Reflections from the Cockpit October 2006
"Learning In Chaos"

In August of this year I had the opportunity to fly out to the East Coast on two separate weekends to teach some clinics. Both clinics were very successful. On my return flights back home to the Seattle area I reflected on what made each class such a success. The common thread for both of the classes was chaos. I love the word chaos and what we can learn from it. My trusty Webster’s dictionary defines chaos as "A state of things where chance is supreme" or "the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a natural system" or "a state of utter confusion."

Let me begin by saying, "I believe chaos is a state of mind." What is chaotic to one person may not be confusing to another. Even though circumstances and/or conditions may be unpredictable and random, it doesn’t mean we cannot be comfortable in them. All too often, one associates chaos with feeling out of control. You may not be able to control what is coming at you (rarely can we control the outside world) but you do have the ability to control how you react to it. That is one the purposes of learning and mastering ones skills.

Let’s take a brief look at the typical learning scenario. Our first kayak experience is usually in very controlled calm conditions. Like many outdoor sports there are certain basic skills one needs before going out into the real world. One of the great dangers (or excitements) is kayaking happens in a dynamic environment that is always changing. As a beginner we look for the most control we can find so we spend our time upright rather than swimming all day. A good kayaking instructor is going to be teaching you skills that work in calm water or rough water. Before you can take that skill into rough water you need to perfect it on calm water. That is why most classes take place on calm water. When I teach my clinics I am often asked if we can do the clinic on open water in rough conditions. My standard reply is, "even though there is a lot of learning that can occur in chaos, I cannot effectively teach a group in rough conditions. I can monitor them and oversee them but the teaching needs to be done in a controlled environment." The key to understanding my stock answer is to realize the difference between teaching and learning. As an experiential educator I embrace the following: "What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I know." I feel one needs to know what they are doing in calm conditions before they try to do it in chaotic conditions.

When I have the opportunity to take a group I know into chaotic conditions, it is with the understanding they will be working on skills they already know how to do on flat water. I also look for what I refer to as a "controlled chaotic environment." The conditions appear to be rough and scary but the adverse consequences are low and the risk of injury is very low. Let us not forget that chaos is a state of mind. All I need is for the student to feel the conditions are chaotic.

The Rhode Island Clinic took place off of a beach that had two sets of rocks less than 100 yards off shore. Between the rocks was a rock free area with a sandy bottom. The east rocks had a rock tail that went toward shore. The swells were coming between the two rocks at an angle so you would eventually wash up on the rock tail if you just drifted. The swells and the wind added the right amount of chaos to the day. Before we launched I told the group the plan and said, "we would regroup on shore after a skill set and debrief the exercise." We had three instructors for four pairs of students. I have to say I always like to see the looks on student’s faces when they first enter chaos and are told to do the skill. As a warm up I yelled out, "roll them if you got em." The look I saw in their eyes said, "are you crazy, here and now?" It was interesting to see how the incoming steepening swells affected one’s ability to perform a successful roll. The day was spent practicing recoveries and towing options. There were repeated visits to the beach for debriefs, rest breaks and teaching. The original teaching of the skills being performed this day with this group was done in years past during previous clinics. Today was a time for really learning the skills and adding some fine-tuning. At the end of the day I can say that the initial feeling of chaos became one of familiarity for most of the group. Some were even comfortable getting to a felling of play.

The Long Island New York clinic provided a protected place to teach and practice skills with the opportunity to go out into the wind and wind waves to practice what was done in the calm area. What added to the feeling of chaos was the torrential rain that was falling. We followed the same game plan as the previous week. After playing in chaos we would paddle back to the calm for debrief and then review the next set of skills before taking them back on the road. It was great to see the skill improvement and increased self-confidence in the students at the end of the day. My greatest enjoyment was one of the participants resting on his extended paddle sculling brace with a giant smile on his face as he was being bounced around by the waves. He was shouting out, "I love this stroke." He later confessed that before the class he would have never gone out in conditions such as these and couldn’t conceive he would be resting comfortably in them. As a side note, the rain added another learning factor to the mix. The heavy rain with the wind really gave the participants a chance to see how well they were dressed for the day. We did have to send one in early because they were chilled. The rest said they were ok. However, when we went to the diner for dinner after the class, it was interesting that I ordered a cold Dr. Pepper while everyone else was asking for hot tea or hot coffee. The operative word was hot. In addition one of our group asked that the air conditioning be turned off.

The chaos factor for both of these clinics was what made the clinic very successful. The students were pushing their limits. They started in chaos with a real sense of trying to survive. After going back into the chaos a number of times the feeling of survival was turning toward levels of understanding the chaos. With an understanding of chaos there comes a level comfort. Some even got to the level of having fun playing in chaos. Once you know you can depend on your skills you can start to look around and look for the patterns in the so-called chaos. Once patterns are identified the conditions move out of the realm of chaotic because they are no longer unpredictable. Once you learn the rhythms of once perceived chaotic conditions you can begin to relax and enjoy the excitement.

In both of these examples the group was well supervised and the environment was one of low risk given their locations. When going into conditions such as these you definitely want someone to be there who can get you out of trouble if things go wrong. This individual needs to feel very comfortable in such conditions and have a well-stocked bag of tricks with reliable skills in said conditions. I encourage training in chaos if you can find conditions that offer low risk and little negative consequence while still appearing to be chaotic to your sense of order and experience. Perfect your skills on the flat and then learn them while playing in chaos. "The chaos of today will be your playground of tomorrow." (See USK Yakism’s)


Wayne Horodowich


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