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Prepare for the Worst that Can Happen

Risk assessment is a key safety element of every sea kayaking endeavor.
- Eric Soares


Because if something bad happens out on the water and you're unprepared to deal with it, you're in trouble. When you make a practice of thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong, you have a far more realistic outlook, and that can keep you out of trouble to begin with. Is all of this overkill? Maybe. But how many times, if ever, have you heard about incidents involving “overly prepared” paddlers.

The Cold Facts

Knowledge and Experience

The safety hurdle faced by many paddlers is that they don’t have enough knowledge or experience to imagine the many things that can go wrong on even a modest outing. This places them at a huge disadvantage when trying to plan for the unexpected. What can these folks do to improve their odds?

Learn About Bad Stuff Second-Hand
A lot of people believe there’s no way you can learn to climb, paddle, backpack, scuba dive, fly a plane, ride a horse, a motorcycle or whatever- just by reading about it - that the only way to really learn about that kind of stuff is by doing it. True enough, but only up to a point, and it’s a very important point, because as it turns out, there’s a LOT of stuff that you really don’t want to learn about the hard way, by direct personal experience. Some examples:

I’ve never regretted being too vigilant, or safety conscious, or infatuated with checklists and meticulous planning, or cautious about my choice of paddling partners, but almost every single time I’ve made the mistake of being sloppy, lazy, or complacent about those things, it’s come back, in one way or another, to bite me in the ass.
- Moulton Avery

Educate Yourself
One of the best ways to expand your horizon of knowledge is by reading about bad stuff that happened to other people.

More Food for Thought

What will you do if....

If at all possible critical elements should have a backup – even it the backup is to make a repair. Is that overkill? Maybe, but you don’t hear about too “overly prepared” sea kayakers getting into trouble.

Checklists Are Your Friend
It’s easy to forget stuff – at home, in your car, and at the take-out. Consider having a checklist for each situation.

I’ve forgotten all sorts of stuff at one time or another because I got sloppy with my checklists. Among other things, I’ve left my VHF radio, tow rope, and swim trunks at home, forgotten to pack lunch, left my compass or headlamp in the car, and forgotten to bring my wallet, a towel, a comb, and sunscreen. I also lost a very nice paddle because I left it on a boat ramp at the take-out.
- Moulton Avery

Case Studies

Case 1: Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota

Case 2: Going for a Little Swim

Case 1

Todd Ellison, October 7th, 2011
Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota

Todd Ellison was a very strong, skilled paddler who went out with four other paddlers for what they thought was going to be a great 16 mi (26 km) downwind run in 4-6 foot seas generated by 20–30 mph (32–48 kph) winds. The air temperature was 77F (25C) but the water temperature was 60F (15C). For protection, Ellison was wearing a 3 mm Farmer John wetsuit and two rashguards.

Ellison had less experience paddling a ski in those conditions than the other paddlers; he was getting pushed slightly off course and wasn’t moving as fast as they wanted to go, so they split the group, an action they had discussed prior to launching. Three paddlers went ahead and one of the strongest paddlers stayed behind with Ellison. Although the group as a whole had 3 VHF radios and 4 cell phones, the only communication device that Ellison and his companion had was Ellison’s cell phone, which was in a storage compartment on his ski.

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When Ellison capsized 2.5 miles (4 km) from shore in rougher, shoal water, the Velcro portion of the ankle leash that was tethering him to his ski failed, and his boat blew away, taking their only means of communication – his cell phone – with it.

Attempts at towing or carrying him on the other ski failed so, by mutual agreement, his companion took off on a desperate 45 minute race to shore, in breaking beam seas, to get help. The search was commenced shortly afterwards, around 4:00 pm, three hours before sunset. It was too windy for a helicopter, so a fixed-wing aircraft was used to fly a search pattern augmented by multiple boats on the water.

They searched in the general area of the capsize until 9:00 pm without finding him. The search resumed the following morning and he was found floating dead in the water about a mile from where he had capsized the previous afternoon.

Case Note:  

One of the worst calamities that can befall a cold water paddler is to loose his or her boat. This can happen because it blows away, it sinks, or the paddler is unable to reenter it. This particular tragedy was set in motion by the failure of Todd Ellison’s ankle tether, which resulted in the loss of his surf ski.

No big blunders were made in this incident, and paddlers should take that as a cautionary note. Oftentimes, a combination of small errors is more than enough to cause trouble.

