Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 19: Nighttime Accident on Willapa Bay

I found this chapter to be a good reminder that even in seemingly benign conditions, there is always a greater risk when paddling alone. While the conventional wisdom is to always paddle with a group, I must confess to being someone who has often paddled solo. However, it is not something I do lightly.

Dressing for immersion is always "derigueur" no matter how warm the air.

I never (I mean NEVER) paddle without wearing a PFD. Along with that, I carry a VHF radio, rescue knife, flares, laser flare, strobe light, small first aid and repair kit, 2 compasses, a rescue stirrup, paddle float, deck mounted bilge pump, and hand-held bilge pump. All this gear is good, but at the same time, it does not substitute for skills and good judgment.

I have a reliable roll and I regularly practice several different solo re-entry techniques. I will admit that I have an advantage in this respect. As an instructor, I am forced to demonstrate these techniques to my students dozens of times during each paddling season.

We have no way of knowing what caused James Wiegardt's death on Willapa Bay, but it is worth thinking about some of the possible explanations if only to remind ourselves that we take certain risks whenever we venture out on the water in small boats.

I would like to bring up one possible cause of capsize that was not discussed by the author, George Gronseth. I enjoy paddling at night, but there is the potential problem of spacial disorientation that can occur on a dark, moonless night when you cannot discern a horizon. A kind of "vertigo" can ensue that may result in a capsize even in very calm conditions. (This has been suggested as the cause of the plane crash that killed JFK Jr. and his passengers back a few years ago.) This phenomenon is most often associated with airplane pilots, but it can occur in any situation where you lose the visual cues that tell you which way is up. In the case of James Wiegardt, a capsize should not have been immediately dangerous since the water temperatures were fairly warm. However, the darkness may have made it more likely that he either lost contact with his kayak and/or paddle during the capsize, or spacial disorientation could have prevented him from being able to successfuly complete a solo re-entry.

The video below was taken on a night with a full moon which generally lights up the water and horizon quite well. But imagine if you were paddling with no moonlight and few, if any shore lights.

Paddling with a group does not absolve us, as kayakers, from taking reasonable and prudent safety precautions whenever we go out on the water. If we choose to go solo, it is just that much more important that we increase our margin for error in whatever ways we can.

Do you ever paddle alone? Under what conditions or circumstances? Do you take any special precautions when paddling solo beyond what your normally do with a group?


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 18: Rosario Strait Rescue

This chapter involves a rescue of three paddlers out of a group of five. While, luckily, this group had an experienced guide who was carrying a VHF radio, this whole incident could have been avoided had the group stayed out of wind and the tide rip that eventually caused two of the paddlers in a tandem to capsize. The guide did not capsize, but intentionally exited his kayak to swim over and assist the two paddlers in the tandem whom he feared were having trouble exiting the upturned kayak.

If you are unfamiliar with tide rips, watch the YouTube video above showing swimmers in a tide rip in Deception Pass which is not too far from Rosario Strait where the story in Chapter 18 takes place.

Strong winds also played a factor in causing this capsize. For a review of the importance of "paddling in the lee", you can re-read the side-bar article in Chapter 17, and my previous blog post, "More Thoughts on the Ferry Rescue in Chapter 17".

Here in the Great Lakes, we are happy not to have to worry about the dangers of these strong currents caused by tidal movements of the water. However, we are quite familiar with the dangers of strong winds. If you have plans to paddle in the ocean though, especially in areas like the San Juan Islands that have strong tidal currents that develop among the islands, it is really important that you understand how these tide rips develop, where they develop, and learn to avoid them if you don't have the skills to paddle through them.

Whitewater paddling skills as well as rough water handling skills are very useful when kayaking in a tide rip. While this story is about a capsize and near tragedy, tidal currents can be used to your advantage when you understand them, and skilled paddlers often seek out tide rips for play opportunities. A tide rip is an area in which a tidal current is typically deflected by land masses and accelerated causing an area of rapid, confused currents and rougher water.

Have you had an experience paddling in a tide rip? Was it for fun, or did you find yourself struggling in unexpectedly rough water? How did things turn out?


Monday, October 18, 2010

More Thoughts on the Ferry Rescue in Chapter 17

In Chapter 17, there is a short sidebar article by Christopher Cunningham entitled, "Paddling in the Lee." As I promised in my previous blog post, I'd like to take some time to consider this aspect of the story in more depth. Not fully understanding the concept of paddling in the lee contributed to the incident in this chapter as well as several other incidents throughout the book, "Deep Trouble". Paddlers found themselves suddenly facing conditions well beyond their abilities and experience because they made a 'go-no go' decision based on the conditions they observed 'in the lee' of a shoreline. They did not realize that there would be a significant escalation in the severity of the conditions once they left the protection of the wind shadow.

In order to better judge conditions on the water, it is helpful to understand how waves are formed. Waves develop as wind passes over water. The friction of the wind against the water's surface transfers some of the wind energy into the water. The water begins to move and waves start to develop. The waves will continue to grow based on three factors: 1. Wind Speed (how strong the wind is), 2. Wind Duration (how long the wind has been blowing in that direction), and 3. Fetch (the distance which the wind can travel over the water). So a 30-mph wind will create bigger waves than a 10-mph wind. A 30-mph wind that started 3 seconds ago has no time in which to develop large waves, but after 12 hours those waves will be much larger. Finally, a 30-mph wind blowing offshore will have very little in the way of noticeable waves next to the shore, but five miles offshore the waves will be much larger because the wind has had more distance to travel over the water.

