20th Annual WMCKA Symposium Guest Speaker Jeff Allen

Jeff Allen WMCKA instructor update

Jeff Allen co-owner of Sea Kayaking Cornwall visited this year to instruct and speak. Jeff came a day early to give an instructor update for the WMCKA instructional staff. The topic this year was incident management. Jeff has written a series of articles for Ocean Paddler magazine. Jeff is also writing a book on the topic of sea survival for paddlers. The articles and Jeff’s course cover a wide range of topics. Some of the topics are familiar to sea kayakers. They cover towing, deep water rescues, and the familiar CLAP and SAFE principals of leadership on the water. What is unique to Jeff’s approach is how he challenges the familiar aphorisms of sea kayaking such as “stay in the boat”. One example of this unusual approach is when entering a landing area that is through the surf into a hazardous rocky landing spot, Jeff has proposed that like the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) that swimming yourself in through the surf zone is better than crashing in your sea kayak. This hypothesis is magnified when you have a victim, (or as Jeff has labeled them according to the military term-casualty) who cannot get themselves through the surf zone. I highly recommend reading Jeff’s articles in Ocean Paddler, and keep a sharp eye out for that book!

The course normally runs over five days, and we had one day to cover a couple of topics. Our instructor update covered rescues and towing. Jeff continued to stress a practical approach about rescues focusing on what would be best for the group as a whole. Taking the SAFE approach stop assess formulate a plan and execute. For example if a member of your group manages to take a nasty swim in a cave, rushing in like the valiant hero isn’t always the best idea. You could have two casualties instead of just one. Jeff reckons that sometimes having the casualty swim out, or having a rescuer if need be swim in is a better bet than getting another kayak in the mix. It is not revolutionary, but it does go against several hard and fast rules or at least dogma about staying in the boat.

During the course Jeff covered many ideas about sea survival and group cohesion. He demonstrated many towing concepts. And he also showed us his throw/tow rig. He was kind enough to leave me a sample rig. He is not selling them, which is sort of unusual in kayaking. He is advocating safety without a fiduciary return, which is even rarer and if possible cooler. The idea is that instead of just having a tow belt, you have a throw bag combined with a tow belt rig. So that if you had this alleged swimmer in the cave, you could throw your rope just like a white water rescue bag, and then still have one side clipped in to your belt. This way the rescuer could tow the casualty out of the cave without having to paddle in, putting themselves at risk. I will post some more details and pictures on the tow rig Jeff left with me.

We ran through some incidents on Lake Michigan near Duck Lake state park. We covered deep water t-rescues for the first hour. And readers here may be pleased to hear that the time spent in analysis was not wasted. Further we picked up some other good tips I will share at a later date.

The last and most challenging incident involved a swimmer casualty incapacitated and separated from the kayak. We separated into teams of three plus the casualty. The object was for each team to get their casualty to shore first. Our team decided on the scoop for our victim. And despite having performed this in practice recently, it is entirely different when the casualty is completely incapacitated. The hardest part was entanglement of the limbs on re-entry I had to try three times to get Luis Caro back into the boat before I got his butt in his seat. Also to get his butt in the seat all the way, I had to sit him upright and push on his shoulders to get him all the way in. We towed in fairly quickly and straight. Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin and I swapped out once for good measure. Sharon is quite strong! She hauled out pulling a rafted tow! She can come to sea with me when I am not doing well anytime. Wendy had the hardest job actually which was holding Luis’s kayak upright and keeping him out of the water. She never got a break either. Towing was probably quite easy compared to that.

Jeff Allen Demonstrating his throw tow system on Lake Michigan

Afterwards we compared notes with the other teams. There was some diversity in the approach at the beginning. One team actually opted to tow the swimmer in the water while someone towed the empty kayak. This did give them an advantage and they did get to shore first. We were third. But as a result their casualty got quite cold. Poor Steve Bailey. In the end almost everyone opted for the scoop. But as Jeff pointed out, care for the casualty does come into play as good technique. Most opted for the face down scoop, which is ironically easier, but doesn’t allow you to keep a very good eye on your victim. So while coming in third we got some bonus points for taking better care of our charge.

