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Mon, 30 Jun 2008

How to Succeed in Tandem Canoing Without Really Trying
The Dr. Kronkheit Solution to the Difficulties of Cooperation

The marketing success of two-seated canoes seems to imply that any two random people can paddle along happily in these boats. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that it is exceedingly problematic to coordinate the efforts of a pair of seated people toward the unified goal of propelling a shared vessel across the surface of the water.

Yet most canoes do have two seats. Should you survey the canoe stock only in the big chain sports stores and boy scout camps, you may conclude that all canoes have two seats. Actually, the best canoes have no seats and the two "tandem" occupants, or solo occupant, will kneel. Kneeling is a far more stable and effective posture, but the average canoe consumer: boy scout troop, romantic couple, or fisherman won't do this. The "buddy system" of relaxed, two-person, sit-down paddling is what they want.

But in most cases, this blissful duet is not to be played out harmoniously. The discord is both practical and emotional. Not only is it a difficult practical exercise to execute coordinated paddle strokes, it is a difficult emotional exercise. To succeed at both, each team member must tolerate and complement the other's finite skill and strained temperament in the face of random disturbances from wind and wave. Such an effort could overcome the patience of any pair of saints you care to put in the same boat. Not to put too fine a point on it, any two people sharing one boat will tend to fight, and fight bitterly.

Failing to coordinate the act of physical paddling is merely the spark that ignites the main charge of emotional conflict. Mere technical failures, in isolation, may result in an unplanned swim, at worst. If the people are sober, each have proper life jackets, and are dumped in moderate, summertime water, this will be little more than a joyful, albeit humbling, experience for them. In stark contrast, the result of failing to snuff the burning emotional fuse lit by botched technique that leads to the frightful powder keg of exploding teamwork is serious disaster: lifelong friends become sworn enemies, married couples divorce, parents cast away their babies, and siblings renounce their blood ties. I'm not aware of an actual murder resulting from a failed small boat partnership, but it would not surprise me if such crimes had occurred.

If it hurts when you do that, don't do that!

Tradition has established several strategies for avoiding conflict in a tandem canoe, all questionable. The first of these, and the only one sure to be effective, is the top-level Dr. Kronkeit solution: don't get in a tandem canoe with anybody. Instead, paddle a solo canoe, or use a solo kayak. Two small kayaks cost a little more than a tandem canoe, but the extra cost of two boats is considerably less than alimony, medical, and legal fees that a single boat may attract. Kayaks are fun, easy to operate, and can do practically anything a canoe can. More importantly, they encourage fellowship. Their day-glow colors set a party atmosphere. You just have to smile at somebody wearing a neoprene skirt and sitting in a bright yellow banana boat.

Unfortunately, as with most all-encompassing Dr. Kronkheitsque solutions, avoiding tandem canoes does not solve the problem, it avoids it. But a solution is still needed. There are millions of tandem canoes out there in the world. Imagine the cost to humanity that these "divorce boats" represent, especially if you see the problem in a larger human context. I think we should try to solve this problem directly, not avoid it.

To that purpose, we find on the other end of the strategy gamut there is a direct, yet admittedly much less effective tandem canoe harmonization approach some have tried. Simply this: get a really long canoe, and use really short paddles. A mathematically inclined paddler once put it this way: "The sum of the length of the paddles must be less than the length of the boat." That technical condition ensures that serious inter-partner paddle-whacking cannot occur. This has some theoretical merit, but not much practical effectiveness, all things considered. A tandem kayak is a classic example of gratuitously breaking this rule. Putting two double-blade kayak paddles in the close proximity a typical tandem kayak imposes will quickly and near inevitably result in a tangle. Here Dr. Kronkheit may be right. There's no fixing this. Never get in a tandem kayak; it's guaranteed mayhem.

But even when the boat is open and long, the single blades are short, and our theorem thus guarantees that partners cannot hit each other easily with paddle in hand when they are sitting in their seats, there is still danger. Nothing prevents bickering partners from propelling their blades like spears at each other. Nor are they prevented from landing the boat somehow, closing the distance on shore, digging in with two feet firmly planted on the ground, and taking a Barry Bonds on steroids whack at the other guy. Even while they are on the water, it's possible for the partners to advance up the boat like a fencing strip to lunge at each other, although this is apt to end moistly in a tippy boat. No, there is no solution in this theorem and it may make matters worse. Especially I think the bottled-up frustration makes this "triangle inequality" strategy mostly unprofitable in any practical analysis.

