A chilling account of what can go wrong at sea.
Before anyone jumps to conclusions about the activity, please understand this....sea kayaks, in skilled hands, are capable of open water crossings in moderately rough weather. Many sea kayakers regularly go out in similar or far worse conditions. As a group, their skill level is frequently well above that of most SOT fishing kayakers, and the rescue techniques are often practiced in club situations.
Not long ago, purely by chance I came across an account of
three very competent, experienced, sea kayakers who set out to
do the classic 40 km open ocean trip from Sydney Harbour to
Broken Bay carrying sails in strong south westerly winds. The
most experienced paddler in the group, Andrew Eddy,
capsized. His companions failed to notice and did not offer
assistance. In the rough conditions he was unable to self
rescue and after repeated attempts quickly became exhausted
and hypothermic. Luckily a yacht in a race in the area saw him
and rescued him. I think that the paddler’s own story of what
happened has many lessons for all of us. I have reproduced
Andrew’s account verbatim and urge all of you to read it. This
article was first published in NSW Sea Kayaker, September
2011, Issue 84, magazine of NSW Sea Kayak Club with the kind
permission of the author and republished in the November
2011 edition of the Sandgate Canoe Club newsletter. Brian White (SEQSKC)Cold Water, Without a Plan by Andrew EddyRecent history
Sailing sea kayaks has been part of our club’s culture since before I first joined. So many people have had lots of good fun, on day
trips, learning and applying another layer of skills to what is already an exhilarating way to spend a day. Out of the last seventeen years of sea kayaking, I have been sailing for sixteen years and have had nine years with my current style of sail rig.
In the last ten months I have especially sought out opportunities to paddle and sail in rougher waters, sometimes solo and other
times on group trips. In the last six months I have also collected a fair bit of video of these trips, with the intention of putting
together some video clips to show what can be done with sea kayaks (and what a long-distance paddler or expeditionary will
inevitably be out in, some time or another).Saturday’s paddle
From the previous Wednesday, the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) numerical weather predictions (NWP) had been showing a developing weather pattern, which would give us a great run up the coast. On the day, the NWP predicted offshore winds inshore in the early morning to 20 knots, tending to parallel the coast by 10am, speeds of 15-20 knots and waves 2.5 to 3 metres. This was well down on our benchmark March paddle, sailing up the same section of coast, but still full of good potential as a kayak-sailing day.The timeline
I ran a helmet-mounted camera for the whole trip, so I can write an exact timeline of events and analyse the progress of the group, the course we took and the changes in the conditions and details of events along the way.
10:53 Set out from Clontarf, light to moderate west-southwesterly
11:05 Rounded Grotto Point, set our sails. Matt’s sail failed, a new fitting slipped, so we dropped into Cobblers Beach to make repairs
11:38 Back on the water, under sail, and made up for the lost ground
11:57 Reached North Head – bullets of wind were rounding North Head and there was not much south in the wind. BOM observations reflect this with North Head reading WSW at 16 knots (10-minute average), gusting to 27 knots, at midday.
11:58 Mark’s new mast bent 45 degrees, a good safety feature, as it is a better option than cracking or holing the deck! We paddled for another two minutes to clear North Head, before rafting up to stow the sail. My Fox40 whistle worked well to attract Matt‟s attention, about 60 metres downwind. No other signal worked in the wind, at the time.
12:17 to 12:25 Excellent local following conditions to Bluefish Point, where we rafted up and tried to bend Mark’s mast back –
impossible! It might be weak enough to protect the deck, but it’s too strong to fix on the water.
We discussed the likely difference in the group members’ speeds. Mark was keen to plug on, as this made “good Hawkesbury
training”. He could just grind out the miles, while Matt and I zigzagged under sail, alternately catching the southerly swells and the WSW wind-waves. I guessed Mark would make about 10 or 11 km/h, paddling in the following seas, and Matt and I would make an average of 12 to 13 km/h, so we would need to cover more distance, back and forth, to stay with Mark.
We headed a little offshore, in order to clear Long Reef. The BOM had predicted wave heights at 3-4 metres, which meant it was a good plan to stand well clear of shore and put some room between the reef break and us. For the following hour and a quarter, Mark plugged away, while Matt and I continued to buzz past on the “zig”, reaching under sail and riding the swell, or the “zag”, running under sail and riding the wind waves.
