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.