Friday, 12 July 2013

Being an assistant guide - Milos 2013

Update for 2016

It seems that the original Assistant's Life blog has become a bit of an introduction manual for those aspiring to the role, so here are a few changes that bring it up to date with current practice:

Once the boats are off the trailer, the assistant is responsible for extracting and stacking the paddles (leaning against the trailer) before attending to their own kit. Beware the left-hand control paddles which need to be kept separate and are usually best left in the trailer. If you stack all the paddles the same way round, it is easy to spot a lefty that has tried to infiltrate. Rod does not find it particularly funny if he ends up demonstrating how to feather with a paddle that does not really work in that context - I am sure you get the idea.

As a general rule the assistant will be the last to leave the beach. This makes sure that all the customers are safely on the water, and gives an opportunity to have a look round for kit that may have been left behind.

General rules are of course ones that don't apply in all situations, and the most likely reason you will have to leave the beach rather earlier is when an offshore wind is blowing your group steadily or even rapidly out to sea. If you have not noticed, you can expect to here the dulcet tones of the boss as he gently suggests that you might care to go and herd them back towards the beach.

An assistant's life - part one

I have the alarm set for 07.30, so of course wake up naturally sometime between 06.00 and 07.00. Doze until 07.00 then make a cup of tea and relax reading or just chilling - maybe have a look at the forecast to see what the wind is doing - not that it is my problem, I am only the assistant - and outside to see my bit of the world.

The view from my balcony

Duties continue pretty heavily as I usually have a coffee about now before getting my kit ready at about 08.00. Put on sun screen, find a bottle of water, bring any drying in from outside, and then head down to the kafeneio for breakfast at about 8.30 - it's all go.

Kafeneio Perros

Breakfast - mainly bread and jam in my case, and lots of coffee, is a time to chat to the '6 day' paddlers who are staying in Rod's accommodation. Typically they have been to Milos before, and paddle at about 3 star standard, but can be complete beginners. During breakfast, Rod usually gives a quick briefing (is there any other sort) on the day and checks whether anyone needs additional equipment or maybe wants to try a different boat.

About 09:00 it is down to the yard with Rod to sort out which boats are going on the trailer, then back here to collect my own kit. This is here by the way:

My Room
Wander up the road to collect the car ready for 09:25, and most importantly, the towels:

Don't forget the towels
Bum's on seats are a good thing, wet bums on seats are not one of Petrinela's favourite things, and it is her car that I am driving.

The paddlers are pretty good at being ready on time, though some take rather longer than others to actually get into the vehicles, then it is off to the 'put in' beach. Usually this just amounts to following the trailer, but sometimes there are some rather more complicated pick-up arrangements for 'day trip' paddlers staying elsewhere on the island.

An Assistant's Life - part two

When we get to the put in beach, my tasks are as follows:

Get all the boats off the trailer and lined up on the beach ready to go. The clients are usually pretty enthusiastic helpers, but we try and keep the less sturdy individuals away from the heavier ends, and of course any doubles (tandems) that may going out that day.

Next, I sort my own kit - spray deck, PFD and paddle and make sure my own boat is setup ready to go. I usually take charge of the morning break snack bag - someone has to - and maybe take an extra stick or a split. During this time, Rod will be handing out decks PFDs and paddles to the rest of the group.

By the time they have collected everything they need, and got to their boat, I will be there to adjust footrests, explain the rudder if there is one, and maybe give them their first paddling lesson (which way up). Newby paddlers tend to need convincing that they are probably best off in bare feet, to sit up straight while footrests are sorted, and that the spray deck will come off if they capsize.

An Assistant's Life - part three - a typical day

I had delayed a little before writing about a typical day until I had accumulated enough days, and now I can tell you that there is no such thing. Yes, there are similarities between bits of individual days, but even what appears to be an identical trip on paper, will inevitably be very different in practice. This makes it all the more interesting, of course, and a useful motto would be 'expect the unexpected' - actually it is not all that useful - maybe just don't expect the day to go as planned.

Put in at Voudia Bay
So, we are on the beach checking that everyone is ready to launch and knows roughly what to do once they are on the water. Nearly everyone struggles with spraydecks on the first day, so I usually help with some as part of launching, and try to get some idea of their paddling experience:

'Have you kayaked before?'
'Once or twice'

This response from a Brit probably means that he has circumnavigated Ireland, or holds the current record for Devises to Westminster, but for everyone else it means twice.

Once on the water, it is a case of keeping the group together initially (especially if the wind is offshore) as they come to grips with handling their boats, and trying to spot individuals having problems - not feathering the paddle for the stroke on the left hand side is common. My favourite quote about Greenland paddles is 'they have their limitations, but these are only in the minds of paddlers who don't use them', but they are not that good for demonstrating the required wrist action. Mind you I am not that much help with a euro paddle either as I use left hand control.

If Dave is with the group rather than with Sue, leading the round island expedition, he will be in his ever patient coaching mode having picked out the weakest paddler.

By now, Rod has launched and we are off - so I revert to tail-end Charlie mode and counting people in and out of caves and through arches. On a typical day we are 10 or 12 or maybe 18 - well it was hard to turn down the young family who were waiting for the wind to drop. Eyes in the back of your head are a prerequisite and don't expect to get anywhere fast when there are lots of caves and lots of customers.

