Tuesday, March 13, 2007

EC gear reflections

I’m happy to admit that I’m a total gear head, with whatever sport I’m into. But with this year’s Everglades Challenge I really had an opportunity to test out everything I’d judiciously researched, bought or modified. Here’s what I thought of it all, and hopefully this may be useful to another first-timer, as I was.

The boat: has to be first on the list – not going to get far without it. Last year I ordered a Grahame Sisson
Arctic Raider from Grahame’s workshop in NZ – primarily for the EC – and a few months later it arrived in all its glowing (Vitamin C) yellow. I thrashed the boat during the EC but was in no way able to trash it. It flew. Unloaded it weighs 24kg (53lbs), and that made a huge difference. At one stage, running downwind with a Pacific Action Sail, I topped 20kph with 15-20 knot winds and seas of 2.5-3m – that day I averaged over 9kph (5.5mph) and covered nearly 300kms (175m) in the first three days. I bow to Grahame.

The boat’s ocean cockpit with pod seat was also useful. Believe it or not, I practically swamped the boat about three metres from the start line in about 10cms of water. Returning to shore, all I had to do was to lift the bow and all water flowed straight out. Folks asked about the comfort of the bare fiberglass pod seat at Key Largo, but I felt no discomfort whatsoever after 15 hour plus days of never getting out of the boat.

Another feature I recommend with the boat is its very simple rapid flow foot pump
– these can be easily added to any boat. I had a lot of waves wash or break over me and there was a lot of spray flying. Any seepage into the boat was instantly pumped away. The double foot diaphragm is velcroed to my foot rest, so all I have to do is to move my feet a few inches inwards and pump/push like mad. I still have to mentally coordinate pumping and paddling at the same time, though!

Pacific Action Sail (PAS): I was a Class 1 entry, which allows the use of a sail no larger than 1sqm. In my humble opinion, the NZ-designed and sold PAS is the only way to go. I appreciate that there’s a fair bit of controversy within WaterTribe on just how far these sails can point up into the wind, but I’ll stick to my guns that with dropping the leeward ‘mast’ as far down on the deck as possible and not interrupting your paddling stroke, I could make 55 degrees off the wind. If you don’t paddle there’s some fall off, but by keeping up a good forward stroke, some of that fall off can be compensated for. I paddled with it night and day when ever possible, but would certainly have dropped it at night had the seas got any bigger.

Greenland paddle: Hand-made for me by Bill Bremer of
Lumpy Paddles, I was one of only three people solely using a GP (and the other two were a tandem). I wouldn’t consider any other paddle for long distances, consistent headwinds and large following seas. With the strong headwinds experienced on days 2 and 7, I just picked up the cadence and almost ‘chopped’ at the sea to move myself forward, and still made good times – and there’s almost no wind resistance involved. With the heavy following seas on days 1, 2 and 3, I used the length of the GP as an aka and ama, lengthening it out to windward and fluttering it across the surface to act as a brace.

Macpac Microlight Tent: Weighing in at only 1.8kgs with a single pole, this Kiwi-
made tent is the perfect get-her-up-and-down-quick shelter. I learned a few years ago not to bother rolling up and packing away the tent every time – takes up too many costly minutes. Instead, I jam it up into the bow, where not much else is shaped to fit. Then it only takes seconds to unpack and repack. This isn’t a stand-alone tent (those are heavier, so I don’t use them), so not as easy to raise on a chickee. One of the best features of this tent (and all Macpac tents) is that the inner and fly are co-joined (Multi-Pitch), so again, it only takes a few minutes to mount (and the inner doesn’t get wet when it’s raining). American and UK tent-designers really need to wake up to this age-old Kiwi innovation.

Hennessey Hammock: And, when I needed to sleep on a chickee, out came my hammock. Lashed diagonally across the chickees’ roof shelter poles, it was up in minutes. It was also cooler than the tent with its open mesh sides, and the view of the stars in the Everglades Wilderness Waterway breathtaking.

Sleeping system: For my sleeping mat I used REI’s
Lite-Core 1.5 self-inflating pad (which I normally inflate myself as I can’t wait that long). Sleeping bag was REI’s Nooksack UL +30 – was ultra-toasty in this. I have always used down, but am glad I made the switch to Primaloft Sport – there was a lot of heavy salt in the air! My bag liner was Macpac. Everything worked perfectly for me.

Stove: I deli
berately left my tried and trusty MSR WhisperLite Internationale at home as I didn’t want to bother with any priming and liquid fuel. So I brought along a MSR Windpro. Behaved flawlessly - packs small and burn time ultra-speedy. And I deliberately went with a stove where the burner is not on top of the bottle, as I didn’t want to risk a topple over of any hot water.

