The Right Place, The Right Time

Sea Kayaker magazine has a lot of stories about kayakers being rescued by other mariners: Sometimes it’s by the Coast Guard, sometimes by working seamen or by pleasure boaters.

Occasionally the tables are turned and kayakers come to the rescue. I had the opportunity to do just that this summer on the Great Peconic Bay between the north and south forks of New York’s Long Island.

On Monday, August 9, 2011, my girlfriend Dara Fee, her 17-year-old nephew Ryan and I were enjoying a late afternoon outing on the Great Peconic Bay. It was the first time Ryan had been kayaking. He was in Dara’s P&H Delphin, Dara was in her Lincoln Canoe and Kayak Schoodic and I was in my Tahe Marine Greenland-T. We had paddled out of Red Creek Pond in Hampton Bays to Red Cedar Point and were on our way back. It was a short outing, less than three miles.

Dara and I are both American Canoe Association (ACA) Level-3 coastal kayakers. We are also ACA-certified trip leaders. I lead numerous trips each year for North Atlantic Canoe and Kayak, a kayak club that both Dara and I belong to. We are also members of QAJAQ USA, the Greenland-style kayaking community in the United States. We have circumnavigated Manhattan Island and kayaked most bays on Long Island and Long Island Sound and have explored stretches of the Maine coast.

While I’m paddling, I always carry a VHF radio and keep it secured to my PFD. I always take visual sound signaling devices, a paddle float, pump, first aid kit and a tow belt. Dara carries the same equipment that I do. We carry food and water appropriate to the length of the outing. If I am kayaking with Dara or other experienced kayakers I usually stow my tow belt along with my first aid kit in my day hatch. I wore the tow belt on our August 9th outing because we were paddling with Ryan, a novice kayaker.

We were nearly halfway back to Red Pond when a white sailboat about 27 feet long passed in front of us about 35-yards ahead of us. There are a lot of boats sailing Great Peconic Bay so this is not an uncommon occurrence, but this sailboat had a man trailing behind it being dragged through the water at the end of a line.

No one was visible aboard the boat and only the jib was set. The boat was moving fast enough that the man in the water was only hanging on, not pulling himself toward the boat. Dara and I, without speaking or even glancing at one another, started to paddle after the sailboat with Ryan following. After my start to pursue the sailboat, I hesitated, believing that I heard a faint yell of “Help” off to my left.

I looked in that direction but I didn’t see anyone in the water. I paddled after the sailboat again but I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling about the faint cry that I thought I’d heard. I once more turned my kayak to the left. It was clear that Dara would catch the sailboat and I knew she could render whatever assistance was needed to the individual being dragged behind it.

Ryan was paddling after Dara and I was confident that if Dara needed Ryan’s assistance in helping with the sailboat she would instruct him what to do. I’d watched Ryan paddling on our way to Red Cedar Point and I was confident that he wouldn’t capsize in the small 18-inch swells. Besides, Ryan was wearing a PFD and even if he did capsize I knew he would follow the instructions that Dara had given him before we set out: Hold on to the kayak to be more visible in the water, then wait for us to get him back into his kayak.

After paddling about twenty-five yards, doubt started to set in: Did I really hear a cry for help? Could that cry have come from the man being dragged behind the sailboat? Was I wasting time traveling in this direction when I should be trying to catch up to the sailboat? Just when I was about to change direction and continue chasing the sailboat and the man tethered to it, I noticed a hand with outstretched fingers emerge from the water about 15 or 20 yards away.

Then, as if it had been a mirage, the hand was gone.

I glanced back over my shoulder and could see Dara now off in the distance rapidly gaining on the sailboat with Ryan not far behind her. I slowed down and continued paddling toward the spot where I had seen the specter of a hand emerge from the water. It didn’t reappear. I continued to paddle, but didn’t see anyone in the water.

Then, directly in front of my bow, just below the water’s surface inside a small swell, I was startled to notice a pair of eyes. The swell had brought the eyes almost up to my kayak’s bow level just a few feet in front of me. The eyes seemed the size of golf balls.

Emerging from the water once more was the hand, reaching for my bow. I applied some reverse strokes before the hand grasped my bow. I wanted to stop my kayak before the man could do anything in panic that might capsize me. With just his fingertips griping my bow, a head now emerged from the water and with it came the sound of a gasp for air.

As I paddled backward I said, “Don’t grab my boat; I will tell you what to do!” I didn’t want to risk capsizing by having him pull himself along my kayak’s grab lines toward me. The man nodded and I stopped back-paddling.

I instructed him to place his other hand on my bow and interlock his fingers. Once he had done this, I told him to let me know when he had caught his breath. When he once more nodded his head, I had him wrap his legs around the bow of my kayak and place his feet around the foredeck.

The man on my bow seemed to be in his 50s, shirtless, tanned, heavyset but not overweight, black hair, dark eyes and barefoot. He appeared extremely calm while secured to my bow.

