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Sea Kayaker's MORE DEEP TROUBLE
More True Stories and Their Lessons from Sea Kayaker Magazine
By CHRISTOPHER CUNNINGHAM
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2014 International Marine/McGraw-Hill Education, LLC
All rights reserved.
Trust Your Skills, Not Your Kayak
This story should serve as a wake-up call for individuals who believe they can sea kayak safely without practicing rescues or testing their skills and equipment. As these paddlers learned the hard way, a stable kayak can create a dangerous false sense of security. No matter how stable a kayak feels in calm water, when conditions are rough only the paddler's skill can keep a kayak from capsizing. And getting back into a swamped kayak that is rolling in waves is not as easy as the uninitiated may think.
It was a partly cloudy but otherwise nice spring day when Ralph and his friend Chris began paddling. The air temperature was around 60°F, unusually warm for the U.S. Northwest in early April. They planned to do a short day trip from Greenbank, on Washington's Whidbey Island, to Baby Island and back. The wind was blowing out of the south at about 10 to 15 knots. Saratoga Passage, which was just east of their route, looked a bit rough, but inside the entrance to Holmes Harbor, the south wind had a shorter fetch so the waves were somewhat smaller. "We were a little concerned about the conditions," Ralph said later, "but we thought we'd go out a ways and see how things were. If it was too rough, we'd turn around."
The two men were using Ralph's Eddyline San Juan (a three-cockpit kayak that is often used as a double, with cargo stowed in the center cockpit). The kayak was equipped with front and rear bulkheads for buoyancy. A cut-off plastic bleach bottle served as a bailing device, but they had no bilge pumps or other emergency gear. Ralph had been sea kayaking for about a year; his friend had some canoeing experience but had done only a little kayaking. Neither of them had taken lessons or practiced reentries.
Around noon they launched from a beach a little north of Greenbank. They angled their kayak into the wind and paddled for an hour to reach Baby Island. The waves were about 2 feet high, but since they were angling into them, the crossing went well. They then rested for a half hour before heading back, during which time conditions became a bit rougher. Even worse, if they headed straight back to where they started, the waves would be hitting them nearly broadside, so they decided to zigzag in order to minimize the time spent sideways to the waves. In retrospect, Ralph said, "Neither of us was really too worried. I think I had a false sense of how stable my boat was. I never had any concept that the thing could ever tip over. It just felt like such a solid boat."
For the first part of the return crossing, they angled upwind and did OK, but on the downwind leg the kayak began to surf in the quartering seas. Ralph remembered, "Some of the waves lifted us up so much that the rudder wasn't totally in the water." Near the middle of the crossing, the kayak broached (turned sideways to a wave) and started to capsize. "It tipped us over very slowly," Ralph said, "like it happened in slow motion."
Both men exited the kayak and held onto it and their paddles. In Ralph's words, "Neither of us was too panicky. I mean, we went about things in a very calm way, partly because we didn't think we were that far offshore—even though it was actually about a mile to shore in either direction. We thought we could just tip the boat up and get in it. We didn't realize how difficult it was going to be." Fortunately, both men were in good shape. Ralph was a former competitive swimmer with experience in ocean swim races.
The two paddlers used teamwork to push the kayak up and right it, similar to how that is done with an open canoe. Next, Chris steadied the kayak while Ralph climbed back into the rear cockpit. This went well, but when Chris attempted to climb in, the kayak flipped again. Over the next 15 minutes, they capsized about ten times while trying to reenter the kayak. Getting the first person in was easy, but because they lacked bracing skills, neither was able to steady the kayak enough for the second person to get in. Ralph said, "In calm conditions we may have been able to accomplish it, but substantial waves kept breaking all around the boat, making it very unstable. We never could get the second person in."
By this time, Ralph's hands and feet were becoming numb from the cold, and he wasn't feeling well. The water temperature was in the low fifties. Ralph was wearing pile pants, a cotton shirt, and a Gore-Tex windbreaker. Chris had on a shorty wetsuit and was doing much better than Ralph. Both were wearing PFDs. They decided to have Chris stay in the water and hold onto the bow while Ralph paddled them both to shore. Ralph hoped that paddling would help him warm up, but he stayed cold the whole time.
