Ashore and Afloat

Aikido on land and sea

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Summer winds!

Over the last few weeks, San Francisco Bay has shifted from winter to summer conditions.  In the winter, we have light to moderate winds unless a storm is passing through.  Sometimes we have so little wind, there are no waves and hardly even ripples in the water – the Bay looks like a mirror.  In the summer, when California’s Central Valley heats up, the air rises creating a vacuum, and the only place where fresh air can pour in is through the Golden Gate.  That brings winds steadily blowing 25 knots (just under 30 mph) and often gusting into the mid 30s.  The wind pulls in a cool moist marine layer from the ocean that forms fog as it moves over the Bay creating natural air conditioning for the City.

We often see boats out on summer days with full sails up, no reefs.  They are usually heeled far over away from the wind with the rails in the water.  That kind of sailing can be exhausting as the boat tries to pull into the wind, a condition called weather helm, and whoever is at the wheel struggles to keep on course.  Even though that may also look fast, it usually is a slower angle for sailing than keeping the boat more upright.

My boat has a strong weather helm and when I first got it, I always went out with too much sail up in the summer not realizing that I was making things worse.  My mainsail adds to the weather helm, but the jib pulls the opposite way and gives a lee helm, so the trick is to find the right balance when reefing the sails.  Now I go out with a handkerchief sized piece of the mainsail up, but more of the jib, sometimes all of it.  That gives a beautifully balanced boat with no weather helm that stays on course with virtually no work.


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Armpits may be Aikido’s secret weapons

Twice a year our dojo brings a senior teacher from Japan for an intense seminar week of classes both indoors and out in the woods.  On recent visits he has been focusing on the basics, not on flashy techniques.  Much of what he says is basic too – move from the hips, maintain good posture, don’t push your partner, etc.  This time an unlikely part of the body, armpits, got a lot of his attention.

In virtually every technique sensei demonstrated and had us practice, he emphasized keeping our armpits closed to help unify our bodies.  This may seem like a tiny detail of form, but it had a significant effect on how we connected with our partners and even how much of a target we presented.  With our arms kept close to the body, we were less likely to swing from our arms and more likely to enter and strike with our entire body behind our hands.  With closed armpits, our hands stay in front of our centers.  There are times when our armpits are open, for example, when raising a bokken, but as we strike, we should bring our armpits to a closed position.

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A Different Kind of Challenge

Fifty plus years ago I spent a glorious summer at a wilderness summer camp trekking across the New Mexico desert with the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation,  About 20 of us teenaged girls and 4 staff drove in old pickup trucks to campsites mostly on private lands scattered across the Four Corners area.  We dug latrine and fire pits, pitched heavy canvas army surplus tents, set up cots, cooked our meals over firewood we gathered, and spent our days exploring the plants, animals, rocks, and anthropological treasures all around us.  At sunset, we watched the shadow of the earth move across the sky, and at night, we watched the Milky Way span the horizons.  Much of my love of being outdoors comes from that summer.

Last year was the Gulch’s 90th birthday and I returned for the weekend of festivities, then stayed on for a weeklong women’s wilderness adventure.  After 3 relatively luxurious nights at base camp in open air cabins with bunks and thin mattresses, but no electricity or running water, our very small group headed out in a truck with all our gear in the back and a big enough cab for all of us up front.  At first there were going to be 4 of us with 2 wilderness guides, but we lost 2 people before we even set out and a 3rd dropped out after just a day, so there were just 3 of us at the end, 2 30-something guides and me with a much creakier body than I had 50 years ago.

During the days we explored the northeastern quadrant of New Mexico stopping to talk to local weavers, potters, and farmers.  If we saw something interesting such as the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm,, we stopped to check it out and stayed as long as we pleased.  By late afternoon we would set up camp at a public campsite, no more private lands.  Other things had also changed over the last decades.  We no longer dug latrine pits, but used whatever facilities the campsite provided.  In the gear in back we had a good propane camp stove, so no more digging fire pits and collecting wood to cook.  Our tents were lightweight nylon that all but set themselves up and we would have foregone them completely had it not been for the daily rain storms that blew through every afternoon and evening.

I had no idea when we started out on the road how I would do with wilderness camping after so many years.  I knew my stiff knee would slow me down somewhat, but failed to anticipate the impact the altitude would have on my breathing and stamina.  Did I miss any beats due to lack of oxygen when I was a teenager?  I don’t remember even noticing the lack of breathable air when I was young.  The rain posed more of a challenge this time.  At first I welcomed the cooler air it brought, but day after day of setting up camp in a downpour started to get old.  I mostly missed being able to see the night sky from my tent because we always had the rain flys on.  I have no memory of it ever raining the summer I was there as a teen, but it must have rained frequently.  My teenaged body and brain must have edited out any memory of even a slight discomfort.

Overall, I did just fine with the conditions.  I slept well most nights, had a good appetite, gradually adjusted to the altitude, and loved every minute of being outdoors, but on dry land instead of my usual sails around San Francisco Bay.


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A “Failed” Rescue

On a recent sail we found a relatively quiet spot where we could let the boat drift safely, opened the table in the cockpit, and spread out the potluck lunch we had all brought.  While we were eating, we heard a distress call from a smaller boat that had lost its engine and was drifting onto some rocks and realized it was a fishing boat we had passed a short while before.