When a wind blows over a land form and then out onto the water (an offshore wind), there is an area on the water next to the shore that is somewhat protected from the wind and its effects. This is referred to as the lee. Depending on the height of the land in relation to the water's surface, there can be a significant amount of protected water, or very little. If you are paddling at the base of tall cliffs, this protected area could be quite tranquil even with a gale force wind raging over your head. On the other hand, there will be almost no reduction in wind speed or protection from the wind, if you are paddling next to a flat, sandy island with no trees or vegetation. Someone who is camped on a pocket beach at the base of large cliffs might be tempted to go out paddling based on the calm conditions seen on the water near camp, but as soon as that person leaves the protection of the cliffs, he could immediately find himself in a maelstrom of wind and rough water making it very difficult, if not impossible, to turn around and head back into the protected water at the base of the cliffs.

Add tidal or river currents to this mix and conditions can become even more confused. When wind is blowing in the same direction as a current, the waves will appear to flatten out somewhat. On the other hand, a wind blowing in opposition to a water current will cause the waves to steepen and appear larger. If the waves are large enough, they may even begin to break. For paddlers, breaking waves are generally more dangerous than non-breaking waves because they have the power to knock a kayak over. When paddlers capsize in non-breaking waves, it is usually a case of the paddler losing his/her balance perhaps due to a lack of skill or experience. But in breaking waves, the wave is releasing energy and can very easily knock the kayak itself over unless the paddler takes appropriate preventative measures (aggressively bracing into the wave). Paddlers need to be aware of the possibility of breaking waves developing in shallow water, at the mouths of rivers, and anywhere that tidal currents may be running in opposition to the prevailing wind direction.

Beginning paddlers and people who have limited experience on the ocean are often unfamiliar with these situations and the way that they can cause conditions to change suddenly and rapidly. The paddlers in Chapter 17 (and several other chapters in the book), made their decisions about whether to paddle or stay on shore based on the conditions they saw in front of them, not realizing how the severity of those conditions would change quickly. Once they found themselves in the area of deteriorating conditions, their skills were not adequate to control the kayaks, prevent capsize, or perform the necessary rescues.

This summer, we had a kayaking tragedy on Lake Michigan that involved a little girl who was quickly blown off-shore by strong winds into the rougher water farther out. While it was reported that the water near shore was calm, once this little girl found herself beyond the protection of the land, she was unable to paddle the kayak back toward shore.

Have you taken the time to really understand wave formation and the effect of wind and current on waves? Have you ever found yourself in rapidly deteriorating conditions that were beyond your skill level? As the terms "lee" and "weather" can sometimes be a little confusing depending on the context in which they are being used, I recommend that you read the short article "Lee versus Weather" in the book, "The Complete Sea Kayaker's Handbook" by Shelley Johnson.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Chapter 17: Ferry Rescue in the San Juans (part 1)

George Gronseth discusses a kayaking trip in which 4 paddlers in two tandem kayaks end up needing to be rescued by a ferry in the San Juan Islands of Washington state. Under the "Lessons Learned" section, there is mention of several contributing factors in this incident: not having a VHF/weather radio, inadequate rescue practice, need for improved paddling and bracing skills, poor judgment in having gone out on the water in the first place, and the lack of buoyancy in a flooded tandem kayak.

The suggestions is made that using 'sea socks' might have made a difference when the first capsized kayak became so swamped with water that it could not be paddled. Matt Broze writes a short sidebar article about the use of sea socks in tandem kayaks. I suspect that many kayakers are not familiar with sea socks as they are not very common, are difficult to find available for sale, and are rarely used by most kayakers. Skin-on-frame paddlers usually end up having to make their own sea socks to use on their home-built kayaks.

Sea socks look kind of like a nylon version of the potato sack you use in a potato sack race with a bungee cord that goes around the opening. You sit inside the sea sock when you are sitting in the cockpit of your kayak. The bungee cord on the opening goes around the outside of the cockpit coaming to hold the sea sock in place and keep water from flooding the inside of the kayak in the event of a capsize and wet exit. They do a good job increasing buoyancy by reducing the volume of water that can enter a kayak. Unfortunately, they are not very comfortable to paddle in, especially in warm weather. The photo above shows a sea sock that is not currently installed in a kayak.

While many of us may have paddled tandem kayaks (they are commonly used by outfitters on guided trips because of their stability), it is unlikely that you have had an opportunity to practice wet exits and rescues in a tandem. It is also unlikely that you were using sea socks. If you have paddled with a sea sock, please share your experience and your opinions. I'm sure it would be enlightening for the many kayakers who have not had this experience.

It is not easy to find information about how to do rescues in tandem kayaks. Many books on kayaking simply omit the subject. You probably don't know a lot of people who own tandem sea kayaks and who would let you practice rescues with them. Even as an instructor, I have to admit that I was never required to practice or demonstrate tandem rescues as part of my certification in either the British Canoe Union (BCU) or American Canoe Association (ACA) instructor training systems. I did my first tandem rescue practice as part of a YMCA sea kayaking trip that I assisted on in the San Juan Islands back in 1993. I did a few more as part of some pre-trip practice when I was an assistant guide for a trip in the Apostle Islands with Wilderness Inquiry.

I've found only one book that addresses tandem kayak rescues in a meaningful way ("Sea Kayak Rescue" by Roger Schumann & Jan Shriner) and have seen one DVD that spends time demonstrating recovery techniques for tandems ("University of Sea Kayaking-Capsize Recoveries and Rescue Techniques"). Considering the amount of kayaking literature and video out there, that's not much.

Surprisingly, I had two private classes this summer in which the students specifically requested that we practice wet exits and recoveries/rescues in tandem kayaks. If you paddle a tandem kayak in locations where the conditions can get rough enough to capsize a kayak, I would suggest that you do the same. Find an instructor who can work with you to find recovery techniques and equipment modifications that will work with your tandem and make you safer on the water. The group of 4 paddlers in this chapter were very lucky to be in the vicinity of a ferry that was able to offer a rescue. That's not generally something we can count on as a backup plan in the event of a capsize.

