Friday, March 11, 2016

Adrift in the Backwater Harbors of Hong Kong

By Jake Taylor, ACA Instructor. Jake Taylor is an avid waterman who has been involved with the ACA for five years as a sea kayak instructor. He enjoys strong coffee, point breaks, and oystercatchers.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Paddle.


The International Sea Kayakers Education Symposium, ISKES for short, has an exceptional maritime ring to it. The idea sprang forth from a partnership between Monash University and Outward Bound Hong Kong, with the question of how can we use sea kayaking as a means to achieve greater educational benefits? When speaking of education, we are using the interpretations from Kurt Hahn, John Dewey, Confucius, and Plato, where education is the process of creating and developing positive citizens that are a benefit to their communities. 

Upon my arrival to Hong Kong in January of 2015, I found out about the symposium to be held in December of that year. I was excited and privileged to be in attendance as well as given a chance to present. My mind was scouring a topic that would suit the aim of the symposium. It did not take very long for me to settle on the topic of Core Concepts in paddling, a student centered and playful approach to skill development. The influence of Carl Ladd, Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, and Todd Wright, St. Michael’s College Wilderness Program, over the year prior to my move to Hong Kong, has been very influential on my approach to teaching and developing paddlers.

Paddling to the symposium at Wong Wan Chau

Stroke after stroke, my blade slices the water as I slowly but surely make steady progress along a steep, rocky coastline. As I continue to paddle against constant force five winds, knowing that once I pass the next rocky headland things will be bigger, much bigger. It isn’t very often that I have the time or reason to paddle along this section of Hong Kong coastline. By far, it is the most beautiful and rugged section. Steep cliffs of rhyolitic columns, a very rare formation, allow the swell to double up in size as the energy is reflected off the walls. In certain areas, the pounding of the surf has carved out sea caves and arches. The sound of the waves booming from the walls and round stones cascading over one another echo in my mind. 

The rhythm of my blade dipping in and out of the water begins to align with my boat’s up and down movements with the swell. I feel as if my breathing and heart rate begin to coalesce, so that all of my movements and being are in time. From my periphery I catch a glimpse of a white-bellied sea eagle soaring above the seas searching for fish. At this moment I truly feel alive and living in the present. My mind is not scouring over endless to do lists, things forgotten from yesterday, or planning for future events. Every muscle, cell, nerve within my body feels awakened and ready. 

Upon entering Mirs Bay, the conditions begin to wane as the farther headlands of mainland China shield the local waters near Wong Wan Chau. It is a beautiful place where the volcanic rock becomes a deep red of sedimentary origins. With each forward stroke, my mind turns more towards the symposium and my session that will be on the first day. I wonder who some of the delegates will be flying in from Europe, North America, and Australasia. As I arrive at dusk the evening before the symposium, I roll out my mat and sleeping bag overlooking the lush green hill sides that extend all of the way to the water. 

Running the Session

It’s always difficult trying to take a thought, an idea, a concept, from your mind and make it relevant and useful for someone else. You don’t want to directly transplant it from your mind to theirs, since its purpose will just be lost in due time. It makes it even harder when you are doing this for a group of peers, who in some cases may be more knowledgeable and experienced in the field then yourself. Confidence and humility are two traits that need to be balanced to achieve success when undertaking such an endeavor. 

Now, presenting at an innovative symposium that looks to broaden the realm of sea kayaking beyond the standard skills and drills, I asked myself why did I choose to conduct a practical skills session? Can the act of teaching technical skills be relevant to the deeper notions of education? A key element for working with youth today, especially in high-density urban communities, is the lack of proprioceptive sense from sedentary lifestyles. Angela Hanscom, founder of Timbernook, has been assisting US schools understand and work to resolve this issue thru outdoor activities. Another element is the decrease, and at times absence, of play with youth and adults. According to psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, play is essential in creativity and utilizing the whole personality, which leads to better self-awareness. The last component I attached was the focus on self-mastery of a skill. Anecdotes are not needed to relay the individual benefits of skill mastery, however it is important to note the words of Tim Gallway for those instructing skills, “…remember that it is the experience that teaches you, not the instruction.” Teaching sea kayaking, using a core concept approach, can allow you to transfer these skills and attributes on top of the intended purpose of learning to paddle. 

For my actual session, brief introductions were conducted along with some background evidence for my claims. I immediately went to work establishing rapport and setting a fun and focused tone. It doesn’t matter how great you are if the people you have in a class, course, or trip are unable to form any sense of bond with you. From there, getting on the water as quickly and safely as possible is always a priority. Once out on the water, I set out to provide activities and sessions that would highlight the core concepts in action. In some cases, an outlandish method. I always find that the more odd and silly the approach, the more likely it will be remembered and practiced. Directing people paddling with blindfolds by using their body rotation. Working on top hand position and balance with someone sitting just behind you on the deck of your kayak. The laughter was contagious. Eventually, as the sun settled behind the hillsides, the time came to depart the water. 

The beauty of the Core Concepts, is that it is able to be utilized from the beginner to the advanced paddler. It looks to create an understanding of how to be an efficient paddler using your body, your boat, and your blade. Most of those in attendance at my session have utilized a similar approach thru years of instruction. From the questions and borrowing of my visuals, I felt I was able to provide an understanding that there is potential for deeper educational benefits even thru skills training.


At the closure of the symposium, a meeting was tabled to discuss the personal findings and developments from the several days spent at Wong Wan Chau and Double Haven Bay. There was an excited, yet somber tone over the group as the topics rearose from slow adventures, creating a sense of place, and unique ways to reduce our impact on the ocean. A prospectus was tentatively discussed for the next symposium in the southern hemisphere’s Autumn of 2018. The base location for the event will be Port Albert on the Southern Australian coast. Forty sand barrier islands east of Wilsons Promontory, known as Nooramunga, will host day and overnight paddles. This special group of intertidal islands are home to some of the worlds longest migrating birds, rare species of orchid, and rich aboriginal and settler histories. 
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