Dromedary bags: Thrilled I discovered these. I had three four-litre bomber bags full of Gookinaid going at any one time – two in the cockpit with me and another spare in my aft hatch. I also had another four-litre DromLite bag in the aft hatch with just water, for cooking and tent-bound night drinking. I was over watered between each leg by about six to eight litres, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. To drink from I used a
hydration tube and just swapped over to each bag as necessary. To keep the spray skirt closed, I’d slip the tube up under my skirt, top and PFD so it waved about in front of my lips. I made it a habit of sipping every ten minutes or so.

Urinating: My plans to use the
TravelMate failed dismally. I just couldn’t get high enough up from my pod seat to get a flow going. So I peed into my sponge (which was my only bit of gear to be trashed as soon as I hit the finish line!). I wore loose fitting Macpac hiking shorts with no underwear and even though there was invariably a bit of leakage, the sponge pretty much did the trick. On days 2 and 3 when it was just impossible to take a hand from the paddle and lift the sprayskirt, I peed in my shorts. The foot pump made rapid work of any pee. And I warned anyone near when landing at checkpoints that I may just pong a wee bit.

SunPaws: We women worry about wrinkled backs of hands and melanomas! I religiously wear Hydraulics’ SunPaws – they don’t interfere with my paddling and they don’t cause blisters. Another great Kiwi invention.

Lightweight kayaking jacket: I only took this off when we reached the Wilderness Waterway and temperatures
skyrocketed. Designed and made in NZ by Steve Gurney, the Cyber Jacket is made from lightweight nylon and folds down to nothing. I also like the fact that it’s colour-coded, so I don’t have to figure out the front from the back - silver on the front and yellow on the back. There’s a strip of mesh along the underside length of the sleeves, so any errant water drains straight out. When it was cold, I had just a layer of light weight Icebreaker merino underneath and was toasty.

Food: Chief always warns that we bring too much food. Well, he’s right. For breakfasts and lunches alone I’d packed 4.5kgs (10lbs) of bars and gu – that was seven separate ziplock bags for each day. One bag ended up lasting me about two days – so I could have at least halved the weight there. For dinners I packed seven freeze-dried dinners – I only had two left, so was happy there. I also packed seven bottles of Ensure – they were great – best bit of advice from Chief. If I didn’t have one before retiring to my tent for the night, I had one for breakfast. I had one left over in Flamingo and gave it to SandyBottom for our 0430 breakfast. For a full review of what food I took, click here.

Bumbag: You Yanks call these fanny packs – we Kiwis wouldn’t dare. I got this idea from Kneading Water’s rogue gallery photo, as I didn’t want a gear bag on my foredeck. Worn around my waist and above my spray skirt, I had everything I needed to hand without lifting my sprayskirt – energy bars and gu in a ziplock bag, painkillers (took 1000mg about every four hours), SPF 50 sunscreen, waterproof notebook (never used except to remember lockbox code and the time the Chokoloskee Rangers’ office closed and opened), a pencil with strips of duct tape wrapped around it for pressure points, small airhorn, liquid bandage and my trusty EPIRB. Thoroughly recommend this approach. (My bumbag was a 7-litre NZ
Macpac Module – mostly weatherproof with a heavy duty zip.)

PFD: In my Lotus PFD I had my VHF and that night's lightstick (never used) in the larger clip pocket, and in the smaller right-hand horizontal zip pocket, four small hand-held flares, a small waterproof torch, lip salve and digital recorder (latter as per Pelican's suggestion but never used as meant taking my hands off the paddle!). Attached to the back of the PFD was a Lotus 'back-pack' without its water bladder. Instead, I had a couple of larger hand-held smoke and glow flares, as well as an emergency hypothermia/survival kit (inside a small dry sack), which was packed as per Chief's recommendations.

Dry sacks: I only used Sea to Summit’s
lightweight dry sacks (the lighter Ultra-Sils were just that bit too much more $$$ and I figured the weight difference not enough to worry about). They were brilliant. Everything I had was packed in these dry sacks and labeled (dry gear, lunches, bath, cook, first aid, sleep, etc). Unpacking and packing from a campsite was quick and efficient.

Cockpit storage: I'd attached a
Northwater underdeck bag, which was excellent, even if I did pull the two left-hand stick pads off within the first two hours of the race - probably in all the excitement. This was an excellent piece of kit. Inside it I had my first aid kit (in a small dry bag), head torch, beanie (never used), water-proof tape for hotspots, spare batteries and my laminated trip plan. For next year's EC (hint. hint), I think I'll add a pair of side bags - I'd rather not have to access my aft hatch to get any additional gear out, though I'm hard pressed to think what additional gear I may need that wasn't in my bumbag and underdeck bag.