There was one other aspect of this incident that I think bears further discussion, and that is the concept of how conditions change when you are in the lee of a land form, or when wind blows with or against a current. Since this topic is large enough for a separate blog, I think I'm going to do just that and address it in my next post. In the meantime, I'm going to borrow a phrase from a friend and fellow kayak instructor, Dick Silberman.

"Paddle safe"


Friday, September 17, 2010

Chapter 15 Revisited

By sheer coincidence, the most recent issue of "Sea Kayaker" magazine (October 2010) has an article written by Saul Kinderis about the ill-fated kayak trip in the San Juan Islands in which his friend, Larry Kaiser, capsized and would most likely have died had he not been wearing Saul's drysuit. This is the same story that George Gronseth writes about in Chapter 15 of "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble", "Saved by a Drysuit." Saul gives his description of the story, but perhaps more importantly, he talks about how that incident changed his attitude towards, and philosophy of sea kayaking. In addition to the recent "Sea Kayaker" article, the story was featured as an episode on the Discovery Channel series, "I Shouldn't Be Alive," in 2005. If you haven't seen the program, I have included a link below.

"I Shouldn't Be Alive" episode

Good judgment comes from experience. And our most instructive experiences usually come from surviving episodes of bad judgment. I think it's safe to say that in this case, Saul gained a great deal of good judgment as a result of this experience that involved an incredible amount of bad judgment.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Chapter 16: Vanished

I don't really care to dwell on the issue of the disappearance of the lone kayaker, Bryan Maybee. Certainly, there are things we know about the incident that seem to indicate poor choices on the part of the paddler, but because he disappeared and the body was not recovered, we will never really know for sure what happened. We could speculate, but the possible scenarios could cover everything from being caught in rough water to being abducted by aliens (neither of which can be proved or disproved). So instead, I'd like to focus on the issue of interacting with wildlife on the water.

One of the things that many of us really enjoy about kayaking is the opportunity to observe birds, fish, marine mammals, and many other creatures that are drawn to the waters where we paddle. A satisfying and successful interaction between humans and animals should meet two criteria:

1. The paddler needs to stay safe.
2. The animal should be left safe and undisturbed.

While kayakers do face certain risks from wildlife attacks (great white sharks, bears), in most cases, it is the animals who are more likely to be harmed by encounters with humans.

For the most part, there are only a very few actual laws that govern the actions of people when observing wildlife. In the sidebar article, Chris Amato discusses the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act. The kayakers in the above video are obviously much closer than 100 yards. If you are more than 100 yards away and a marine mammal chooses to come closer to you, you have not violated the MMPA. However, it is considered to be very poor practice to intentionally park yourself directly in the path of the animals knowing that they will need to come very close to you as they pass. You should be setting yourself up in a location which parallels the animals direction of travel.

Here in the Midwest where I paddle, there are practically no marine mammals in our waters. We do need to be aware of some of the endangered species, particularly birds nesting on islands and shores where we might want to land or launch.

However, one other piece of legislation that kayakers should be aware of is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell birds. It grants full protection to live and dead birds as well as bird parts such as feathers, eggs, and nests. There are currently over 800 birds on this list of protected migratory birds including many that people might personally consider nuisances and pests. When we are kayaking, we should attempt to avoid disturbing birds that are perched on breakwalls, jettties, or on shore, or water birds that are swimming. As mentioned by Chris Amato, every time we disturb a bird or animal requiring it to fly, swim, or otherwise move away from us, we are causing it to use up some of its precious energy reserve that will likely be needed for mating, migrating, hunting, and/or staying warm in a cold climate.

It probably isn't possible to avoid disturbing every single bird (or animal) we see while kayaking, but when you notice larger groups of animals congregated in the water or on shore, it should be our practice to move away from them and give them a wide berth as we pass. If an animal reacts to your presence, you are too close. If you desire a closer look, bring binoculars.

What wildlife experiences have you had in your kayak? What is your general practice when you see animals on or near where you are paddling? Have you ever felt that you were in danger from an animal encounter while kayaking?


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chapter 15: Saved by a Drysuit

I can't stress enough the importance of wearing a drysuit when paddling in cooler water temperatures. I wear mine pretty much any time the water is less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, when the air temperatures are cold as well, or when I know I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the water getting wet like when teaching rolling or playing in the surf.

I think it is pretty obvious that the two men in this incident had no business being out paddling in this environment with the level of inexperience that they both had. George Gronseth pulls no punches when he recounts all the mistakes that were made by this pair of novices. These two racked up many more mistakes in this story than most of the chapters in this book that end in fatalities, and yet. . . they both survived. Why? Saul was lucky enough to make it to shore, but Larry survived several hours in the water and a cold night marooned on an island thanks to the drysuit he was wearing.

A drysuit is no substitute for developing the kayaking skills, knowledge, and experience needed for paddling in a marine (or Great Lakes) environment. However, skills, knowledge, and experience may not be enough if you end up getting dumped into cold water. A drysuit may seem like a very expensive piece of gear, but it can be really cheap life insurance in the event of an unexpected capsize and swim. I've taken an extended swim in an arctic river and gone swimming in the surf in January on Lake Michigan. I know the value of a drysuit from personal experience.

I'm sharing a couple more YouTube videos that I found showing the difference that wearing a drysuit can make when immersed in very cold water. Do you disagree? Have you ever worn a drysuit? Do you have any personal experiences to share?


