This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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by Jonathan Weingast
The photo shows how to deal with a large, incapacitated paddler. There are three singles involved: an anchor, a lifter and a swimmer. The anchor stabilizes the lifter’s boat. Before the lifter lifts, the anchor must secure the swimmer’s kayak to the lifter’s boat. The anchor must be prepared to hold tight while the lifter gets the swimmer into the kayak and deals with any pumping and care of the person. Remember the rule of ‘Always three at sea’ whenever you make long crossings or extended trips. Thanks to Chris Ladner, Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Center: www.ecomarine.com..
There were five of us in the eddy in our sea kayaks, maintaining our position and taking stock of the current rushing past. Bill peeled out into the current and promptly capsized. Mark peeled out to rescue Bill, but the swirling waters made getting to him a challenge. Jim was close behind to assist, but unfortunately he capsized upon entering the tidal stream. I followed, hoping to get to whoever I could. Ed was behind me, watching everything unfold. Those of us still upright held tightly to the swimmers’ kayaks while they re- entered, and we paddled quickly out of the current.
What did we do next? Go to shore? Call for help? Fire up a stove for hot tea? None of the above. Within a few minutes we were back in the eddy, ready for more. The story is true (although the names have been changed), but what I have not told you is that this was part of a class. Along with four other small groups, we were there to practice rescues in moving water.
Under the supervision of experienced instructors, each group took turns in the current trying out different variations on a theme. We each rotated the roles of swimmer, primary rescuer, and secondary rescuer. In order to aid our rescues, we tested techniques that were new to some of us: turning the kayak upright as the swimmer, utilizing perimeter lines as the rescuer, and not fully draining the kayak before paddling to safer water. We practiced boat handling skills as well as group management. Sometimes we added challenges, like a swimmer letting go of his boat. Other times challenges found us, like when one of the rescuers capsized unintentionally. Whatever the circumstances, we worked together to get paddlers in boats and out of the current.
What if we were not dressed for immersion? What if we could not get a kayaker and kayak back together? What if we could not get out of the current? Had we been unprepared, this exercise could easily have gotten out of hand, but we were armed with the knowledge that it was going to be a wet and wild day. Except for one person in a wetsuit, we all wore drysuits. We all had helmets, and wore them. We had adequate flotation in our kayaks. We had numerous towlines, pumps, flares, cell phones, a VHF radio or two, first aid kits, extra clothes, and PFDs, of course. But the most important safety tool we had that day was competent, confident supervision.
Our instructors were all very good teachers, and they navigated both moving water and group management with confidence and grace. This is important because it is one thing to be comfortable in wind, waves and current, but another thing to be able to care for someone else in the same conditions. If you are an instructor, you owe this to your students, yourself, and your insurance provider. If you are a student (and who isn’t), make sure of your safety net when you are pushing your limits.
Our final exam of the day was a scenario with the whole group. We students came upon a group of kayakers in trouble. One was swimming near his boat. One was perched on a pinnacle of rock surrounded by water, her kayak on shore nearby. On the beach someone was screaming frantically. There were three kayaks on shore, but only two paddlers in sight. In other words, sheer chaos.
We had no leader, no plan, and no idea how many people were in the unfortunate group, but we sprang into action anyway. In no time we were scattered with no communication and no idea of what was to happen next. Some went to assist with the obvious rescue, while others helped the paddler off the rock and calmed the hysterical person on shore. We found the missing paddler and reunited him with a kayak. (He was floating around the next point, waiting to be discovered.) Soon we were all back together, having solved all our problems.
In retrospect we could have done things better, like designate a leader or devise a plan. However, we did manage to do some things well: we stayed calm, we helped people who needed help, we did not create any more victims, and we all made it back safely. For me this highlighted the importance of both hard skills (boat management) and soft skills (people management) when kayaking with a group. Further, it illustrated the reality that, with so many people kayaking these days, the people you may be called upon to assist may not be in your group.
My advice to any paddler, regardless of skill level, is to keep learning. Take a class. Teach a class. Push yourself safely. Be ready for anything. It could mean the difference between an adventurous tale and an unhappy saga.
© Jonathan Weingast is an ACA certified instructor and kayak builder living in Seattle, WA. He runs Seventh Wave Kayak School, and can be reached at email@example.com, www.seventhwavekayakschool.com.