I hadn’t done this swimmer rescue with the Greenland-T, but I had practiced the technique with my other kayaks. It is my preferred method for transporting a swimmer: I can see the individual attached to my bow and assess their condition as I paddle.

I have no problem paddling distances with someone attached to my bow and I don’t feel unstable. As it turned out, the Greenland-T is very well suited for this rescue technique. Its long tapered bow allows the swimmer to nestle right under the bow. He had no problem wrapping both his arms and legs around the kayak’s narrow bow. With water temperature in the 70s (21 ° C) this time a year, I didn’t have to concern myself with the swimmer quickly becoming hypothermic.

The Greenland-T has very little freeboard and if I had tried to carry him on the rear deck he would have submerged the stern of the Greenland-T and made it unstable. With him now secured to my kayak’s bow I started to pursue the sailboat, which appeared to have come to a stop.

My passenger, now that his life was no longer in jeopardy, regained his composure and was breathing normally. I have never been thanked so often and in that short a time span as when this man was clinging to my kayak’s bow. He turned his concern to the sailboat, which was being carried by the wind toward a rocky shore.

It only took me a few minutes to paddle the approximately 100 yards to reach the sailboat. When I arrived, Dara was at its bow and the man who previously was being dragged by the sailboat was now standing in waist-deep water, holding the line he’d been dragged by to keep the sailboat from running aground on the rocky north shore of Hampton Bays.

The man on my bow, his shorts hanging around his knees, waded over to the sailboat and pulled an anchor out of the water and put it on deck. The anchor was overboard and may have helped stop the boat as it drifted into the shallows near shore. There was no chain attached to the anchor, just a short line. The man I’d rescued climbed onto the sailboat’s stern. With all modesty forgotten and no attempt at pulling up his shorts, he started the small outboard engine.

Now with both men aboard, shorts up and engine running, they moved the sailboat away from shore while continuing to thank us. We didn’t get their names or even take note of the name of the boat.

Dara and I, in the brief conversations we had with the sailors, put together the circumstances leading up to this incident. The two men were sailing on the Great Peconic Bay and decided to anchor near the exposed sandbar off Red Cedar Point. They dropped the anchor but left the small jib up.

There was no chain affixed to the anchor: it was just tied to a short length of nylon rope. Without the chain to weight the anchor line, the anchor couldn’t get a purchase on the sandy bottom. The line looked taut as if it were holding, but the boat was drifting slowly backward.

The man I had rescued hadn’t noticed the boat had moved into deeper water and jumped off the sailboat believing it was still in the shallows surrounding the sandbar. He found himself in water over his head. He was not wearing a PFD and he couldn’t swim. His companion, noticing the plight of his friend, secured a rope around his own waist and jumped into the water in an attempt to rescue him.

The wind and current quickly separated the two. With just the jib set, the sailboat would swing around on a downwind course and pick up speed. Soon it was moving enough that the man tethered to it could not pull himself along the rope to get back aboard. Within a few minutes the wind and current pushed the sailboat and the tethered sailor across our path.

I marvel at all the circumstances that fell into place to allow us to rescue these two men: Dara didn’t have her normal work assignment and was able to leave work early; we’d picked that precise location and time to paddle; the direction of the wind and current carried the men right across our path; the nagging feeling I’d experienced that I’d heard a weak cry for help; looking in the right direction and noticing a hand emerging briefly from the water. We were very fortunate to be in a position to help the two sailors.

This was the second time I’ve been able to help someone while I was out kayaking. Two years ago two teenage boys capsized a one-person sit-on-top kayak in Noyak Bay, 12 miles to the northwest.

I got one of the boys back into the sit-on-top and towed the other back to shore with my kayak. I did not really think much of that incident. I’d spent three years as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne in the 1970s and almost 30 years in law enforcement, so this was not my first incident helping someone. I did not think much of helping the boys out of a bind, but it was quite a different experience to see a man’s hand reach out from beneath the waters of Great Peconic Bay.

Lessons Learned

It’s good to see that kayaks are not always on the receiving end of a rescue. There is a long-standing tradition of assisting mariners in distress: “Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel and persons thereon, to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea.”

There is also an obligation to keep watch while operating a vessel, not only to assure its safe navigation, but also to respond to emergencies. The custom of assisting others is a central part of the maritime culture for one simple reason: On water we are out of our element and without a sound vessel to carry us our survival time is limited.

Kayaks may be small, but we are all mariners nonetheless. The diminutive size of vessels may limit what we can do to assist others, but being alert to what goes on around us and prepared to take action can put us in a position to save lives.

The degree to which we prepare to go paddling usually increases the farther we are from home and the more isolated our destination. It makes good sense to be quite self-sufficient when help in an emergency would be, at best, hours in reaching us.

But closer to home, while we may feel a greater margin of safety for ourselves, the likelihood of encountering other boaters in distress is much higher. Great Peconic Bay, where Colin, Dara and Ryan crossed paths with the errant sailboat, is rimmed with piers and marinas.

