Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chapters 1-3: The Early Years

For the next several weeks (or months), we're going to be reading and discussing the book, "Crossing the Ditch" by James Castrission. This is the story of how the author and his friend, Justin Jones, successfully paddled across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in a custom built kayak. This adventure caused some controversy as it occurred shortly after the unsuccessful attempt by Andrew McAuley who died while making his crossing. I will move through the book chronologically by chapters, although I want to address larger questions that this story brings up, rather than rigidly adhering to the recounting of the trip.

In the first three chapters of his book, "Crossing the Ditch", the author talks about his childhood and early adult life as well as that of his paddling partner, Justin. Castrission seems to be trying to help us understand the answer to the question of "why". Why do some people seem drawn to take on these very difficult and dangerous challenges? What was driving him and his friend?

I think it is significant that James talks about the influence that his family vacations camping in Australia had on him. I used to work as a naturalist teaching environmental education programs to children. There is a strong indication that early experiences in the outdoors are important to the healthy development of a child physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Although some people might argue that kayaking across an ocean is not evidence of mental health, I think being outdoors in natural settings is something that we all need for our mental well-being. It concerns me that too many kids today are spending all their time indoors interacting in artificial environments on TV and computer screens. Would you agree or disagree?

How important do you think their early experiences were in pushing James and Justin towards attempting this crossing? Technology does play a large part in this story, and I will discuss that in future blogs, but does it concern you that we don't seem to see a lot of kids participating in paddle sports or really any human-powered outdoor pursuits? (ie. hiking, cross-country skiing, catching frogs at the pond?) What were your experiences in the outdoors as a child?

What other questions do these chapters bring up in your mind? I'm hoping we can get some good discussions started with other people giving their opinions rather than me being the only voice.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chapter 22: Carried to Safety

If I had written this chapter, I think I would have titled it, "Familiarity Breeds Contempt (or Complacency)". These two paddlers, whose names were withheld by request, should have known better than to get into this situation in the first place according to their supposed level of experience and skill. I simply can't fathom someone going out paddling in February in the Pacific Northwest without wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. And there were so many other pieces of gear that they should have had with them (tow rope, VHF radio, flares), any of which would have improved their situation. Thankfully, the outcome was positive and these two lived to paddle another day.

Since most of the lessons to be learned from this story were so seemingly obvious, I'd like to focus on one aspect that many paddlers tend to overlook when preparing for a trip. What will you do if you or another paddler loses a kayak? Have you given any thought to how you can prevent this from happening, or how you would deal with the situation if it occurs? It happens more easily than you might imagine. Short of sending out a distress message on a VHF radio, or shooting off emergency flares, I have compiled a short list of suggestions for equipment and skills that a sea kayaker should have to prevent or deal with just such an emergency.

  1. Practice wet exits to make sure you always hold on to your kayak and paddle.
  2. Consider using a paddle leash so that if you have either your kayak or paddle in hand, you are connected to both.
  3. Paddle with other people (you have fewer rescue options when you are alone).
  4. Wear a tow belt.
  5. Practice paddling with a swimmer on the back deck of your kayak.
Can you think of any other suggestions that you would add?

George Gronseth makes brief mention of using a tow rope to retrieve a kayak that has blown out of the grasp of the paddler. I can attest to how well this works in my own experience. A friend of mine capsized on a very windy day and lost contact with his kayak during the wet exit. In seconds, the boat was beyond his grasp. After checking to make sure he was OK and still had his paddle in hand, I was able to quickly paddle over to the vacant kayak and clip my tow rope to the bow before paddling back over to my friend who was calmly floating in his PFD and drysuit. Once I returned to my friend and had him grab on to my kayak, I pulled in the tow rope and retrieved his kayak in order to complete the rescue. Had I not had my tow belt, I would have most likely been paddling to shore with my friend on the back deck like "Smith" and "Jones". While tow belts may seem to be rather expensive pieces of gear, I strongly recommend that every sea kayaker invest in one and wear it on every trip!

While not as safe and convenient, even a decent length of rope would have solved the problem in this incident as "Smith" could have tied one end of the rope around the front carry handle of the loose kayak and then towed it back to where his friend was swimming. The other end of the rope could have been tied to the deck lines or bungees on Smith's kayak, Smith could have made a loop in the other end of the rope and put his arm through it, or he could have just held it in his hand on the paddle shaft as he paddled back.

