THE INTERVIEW: L.L. BEAN’S JOHN CONNELLY ON SEA KAYAKING
When summertime finally arrives, I’m already stoked about sea kayaking in Maine. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what John Connelly, manager of L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools, has to say about it. Connelly is a former U.S.Canoe and Kayak Team whitewater competitor and a Registered Maine Guide. He’s been involved in the adventure travel industry since the mid-seventies. I caught up with him between paddling excursions.
Where have you paddled lately?
Since the Christmas holidays, I’ve paddled by sea kayak in Jamaica, Costa Rica, Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Casco Bay in Maine, the Maine coast, and small lakes in Maryland and Virginia. And during the same time frame, I’ve paddled whitewater in Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Maine. And hopefully I’ll be paddling in Peru this fall!
Tell us about some of the places you love to paddle.
Maine has an incredibly extensive coast that is spectacular. I have paddled many parts of it and still have much more of it on my "To Do" list. British Columbia is pretty high on my list. The islands off the coast are amazing and are very wild. There’s a lot of dynamic tide change there, so it reminds me of Maine waters.
Paddling in Central America through the coastal estuaries and their jungles is very special to me. Getting yelled at by howler monkeys and having toucans fly over your boat is pretty special. Caribbean waters are spectacularly beautiful and clear. Whether paddling off the coast of Jamaica, Barbados, Grand Cayman or the Bahamas, I just can’t get over the clarity and friendliness of the water. It invites you to look down, more than up and across the water. There’s a lot going on down there and it’s easy to see! The barrier islands of southwest Florida have lured me in winter for paddling and island camping for 15 years. While an easy paddle from the mainland, there are pockets of minimal development and the fly-fishing is pretty hard to beat.
Chesapeake Bay is toward the top of my list. The remote islands make for good overnight trips. And visiting the wonderful people in the waterman communities of Smith and Tangier Islands makes the paddling the Bay a very special experience.
In addition to the salt, I love freshwater paddling on inland lakes. Moosehead Lake in Maine is one of my favorites. It’s a glacial lake in the mountains that is 40 miles long. I’ve spent a lot of time on it because I used to live there. I always wanted to paddle the length of the lake in a day. So a couple of years ago I paddled it in eight hours flat, but I had a head wind for half of it. It was great. I saw eagles, osprey, waterfowl, and deer by the shore. I like to rent a kayak and paddle everywhere I go. Even the smaller lakes and flat water rivers in the mid-Atlantic and elsewhere provide an intimate view of the natural world in that region. There’s much to appreciate about just about every location.
What is the Maine Island Trail?
The Maine Island Trail is managed by the Maine Island Trail Association. What they have done is partnered with owners of about 150 islands and coastal properties up the coast of Maine to provide for campsites for kayakers and other mariners. It’s a 325 mile boating and sea kayaking water trail from Cape Porpoise to Machias, Maine into the Canadian Maritimes. When you join MITA, you are then privy to maps and other valuable resources that allow you to plan your sea kayaking trips, including the islands you’d like to camp on. It is wonderful that a trail up the coast has been created to facilitate this form of recreation.
How did you get into sea kayaking?
I began whitewater kayaking in the mid-seventies and spent lots of time play boating in the surf, too. I didn’t really get into sea kayaking until 1981 when I started a guided sea kayaking division of the whitewater rafting company I owned. I saw the possibilities for off-shore multi-day paddling that had a wild and challenging appeal. I wasn’t so much into floating peacefully and enjoying the wildlife at the time. It was more about the remote wild beauty and challenge of open ocean, waves, currents, tides, reefs, rocks, and weather.
What’s the appeal of the sport?
Sea kayaking, or kayak touring, is appealing to a broad spectrum of people with a broad spectrum of interests. For the recreationist, it can be as relaxing and low key as you’d like and requires a basic level of skill and knowledge. It’s a great way to explore bays, estuaries, marshes, flat water rivers, ponds and lakes. Or for the hardened enthusiast, it can be very edgy and demanding if you want to get into expeditionary paddling which requires a high level of skill and knowledge. Expeditions are usually multi-day trips that can be done on the open ocean, bays, and large lakes. The kayak provides the best vehicle for experiencing spectacular destinations that are rich in wildlife, culture and history. It’s an activity that can be enjoyed by almost everyone as long as they acquire the right level of skill, knowledge, and the appropriate equipment for the waters they plan to enjoy.
How has sea kayaking changed in the past decade?
It has become much more mainstream than it was. I think this has much to do with increased awareness of sea kayaking as an activity that is much more accessible, and not necessarily as dangerous, as first perceived. That’s provided you have the right knowledge base and the appropriate equipment for the waters you intend to paddle. Promotion of the sport and more manufacturers providing more, and better, designs of boats has helped the sport grow. Also, when the term "kayak touring" became commonly used, it may have made the activity feel safer and more approachable. "Sea" kayaking or "ocean" kayaking sounds pretty ominous. I think when you are not conjuring an image of survival at sea, but more of an image of going for a tour in a kayak, more folks are willing not only to give it a try, but they can envision themselves doing it. The image of paddling protected waters, lots of wildlife, and exploring beautiful places near to home and afar, has a broad appeal.
How about the equipment. Has it evolved as well?