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chapter 14: Surf Zone Accidents

A common theme in the two kayak surfing incidents at Kalaloch Beach related in this chapter relate to swimming in through the surf. This is a skill that I don't see very many kayakers practicing, myself included. I have had to do it a couple of times for certification courses and have taken a couple short swims in through the surf over the years, but I have also seen some otherwise very skilled paddlers struggle while trying to swim in to shore in moderate conditions.

This video shows one method for swimming with your boat and paddle, but this would be a dangerous method to use when swimming in towards shore through breaking surf. The kayak should be kept in front of you (closer to shore than you are). A waterlogged kayak being rolled around in the surf can cause lethal injuries if it is slammed into your head or body. I'm not sure a back-stroke such as that being demonstrated would be very effective in the surf even if you weren't towing a kayak. George Gronseth talks about using a feathered paddle to perform a backstroke. In other words, you need to aggressively use your arms (or paddle) to make headway in rough conditions. Also, practicing in a calm pool does not prepare you for swimming in through surf. This video is only useful for showing a recreational kayaker how to swim to shore after capsizing a rec kayak on a calm lake.

Have you tried swimming in through surf? Did you swim with your paddle or did you ditch the paddle? Was this an intentional practice run, or was it after an unintentional capsize and failed re-entry attempt? What are your thoughts on the chapter?


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chapter 13: Happy Endings

Not every incident related in the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble" results in a death or serious injury. In this chapter, a whitewater kayaker goes out to assist a sea kayaker in trouble. Although the whitewater paddler was unable to complete the rescue on his own, he was able to signal for help to his wife on shore who contacted the Coast Guard. A nearby fisherman heard the request for assistance that was broadcast by the Coast Guard and came to pick up the swimming sea kayaker. In the second incident related in this chapter, the sea kayakers were able to successfully complete an assisted rescue following a capsize in the clapotis along a breakwall. A third assisted rescue was completed successfully despite the lack of deck lines which made it harder for the swimmer to get back up on the deck of the kayak.

Practically any kayaker who has been paddling for a number of years can relate personal stories of capsizes and rescues that occurred and were successfully completed. Most of these incidents make for interesting story telling later and provide experiences that we can learn from as we move forward. In my twenty-two years of paddling, I have had many such experiences. A capsize into ice cold water ended without serious injury because my son was dressed for the water temperature, nearby paddlers performed a quick rescue, and spare dry clothing and fire-starting materials were close at hand on shore. Many years later, I learned how useful a tow rope can be for retrieving a kayak that blew away from my friend following a capsize. Although it was winter on Lake Michigan, my friend was in a drysuit and was wearing his PFD. Kayak and paddler were quickly reunited without further incident. On a sunny warm day, a paddle snapped in half while a teenager was making a crossing between island on Lake Huron in one-foot swells. We grabbed the spare paddle and quickly continued the crossing.

What experiences have you had on the water that ended happily? What did you learn from them? Did you make any changes as a result of the experience?


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chapter 12: Double Fatality in Prince William Sound

One of the things that I have always liked about the sport of sea kayaking is that there is so much to learn, so many skills to master and such a wide knowledge base to comprehend. Besides learning how to perform the strokes, braces, rolls, and rescues, you need to become an expert in navigation, weather forecasting, hydrology and wave formation, geography, first aid and human physiology, survival skills, group psychology, handling stressful situations, and the list could go on and on. There are a lifetime of skills to learn and improve upon.

In chapter 12, we see the tragic results of a kayaking trip that was attempted by a group of almost complete novices who were lacking adequate skills and knowledge for all but the most benign paddling conditions. They were at least cognizant of the fact that they did not have a lot of skill and experience and seemingly had planned an appropriate trip, but when the boat captain who was going to pick them up had to make changes to the plan, the group failed to realize that they were not up to the challenges that this would create.

While the list of safety gear that was carried by the group was inadequate, in my opinion, it was mostly the lack of skill paddling in following seas and the inability to anticipate the wave patterns that were likely to develop that really caused the two deaths. Having better immersion clothing may have given the two victims more time to swim to shore after their capsize, but had the group recognized the danger early they would have stayed off the water in the first place.

In a sidebar article about "Paddling in Wind", Matt Broze correctly notes that paddling in a following sea is one of the trickiest conditions that paddlers face. It is even worse for beginners who lack experience handling these conditions. Broaching is likely and the need for bracing skills is extremely high.

In this video you can see how quickly the paddler goes from surfing towards shore to being turned sideways. And because he does not quickly edge his kayak toward the wave along with a strong brace into the wave, he gets rolled over into a capsize. This particular paddler knows how to roll, but the paddlers in the story did not and so found themselves in the water once their boats went over.

In this second video, notice how the paddler leans into the wave with a brace when he gets turned sideways preventing him from getting rolled over towards the shore. The shorter surf kayak that he is using is less prone to a full broach than the longer sea kayak in the first video, but the sea kayaker could have used the same skills to avoid getting knocked over by that first wave.

Two things come to mind as I read this chapter, things that I often tell my beginning sea kayak students:
1. It's hard to know how much you don't know when you are first getting started.
2. It's better to be on shore wishing you were on the water, than to be on the water wishing you were on shore.

What thoughts do you have after reading this chapter?


Friday, June 11, 2010

Chapter 11: Run In With A Great White

Ken Kelton and Mike Chin went out to kayak near Ano Nuevo Island along the California coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Paddling among the seals and sea lions that congregate in this area, Ken's kayak was attacked by a great white shark. The shark bit all the way through the back of the boat and punctured one of the float bags. Luckily he stayed upright and after the shark discovered that Ken's kayak wasn't a tasty seal and left, Ken and Mike were able to paddle to a nearby beach before the damaged kayak filled with water and sank.

