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?