Even without paddles tandem canoe partners can do each other harm. Did you know that canoe manufacturers have been required by OSHA to install "quick exit" equipment on every canoe sold in the USA. A nearly invisible ejection button is mounted on the outside of the boat just below the top of the gunwale. I sometimes think OSHA should mandate a protective cover over the button, preventing frivolous activation by bickering partners, but that would make it slow to operate in a true emergency. Each partner has their own button. I've often seen a panicked stern paddler in a tandem canoe, frustrated with the stupidity of his or her bow man's last maneuver – usually an ill advised stroke that put them within imprudent proximity to some horrifying hazard – reach over the gunwale and press this ejection button with their fingers, immediately overturning the boat.

Possibly the worst "solution" I see applied to the tandem canoe problem, and an all too common one, is for one of the two partners to overwhelmingly dominate the other by force of will. While this can almost work when the parters are, say, a child of 6 years and a parent of 45 years, ultimately the child will dissolve into tears or the parent will tire of being the evil taskmaster. Thoughts of unspeakable crimes can soon enter the parents head. If these are to remain thoughts only, the trip must end immediately. For this reason, lake paddling is recommended for imbalanced pairs. A strong willed individual should never paddle any river with a child or a cowed spouse; it's a trip into the heart of darkness. Stay in lakes, close to shore. Introduce Ben and Jerry's or Rita's water ice as soon as possible.

Despite these dire hazards and paucity of ameliorating strategies, I happen to like tandem canoe paddling, a lot. Over the last 6 or so years, I've developed somewhat of a sense of it, as I grope toward how it can be done without bloodshed. I don't have an "ultimate" solution for peace and cooperation between warring tandem canoe partners – far from it – but I've managed to survive a dozen or so incompatible partners without any fatal duels being fought.

I've also observed scores of other partners in tandem boats. I've seen partnerships fail myriad ways, but I've also seen it work occasionally, too. I think I have a reasonable system developing. It isn't perfect, no guarantees, but friendships, marriages, even lives may be at stake. I need to tell the world.

Plus, there are brief moments when the teamwork pays off with such reward as to almost make the pain worthwhile. The more we can reduce the pain, the more prominently this profit extends. It can be a true joy. A hazard looms, the boat deftly avoids it, and a warm cloud of trust and camaraderie envelops the partners. Aren't we great. Let's go get a beer.

A boat is not a car.

In my experience, the fine points of propelling a vehicle on land have absolutely no relevance to guiding a canoe on water. I've driven some considerable variety of wheeled vehicles roving on land, from cars to bikes to tractors and construction equipment, albeit not the Saturn V crawler like Rich Stelt(!). Still, I can say with humble confidence that the experience I gained in this relatively diverse collection of wheeled and tracked vehicles had absolutely no application to running my canoe on the water. None whatsoever. When I first stepped into a canoe resting in two feet of moving water, I was instantly and literally out of my depth.

On the other hand, I've driven some power boats and jet skis. With these I felt there was a possibility of fooling myself that I was "driving" like I do on land, especially at high speed. I think it's the planing hull effect. When the boat is forcibly powered up, out of the water, the surface of the water is more like solid land. You drive along, sitting and steering and bumping along like you do in a car. The water is merely the limiting case of a wet road.

Not so in a displacement hull, like a canoe. I haven't done much sailing, but I think the situation is the same on a sailboat. The boat's hull is in the water and is therefore intimately coupled with wave and current and solid obstructions lurking below. You don't get to skim along, oblivious to everything but the beer in your cup holder; you participate in the world through which you are traveling.

Realizing the holistic bond between the boat and the wet and wild world is critical for tandem canoe team success. You see, there really are three participants in the tandem canoe exercise, not two. The two paddlers along with the world. Not against the world: along with it.

When a human occupant of a tandem canoe denies the participation of the world, the only party left to blame for any surprise mishap is the other partner. Why did the boat veer off course? It must be my clueless bow man's mistake. How could we possibly flip over in such calm water? Did you screw up again back there, stern man? Or did you press the ejection button?

The water does not necessarily share the paddler's intent. This is where the disconnect occurs, I think. The water follows its nature regardless of what the two river rats in the boat happen to think they want. The most skilled paddlers attempt to "read" the water and plot some course where their self perceived human goals coincide with what they judge is the intent of the water. But even the best laid plans can only be based on a superficial view of infinite complexities in the chaotic realm of hydrodynamics under the surface. A seemingly regular set of waves can hide a surprise boulder; a visible boulder may be tunneled under, sucking the river directly into its maw. You never know all the factors at work and the wise never pretend to know. I firmly believe that in all small boats the Constant Law of Frisbee must be observed: Never precede any maneuver by a comment more predictive than "Watch this!"

Shut up and paddle.

This has wide application. Propelling the boat forward is seldom the wrong thing to do, whereas propelling one's mouth often is. In times of stress, our verbal communication ability is impaired just as much as our paddling technique, but the risk of harm is far greater in the verbal realm. Thus, if you must take some action, let it be action with the paddle rather than with the jawbone. Your chance of doing some good is far greater if you stick with this plan. Actions speak louder than words and are less subject to misinterpretation.