Everyone quickly moved into action.  All the food and utensils were stowed back in the galley out of the way of the action on deck.  We got out some dock lines we could use to secure the other boat and I steered us over to where it was dangerously close to some large rocks sticking out from the shore.  I maneuvered close enough so we could throw him a line, but he waved us away.  He saw that the current was carrying him just past the rocks towards a shallow cove and he had decided to try to anchor where he would be safe until the Coast Guard or marine assist could come help.

While we stood by a short distance away so we could help if needed, he did manage to drift safely past the rocks into the cove and dropped his anchor.  We waited until we saw a fast Coast Guard vessel pulling up, then returned to our quiet lunch drifting, but not towards any rocks.

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Moving from the Center


On a recent visit to Seoul, Korea, I happened on a martial arts demonstration in a park.  One of the techniques used a long pole with a short curved blade at the end.  The demonstrators neatly thrust the sharp end into various targets with no difficulty, it looked so easy to do!  At the end, they invited members of the audience to try to hit a simple target.  One after another everyone who tried failed miserably, missing the target completely.


The demonstrators had all moved the same way we train to move in Aikido, from their centers.  They all held the pole so it was connected to their centers and thrust from their centers by moving their whole bodies.  They didn’t thrust from their arms which hardly moved.  The pole stayed aimed and hit the targets every time.  In contrast, everyone in the audience who tried held the pole out from their bodies and then thrust with their arms without moving their whole body with the pole.  For each of them, the pole wobbled and their thrusts never came close to the target.

This is exactly what sensei tries to teach us in weapons practice.  When we tsuki or thrust with a jo (spear pole) or bokken (sword), he wants to see that movement coming from our center with our whole body behind it, not from our arms moving away from our bodies.  That same body movement is exactly what he also wants to see in the empty handed techniques on the mats in the dojo.  If I reach out with my arms to grab my partner, I get drawn out of my center and there is no Aikido.  But, if I move my whole body from my center and connect with my partner, it doesn’t really matter what technique I am doing.

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Aikido is War, not Peace

Sensei surprised us after class a few days ago by saying that Aikido wasn’t peaceful at all.  It involved a constant war, not with our training partners, but within ourselves.  Yes, it’s peaceful in the sense that we don’t practice with the intent of obliterating our opponents, but we are still involved in an intense internal struggle to find our own Aikido.

A visiting master teacher recently asked us to pay close attention when we grabbed our partners.  Why did we think we needed to grasp an arm, why were we pulling on a hand, why did we focus on the throw, why did we create conflict with our partners?  He said that those feelings always came from something internal and that we needed to listen to ourselves and understand what drove us.  Instead of conflict, he said to invite our partner in and connect.  Instead of tensing, he said to become freer and unlock the traffic jams in our bodies.  He encouraged us to make bigger movements at first so our bodies could move more freely until we learned to move from our center.  He kept telling us to open our chests, open our hips.

None of this happens easily.  When someone attacks, the instinctive move is to push the attack away or block it with a counterattack.  Instead, in Aikido, we need to learn to find a place where we are safe from the attack so our bodies can relax, but still maintain the connection with our partner and not disappear.  Easier said than done.


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Going with the Flow in the Rain

After 4 years of drought, California is finally getting a more than normal winter rainy season. I’d forgotten what it was like to cancel sailing because of weather, it’s been years since I last had to do that. This winter we’ve adjusted sailing plans several times because of winter storms blowing through. Most of the time it just wasn’t worth going out with no wind and pouring rain. Sometimes a forecast of thunderstorms with intense winds kept us safely in the harbor.

This past Sunday was overcast with a chance of rain. All the yacht clubs were running their usual Sunday races, so the Bay was full of sailboats in every direction. Everyone in my crew had a full set of foul weather gear, so we decided to go out too. We rode the tail end of an ebb tide out to the Golden Gate Bridge and were about to tack north towards Sausalito and a harbor where we could anchor for lunch when the first rain started, more of a mist than actual drops.

We thought we could sail away from it as the storms here are often very local, but minute by minute the rain got stronger and spread as a storm front moved in. One by one we went below and donned our foulies. Mine were bright yellow from head to toe, another crew member was all in red except for an international lime green hood, and the last crew member had a mix of blues – a very colorful group.

Once in our foulies, we were warm and dry, unbothered by the now pouring rain and in no rush to get back to the dock. As we looked around, we saw that all the racing boats had gone in and we were one of the last boats out on the Bay. We took advantage of the strong south winds that came in with the storm and the start of a flood tide to coast back past Alcatraz and then across to our marina – easy, leisurely sailing despite the weather.

Once we had the boat snug in its slip and attached to shore power again, we settled in the salon with the electric heater on and enjoyed the lunch we had planned to eat while out sailing. We went with the flow in every way on this sail from riding the tides, to having the right gear for the weather, to adjusting our sail plan for the conditions, to moving our lunch to a cozy cabin at the dock instead of trying to eat in pouring rain.  Sometimes you can have a great sail even in the midst of a rain storm if you make the best of what the wind and weather give you.