There was a lot of water in the kayak from the repeated capsizes, and this made the otherwise-stable kayak quite tippy. Nonetheless, Ralph got in and immediately started paddling, rather than taking the time to bail the water out. He paddled in a kneeling position, which makes a kayak less stable and eventually becomes very uncomfortable, because he felt the kayak was too unstable for him to lift himself up in to get properly seated. Apparently he didn't know the technique for reentering a kayak feet first while lying facedown on the rear deck. Meanwhile, the kayak continued to fill with water as waves came over its sides.
Luckily, the wind and waves were now helping push them toward the beach where they had launched. Ralph said, "I just paddled like crazy. We went like that for a long time and made it within about a quarter mile from shore." From that distance they could see activity on the beach. (A woman who lived there had seen them struggling and called the fire department.) By this time Chris's condition was getting serious. Hypothermia was slurring his speech and sapping his strength. When they were a couple hundred yards from shore, Chris told Ralph he was having difficulty holding on. Ralph thought to himself, "We're going to make it, but what happens if Chris can't hold onto the bow anymore?"
When they were within a hundred yards of shore, Ralph decided that the kayak was so full of water that it wasn't worth continuing to paddle it. He got out of the kayak and pulled it from the bow while swimming toward shore. Fire department personnel were coming to help, but their rescue boat launched about the same time the two paddlers made it to shallow water where they could stand up. As they were getting out of the water, Chris momentarily lost consciousness and Ralph began shivering uncontrollably.
They were taken to the hospital and treated for hypothermia. Ralph's core temperature was 92°F, and Chris's was 90. Upon re-warming, Chris's heart developed an arrhythmia, so he was kept in the hospital overnight. Both soon fully recovered.
LESSONS LEARNED BY RALPH
"I now have more respect for the conditions. I'm trying to get into some lessons, and I've bought a couple of self-rescue paddle floats to help stabilize the kayak during reentry."
ANALYSIS AND LESSONS LEARNED
When conditions get rough, unprepared sea kayakers may pay for their carelessness with their lives. Their lack of safety equipment (no bilge pumps, paddle floats, flares, whistles, or other distress signals), as well as their faith in the kayak's stability, speaks for itself about these paddlers' inexperience and lack of knowledge—an unfortunately common element in many, if not most, sea kayak accidents. These two were lucky to have survived.
Even wide, "stable," double kayaks (and in this case, a triple) can capsize when the waves get steep. And reentry is often harder to perform with a two-person kayak than with a single because most double kayaks have higher decks than singles. The higher the deck, the harder it is to climb onto and the less stable the kayak is with the person's weight on the deck. Further, two people paddling an unaccompanied two-person kayak are taking most of the same risks as a solo paddler.
Those who rely on their kayak's stability to prevent capsizing need to understand that this works only in relatively flat conditions. When the kayak is sideways to a wave, the same design features that keep a kayak upright in calm water (static stability) become a lever by which the wave capsizes the kayak. Until you have confidence in your ability to lean into waves and brace with the paddle for balance, venturing farther from shore than you can swim (a distance greatly reduced in cold water) is risky unless you are accompanied by someone more skilled and whom you really trust.
Even for skilled paddlers, knowingly heading out in rough conditions or on long crossings when conditions may change is not to be taken lightly. Question your preparedness before going out. Do you have the appropriate safety equipment (PFD, towrope, spare paddle, paddle float, etc.) and survival gear (distress signals, handheld VHF radio, extra clothes, etc.)? Have you tested your kayak's buoyancy when it is fully swamped? Are you dressed for immersion? Are there more-experienced paddlers in your group who are confident they could rescue you in the worst-case scenario? Then, if you choose to go out, look for ways to test yourself in the conditions without taking great risks. For example, while near shore, try turning all the way around, rafting up, and going a short distance upwind, downwind, and across the wind. If all goes well, consider practicing some reentries and Eskimo rolls. Consider also whether it is likely that conditions will worsen. For example, will the current speed up or switch directions and oppose the wind, does the forecast range of wind speed exceed what you are currently observing, does the forecast mention squalls in the area or are squalls visible in the distance, etc.?