For the most part, we were less than 200 metres apart and the camera shows me catching each paddler in view at less than 30
13:00 The first yachts in a blue-water race passed us, heading south, opposite to our course. The front-runners had lots of sail up, were heeled over as far as they could, with their crews perched on the windward rail. Most of the time, only the helmsman or forward lookout would be able to see us.
About 13:15, we passed Long Reef, perhaps a little wider than necessary. There was a substantial break over the reef, as you would expect when peak waves run to four and a half metres. The video shows some of those peak waves rolling under us, and it is an awesome sight!
13:19 I stopped to get more food out of the day hatch. The video shows that this and a few other tasks took 2 minutes. I lost sight of Mark during this time. I chased and caught up with Matt, who pointed Mark out, inshore 150m and directly into the sun’s glare off the water. Phew! That loss of contact was a total of 3 minutes of worry!
More and more yachts were passing us. By this stage, we had altered course inshore to close in on Bungan Head. This placed us more or less in the race fleet and meant we had to observe them carefully and occasionally change course to maintain our distance.
13:37 The last time I passed through the white of Matt’s wake
13:38 Slowed to talk with Mark, and check on his capacity to stop, eat and drink, just being neighbourly. Matt and Mark are visible in the video every 20-30 seconds, as I catch a runner, look around, catch a swell, look around
13:42 16 seconds before capsize, spotted Mark 150m southwest; 13 seconds before capsize, spot Matt 100m northeast and catching a wave; 3 seconds before capsize wave to the helmsman of a yacht upwind of meThe capsize
At the moment of capsize, I was reaching northwest towards the coast, about 2 nautical miles (under 4km) off Turrimetta Head.
Conditions were between 15 and 20 knots of wind from the southwest, current setting north at about a knot, wind waves to less than a metre from the southwest and swell around two and a half metres from the southeast, with peak waves around four and a half metres; observations by BOM and MHL (Manly Hydraulics Laboratory).
While reaching I waved with one hand, while the other hand was holding the paddle in a one-handed trailing low brace. A combination of gust and wind-wave heeled the kayak over to leeward and I failed to grasp the paddle with my right hand for a brace on the right side, so slowly went over.
I didn’t have breath to spare, even with the slow capsize. This may have been the first indication of the effect of cold water. I rushed the first attempt at a roll, with the sail up. The principle here is that if you still have forward momentum, then the sail will trail through the water and not resist the roll. It has worked well, in the past!
I did not time the roll with the wave and started to roll into it, instead of with, so that roll failed, dead in the water.
I wet-exited, failed to consider Matt or Mark, who would still have both been within 100-150 metres of me. I think I was assuming
that it would take a few seconds to fix things up and I would just catch up with them. I didn’t think to blow my whistle and have them on standby while I did my self-rescue.
In the next five minutes, I stowed the sail and made two attempts at a re-enter and roll. The video shows that my hand movements were clumsy and sometimes ineffective, almost from the word go.
The re-enter and roll attempts failed. Over the next fifteen minutes the video shows that I made three attempts at a scramble rescue (without the paddle float), and one was heartbreakingly close to success until I gently capsized to leeward while getting my right leg into the cockpit. A miss is as good as a mile. I made several more attempts to re-enter and roll and they failed, too. By that stage, the video shows me making very obvious cold-brain errors, like planning and setting up a roll on one side, then trying to execute it on the other side.
An important aspect of the video is that it shows longer and longer times between attempts and more time spent resting and
breathing. It also shows that my movements were slowing drastically.
All attempts to help my rolls or scrambles, by aligning the kayak in the wind, wind-waves and swell waves failed. There was simply too much motion in the water and too much wind. The natural “lay” of the kayak was across the wind and wind waves and pitching in the swell.The rescue
After twenty minutes, I came to the realisation that I wouldn’t re-enter the kayak on my own. Two yachts had already passed me while I was in the water, and I had given at least one of them a thumbs-up to say I’m sorting it all out.
I realised that I had to ask for help, so when I spotted an older yacht, which was heeled over a lot less than the high-tech racers and likely to pass within a hundred metres, so I picked up my (white-bladed) paddle and tried to wave. The paddle tether was tangled, so it took a moment to stretch it out, get the paddle vertical and wave it side to side. I managed to do this for about ten seconds, before my arm was too tired from the weight of the paddle, then dropped the paddle back in the water and just waved my (white-gloved) hand.