I would encourage anyone running a symposium to consider Jeff Allen for an incident management course. His approach is revolutionary in that it is practical and covers a wide variety of very simple tactics for sea survival. After spending a weekend with Jeff, I won’t say I got to know him. I wouldn’t presume to jump to the middle of a book and claim to have read it. But my impression is that his life experience with the military, a nightclub bouncer, a kick boxer and an expedition paddler has given him a wide experience to draw from that leaves me speechless. He described some harrowing experiences with the military in Northern Ireland that left me wondering if any of us can really know how we will perform when pushed to our limits. Ken Fink is also one that will surprise you in this regard. Ask him about his Polynesia trip sometime. Ken has a long and storied past and continuing experience at sea. I hope we can hear more about his experiences next year at symposium too!

I’ve been attending the WMCKA symposium for almost 7 years now. It seems funny to me how much time has gone by and how quickly. I remember the first symposium I attended was when Nigel Foster was the guest instructor. WMCKA is in it’s twentieth year.

Ken Fink of Maine, sea kayaking incident management course wmcka 2009

The symposium has a long and warm memory for many people. Some who still come, some aren’t involved in paddling anymore. Ken Fink has been at all but one of the symposiums, and though he might be too modest to admit it, he is also the progenitor of the US sea kayaking symposium tradition.

Personally, the club and the symposium means a lot to me. It is an extended family away from the east side of Michigan where I am from; but in some ways it’s even better, because everyone wants to talk about paddling. I’ve been involved in the planning of symposium for about five years now. It’s been great fun to work with the club and to be able to contribute to a symposium that every one seems to get so much pleasure from.

The WMCKA symposium to quote Derrick Mayoleth has a unique vibe, “somewhere between carnival and peace rally”. Nothing could say it better. Other symposiums I’ve been to are obviously way fun, but lack that feeling of oneness and shared experience. They also lack another thing, children. It’s great to have so many kids out paddling and involved in the event. There are certainly more exciting symposiums for more advanced instruction, and sexier locations, but WMCKA holds it’s own for sheer good mojo. My hope is that whether or not I am a contributor, or participant that the symposium continues on for another twenty years.

The classes I taught this year were terrific, the students were really engaged and eager to learn. I got to do two different rescue classes. It was great to do both assisted and self-rescue classes. We did some great t-rescues with students. I lost my hat on the bottom during one. A student spotted it on the bottom and hovered over it. I exited my boat, took off my lifejacket, dove down 12 feet to scoop it off the bottom on the first try. I then demonstrated a re-enter and roll. This got a couple of students talking, and they decided to try paddle float re-enter and rolls. They both managed to get a re-enter and roll! One got a re-enter and roll on the first try.

Rodeo is often the highlight of this symposium. It is a series of silly races in teams. We start doing races with children on the backdeck and tagging a participant paddler who transfers the child to their kayak to race back to shore. I was lucky to get Deborah (friendly fire) for my rodeo team mate. We had a gas in the rodeo races, Osa Svensson was our child who held on for dear life!

The second rodeo event if possible has outdone the other races. 7 paddlers in a team use one boat paddle around a buoy using a variety of paddling implements. A trash can on shore holds a variety of implements. Each time you come back to shore a new team member grabs an implement from the trash can. You start with a paddle but as the race progresses the less desirable implements are left. So it starts with kayak paddles and towards the end of the race, plungers, and tin foil are left. The team waits on shore to turn the boat around while the paddler gets an implement and hops in the boat.

Jeff Allen stern ruddering with a pool noodle

What this means is that a highly competitive group of paddlers invent all sorts of ways to cheat. And in the words of Ron Smith, “we’re all highly competitive, but the difference is we don’t care who wins”. Aptly put. Doug Van Doren started off the fun by filling Jeff Allen’s Explorer with water before the race even started. Look out for clergy, they are the sneakiest of the bunch!

