The Son of Gaia
The first time she hit me, she knocked me down.
Wouldn’t even let me get off the ground.
I tried to tell of the rules of Queensbury.
She said, “Boy, cuts no ice with me.” – kingston trio
There I was a quarter mile off shore laying over on this big-ass wave digging my paddle into the crest like an ice climber with a pickaxe hoping something would catch before I sailed off into a monstrous crevasse.
In this case I was quickly crashing down on a friend’s kayak that was getting frighteningly close, amazingly fast. No, I was not actually afraid I’d hit him. I was afraid I would have to lift my paddle and take a head long dive into 50 degree water to slow the boat and avoid hitting him. Luckily a bit of pressure built up between us and he began moving away as quickly as I was coming in. I really don’t mind cold water, but Lake Michigan cold seems brutally colder than pure ice in our little local lake.
As we paddled on across the turbulent fresh water sea we listened to a sad story unfolding on the VHF. Mingled in the jet engine crackle of the breaking waves, a one sided conversation entered the air in stutters and blurts. Some miles south of us a man had fallen from his 38 foot sailboat while trying to untangle rigging in the quickly rising winds. Monotone questions about floation and the color of clothing spurted from channel 16. As is often the case with VHF we could hear the Coast Guard, but the ship in peril was represented by silence. One could almost feel the dismay of the operator as he repeated what he was hearing. “No Floatation?”, “Black hat?”, he called back to nothingness. Then a general call “”PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN”, This is Coast Gaurd Station. . .” begain. Followed by a request to everyone in the vicinity to keep an eye out for a man overboard with a black hat & yellow jacket. We looked across the wind whipped waves out to the horizon where black water and grey sky mingled. We knew the outcome of this story. The calls “PAN-PAN”, “PAN-PAN”, continued as we worked our way up the coast. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized I’d been bracing a bit more than I needed too. You can’t help it, it effects you. I was releived to surf through the rocky shallows and slide onto Harrington beach just as the thunder began to echo across the open water.
As we go out on the water we accept a certain amount of risk. In our part of the world we know that hypothermia is a constant danger. We often paddle in cold water, cold air, rain & snow, wind & waves and sometimes all of the above. It’s very easy to get cold even if you never actually take a swim. The idea that “I’m not planning to go in the water” can seem really silly to a sea kayaker. Probobly in sea kayaking more than other water sports we start out with a premise; “I’m on my own a mile or more from shore, I need to be able to take care of myself (and one other person)”. Then we start asking ourselves, “what risks do I face, how do I deal with them”. If you ask yourself these kinds of questions you will begin to collect the knowledge and gear you need to survive. I’ve found you can often (but not always) tell the experience level of a seakayaker by the weight of their boat. Special Note: As you’re experience goes up, you will see less and less volunteers to help carry your boat!! I really thought I had the heaviest boat in the world until I helped a couple BCU assessors carry theirs. Now I laugh when someone complains that MY boat is heavy.
Beyond hypothermia there are many other risks to your safety out there and one I think is too often underplayed is lightning. I’ve heard some really amazing logic where lightning & kayaking is concerned. Let me state clearly here that your boat will not protect you from lighting. It would be cool if it did, but it doesn’t. Fiberglass and plastic do NOT have any special anti-lightning qualities. If anything your nice wet floating tube will make a really nice thorough cooker if you get struck. No basting required. According to NOAA the vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on boats occur on small boats with NO cabin. For kayakers that means us. You can read more at http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/.
As instructors we all have some basic rules that we use with our classes or guided trips. The first thing we do is always check the days weather forecast before we go on the water. In addition most of us carry a VHF or weather radio so we can monitor conditions throughout the day. On bigger waters we will also check maritime forecasts which are readily available online these days. Even with that preperation there are occasions when a storm will sneak up on us no matter how cautious we are. If we do hear thunder when we’re out there, we get off the water right away. On the beach most of us then have some version of the “half hour” rule that we will follow. This basically says, “stay off the water for at least one half hour after you hear the last rumble of thunder”. So each time you hear thunder your stop watch starts over again until a silent half hour has past. Only then will we take a class back out.
If you’re new to kayaking words like “thunderstorms”, “winds”, “fog” & “water temperature” should get your attention. With experience you will learn to better assess and mitigate conditions. Early on it’s best to play it safe and see it all as a warning, opting to the side of caution. In time as you venture out into bigger waters where things like tide & topography will also come into play. In additon, weather events such as fog do not always behave on the ocean the way us mid-westeners would expect. And of course there is boat traffic and other man-made hazards you need to be aware of out there. There’s a lot to take in.
Kayaking is generally a very safe sport and there’s the rub. It’s so easy to just hop in a boat and paddle out. Problems often seem to sneak up on you from out of nowhere. I’ve lost count of how many tragic stories start out with something like, “We launched out of the bay on a beautiful warm summer day. . . “. Often when we examine the tragedies that have occurred in the sport we see a chain of events that went un-addressed leading up to the mishap. Many times simple actions such as wearing a PFD or a quick check of the weather beforehand would have averted the disaster all together. This is a message that we try so desperately to pass on to new folks in our clubs and classes.
Luckily for most of us we live through our occasional bouts of stupidity and experience teaches us make a art form of preparation and awareness. We learn to catch things early before they become a threat. Over time we learn the skills and carry gear to help us deal with the issues we did and didn’t expect. We learn to respect the whims of Aigaion and know when and when not to go on the water. After all, Kayaking is about fun and recreation. Knowlege and preperation will keep it that way. As my friend JB said not too long ago, “It’s better to be telling the story, than to be the story”. Be careful out there.