The first sea kayaks in the market were very tippy and you had to acquire a fairly high skill level to paddle them confidently. Sea kayakers were mostly hardcore enthusiasts. Now there is a very wide assortment of very stable designs available for people of all shapes and sizes. With more friendly equipment and with kayaking schools readily available so you can get the skill and knowledge base that is required, so the sport is now very accessible. Along with promotion of the sport, the evolution of the equipment is part of what is driving sea kayaking’s popularity. In addition to a very wide assortment of boats to choose from in the recreational, day touring, and expeditionary categories, there is a broad assortment of other equipment and accessories from which to choose. Paddles, personal floatation devices, spray skirts, rescue gear, communications and navigation aids, overnight gear, are all available in different designs and models to suit an individual’s unique requirements.
What’s better: plastic or fiberglass when it comes to kayaks?
It depends upon your needs. Plastic is great if you going to beat on it, don’t mind some extra weight, and don’t want to spend a lot of money. Fiberglass is what you want if you want maximum performance, a lighter boat, are willing to be careful with it, and if you don’t mind spending more money.
What kind of skill or fitness levels are needed for sea kayaking?
For paddling in protected waters, a basic level of skill, knowledge and fitness are all that is necessary. But all three are necessary. Essentially, you need to know how to safely get the boat to and from the water, how to get in and out of it, how to get it to go forward, backward, turn it in both directions, and manage the boat, equipment, and yourself in the event of a capsize. There are basic techniques for all of these that are easily learned, but not so easily discovered on your own. Perhaps more important than paddling skills, is knowledge. You need to know about choosing the right place to go, trip planning, weather forecasts, changing weather, and best practices for staying safe in the outdoors i.e.: lightening protocols, etc. As far as fitness goes, for the casual paddler, a basic fitness level is that is required to manage the equipment and have what it takes for a short, enjoyable paddle. For venturing into open or more challenging waters, a higher level of skill, knowledge and fitness are required. You need a lot more of all three. You are exposing yourself to more risk and to more variables. So understanding them and knowing how to manage them is key to safe and enjoyable paddling in this environment. You should acquire advanced paddling and boat handling techniques, weather savvy, navigation, self rescue and rescue techniques, trip planning including contingencies, and group management. I’m a strong advocate for developing a fitness level that exceeds the requirements of the activity. That way, you are physically able to assist others, deal with your own adversities, and complete the activity comfortably. You don’t want the last stroke you take that day to be the last stroke you were able to take that day. It leaves no margin of safety for you or your group members, for the types of things that often develop in this environment.
What kinds of skill do your instructors at LL Bean Outdoor Discovery School focus on with beginners?
We have a variety of learning modules for all of our Outdoor Discovery School’s activities called the L.L.Bean Outdoor Essentials. In kayaking, we have Kayak Touring Essentials I through VI and we have private lessons. So you can choose the module, or group of skill sets you want to learn, from KTE I – Basic Skills Development and Safety to KTE VI – Surf Zone. KTE I focuses on familiarization with kayak design and necessary equipment, basic paddling strokes, and fundamental safety practices.
What about the Eskimo roll? How essential is it?
I like thinking of any technique you use for managing a capsize, getting back in the boat and underway, as a "self-recovery" technique as opposed to a "self-rescue" technique. For me, falling over is part of the sport. So it shouldn’t seem like you’re managing and emergency and affecting a rescue, so much as simply being the equivalent of recovering yourself after tripping while walking. If you are paddling protected waters you are fine with a paddle float recovery/rescue. This is where you right your capsized kayak, inflate a float for your paddle blade, brace the paddle on the boat by the cockpit with the floating blade perpendicular to the boat like an outrigger, climb back in the boat, and then pump the water out. Clearly if you can perform an Eskimo roll, you stay much drier, it doesn’t take as long, and it’s much less of a big deal whenever you fall over. And it’s a great way to cool off on a hot day! An Eskimo roll allows you stay in boat and use a paddle stroke and hip snap to right the boat with you in it. A confident and reliable roll keeps a paddler a "paddler", versus turning a paddler into a swimmer, who then has to manage getting back in and get everything put back together. In fact, there are some waters that should not be paddled if you don’t have a bomb-proof Eskimo roll.
Does Bean offer overnight trips?
Absolutely. In Maine, out of our L.L.Bean Paddling Center on Casco Bay in Freeport, we operate terrific overnight island camping trips in addition to a full menu of courses and tours. The Three-Day Island Camping Trip is focused on soaking up the beauty of the Maine coast in tandem (two-person) sea kayaks, and is more about having a memorable coastal paddling experience than equipping participants with the skill and knowledge to pursue the sport on their own. These trips overnight at our primitive and pristine island camp in the middle of Casco Bay. We have a Mid-Atlantic Paddling School in Annapolis, Maryland. We offer a variety of sea kayak courses and tours from that location. And we offer an extremely unique Chesapeake Bay Island Hopping Trip, also in tandem sea kayaks. The first night is camping on a remote beach and the second night is in a quaint island inn. This trip is an immersion in the remote island communities of Smith and Tangier, places where people have carved out a living on Chesapeake Bay for generations. The trip is incredibly rich in wildlife. And as with all of our trips, you can’t beat the food!
Are there some areas of the world that have yet to be fully explored by intrepid kayakers?
Yes. There are regions of the Arctic and Antarctic that have yet to see sea kayakers. And in the countries that made up the Soviet Union, there is much to be explored. And in the Far East as well. South America and parts of Central America are fertile waters for exploration. And there are both inland and coastal waters in Africa that paddlers have not yet fully explored. Essentially, if there is a continent large enough, with parts of it remote enough or inclement enough, there is an opportunity for paddlers to explore.
L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools are located in Maine, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New Hampshire. For more information, contact www.llbean.com/ods.