Our team started well with Jon Holmes using his Eddyline Falcon 18! He rocketed off the starting line and we were essentially unbeatable from that point forward. Jon coming off of his amazing Hugh Heward Ultimate Challenge is in top form. I couldn’t believe how fast he was. The cheating started early with Jeff Allen leading. He was filling the Falcon’s back hatch with water and I caught myself filled with adrenaline thinking that somehow I could tackle a 6’4″ former military commando/kickboxer/knightclub bouncer and drag him down by his pfd. Jeff just laughed at me when I couldn’t even budge him by his PFD straps.

Dressler Rodeo Game Face

Once we had it in the bag, the cheating started in earnest. Each time a paddler would come in, each team would capsize the opposition and fill their boat with water. It was great fun and high spirits all round.

Ron and Suzie Smith getting in some good natured cheating on Jeff Allen

Jeff’s talk followed. He shared his slideshow on Japan and South Georgia with Hadas Feldman. Jeff and Hadas formed a unique partnership and managed to go around all of Japan together. Jeff shared all of the challenges and amusing trip dynamics with well placed anecdotes with perfect comic timing. If you haven’t seen this is the Sea two, you need to watch it as it covered their expedition.

The talk on South Georgia was captivating. Jeff, Hadas, Nigel Dennis, Jim Rowlinson, and Peter Bray formed the team. Some unique challenges including katabatic winds and an infection from a drysuit gasket made this a really great talk. Jeff had great slides of wildlife including elephant seals, and lots of penguins.

The slide that capped it all, was the closer, “Some men claim to have seen borders, though I have never seen them myself, some claim they exist. Perhaps they exist in some men’s minds.” (more or less).

We delayed the rolling contest until the next morning. I managed to get everything packed in record time and participate. I managed to get 8 in thirteen seconds using my white water paddle despite a false start. Jeff also had a false start and eight rolls. Jeremy did really well, with 8 as well. Hannah Bloyd-Peshkin pulled it out of the bag with 9 rolls in thirteen seconds.

Bloyd-Peshkin Rollng Champs

A quick retreat found me wishing Jeff well on his journey. Only yesterday he shared the sad news that his Father died over the weekend in Cypress. Many condolences to Jeff and his family.

Jeff was kind enough to share these words about WMCKA,

“I found the event, the people and the location to be absolutely top notch for the aims of the symposium and it was an absolute privelege to work beside you all.”

Follow Jeff Allen’s endeavors here at Sea Kayaking Cornwall.


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  2. correction: 9 in 20. 9 rolls in 13 seconds would be wonderful, but at the moment is not something I am capable of.

  3. (I can't believe I didn't say thanks) Keith, thank so much for organizing the training day! It was great to be a part of it, and meet so many great instructors.

    Sharon, thanks for the moral support regarding parent anxiety! Please thank Hannah for doing such an amazing job playing with the kids, after hours and on her own time. She is already an exceptional teacher!

    P.S. I think we hooked the whole family to sign up next year…

  4. I'm glad to be trusted to go out on the sea with you when you aren't doing well, but let's put in plenty of miles when you're feeling fine!

    Lovely write-up and photos. You really captured the symposium. Thanks for all the work you put into organizing the day of training!

  5. Sad news regarding Jeff's father, and I hope that Jeff is doing well.

    Regarding the Instructor Update race to tow the incapacitated paddler. I would like to point out that we won handily, and did in fact use the face-up scoop. It appeared that our victim, Mr. Bailey, had bulked up quite a bit over the winter. His added bouyancy presented Patty and Robyn an ideal towing situation until I could retrieve his boat. If anything, we were too gentle getting Steve back into his boat. As I learned later from Jeff, it would have been faster to push Steve underwater in order to perform a faster scoop. And despite my fumbling to hook up the tow, we kicked ass. I would also mention that the rest of our team stayed upright, warm and dry, which apparently was not the case with some other teams!