A boat tether can be a critical piece of safety equipment, particularly in windy conditions. Most board surfers consider them standard equipment and it appears that most surfski paddlers do as well. For some inexplicable reason, sea kayakers rarely use them, although losing a sea kayak is every bit as hazardous as losing a ski. All of the paddlers on this outing used ankle tethers, and it’s very easy to understand why losing a boat wasn’t at the top of their mental list of things that could possibly go wrong.

The air temperature was a warm 77F and the water temperature was 60F – cold, but by no means extreme. Given the fact that many organizations promote 60F as the temperature below which a paddler should “always wear a wetsuit or drysuit”, it’s readily understandable how an experienced paddler like Ellison could feel he was being sufficiently cautious for the conditions. He wore a PFD and a wetsuit, he was tethered to his ski, he was paddling with an experienced group, and he brought his cell phone with him.

Although his 3mm neoprene wetsuit was fine for multiple spills and reentries in 60F water, it wasn’t nearly enough to protect him during a prolonged immersion lasting many hours, let alone overnight. The farmer john design also left his arms exposed.

In that respect, he certainly wasn’t outside the norm, because 3mm is a very popular wetsuit thickness. Many paddlers unwisely wear it on water considerably colder than 60F. Unless you happen to be fat, it’s simply not enough protection for an immersion that lasts hours. The issue is not hypothermia, but rather incapacitation and subsequent drowning.

Thermal protection isn’t a magic charm. What it does is prevent cold shock and delay incapacitation. In other words, it buys you time. The issue is whether your gear buys you enough time to either fix your own problem or to be rescued. See: How long before I'm rescued?

Regardless of what you wear for protection, it’s wise to spend time floating around in the water to see how long it takes you to get cold. Not until you become incapacitated, obviously, but simply until becoming chilly – just so you can see for yourself how warm your protection will keep you at that particular water temperature. Most paddlers underestimate how much protection they need, and this particular field-test injects reality into the system.

At the present time, surfski rescues are rarely, if ever practiced. Skis don’t have deck lines or a place where a tow rope can be attached, and few, if any, surfskiers wear tow rigs. The fact that ankle tethers are standard equipment and the surfski capsize recovery drill is to hop back on the ski may have led to complacency within the entire sport.

Even if his companion had sprinted after Ellison’s boat the instant it was lost, it’s questionable whether he could have caught it, and if he had, what then? There was no way to secure it and bring it back, to say nothing of the very real problem of retracing his course and finding Ellison, who was obscured by waves and floating alone in very rough conditions.

Splitting the group was certainly problematic, but under the circumstances, a much bigger issue was having all 3 VHF radios and all the cell phones except Ellison’s depart with Group 1. It’s the kind of seemingly insignificant mistake that’s very, very easy to make out on the water – even for experienced paddlers, and had Ellison not lost his boat, it would doubtless have passed unnoticed. Once the boat was lost, however, cold water, the inability to let the other group know about the crisis, and the inability to quickly summon help combined to set the stage for disaster.

Even though responders used an airplane as well as boats, and had roughly three hours of daylight - followed by twilight - in which to search, and concentrated their search in the general area in which Ellison capsized, they were unable to find him after searching for 5 hours.

Regardless of whether your vantage point is a boat or an aircraft, it is exceptionally difficult to spot a single, boatless paddler in the water, particularly when conditions are rough. A bright rescue streamer unfurled in the water, flares, a signal mirror, and waving a paddle in the air all increase visibility. Had a rescue strobe light been attached to Ellison’s PFD, it would definitely have helped rescuers find him after sunset. Whether he could have survived that long without drowning is unknown.

It’s critical to practice and perfect boat rescues before they are actually needed. Emergency gear like VHF radios, cell phones, and signaling devices like flares and strobes lights should be securely attached to your PFD, where they’ll be available if your boat is lost. All boats should have a point of attachment for towing.

Better thermal protection, particularly for his arms and shoulders, as well as a strobe and cell phone or VHF radio – or both - tethered to his PFD, would likely have saved Ellison’s life, but planning for the worst and recognizing the absolute criticality of the ankle tether might well have avoided the accident altogether. Tethers are lifelines, and on surfskis they should be stout enough to handle a big load, suddenly applied.
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Case 2

Going for a Little Winter Swim at Cape Henlopen, Delaware
by NCCWS director Moulton Avery

"Many sea kayakers use paddle leashes and most carry spare paddles, but nobody carries a spare boat."

