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?