Shark attacks are relatively rare, but if you want to try to avoid an encounter like this, you need to be thinking of things from the shark's perspective. Great white sharks eat fish and seals, and anything else they can find swimming around in the water. If you decide to paddle around areas with a lot of potential shark food, you are at greater risk of being attacked, especially when you consider that a kayak with paddle blades splashing on either side of the hull looks a lot like a swimming seal from below.

When doing some searching on the internet for shark attacks on kayaks, it was not surprising to me that most of the incidents I found on YouTube were related to people fishing out of kayaks. Not only do the kayaks sometimes look like prey, but the bait and the fish that the fishermen are trying to catch are also probably attractive to the sharks.

I'm not ready to give up kayaking in the ocean because there might be sharks, but it is worth thinking about what paddlers can do to reduce their risk. Historically, the number of shark attacks worldwide is still relatively low when compared to other dangers in our lives. But as we deplete the sharks' food source with pollution and overfishing, it's not surprising that they may go after anything that looks even remotely like a meal.

Have you had any personal encounters with sea life that left you feeling a bit scared? Are you concerned about sharks or any other dangerous wildlife when you go kayaking? Have you taken any specific precautions to reduce your risk? Please share!


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Chapter 10: The Phantom Barge

Alison Armstrong writes this chapter of the book about an incident that she and a friend experienced while sailing their kayak on the Hudson River in New York after dark. Their kayak was run down by a barge that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Notice how quiet the barge in the video is, how fast the vessel is moving, and how far back the pilot house is from the front of the barge.

In the next video, take a look at the wall of water in front of the barge, and how big this raft of six barges is. It would be very difficult for the captain of the tug pushing the barges to see anything as small as a kayaker.

It's also important to remind paddlers that we do not have the right of way over a barge. In this case, we are not the vessel having less ability to maneuver. In the story by Alison Armstrong, she and her friend, Ken were in a shipping channel. Kayaks in a busy shipping channel is the equivalent of riding a tricycle on the freeway. Add to that the fact that this happened at night when visibility was limited even more. Alison and Ken had running lights and illuminated their sail with a marine flashlight. The barge in the story may have been operating illegally, but would that have been much consolation to anyone had Alison and/or Ken ended up dead in the accident?

What are your thoughts about paddling at night? Kayak sailing? Paddling in areas of large boat traffic? What experiences have you had?


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Chapter 9: Rough Passages" and a Modern Tragedy

I just became aware of two kayaking fatalities near Portland, Maine. As it happens, the next chapter of "Sea Kayaker, Deep Trouble" also deals with a fatality. "Chapter 9: Rough Passages" relates the story of David Kelley, age 26, who died in 1987. The story I read in "The Portland Press Herald" is about 2 young women, Irina McEntee and Carissa Ireland, who were found dead after being reported overdue from a kayak outing on Casco Bay on May 16, 2010.

In both cases, there are no witnesses who can give us a definitive account of what led to the deaths. Perhaps nothing short of staying on shore would have saved any of these three young people. However, it is apparent that there were some big strikes against all of them once they decided to set out on their trips. The water temperature in Rosario Strait in 1987 was around 45 degrees. The water in Casco Bay in 2010 was about 46 degrees. All three were wearing PFD's, but none of the three paddlers was dressed for immersion in such cold water. None of them was wearing a wetsuit, let alone a drysuit. It does not appear that any of them were equipped with the means to summon help.

At this point, the two stories diverge. The sea conditions for David Kelley were extremely bad, but he had a kayak that was suited for open water paddling and had practiced solo rescues, at least in a pool. There was evidence that he attempted to rescue himself at least once. On the other hand, the two young women in Maine were using kayaks that should not have been out on open water, even in the relatively mild 1-foot seas that were encountered last Sunday. The kayak models were not identified in the story, but were described as being "12-foot". There isn't any kayak of that length that belongs on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Even with practice, it is really not possible to perform reliable rescues with short, recreational kayaks. At this time, it is not known if the women had tried to perform any rescues.

In my mind, there is reason to believe that all three of the kayakers had a false sense of security that betrayed them and ultimately cost them their lives. David Kelley had been paddling for two years, had paddled the boat he was using several times in the past, learned how to roll in a pool in just 15 minutes, and had practiced his rescues successfully in a pool. Irina McEntee and Carissa Ireland were making a 1-mile crossing from the summer home of McEntee's family. The McEntee family had been coming to their summer home for 10 years and it was reported that the whole family liked to kayak. I suspect that this family had been using these kayaks for several years and since most recreational kayaks give a strong feeling of stability in calm conditions, Irina was emboldened to take her friend out on an ill-advised open water crossing assuming that nothing bad could happen.

At this point, I think that we can safely say that no matter what the problem was that occurred last Sunday off the coast of Maine, the women and their kayaks were not equipped to handle it. If you wish to dispute the following assertion on my part, there is a comment section for this blog and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this point. Most paddlers do not have a death wish and are not actively seeking to take excessive risk (although this may have been an attraction for David Kelley, we don't know). However, a lack of experience, instruction, and knowledge is usually to blame when someone finds themselves struggling to survive a dangerous situation. Many people buy recreational kayaks at big box stores where they receive absolutely no information on the need for training and additional safety gear. I would encourage you to read the blog post by Willi Gutmann about the dangers of buying recreational kayaks at places other than paddle sports stores.

Do you disagree? I'm not a fan of legislating safety, but how do we help to prevent the sport of kayaking from getting a bad reputation as a result of incidents like the ones in "Sea Kayaker-Deep Trouble" or the accident in Maine? Your thoughts?


