Plan For The Worst That Can Happen
"Many sea kayakers use paddle leashes, and most carry spare paddles, but nobody carries a spare boat."
Going for a Little Winter Swim at Cape Henlopen, Delaware By Moulton Avery 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 thirty 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.
As noted in the previous case, a boat tether can be a critical piece of safety equipment, particularly in windy conditions. For some inexplicable reason, sea kayakers rarely use them, although losing a sea kayak is every bit as hazardous as losing a ski. Many 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 they also 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.
Major Contributing Factors
Unable To Recover From Capsize