In a few seconds, I saw the yacht slacken sails, stand more upright and change course to head closer to me. They passed within a
hundred metres and then into the wind, dropped the jib and turned on the motor.
Over the next nineteen minutes they manoeuvred back towards me, then had to turn away to drop the mainsail and come back again.
The skipper was yelling at me to swim away from my boat, but the video records me saying only two things in nineteen minutes: “I need the flotation”, as I was having trouble getting two successive breaths in the seas; and “I’m too exhausted to swim”, after thirty-five minutes in the water. I am very glad that I was wearing the helmet as the video records me being whacked on the head by the kayak, several times as it pitched with the swell and I have a dint in my jaw when it swiped upwards once.
It turns out that the skipper was very wary of holing his elderly wooden hull on my kayak’s pointy ends. His first responsibility is his vessel and crew. I know I come second and that’s just the way it is.
He circled closer and closer, finally within throwing distance of the their life-preserver ring. On the last pass I made an all-out effort of two swimming strokes to reach the ring, after which I was dragged underwater, by the forward motion of the yacht, and up alongside. I wanted to help myself up the ladder, but my legs were not working, so they pulled me aboard and carried me down into the cabin, stripped me of my outer gear, wrapped me up in the warm gear that they had been wearing and sandwiched me between two warm crew.
The skipper set out directly for Sydney Harbour and their yacht club, motoring as quickly as the conditions allowed. At a rough guess, it would have been another half an hour of re-warming before I could throw up and get a word out. We swapped some more warm, dry clothing and over the next half an hour we talked a little, I sipped warm water, made a phone call to a capable friend who could pull out all stops: have Matt and Mark alerted to my rescue; deal with rescue authorities; and to make arrangements to have me picked up at the yacht club, with dry gear. On board, we discussed being picked up by ambulance, but decided that I was recovering well enough.
At the yacht club’s dock I still needed to be heavily supported to walk in to the club.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the crewman who spotted me waving and to the skipper of the yacht for taking the high percieved risk of picking me up.What went wrong?
With hindsight and the benefit of continuous video, it is quite easy to work out what went wrong, in excruciating detail.Cold water
The MHL wave rider buoy had been recording sea surface temperatures just above 17 degrees and dropping. The BOM Bluelink
current predictions showed that this was due to a gyre in the Tasman bringing cold water up from two locations off Eden and eastern Bass Strait. On the plus side, this current was setting north along the coast at over a knot, therefore it was with the wind and in our favour.Skills
My roll, and several re-enter and rolls failed. During this last year, the main thrust of my skills development has been in two areas:
rough water kayak handling and sailing, making the best use of summer north-easterlies and then winter southerlies; and in forward paddling efficiency, especially in the last few months, with a new wing paddle and a “fitness tourer”. In the last six months or so, I have practiced rolling only at a pool session a few weeks ago, a “Splinter Group” Saturday morning in Watsons Bay and a Tuesday night rescue drills session in Camp Cove. The Tuesday night proved the total loss of my split-paddle roll.
My attempts to roll were further complicated by the fact that I have never rolled with this wing paddle! It never occurred to me to change paddles to the spare flat-blade on the back deck, which is a much more familiar paddle.
It’s a very long time since I have practiced scramble (or “cowboy”) self-rescues. After all, why would my roll fail? It’s even longer since I’ve practiced with a paddle float.Equipment
I was dressed for brief immersion, which is all I would have expected to have to deal with during a successful self-rescue: a full set of poly-pro thermals, two rashies, stinger suit, board shorts, cag, socks, wetsuit boots, paddling gloves, hat and insulated helmet (to mount the video camera). In retrospect, this gave me about five minutes of full function, before the cold started sapping my strength and thought processes.
The sail rig, despite being part of the day’s purpose, was also a huge liability. It was partial cause of the capsize and prevented an immediate roll. I assumed that I would successfully roll up with the sail deployed, as I have done when paddling solo in rough
conditions before. The other alternative, which has worked well before, was to stow the sail while underwater and roll up with it out of the way. The surprise of this capsize and the immediate cold made stowing the sail impossible. It was a matter of rolling or wet exiting. The sail ended up causing a four minute delay while I trod water and stowed it out of the way.