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Chapter 8: Long Swims

Are you prepared to spend a long time in the water when you go kayaking? Richard Hudson had no intentions of spending any time in the water as he was finishing up his 1,700-mile trip down the Yukon River in 1986. He had just 40 miles to go to get to Nome where he planned to end the trip when he got hit broadside by a breaking wave and was knocked over. He managed to brace back up but got knocked over again before deciding to wet exit.

Richard was pretty well prepared with gear and had quite a bit of paddling experience, but still found himself swimming in 45-degree water in a remote location. Without getting into what he might have done differently to avoid finding himself in this situation, I think the important question we all need to ask ourselves is "How would I handle having to swim in 45-degree (or just cold) water if I was unable to re-enter my kayak?" (And believe me, there are plenty of reasons why even the most skilled paddler might find him/herself in the water unable to get back into a kayak.)

Have you gone swimming in the clothing that you paddle in? What were you wearing? How long were you in the water? How cold was the water?

If you don't know what to wear, I suggest you read my blog posts on "Dressing for Paddling - Parts 1, 2, & 3" on my website,

If you haven't taken the time to test out your cold water paddling gear by taking an intentional swim, now is a good time (at least here in the upper Midwest). The water is still pretty cold, but the air temperature is a little more moderate. Take your swim near shore and time how long you can stay in the water before you start to get too cold. Make sure you have a warm building or car to go into when you're done. It would also be a good idea to have someone standing by on shore to keep an eye on you just in case. Let's hear your results.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Chapter 7: Sea Caves, Arches, and Narrow Passages

After reading this chapter, the main theme that struck me was how "familiarity can breed laxity" when it comes to safety. On this particular trip, Joel chooses to go without a PFD and fails to use any flotation bags in the kayak, the assumption being that he won't be capsizing in these conditions.

I found this video showing what happens to kayaks without adequate flotation. These girls were in calm, shallow water, not far from shore. Imagine you are in ocean swells, deep and cold water, unable to re-enter your kayak. This video approximates the position that Joel's kayak would have been in after he exited the boat without any flotation bags or gear bags to provide buoyancy.

Have you ever had to rescue a kayak that lacked buoyancy? What was the situation and what was the outcome? Have you ever tried to make your kayak sink in order to determine the weaknesses in its system of flotation? As a kayaking instructor, I've seen bulkheads, hatches, and float bags all fail in one way or another. Luckily, most were in the calm, protected waters of an organized kayaking class.

One of the sidebar articles talks about a method of rescuing a submerged kayak. Having had to perform this rescue as part of past kayak training classes, I can tell you that it is very difficult even in calm conditions. I can't imagine having to try this in any sizable waves. You can see a more complete explanation of the Curl Rescue in "The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking" by Derek Hutchinson.

Eventually, Joel and his group had to abandon the sinking kayak and get to the other side of Wouwer Island to find a safe landing area. The solution that this group chose to use when faced with having 4 kayakers and only 3 single kayaks was to squeeze the two women into one of the boats that had a larger cockpit so that Joel could get in and paddle one of the kayaks.

What do you think you would do if you suddenly found yourself in a situation short one kayak out on the water far from shore? Have you ever tried paddling with another person laying on the back deck of your kayak or sitting in your cockpit?

The weather and water are beginning to get warmer here in Wisconsin. Perhaps it's time to go out and do some experimenting with these techniques in some protected water before finding ourselves offshore on Lake Michigan with a sinking kayak. What do you think?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Risks Compounded

This chapter contains a lot of the mistakes that are commonly found in the accident accounts in other chapters of this book as well as in articles that continue to appear in magazines like "Sea Kayaker." In this story,we have inexperienced paddlers, paddler not wearing a PFD, underdressed for water and air temperatures, failure to get a weather forecast, paddling with unfamiliar equipment, paddling in conditions beyond the skill levels of the paddlers, etc. What caught my attention in this story was the description of the difficulties that the two men had with self-rescue as related to the kayaks that they were using.

While Matt Broze does not specifically identify the manufacturer of the two single kayaks, I'm pretty sure that these were Pacific Water Sports Sea Otters. Pacific Water Sports was a store and a kayak company owned by Lee Moyer in Seattle back in the 1980's and 90's. The kayak was a little over 16-feet long and about 25" wide making it quite stable. The main problem with the two kayaks in the story was that the flotation or buoyancy in the boats was not reliable enough, especially in the bow. The Sea Otter had only one bulkhead behind the seat. The bow required a flotation bag to maintain its buoyancy. Since this group had been camping, the bow was being used for storage of camping gear that was stored in dry bags. Bob had one float bag in the bow, as well, but it was not tied in or secured to the kayak. When Bob and Robert capsized, the items in the bow that were providing flotation easily floated out of the cockpit. Some of the items were retrieved and replaced, others were blown away by the wind and lost. When the rear hatch on Bob's boat was accidentally dislodged during his attempt to re-enter the kayak, the boat quickly lost most of its buoyancy and Bob was forced to hang on to a large drybag as flotation since the kayak had only about 18" of the stern that remained above water.

Most sea kayaks today have bulkheads in both the bow and stern which addresses some of the problems that Bob and Robert had when they capsized and found themselves trying to clean up what we sometimes refer to as a "yard sale" (loose gear floating all over and blowing away). Unfortunately, I see many "recreational kayaks" that still do not have adequate flotation in the bow and in many cases have hatch covers that would easily get knocked off in a capsize. Despite the fact that both men were able to self-rescue and climb back on to the boats, the lack of buoyancy created major problems and might easily have led to fatalities had Robert not been so fit and if emergency responders had not been able to get to Bob as quickly as they did. It seems to me that many paddlers don't give much thought to the issues of flotation and buoyancy until after they find themselves in trouble with a very heavy, swamped boat full of water.

