't do my first spring paddle with the Boreal Baffin hanging out on an ice shelf along the Ottawa River's shore. That was a little stupid. I wasn't dressed for slipping into water that cold with only a wet suit and no neo hoodie.

This year's first spring paddle with the Boreal Baffin was a hot, sunny May day, 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit), with a light wind at a small lake lined with cottages in Mont Tremblant, Quebec.

The beach we launched from was full of people dressed in bathing suits, shorts and t-shirts enjoying a good spring sunburn. Little kids were running in and out of the chilly water exhilarated, yelling, "Mommy! It's cold!"
Yes, the water in May is still cold so I'll do another stupid thing this year and test my gear after 2 hours of paddling when I'm a little tired and very hungry.

I'll do a Cowboy Scramble, close to shore for safety, and test how well I can do it under a little stress to see if this manoeuvre is really implanted in the memory of my brain and body parts. 

I haven't practiced the Cowboy Scramble for 6 months. During my normal paddle season in Canada from April or May to October or November, I do the Cowboy Scramble almost every time I paddle, at least once. Sometimes 5 or 6 times during a paddle for fun, or to cool off and stretch out, and most importantly, to make sure I can get back into my boat by myself.

I didn't want to test my gear choice before my first spring paddle and find out it wasn't right. But, I got it right! A full wet suit, with a nylon spandex underlayer (actually my yoga gear), and neo booties and gloves. I don't have a dry suit yet. While in the water, I had a good five to ten minutes of, "This feels nice!" That is, as long as I didn't put my head in the water. I'd need a neo hoodie and ear plugs for that.

There are lots of paddlers who are awesome rollers, yet many of them have trouble with the Cowboy Scramble. I can't roll (yet . . . ) but I can scramble. And I love it!

Some of the guy paddlers have watched me Cowboy Scramble and say, "Hey, that looks really cool. It's impressive. I have never been able to do it. Will you teach me?"

I'm not an instructor but I have coached a couple of guys who were never able to do it before and surprised me by getting it the first time.

So here goes, a Cowboy Scramble up the Boreal Baffin in cold water with a few tips on how I do it:
Step one: Get into the water next to your boat with water too deep for you to stand up. No cheating by practicing from solid footing. You remembered to secure your glasses or sun glasses in a hatch, right? They don't float. 

Smile for the camera! After step one, you aren't going to look cute again until it's over! Make sure your PFD is well-secured. If it's loose and ill-fitting, it will just get in your way. If you can smile, you're probably dressed appropriately for the water temperature. If not, get out of the water and try this when you can smile at step one instead of cringe and shiver.
Step two: Put the tab of your spray skirt between your teeth and smile some more! You know you look silly and don't care. Or attach your spray skirt tab with a quick release clip to the top/shoulder of your PFD if you don't trust the water quality. You don't want your spray skirt stuck between your legs once you get up onto the kayak. Pulling my skirt up this way also helps me slide up onto the boat more easily, and my bulky kayak jacket and kayak knife don't get hung up on a deck line or bungee.
Step three: Face your boat, hang onto your paddle and the far side of your kayak. I like to come up just behind my back hatch. I find it easier.

Step four: Count ONE, TWO, THREE, take a deep breath to make yourself buoyant, KICK your legs to bring them up horizontal with your boat, and slide up onto the back deck of your beautiful kayak like Flipper the dolphin.
Take a moment to balance and exhale. This is the first moment of truth in the Cowboy Scramble. You're out of the water and didn't pull the kayak on top of yourself. And you had to do all the stuff in Step four all at once! Congratulations if you made it this far.
Step five: Swing your leg over your kayak and straddle your boat. This is where you look like you're wrestling an alligator. And it may feel that way too if the water is bumpy and you've got a skinny Greenland style boat!
Step six: Keep your paddle in front of you as you slide up by grabbing onto the deck lines or boat sides and inch worm your body up to the cockpit. Don't kick your legs in the water as you pull yourself up to the cockpit. I see lots of people who struggle and fail do this. But, hey, if it works for you . . . do whatever works.

Also, never hold the paddle so that it's directly under your neck if your head is close to the kayak when you do this manoeuvre.

During one practice session, my Greenland paddle was across my cockpit as I pulled myself up and my head and neck were just a few inches above it. A big wave or a boat wake hit the boat, and I banged my trachea (windpipe) on my paddle. Ouch and dangerous. So be careful.

In the picture above, my paddle is in my lap as I get to the cockpit so I can grab it as I ease into the seat and brace or paddle off quickly if I need to. And I'm keeping my head up.
Step seven: You've got to get your butt into the seat first, then your legs. Hopefully you have a generous enough keyhole cockpit like the awesome Boreal Baffin, not a small, round ocean cockpit. A lot of people fail when they try to get into the cockpit.
Sometimes I sit up on the back deck and ease myself in with one hand holding the paddle and top of the cockpit, the other hand behind me at the back of the cockpit for balance. You may need to sit on the back deck and brace a few times before you crawl in if you're in bumpy water or start to lose your balance. It's a nice moment to relax if you're not in a hurry.
Step eight: Claim victory! You made it, even if you didn't look graceful. Your spray skirt is back on the kayak and you look cute again! Smile for the camera! Soon, you'll be doing all these steps in 10 seconds.

Now it's time to show off those beautiful edges on the Boreal Baffin.

Cowboy Scramble Tips 
  • Take kayaking lessons with a qualified instructor.
  • Keep the back deck of the kayak free of gear. This is your work space for the scramble!
  • Practice slowly in calm water at first.
  • Be patient with yourself. I couldn't Cowboy Scramble for years until an instructor gave me some useful tips . . . "Try it further back behind your rear hatch. Don't pull on the kayak!"
  • When you get good at the Cowboy Scramble in calm water, gradually test your skill in bigger wind and waves with a paddle buddy nearby in case you need assistance. Be reasonable. Don't press your luck in dangerous conditions.
  • Watch out when and where you practice. Wind can blow you quickly into obstacles and rocks. Cold water can be deadly. Dress appropriately and practice closer to shore.
  • Stay away from boat channels. 
  • Practice with the different types of gear you paddle in: t-shirt and shorts, wet suit, dry suit, bare hands and gloves. I find it easier to scramble in a full wet suit. When I wear shorts, my bare legs don't slide and get stuck on the boat.
  • Choose your PFD wisely. Some PFDs are short, thick, and bulky in front and may make it more difficult for you to scramble up onto your boat.
  • When you've really got the Cowboy Scramble down, go for speed. See how fast you can do it. It may come in handy some day.
Cowboy scrambling into your kayak can be a life saver or a great way to cool off if you need to jump out and scramble back in. Some shorelines are very unfriendly and you can't get out of your boat for long stretches.

I love jumping out over the side of the boat and cowboy scrambling back in on long paddles to stretch out and cool down sore muscles. It really gets my adrenalin going if I'm feeling lazy or bored.

Here's a link to my post: Cowboy Scramble up the Maelstrom Vital 166 in summer gear.

It's nice to finally get out on the water this year. I feel like the BaffinPaddler again with lots of wet, sandy gear hanging all over the house and garage.
Good luck with your Cowboy Scramble!
Let us know if you finally get it and keep it! Or, learn to love it . . .
The BaffinPaddler


  1. Good tips, and good for you for practicing in such chilly water! I don't know if I'll grab the skirt strap with my teeth, but I can see where clipping it to a pocket would make things much easier.

  2. I agree, there are lots of waterways where I would clip the spray skirt tab unless it was an emergency.