I had never rolled with this particular wing paddle, and it didn’t occur to me to swap to my spare paddle. I even used the wing in a sculling motion, without thinking. It was very well-behaved in a sculling stroke, but totally ineffective, compared to the same stroke with my spare, flat blade.
All my self-rescue, safety and survival gear was in the day-hatch, with the exception of the knife and whistle, which were on my PFD, and the personal tether, which remained under the deck netting. It’s much quicker to pack for the day if you just stuff the gear in a hatch, instead of arranging it carefully where it is all accessible, ready to use.A Plan
Possibly the most important thing that went wrong was the plan. There was none.
The group didn’t have an explicit, pre-arranged plan. There was no plan for separation, no plan for re-grouping or rendezvous and no plan for continuous monitoring on the water. It was all implicit; most of our group decisions were based on individual
assumptions, rather than detailed, agreed decisions.
I didn’t have a personal plan (The Plan). Given that I had less than five functional minutes in the water, there was not much time to run through a cascading set of self-rescue techniques and then to call in for help. As a result of not having The Plan, most of the reasonable content of such a plan was never executed.
What would I need to change?Cold water
This is a difficult one. I don’t know how I could wear more warm gear and still paddle effectively. I have often thought that a dry suit could be the answer for me. There are other places in the world where all paddlers wear dry suits. Australia is so varied, from place to place and season to season, that there is no definitive answer. This is something that I will have to consider more carefully.
The only way to beat cold water is to not be in it. This comes back to skills (to stay out of the water, or to get out quickly), to
equipment (familiarity and accessibility of self-rescue equipment or accessibility for calling in help) and having The Plan (to maximise the efficiency of the skills and equipment).Skills
Practice, practice and more practice. It is necessary to practice with the gear and in the conditions that you will meet.
I made the assumption that my skills were better than they are. I made the assumption that, because I was more at-home on the
water, taking more risks than my companions, sailing even in conditions where they didn’t, almost always being the one who did the assisted rescues and on-water repairs, and always being the one who was watching and monitoring the others, that I was self-
sufficient and would look after myself. That obviously wasn’t true.
Key skills that were rusty were in rolling with the sail deployed, rolling while tired, and having a good scramble self-rescue as
backup. Perhaps the most important practice that I haven’t done in at least a decade was to wet-exit, come to the surface and blow my whistle as loudly as possible.Equipment
Familiarity with equipment is essential. I had never rolled with this wing paddle. It didn’t even occur to me that I wouldn’t be effective with it.
It's a while since I practiced releasing the sail’s sheet and up-haul while under water and the rig is also slightly different now.
Accessibility of equipment is essential. My paddle float was in the day hatch, instead of being stuffed beside the seat in the cockpit, where I believe it belongs. The paddle float would probably have made a paddle-float assisted re-entry and roll, or a paddle-float outrigger-assisted scramble into a success. My radio was not on my PFD (and switched on), though all three of us were carrying radios.
My PLB was not accessible. Why even have one, if it’s not in your PFD or strapped to an arm or leg? Same goes for the flares. Don’t knock flares, I can see now how my orange smoke flare could have helped the guys find me, low down in the water, from up to a few hundred metres away.
My bail-out bag was in the day hatch. That’s not so much safety issue as convenience, after abandoning your vessel. It’s good to
escape with at least your car keys, wallet and glasses!The Plan
This is the most important learning for me. While failure of some skills did lead to a lot of trouble for me, it didn’t need to. I still had a lot of (rusty) self-rescue tools left in the toolbox, but no time left to use them. The lack of a systematic plan meant that I wasted time, effort and opportunity in the critical few minutes after capsize. The Plan will vary from person to person, depending on their available skills and equipment and the situation, so The Plan has to be fluid. Everyone should develop one, or several, and practice them. This should include dummying the deployment of a PLB and making a mayday call.