What means of flotation do you have in your kayak?
Is the amount of buoyancy adequate for someone of your size?
Have you ever tried swamping your kayak to see?
Have you ever tried paddling a swamped kayak?
How easily do your rubber hatch covers come off if you put your elbow in the middle and lean on them as you are re-entering your kayak from the water?
How secure are your bulkheads and do you back up your hatches with any additional flotation?
Do you feel that it's better to use flotation bags or bulkheads to provide buoyancy for your kayak?
Do you consider some kayaks to be inappropriate for use in certain conditions or is it OK to use any kayak anywhere as long as it floats?

What do you think?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Open Coast, or, All Your Eggs in One Kayak

I recommend watching this video of US Coast Guard crews doing surf drills at the mouth of the Quillayute River which is the location of the incident described in this chapter.

Paddling the open coast, especially at the mouths of rivers, requires not only excellent skills, but you really need to understand the dynamics of currents, tides, winds, swells, and breaking waves because all of these are present and interacting to create potential chaos. If you can find an old copy of the book "Waves and Beaches" by Willard Bascomb, I strongly recommend that you take the time to read it. I found it to be very helpful in understanding the physics of the surf zone before I began to venture into it myself. Matt Broze also has a very good sidebar article in this chapter talking about paddling on the open coast and addressing wind, waves, and surf specifically.

I'm wondering what experiences you might have had in wind, waves, surf, and river currents. I know that over the years, I've had waves implode my sprayskirt, wash my spare paddle off my deck, crack my paddle blades, as well as give me the most exciting rides of my life. Learning to whitewater kayak over the past nine years has also helped me a great deal with understanding currents along with improving my rough water handling skills.

What comes to your mind as you read this chapter? Please share.


Oh, BTW, I noticed that my chapter numbers did not match the chapter numbers in the book. Apparently, when Rick started this blog, he assigned chapter 1 to the "Introduction" chapter. I'm going to leave the chapter numbers off my titles for a while to avoid confusion. Then I'll pick up using the numbers and make sure that they match the chapter numbers in the book. :)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Chapter 5: A Tale of Two Rescues

Back in November 1985, Dan Corrigall and Andy Bennett attempted to make a 3-mile crossing from Eagle Harbor to Bowen Island north of Vancouver. Since the story is featured in "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble" it's safe to assume that the crossing was not uneventful. After reading the chapter including a sidebar article about another kayaker who found himself having to rescue a drunk power boater, I think it's a good time to discuss some important questions relating to rescues.

In the incident with Dan and Andy, both men wore wetsuits and wool sweaters. Andy carried some Skyblazer flares, a towline, and an inflatable paddle float. Both men had a reliable roll and were described in the story as being "experienced" kayakers. Unfortunately, neither Dan nor Andy were familiar with the weather patterns in the area and they didn't get a weather forecast before setting out. Extremely strong winds that developed during the crossing caused Dan to capsize and fail in his attempts to roll. Ultimately, it was the vigilance of residents on shore who saw the men launch, recognized the danger, and alerted authorities of the need for a rescue that prevented a tragedy.

I think that having a reliable roll is certainly a very good thing for any kayaker, but in this case, there appears to have been too much reliance on this one rescue method to the exclusion of any other. When Dan's roll failed because the wind was pushing his kayak back down, he seems to have exhausted his "bag of tricks". It was unclear to me whether Dan was able to roll on both sides. From the description, I would think that the roll would have been successful if performed from the other side. When you try to roll up "into" a strong wind, the winds can literally keep you down. When rolling up on the side the wind is coming from, the wind catches the deck of the kayak as it comes up out of the water and assists the completion of the roll.

Despite wearing a wetsuit, Dan became very cold and found it very difficult to assist in his own rescue. Dan was not immediately hypothermic, but he was suffering from what Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht would call "cold icapacitation". Anyone paddling in water colder than 70 degrees should take the time to become familiar with the "1-10-1 Rule". Check out

Andy was concerned about feeling unstable while trying to help Dan. The author, Matt Broze, talks about adding weight to a kayak to improve stability and to make a kayak easier to turn in the wind, something that may have prevented Dan from capsizing in the first place. The danger is in having that added weight shift unexpectedly. A friend of mine has invented a way to add weight to a kayak that is kept securely in place even during a roll. Check out www.paddling to see how this system works.

Both the incident with Dan and Andy and the other story of Gord Pincock and his rescue of a drunk powerboater emphasize the need to practice a variety of rescue techniques before they are actually needed and to pay attention to the safety and stability of the person attempting to do the rescue. There are so many possible discussion topics relating to these two incidents. I'm throwing a few questions out there to get the discussion started.

1) How many methods of rescue/recovery do you feel confident in performing?
2) What are the roughest conditions in which you have practiced your rescues?
3) What, if any, equipment do you carry to assist you in your solo or assisted rescues?
4) Do you carry a spare paddle, use a paddle leash, or both?

The other blog that I write on my company website will be addressing the topic of signalling devices this week, so I invite you to visit

Looking forward to getting some discussions started.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chapter 4: Of Risk, Knowledge, Choice... and Special Vulnerability

Chapter 4 is pretty short since the only person involved in this incident did not live to give his account of what happened. We, and the author, are left to make assumptions on the basis of what we do know. This is frequently the case when we hear stories in the news about solo kayakers that are reported missing on the water and then turn up dead presumably having drowned. While the assumptions may not always be totally accurate for a given story, I think there are still some limited lessons that can be learned from what we do know.

In November 1984, Carsten Gursche went out kayaking on Vancouver's outer harbor. There was a strong westerly wind of 20 knots and fairly steep waves. No one saw Carsten capsize, but some windsurfers noticed his upside down kayak in the water as they were packing up to go home and called the authorities. His body was found washed up on shore about 12 hours later.