With cold water, dressing for immersion means wearing a dry suit or Farmer John wetsuit, preferably made of 5 mm or thicker neoprene, rather than the 3 mm suits commonly marketed to kayakers, to slow heat loss and the onset of hypothermia. When the weather is windy, rainy, or cold and the water is too cold for you to enjoy swimming, it is very unlikely that anyone would feel too warm wearing a dry suit or Farmer John wetsuit. In fact, in these conditions, a dry suit or wetsuit may be necessary for comfort and to prevent hypothermia even if you don't capsize.
When a two- or three-person fiberglass kayak swamps, the amount of water that enters the cockpit area can be so immense that it is exhausting to pump out. Worse yet, the buoyancy from the end compartments of some double kayaks is insufficient to keep the cockpit above water once the kayak is swamped. In this case, it may not be possible to empty the kayak while you are in it, at least not in rough conditions. It pays to know and test your equipment.
To solve the flotation problems unique to doubles, some two-person kayaks are built with a center flotation compartment. Another solution is to add a pair of sea socks. Sea socks are waterproof nylon bags that line the cockpit and seal around the coaming; they greatly reduce the amount of water that can enter the kayak. Another gadget that is especially beneficial for a two-person kayak is a submersible, battery-powered bilge pump. A battery-powered pump can be used simultaneously with hand pumps or left running while the kayakers paddle to shore.
If you own a kayak, test it fully swamped. Pump water in if necessary, with and without camping gear, to see if the coaming stays above the water after you reenter the kayak. Also try paddling while the kayak is swamped; this will build and test your bracing skills. Afterwards, check the kayak's flotation chambers to see if the bulkheads leak. If your kayak lacks sufficient buoyancy, consider adding a sea sock or a pair of sea socks for a two-person kayak.
Trial and Error
A Novice Capsizes off Victoria, British Columbia
On his fiftieth birthday, Bob Gauthier was probably pining for a bright red Porsche. What his wife gave him on that June day in 1997 was a sporty Solstice GTS by Current Designs. It even came with a well-written owner's manual and dealer-equipped compass, but no glove box.
At a height of 5 feet and 8 inches and weighing 195 pounds, Bob was a physically fit 50-year-old. He had recently retired from 27 years with the Canadian Armed Forces. As a consequence of his military experience, Bob was able to stay calm and collected during times of physical and psychological stress. Although he had undergone years of land-based wilderness training, Bob, by his own admission, did not understand the complexities of water settings and, like many men at the half-century decade of life, he was not in the habit of seeking formal instruction.
Bob did rent a sea kayaking instructional video. After watching a couple shows about sea kayaking on the Outdoor Life Network, he quickly understood that he needed to practice rescue techniques. He worked on wet exits, paddle-float self-recoveries, and assisted rescues prior to departing on a week-and-a-half trip along the British Columbia mainland coastline with his son. After the trip he continued to practice and became proficient at self-rescues in calm water.
On the morning of November 22, 1997, Bob's plan was to go paddling with his daughter on a local lake. Behind in her homework, she decided to stay home. Bob made a quick decision to go solo, following a saltwater route he had done once before in the summer. He would start at Ten Mile Point, which would leave an approximately 6-mile paddle to Clover Point. Bob expected to arrive at his take-out point by five o'clock at the latest. He left instructions with his daughter to call the authorities if he did not report in via cell phone for pick up by seven o'clock. (In retrospect, Bob realized that this was far too late in the day for a fall trip.) He then checked the morning weather on a local radio station, which gave an anecdotal version of the marie forecast issued by Environment Canada. A Small Craft Warning had been downgraded, despite an approaching front and high winds forecast for the north coast. After a hearty breakfast, Bob was ready to paddle.
Bob's daughter drove him to Ten Mile Point. From the road's high vantage point, the sea looked calm. Launching, he surveyed the scene once again. The surface of the sea was as calm as glass. The air was cool, the temperature in the fifties. There was no indication of poor weather coming, and his tide book showed a helpful ebb current all the way to Clover Point. He launched and paddled southeast along the shoreline, then rounded Cadboro Point and headed southwest, crossing Cadboro Bay and Oak Bay. Once out of the relative protection of the Discovery Islands, Bob noticed the seas starting to build from the now-apparent easterly wind. He stayed close to shore and pressed on.
Excerpted from Sea Kayaker's MORE DEEP TROUBLE by CHRISTOPHER CUNNINGHAM. Copyright © 2014 International Marine/McGraw-Hill Education, LLC. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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