This was the last chapter of the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". I'm sorry it took so long to complete the review and discussion of each chapter, but I hope that, like the book itself, the discussions helped encourage kayakers to think about the things that can go wrong when you go paddling and how to prevent yourself from ending up in those situations. My next post to this blog will begin a new book, "Crossing the Ditch" by James Castrission. This is the story of how James Castrission and his friend, Justin Jones, became the first kayakers to complete a crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. As their successful attempt came fairly soon after the tragic death of Andrew MacAuley while attempting the same feat, this book brings up some very interesting topics for discussion. I look forward to your thoughts.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Chapter 21: Ice Fall in Blackstone Bay

This accident is quite a bit different from most of the stories in the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". While George Gronseth chooses to focus on issues like the number of paddlers in a group and the lack of a VHF radio in the "Lessons Learned" section, I think there is an obvious lesson that was missed. Eugene Weschenfelder (who eventually died) and Susan Putt should never have been paddling in the spot where the accident occurred.

Having visited Alaska several times, I know how beautiful the glaciers can be. While it is possible to paddle right up to the base of many tidewater glaciers, the recommendations that I have always heard suggest that you should never go closer than a quarter mile to the face of a tidewater glacier. Ice falling from above is an obvious hazard (the hazard that killed Eugene) and a less obvious hazard is that of ice chunks breaking off from below the water and suddenly surfacing at the foot of the glacier. Even being on shore near calving glaciers has its risks as the falling or surfacing ice can create huge waves that break on the nearby shore. When camping near glaciers, you need to set your tents, kayaks, and equipment well back from the shoreline or you may find your tent inundated by water and your kayaks washed out into the bay.

A careful reading of the description of the incident indicates that Susan and Eugene were probably next to a rock cliff that was in close proximity to the actual face of the glacier. They may have thought they were safe because they were not directly in the line of calving ice. However, they failed to take into account the smaller pieces of ice that can and did fall from the top of the rock cliffs as the glacier was melting and moving.

Any accident becomes much more serious when help is going to be hours, if not days, away. Since glaciers are mostly located in remote, wilderness locations, kayakers should be taking extra precautions to avoid putting themselves in unnecessarily risky situations.

For anyone not familiar with calving glaciers, I have included some video that shows the beauty of this natural phenomenon. However, I think it's easy to see the potential danger for kayakers that might be paddling within a quarter mile of that ice face. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the scale of these glaciers since there is nothing in the picture for comparison, but many tidewater glaciers are hundreds to thousands of feet high above the water and even more thousands of feet of ice extend below the surface of the water.

I apologize for the fact that the video below is a commercial to get you to buy a DVD, but the footage of the calving glaciers along with the ice emerging from below was the best I could find on YouTube.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chapter 20: Lessons in Judgment

Reading this chapter reminds me that "years of paddling" does not equate to having acquired greater skill, experience, or better judgment. In other words, you are not an "experienced" kayaker just because you have been paddling for several years.

Case in point, my husband and I. We both started kayaking at the same time back in 1989. He is actually the person responsible for turning me from a canoeist into a kayaker. However, twenty-some years later, my husband is still a relative novice when it comes to his paddling skills. He is not, and never has been, interested in paddling in more challenging conditions. He is uncomfortable in large waves and doesn't care to learn to roll. That's OK. We just make sure that when the two of us go paddling, we have to seek out locations and conditions that fit his level of skill and experience.

On the other hand, over those same twenty-some years, I chose to take instruction, practice new skills, learned to roll, found other like-minded souls who wanted to paddle in more challenging conditions, read everything I could get my hands on about sea kayaking, and became an instructor. Defining someone's level of skill in a single word can be difficult, but I guess by most measures I have gone past the intermediate level of skill and knowledge and into advanced.

John Gaulding, I think most people would agree, did not show particularly good judgment in this incident. Good judgment comes as a result of experience, and experience comes from surviving episodes of bad judgment. Hopefully, John gained some improvement in his judgment as a result of surviving this situation.

If, like John Gaulding, you have paddled many years without having any serious or dangerous kayaking incidents, you may be tempted to think that nothing bad will ever happen to you. This is a danger for all sea kayakers (even those who are truly skilled and experienced). To become a more skilled ("experienced") kayaker, you need to take conscious steps to improve your skills and increase your knowledge. You will most likely need to seek out more skilled paddlers who can teach you what you need to know, mentor you as you take your first steps in more challenging conditions, and then keep practicing those skills to keep them sharp.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that time spent paddling a kayak automatically makes you a better kayaker, and don't become complacent about following your standard safety practices just because you've never had a problem before.