Footwear: My trusty Crocs were crabbed to a bungee cord on my rear deck, so I could grab them when necessary – I wore them around each camp, if not bare feet. While paddling I wore a pair of neoprene above the ankle booties with a Velcro strap so I could ‘feel’ my rudder bar more easily. Inside those, for wicking, I had a pair of thin Smartwool merino socks. I never felt as though my feet were too hot or damp, and there seems to be no fungus growth anywhere!

Clothing: I’ve mentioned my shorts…. For my top base layer I wore a
Skin200 Icebreaker Oasis Crewe. With Gurney’s Cyber jacket and the PFD on top of that, I was just right. When the temperatures really cooled or first thing in the early morning, I threw on Mysterioso’s M-Tech long-sleeved top – great piece of kit. In my sacrosanct dry bag I had a light pair of Macpac long-johns and for tops, wore first Icebreaker’s Skin200 Chakra Zip, then their Sport 320 Original Zip on top of that. If I was still cold or needed a quick night-time pee, I’d throw on Patagonia’s heavyweight Capilene top. When we hit the Wilderness Waterway I nearly died in any of the above. Thankfully, SandyBottom lent me a spare light-weight coolmax shirt, which I wore for the next four days (for some funny reason, she says she doesn’t want it back…).

t-weather gear: Thankfully, never used it as I kept toasty with my constant paddling. But if I did, I had Reed’s Chillcheater coverall cag deck. From the UK, I had this made to my neck and wrist measurements, as well as to fit my ocean cockpit. It’s not light, but it’s bomb-proof. I had it tucked away in a small bag in my cockpit.

VHF: I’ve no great experience in these handhelds to judge whether this is a ‘preferred’ or not, but I could receive the necessary weather forecasts, and that suited me just fine. I used
Standard Horizon’s HX370S. The only time SandyBottom and I really needed it was when trying to reach Kneading Water when he’d buggered off and left us – to no avail.

GPS: This is the first time I’ve used a GPS – Garmin’s
GPSMap 60CS – now discontinued and replaced by the 60CSx (don’t you hate that just after you’ve bought it!). I had no problems with it and quite enjoyed the new experience, having grown up only using charts. All my plotting was via Garmin’s BlueCharts – expensive but well worth it - and Garmin’s helpdesk is second to none.

GPS mount: Recommended by a discussion on the WaterTribe forum, I bought a
Ram mount specific for my GPS, even though it meant drilling four more holes in my beautiful hull. I had a few problems figuring out how to attach the GPS to the mount - the mount has a hole in its bracket where the GPS screw mount is located, but I couldn't find a screw unit to fit that. So I made up a short bungee system which looped over the GPS' antennae - didn't budge, but did finally break the rubber loop across the top of the GPS, which didn't affect its performance in any way.

Cell-phone: I had a small Pelican waterproof case that protected my cell phone from salt-laden sea air (and also held my spare camera battery and 2GB memory card - neither was used). Trouble was, whenever I wanted to make a call, my fingers were wet and the air was salt-laden. In fact, SandyBottom constantly got me into trouble with her regular calls home as she used an
Aquapac flip phone case, clipped inside her cockpit, which meant her phone was always open ready to turn off and on at whim. I'll use this for next year's EC (hint, hint).

Charts: All waterproof. I bought a couple more charts than necessary and finally trim
med down to just four: Maptech’s #31 and #29; Waterproof Chart’s #39, and for the final leg across Florida Bay, Waterproof Chart’s #33E. I spent hours pouring over my paper charts, BlueCharts and Google Earth, working out routes and more possible routes, marking waypoints and possible campsites and bailouts spots. By the start of the race, I figured I’d almost memorized the entire route (and then, of course, I go off and do the Wilderness Waterway, which I had no original intention of doing). A trick I learned from KneadingWater, which I wished I’d figured pre-start but makes perfect sense, was to write on each chart at what date/time I passed a certain landmark – next year (hint, hint).

Chartcase: I had a full clip case, which I packed away after just a few days - it became too much of a hassle to open up, rearrange the chart and close down again each time. Instead, I just left each waterproof chart folded securely under my bungees.

Camera: M
y waterproof Pentax Optio W20 is superb - can't fault it. Trouble is, I never got to use it until around day 4 when the conditions had calmed down - I was just too busy keeping myself going. I kept it in a small velcroed pouch attached to my left-hand PDF strap, about chin height so nice and easy to reach. All-in-all, I can't believe how few photos and no movies I took. I'll just have to do next year's EC (hint, hint).

EPIRB: I used McMurdo’s
Pains Wessex Fastfind Plus with internal GPS receiver. It was gratefully a gift from one of my oldest NZ friends who said he’d like to see me again. Thankfully, I never had to use it. I had it clipped inside my bumbag around my waist for instant access and if I came to be separated from my boat.

And that’s about all the main gear I used. If you have any specific queries, please don’t hesitate to holler!