I never think about whether or not to suit up for cold water paddling because cold water really scares me. I've always dressed for the possibility of a long swim, regardless of how unlikely I thought it might be. No exceptions. Some people would say that's overkill, but for me, being prepared for a long, cold swim is the only reason I'm alive today and writing this.

On a cold, windy day a little over twenty years ago, I found myself - much to my surprise and dismay – swimming my guts out in near-freezing water and large, confused seas in the tide race at Cape Henlopen, Delaware. My beloved sea kayak was nowhere in sight, and unless things got better really fast, I was going to wind up out in the Atlantic heading for Hen and Chickens Shoal, which I figured to be an even worse place for a swim on that particular day. It was, as the saying goes, a real “learning experience”.

On the ebb tide at Cape Henlopen, a lot of water gets constricted, channeled, and merged from different directions by two separate offshore breakwaters before it wraps around the Cape. Under the right conditions, it can be a rough place to paddle. We launched on a strong ebb, which was bumping up against a 15 knot breeze and a 4 foot swell, and we were getting into some pretty rough water when one guy capsized, blew a couple rolls, and bailed out. I was closest, so he and I wound up working on getting him back in his boat.

It wasn’t exactly a surf zone at that point, but while we were busy working on the rescue, the current was carrying us into rougher water. Conditions were getting progressively more confused and pushy, and although he aced the rescue, in less than a minute he went over again. While we were working on Rescue No. 2, his boat got nailed by a breaking wave and basically ran me over. We were getting bounced around, I was upside down, and every time I tried to roll, I banged into him or his boat. Since we were tangled up and, more to the point, I was out of air, I bailed out. I wasn’t particularly concerned at that point, thinking, no problem, I’ve got this one covered. Boy, was I ever wrong about that.

My biggest mistake was basically a failure of imagination. I was counting on my very solid reenter and roll - a technique that I'd practiced regularly and that I'd nailed hundreds of times before. What I totally failed to anticipate was having the boat knocked out of my very firm grasp when I was half-way back in the cockpit. All of us had short paddle tethers, but nobody had a boat tether. Oops!

When my boat blew away faster than a speeding bullet, the other guy, figuring I let go on purpose - maybe that was the drill - let go of his boat and it blew away too; now we were both swimming. Although we weren’t much more than 200 yards from shore, we had to backstroke the whole way because the water was too cold and rough for anything else, and it took no less than 45 minutes for us to get to shore. It felt like an eternity, and we were both pretty shook up when our feet finally touched bottom.

However, thanks to our drysuits, layers of insulation, neoprene scuba hoods, and neo gloves and booties, we weren't chilled and our hands and feet were still warm. Incidentally, since we’d never heard about swimming with our paddles, we just let them go when the boats split – otherwise we’d have gotten to shore much faster.

During that long swim, I developed a visceral appreciation for the value of a boat tether and belatedly installed one shortly thereafter - as did a lot of our fellow paddlers when they heard about the incident.

Tethered to my trusty old 1984 Nordkapt HM with a short, stout line of 9mm marine-grade elastic shock cord.

Many paddlers cite fear of entanglement as their reason for not using a boat tether. It’s an understandable concern if you’re accustomed to using a long, small-diameter paddle leash, but for me it’s a total non-issue. My paddle leash has a working length of 14 inches (35cm) and attaches to my wrist.

My boat tether has a working length of 25 inches (63cm), and as pictured above, one end attaches to my PFD and the other end clips into a stainless steel ring that runs on a line across my foredeck. It doesn’t impede a wet exit from my small ocean cockpit or interfere in any way with a smooth reenter and roll. For the record: you can’t get entangled in a short length of 9mm marine-grade elastic.

Since the leash isn’t long enough for an assisted rescue, I unclip when the other paddler has a firm grip on my boat. I also unclip when launching or landing in surf, but otherwise I remain tethered – and happily so, particularly in windy conditions, in tide races, and when surfing offshore bars.

Getting back into sea kayaking in 2010 after a long absence, I was surprised that none of the paddlers I met used a boat tether. In fact, most had never even heard of one. The commercial paddle leashes were also a surprise. To me, they seemed unnecessarily long and thin, and looked kind of flimsy.

Some paddlers maintain that since they’ll never let go of their paddle in a capsize, they’re effectively tethered to their boats with their paddle leash. Maybe, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to bet my life on.

The forces trying to separate paddler from boat can be huge at times - particularly with a loaded or waterlogged boat in rough water. That really is a situation in which a paddler would be justifiably concerned about getting tangled up, jerked around, and really hurt by a long, thin leash.
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