Mid morning snack
After about an hours paddling, it will be time for the morning stop at some idyllic beach or other with about a half-hour break and snacks. Always a good bet that the snacks bag will be found in my boat - I like to know where it is, and Rod likes it to be dry. Bananas, biscuits (cookies) and dried fruit.

An Assistant's Life - a typical day - continued

Sometimes, before we even get to the snacks, Rod will decide that the day has been too sedate and declare 'rescue practice' and yes, this means assistants as well (once they have emptied their boats of perishables) or wants to demonstrate that two guides can roll a double, roll a double without spraydecks, roll a double full of water, paddle a double full of water around a figure of eight course - well you get the picture.
Some join in enthusiastically while others hide far up the beach. Rod is generally encouraging, but if people really don't want to try something, they normally get away with it - anyone would think they were on holiday and here to enjoy themselves.

Rescue practice at morning stop
After morning break, it is back to paddling - unless there is much wave action, most of the group will manage to launch themselves. Maybe we will have moved from a relatively sheltered cave strewn section of coast to something more exposed and perhaps more challenging. Wind on the stern quarter might lead to a rapid deployment of rudders and skegs for those that have them, and advice on sweep strokes for those without, though most of the boats track pretty well. Some groups go a bit quiet at this stage as they knuckle down to a bit of work and maybe have to concentrate a little more on what they are doing with the paddle. Others really get in to the paddling and become animated and chatty.

If the group is going well, I can roam about and talk to various people - what kayaking they do at home, how long they are on Milos (day trippers), what they do for a living, etc - hard to believe that you are hearing this from me I know. If there are stragglers, I have to take my tail-end Charlie duties more seriously and make sure we really do get everyone to the lunch spot.

The lunch spot will naturally be another idyllic beach or remote rocky outcrop, but the landings are not always straightforward. Some of the beaches have steep shingle and some, of course, have surf. Some, well you are way ahead of me I am sure. The assistants dilemma surrounds whether to wait at sea until everyone is safely on the beach, or run ashore and help people land. For some locations - mainly the rocky landings - there is a well practiced routine, but for others it is a case of how much surf, how competent are the paddlers, etc.

Rocky landing at Kleftico
Lunchtime is usually pretty leisurely with about an hour and a half of swimming, snorkeling, stone balancing, juggling, sunbathing or just plain chilling, broken up by the food - bread, cheese, ham, tuna, onions, tomatoes, cucumber from Rod's 'father-in-law's yard', followed by melon, grapes or cherries - life is hard out here.

Happy eaters

An Assistant's Life - a typical day - continued - after lunch

After lunch there is often a more concerted paddling effort that brings us in time back to our starting point, or round a spectacular headland to some small harbour ready for a vehicle shuffle. One way trips are good for customers provided they end somewhere comfortable - you can't really beat an ice-cream at Pollonia or the shear beauty of landing at Firapotomas - but more hassle obviously for staff who work an extra hour, and miss out on the ice-cream.

At the end of the day (not a phrase I thought I would ever use in a blog) there are always happy smiling faces, but they tend to fall into two groups - the animated happy faces that are already talking about tomorrow, and the very tired happy faces who are looking forward to a shower, food and bed.

Some of the '6 day' paddlers will have discovered something new, with a trip offshore or maybe an exciting ride in the front of a double.

Day trippers are very thankful (I think for the experience, rather than just to be alive) for what has usually been at least a good days paddling, and is sometimes a great day's paddling and a real eye-opener as to what you can do in a sea kayak. The great days are usually the result of lots of wind or lots of waves or both, and it may be that there is a certain relief in coming through the experience that heightens their overall enjoyment.

I can say that the thanks are gratifying, but it is tough being kissed by so many young women - I suppose I will just have to put up with it for a few more days.

Zen and the art of trailer loading

Basic rules - level 1 zen

The trailer is simple enough - just two bars each side, each end:

Kayak trailer
So loading the trailer must also be simple, and we can start with a few basic rules that allow the boats to sit on the trailer securely, and limit the amount of crushing that occurs when they are tied on:

  1. Doubles (tandem kayaks) on top, cockpit facing out
  2. If only one double, you can have a single beside it, cockpit out
  3. Singles two per side = first boat cockpit out, second boat cockpit in and reversed end for end. Bow and stern tucked under the inside boat.
Advanced rules - level 2 zen

  1. Doubles can go on the bottom rack if they are beneath a double on the same side of the trailer (if not, they prevent a single from sitting properly above them because of the curvature of the hull)
  2. Singles three per side (probably one full volume boat, and two smaller boats) = first boat cockpit in, second boat cockpit out, third boat cockpit in and reversed. Bow and stern tucked under the inside boat.
  3. More than 12 single kayaks = 2 to 4 boats riding on 'top' of the others. Bowlines through toggle and decklines and thrown up onto the stack. At the launch site, it is the assistant's job to catch these boats as they rattle down the side of the trailer.
Trailer with 14 single kayaks
 End of day loading for tomorrow - zen mastery

  1. Try to group boats going out the next day (same paddlers or staff) together, and on the left (facing car) side of the trailer so that the right side is empty ready for the 'new' boats that will be loaded tomorrow morning in the 'yard'.
  2. On beaches with fine sand, time loading carefully such that boats go straight onto the trailer as they are brought up from the sea and thus avoid taking even more of the beach back with them.
Few candidates reach the level of Zen Master though many (alright, not that many) aspire to it - if you have tried, but failed so far, take comfort in the knowledge that the kayaks will be on the trailer for but a short time, and you can try again tomorrow:

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