What we do know for sure, and that all kayakers should learn from, is that Carsten did not wear a PFD and he was not dressed for the water temperature since he was not wearing a wetsuit. In a sidebar article in this chapter entitled, "Sudden Drowning Syndrome", Matt Broze talks about the physical effects on a paddler who capsizes into cold water without proper thermal protection. This is a subject that I have recently blogged about myself on my website, Sudden unexpected immersion in cold water, especially when one is not wearing a PFD and a wetsuit or drysuit is almost a certain recipe for tragedy. I encourage you to check out the website, "Cold Water Boot Camp" to see videos of real people being subjected to immersion in cold water in a controlled experiment. I would also recommend that you read the book, "Hypothermia, Frostbite, and other Cold Injuries" by Gordon G. Giesbrecht and James A. Wilkerson, especially chapter 5 on cold water immersion. The information by Matt Broze still appears to be pretty accurate despite being over 13 years old, but since the subject of cold shock is still relatively new and unknown to many people, it is good to get the latest and most up-to-date information. Dr. Giesbrecht is somtimes referred to as "Professor Popsicle" for his research into the effects of cold water on the human body. I think that all kayakers, as well as all boaters, should know the meaning of his "1 minute, 10 minutes, 1 hour" slogan which refers to the amounts of time you have after falling into cold water before you become incapacitated and drown.

While it would appear that Carsten Gursche may have lacked sufficient skills and experience and may have been using a kayak that lacked adequate flotation, I am somewhat hesitant to make those assumptions since there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that these were contributing causes to Carsten's death. It is perhaps safe to say that solo kayaking presents greater risks than paddling with a group. The margin for error is much slimmer when you go out by yourself.

I think that some discussion questions for this chapter would likely be;
1. Do you paddle alone sometimes or all the time? If so, how do you attempt to mitigate the risks associated with paddling alone?
2. Have you experienced any of the symptoms of "Cold Shock" when kayaking? What happened?
3. How seriously do you take the warning to "dress for the water temperature" or "dress for possible immersion?"
4. What do you wear when you go out paddling and how do you decide what to wear for a particular day trip?
5. Have you taken formal instruction or how have you attempted to develop your skills since becoming a kayaker?
6. Do you always wear your PFD? If not, why or on what basis do you make that decision?

I'm looking forward to hearing what other readers think about these questions, or perhaps other questions that may come to mind after reading chapter 4 of "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble".


Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 2: Another Lesson from the School of Hard Knocks

It's been awhile since Rick posted a blog about the first chapter of the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". Rick found himself suddenly too busy to complete the project, so he asked me to step in. I read this book back in the late 90's when it first came out, but it has been worthwhile for me to go back and re-read it over the years, and now again to remind myself of the lessons learned from the incidents that are related in the book.

Chapter 2 talks about a trip in July of 1984 that was planned for the west coast of Vancouver Island. It turned out to be a rather large group of paddlers, 16 people in 15 kayaks. Only a few had open water coastal kayaking experience, although most had whitewater experience. After spending 3 days near Hotsprings Cove, the group planned to move to another campsite taking a route that involved paddling in some more exposed conditions. Wind, breaking waves, and a change in weather conditions from warm sun to chilly fog all contributed to some problems, although thankfully, everyone came through the ordeal safe and sound with only one rescue required.

Frankly, as an instructor and a long-time sea kayaker, this is a pretty familiar story. As you read the account, I challenge you to identify the mistakes made by this group as well as the things that they did right. Then be honest, how often have you made these same mistakes or been part of a group that fell into some of the same traps? Most tragedies or near-tragedies happen as a result of a "chain of mistakes", many minor, that cascade into a really serious life-threatening situation. If any one of the links in that chain can be arrested, we end up with a good story and an adventure. In this case, I think the whitewater paddling experience of many in this group kept them upright in rougher seas. Whitewater paddling gives you much more opportunity to develop bracing skills and to refine your sense of balance. The only person to go over was the one with the least paddling experience.

To be fair, sea kayaking as we know it today, was really just coming out of its infancy in the mid 1980's. I started kayaking in 1988 and I know how much gear at that time was still more or less "home made". Equipment and safety techniques that we take for granted as being standard for any serious sea kayaker were, in many cases, still being tested and refined by the real-world experiences of paddlers. The tow belts that are so easily purchased and carried nowadays were not readily available in the mid 80's. Many of the pieces of safety gear that we now carry were developed to address problems that were identified after incidents like this were reported in publications like Sea Kayaker magazine back in the mid to late 80's.

There is also an interesting sidebar article in this chapter about dealing with fear. I think that this is an important topic that is too often neglected by instructors when teaching kayaking. We all deal with fears of one sort or another when learning to kayak or when paddling in conditions that, to us, are challenging. How we deal with those fears can have more impact on the outcome of a situation than the actual level of risk or danger that we are dealing with. If you claim that you have never had any fear, I don't think I want to paddle with you. You are either in serious denial, or you are not smart enough to identify actual risk. I'd really like to hear comments on this topic. When has fear impacted your paddling? How do you separate actual risk (rational fear) from perceived risk (irrational fears)? How do you prevent fear from escalating into panic?

I have many personal experiences over my two decades of kayaking that I am happy to share in this blog, but I'd like to hear what you're thinking before I start boring you with my take on everything. I'm looking forward to having some great discussions about all the stories in this book. I read all those original safety articles in Sea Kayaker magazine written by Matt Broze and George Gronseth long before the book came out. I respect and admire the work that the authors did and continue to do in advancing the sport of sea kayaking. Now it's time for you to jump in and let me know what you're thinking! Perhaps, where appropriate, Matt and George will grace us with their current perspectives.