Using 20/20 vision of hindsight, for this incident I can say that The Plan would have been:1
. Capsize and come to rest
a. Release sheet and up-haul
b. Setup on offside, tuck, roll2
. Fail? Wet exit, summon help early
a. Blow whistle to attract group’s attention
b. Attach personal tether from upwind side of kayak to allow both hands to be used in the next steps
c. Get on the radio and attract the group’s attention
d. Check the time and allocate five minutes (this is a crucial step, as deteriorating thinking won’t allow back-tracking to remember
previous steps and how long they took – at this stage you are your own hypothermia monitor, and a dodgy one at that)
e. Get some height (on kayak hull or deck) and look for the group
f. If they are turning, set off a smoke flare to help them to find you; if not, save the flare for the next vessel or aircraft to respond3
. While waiting, or in preparation for the next solo step, stow sail or cut it adrift, align the kayak in the wind, if possible4
. Allow two re-enter and rolls with the sail stowed or gone
a. Twice only – if they fail, move on
b. A fast re-enter and roll, including attaching skirt takes twenty seconds, but a slow one, including gathering breath can easily take a minute and a half, so three more minutes have ticked by
c. Loss of body temperature mean that successive attempts will be worse, not better5
. Fail? Deploy paddle float for
c. As additional flotation6
. If unsuccessful in five minutes, it might be the case that nothing will be successful – summon outside help
a. If the tether hasn’t been attached yet, attach it now
b. Call Mayday and set off the radio’s automated digital distress if available*
c. Flag down passing traffic: whistle, waving, flare if already sighted
d. Set off PLB
e. Make the decision to continue self-rescue, at the cost of exhaustion, heat loss and shortened survival time OR get torso out of the water OR adopt HELP position in the water.
[Note added for explanation...The HELP position in swimming is a survival method used to conserve heat if you have fallen in to cold water. It is difficult to do this position unless you are wearing a life jacket. "HELP" stands for Heat Escape Lessening Posture. This posture can increase the chances of survival by reducing the amount of body surface area that is directly exposed to cold water. In this position, the chest and knees are in contact with each other rather than being in contact with cold water.
1. Draw the knees up to the chest.
2. Keep the face forward and out of the water.
3. Hold the upper arms at the side and fold the lower arms across the chest, (or hug yourself and put your hands under your armpits.
Do not use this position in swift river currents or whitewater.]
(Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_H ... z1l8NT2dYZ
Everyone’s plan will be different, but it is essential to have a plan, with contingencies, that will run through to completion.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling Mayday. This radio convention exists for a purpose: to save lives at sea. Part of the
convention is to finish the emergency by negotiating with the station in control to end the mayday call on your behalf, if you are able to get everything back together. If you can honestly make that decision, there will be a lot of listeners who will breathe a sigh of relief and the biggest cost to you will be to have a chat with the rescue services afterwards, over the phone. There are no penalties for a genuine mayday, or a mayday which is closed off properly.
Rescue services will be equally as glad to have the opportunity to pick you up alive and while you are still warm, as they will be to know that you sorted things out and reduced the danger and expenditure of resources for them. Just do it, and wear the trivial
There is a lot to digest from this incident. It will take a while to come to terms with it and to work out how to move on and grow from the experience. The few people with whom I have shared this have also taken it as a major wake-up call. I hope that other paddlers can make full use of my experience. Writing about it (and especially watching the video in detail) has been hard. I have been given professional advice by a counsellor not to publish, but I think it is more valuable to publish. I have also been advised not to go over it, to let it rest, so I will follow that advice.
*Handheld VHF radios are now available with GPS and digital selective calling (DSC). The combination of DSC and GPS allows a one-button digital distress call (with the same effect as a “mayday”), which identifies who you are, what vessel is in trouble and the exact location. It’s like having a local radio version of the EPIRB/PLB. Mine had all that, but I didn’t think to use it.
For Matt’s account of the trip go to http://mattbezzina.blogspot.com/2011/09 ... t-sea.html
For Laurie Ford’s typically forthright account of the event from the point of view of Marine Rescue NSW go tohttp://www.laurieford.net/NSW%20Incident.html
For an account of the current thinking on hypothermia prevention go tohttp://www.seagrant.umn.edu/coastal_com ... ypothermia
I post this to demonstrate how quickly things can go wrong for even an experienced and skilled paddler. One thing that I feel is particular relevence to us yak fishos is Andrew's advice:
"Practice, practice and more practice. It is necessary to practice with the gear and in the conditions that you will meet."
Also, radio, PLB and flares, on your PFD...essential gear when things go pear-shaped.
It also demonstrates just how close paddlers can be and not be aware of a mate in serious trouble. The buddy system requires regular monitoring to work.