Rough Water Paddling – Knowing When to Say “NO”

GL JR April 4Paddling rough water can be a LOT of fun. As the sport of kayaking matures and the skill level grows, it has become more common for paddlers to venture into water that few of would have contemplated ten years ago. I am happy to see this trend and I thoroughly enjoy participating in it. I have also been in situations that could have become very dangerous and situations where significant injury and death occurred. I have been involved in one body recovery of a dead whitewater kayaker in Harris Creek. I have been involved in various Search and Rescue groups for 15 years and I have been involved in numerous rescue operations and several fatalities on land, sea and snow. A few of my friends have died in outdoor play. 

These are potentially dangerous games we play. 

The following video shows a T rescue in rough water. 

We typically practice rescues in calm water and perhaps we become over confident at times because we have successfully done a few rescues in calm water and learned to roll in a swimming pool…and I have been as guilty as anyone.  Real rescues are seldom done in calm water. If the water conditions are rough enough to knock someone over, they are typically challenging enough to make rescues difficult and to endanger the people who volunteer for the rescue. I would like to emphasize the word 'volunteer' in relation to rescues. Most rescue work is undertaken by volunteers. Rescues are usually time dependant and often only the people on the scene have the opportunity of recovering a living breathing human. By the time a trained rescue crew arrives, they are often dealing with a body recovery. 

I have found that trained rescue crews seldom have people as trained and capable as the people playing on the cutting edge of the sport. If you get in trouble, another paddler in your party may be the volunteer most likely to get you out of trouble. There have been many cases in river rescue where one or more rescuers died trying to rescue the original victim. Rescue work can be very dangerous. If you put yourself in harm's way, it is appropriate to consider the risks that will be taken by anyone who volunteers to rescue you. One of the standard rules in rescue work is about the priority of safety. The top priority for safety in marine rescue is the crew on the boat…next comes the safety of the rescue boat that the rescuers depend on. The third priority is the safety of the victim. Occasionally the rescue leader has to make the tough call not to proceed with a rescue even if the outcome is the loss of the victim and the victim's boat. Rescue volunteers are instructed not to proceed with any rescue that is likely to lead to their own death or serious injury. Heroes need not apply. 

Each of us is responsible for our own safety. If your kayak capsizes in rough water or a big surfing wave sucks you out of your kayak, you are also the person most able to rescue yourself. In a typical surfing day I am rescued up to 10 times….by rolling my kayak. Rolling is the safest and quickest way of recovering from a capsize. I have tried to rescue a friend who was dragged out of his kayak in 3 to 5 metre breaking waves. I was so focused on my own survival that there was not much I could do to help the person or even to find them. If I am swimming in rough water, one of the most dangerous things around me is another surfing kayak. I have come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do for a swimmer in surf is to hand them my spare paddle and tell them to use the paddle to "paddle-swim" to shore. That is why I carry a Greenland storm paddle on my front deck. 

When we choose to join other paddlers in rough water, it is appropriate to consider our own ability to protect and rescue ourselves in that situation. How rough is the water likely to get? How confident are we that we can stay in our kayak and roll it in rough water? What are the escape routes? Will a swim involve a liesurely float onto a beach or being pummelled on a jagged rock face? What are the wind and currents doing? I had to call for a rescue at Race Rocks because our group was being pushed into open water by a 5 knot current and 27 knot wind. Will long crossings be obscured by fog? Does someone in the group have a GPS with battery power and the knowledge to navigate by GPS? Is there a compass on your deck and do you know the bearing of your destination? Does everyone in the group have a chart on their deck? Are there radios in the group with battery power. Is everyone in the group on the same frequency? Will radios be left on or only turned on if needed? I have seen another paddler have a complete meltdown after being in the fog and out of sight of land for only 10 minutes. What are the protocols for dealing with danger? Have the protocols been discussed and agreed upon? Who is the weakest member of the group? Is the group willing to accomodate that person and protect them or should that person be encouraged to find a trip better suited to their skill level? Are you able and willing to rescue the other people in your group? Under what circumstances would you decline to rescue a member of your group because it would endanger your own life and well being? How well does everyone understand and accept the skill level of the other members of the group? Did you do a radio check and a briefing before entering rough water? Most accidents happen when some condition changes and the paddlers do not change their thoughts and communication and actions to accomodate that change. If the group has a defacto 'leader' has the leader identified the hazards to the rest of the group and given them an opportunity to decline? 

The biggest danger that advanced paddlers face on most kayak outings is rescuing other people. When venturing into rough water I consider carefully who I am willing to paddle with. I am quite willing to spend my own time and resources helping advance the skills of other paddlers. I am not willing to risk serious injury or death rescueing someone who has not spent time and resources preparing themselves for a safe and enjoyable paddle in rough water. Rolling is a prerequisite for paddling rough water. Time and practise is required to progressively gain the skill, strength and confidence to roll and self rescue in rough water. Courses are good….practise is essential. One of the most important elements of safety on the water is knowing when to make the tough call and simply say 'no'. 

Here is an excellent article by one of the masters of rough water rolling. Rolling my Kayak by Warren Williamson


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