When I welcome a new partner to my boat, I have a standard, long winded lecture I go through, telling them "The Rules" of my boat. In essence, the substance of my lecture is this: I will never say anything worth listening to in detail. If you must break it down more analytically, 99% of the time I will paddle on blindly forward, commenting about various and sundry trivialities that can safely be ignored for purposes of navigation. The other 1% of the time I will grunt in incoherent terror as some certain doom approaches, as I make a frantic effort to avoid it.

In either case, my babbling trivialities or grunts of fear, the words themselves are of no importance. The thing to do, I tell my partners, is watch my actions along with their context and consequence in the world around.

Save your own butt.

I find that the Dr. Kronkheit prescription actually works better if it is applied one level deeper. It's not the tandem canoing itself that's the problem, but rather it's attempting to cooperate that leads partners to unhappiness. If attempts at cooperation in a tandem boat lead to pain, then the solution is simple: don't try to cooperate. Stay in the boat (hands off that ejection button) but do what you think is best regardless of how that might affect your partner. Paradoxically, this works out far better that you might expect.

Here's a brief scenario to illustrate the point. Imagine two partners paddling along on a calm stream in a tandem canoe. They chatter happily in smalltalk about the birds and the flowers. Oh look! There's a blue heron. What a pretty bloom there is on the Catalpa trees this spring. Do you hear those frantic croaks? I bet ten toads are having an orgy. It's good times. All is right with their world.

Suddenly, a hazard appears. A low hanging branch dangles an icky, bug dotted cobweb directly in the path of the boat. The paddler in the bow notices it first, of course. "Ewwww!" he grunts and wonders silently why the idiot in the stern steered the boat so directly toward that annoyance. "What is she? Blind? Could she be intentionally trying to befoul me?" he wonders. The stern paddler can't see it at all, her view of it is blocked entirely by the bow paddler, although she does note his sudden agitation, thinking, "Here it comes. He screwed up somehow and is about to blame me." Only a few seconds remain before impact. What should they do?

If the reader has any past experience of attempting to cooperate in avoiding a hazard like I describe above, I expect that most of those experiences turned out badly. Both of the paddlers end up in the cobweb, the boat overturns, beaches, spins around, or all of the above. I'll spare you all the painful details of how these undesirable outcomes are generated. Suffice to say that too much communication and cooperation are the root cause of the unhappy results. Instead, I'll trace out in detail what happens when the pair look out for their own butts.

Seeing the cobweb, the bow man acts directly and decisively in self preservation. He executes a vigorous paddle stroke to pull the bow over just enough so that his face should miss the web. He does not say anything beyond his initial "Ewwww!" to warn that he did not turn the boat enough to allow his stern paddler to clear as well. The ball is now in her court.

Alerted by the grunt and the sudden action by the bow man, the stern paddler's attention is drawn forward. "Oh bugger," she thinks, "he just turned the boat enough so that he would clear that cobweb with no though of saving me. I'll show him!" With that, she executes a vigorous paddle stroke to pull the stern over just enough so that her face should now miss the web. This pivots the boat back, and the bow returns partly into harms way.

The bow man, seeing that his first stroke did not achieve full clearance, repeats his effort, even more vigorously. The boat pivots again, clearing the bow and re-exposing the stern. The stern paddler sees this recurring exposure and fights back. Again and again this goes back and forth till the aggregate result is the boat moves sideways and clears, both bow and stern.

When the above scenario is played out in the full speed of rapidly moving water, both paddlers will have little awareness of the non-cooperative interplay that led to such a harmonious result. Generally, they'll both be relieved that they missed the hazard and credit their own independent action as the decisive cause of their deliverance.

I wonder how true the larger analogy is here. Do my observations about tandem canoing have wider application? Some of it fits.

For example, I know that despite our natural Kronkheitsque attempts to avoid the conflicts inherent in teamwork by the "live and let live" strategy of staying an independent as possible, people often find themselves in some sense put "in the same boat" with others. I know that attempts at cooperation in these other situations, not just piloting small boats, often leads to vicious and unproductive bickering. Rules that keep our paddles short and boats long only get us limited relief, and sometime exacerbate the tension.

The thing is, although there is one objective world, people's viewpoints on it are different. The presence of others, and their actions, can suddenly obscure, or reveal, truths we once saw, did not previously perceive. For this reason, we find the paradox that exercise of self interest is remarkably able to produce harmony in ways that explicit communication with the goal of harmoniously regulating behavior seemingly never can do.

Although there are signs that political polarization may be diminishing, it remains in full force in some quarters. I wonder if the solution to this is that we should all just stop trying to drive the world like our own personal car. Maybe if we just shut up, paddle, and watch our own ass we'll all end up happier.

Posted Jun 30, 2008 at 16:35 UTC, 3099 words,  [/danPermalink