Just as most auto accidents occur within 25 miles of home, it’s reasonable to expect that most boating accidents will happen in close proximity to the places boats are moored or launched.

The waters within view of the Sea Kayaker offices are a good example of an urban waterway. At the center of Shilshole Bay is a marina with 1,400 slips. To the south of the marina is a beach popular with stand-up paddlers and a canal leading to locks that lead to inland waters. About 65,000 boats pass through the locks each year.

To the north of the marina is a four-lane launching ramp used by more than 10,000 boats per year and a popular beach frequented by kayakers and kite-boarders. The vast majority of boaters pass through these busy waters without incident, but a few get into trouble. Rob Casey paddles this area often and reports:

“I rescued two kite-surfers in 25-plus-knot winds and waves reaching 4 feet. I carried one on my deck back to shore. A fisherman who’d stood up to pee and flipped his boat.

When we found him he was trying to swim his boat to shore even though it was anchored by a 16-pound downrigger weight. I gave him clothes to warm him until the paramedics arrived. I used a flare to direct the police boat to the site. A teenage kayaker in a boating channel in sight of a waterfront restaurant on a busy summer day had been capsized from boat wake. He was wearing only shorts and had been in the water 20 minutes.

My partner and I got him back aboard with a T-rescue and gave him clothes to wear. He was getting pretty stiff. This past summer I towed a stand-up paddler back to his put-in. He hadn’t been able to paddle back into a headwind. I gave him my tow rope to hold on to while he sat on the board.”

In this same area I’ve pulled two sailors out of the water while sailing and have towed a disabled fishing skiff behind my kayak.

We can’t expect that other boaters will respond to people in distress. A couple of years ago I was walking along the beach and noticed a kite-boarder about 50 yards offshore.

His kite had landed in the water and he appeared to have lost his board. He was struggling with a tangle of kite lines and it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to get himself to shore. I kept an eye on him for about 10 minutes, fully expecting that someone in the steady stream of power who was passing by him on their way in and out of the marina would stop for him. Not one did. I had just asked a person on the beach for a cell phone to call 911 when a pair of kayakers came to the kite-boarder’s aid.

They had seen the downed kite, recognized the distress and did something about it. They gave him a bow to hang on to and intercepted a powerboat to bring the man ashore. He was quite chilled but otherwise OK. His board was later recovered about a half mile away.

The kite-boarder’s sail in the water was clearly visible, if not an obvious sign of trouble. The signs are not always so easy to detect, like the faint cry that Colin merely thought he’d heard and could have passed without notice.

For the two sailors that I’d pulled out of the water, there was literally nothing to see or hear. I had looked astern just to keep track of the other boats in my area. I’d been keeping a mental note of traffic nearby so I knew that one boat was missing. I turned around and headed to where I thought they might be and eventually caught sight of the slim profile of an upturned hull.

Colin did well to pay attention to the sense he had heard something when the sight of the sailboat dragging a sailor was so obvious and could have narrowed his focus. He could easily have missed the person in the water—“PIW” in Coast Guard jargon.

A drowning person can be very easy to miss. We commonly associate drowning with crying out and thrashing in the water, a behavior referred to as aquatic distress. That can be true in some cases, but the signs of drowning can actually be quite subtle.

Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D, describe what they call the instinctive drowning response, or IDR.  There is also an article on cold-water immersion on the previous page of this issue of the U.S. Coast Guard’s magazine On Scene.) In the IDR, drowning people cannot speak or shout—their efforts are exclusively occupied with breathing. Their mouths will rise briefly above the water, and upon exhalation submerge again with a quick inhalation.

They will not raise their arms or reach out because they’re pressing down in an effort to get their mouths above the water. They float vertically and don’t kick to support themselves.

Colin approached the PIW with caution, knowing that a person in aquatic distress can be unpredictable and put a rescuer in danger. Emergencies necessarily create a sense of urgency, but it is important not to act too hastily. You can’t be an effective rescuer if you make yourself part of the problem. Fortunately Colin reached the swimmer in time and the swimmer was able to grab his bow. As Colin discovered, people exhibiting the IDR typically relax when rescued.

The water wasn’t dangerously cold, so hypothermia wasn’t an immediate risk. Colin could afford to keep the swimmer in the water and wrapped around his bow while he paddled toward shore and the sailboat. In cold water, swimmers can be transported on deck to delay the onset of hypothermia (See “Back Deck Swimmer Rescue,” Swimmer Rescue Transport,”).

Rescue practice is often directed at getting kayakers back in their kayaks. To prepare for coming to the assistance of other boaters, practice should include assisting a boatless PIW.

If you are paddling with a group, a pair of kayaks can be rafted up to provide a stable platform to get a PIW on deck. Additional kayaks can tow the raft to safety. If your easily accessible emergency gear includes a space blanket, the PIW can be protected from the cold. (Our Off the Water tip in this issue, page 48, recommends carrying a silicone swim cap for such emergencies.)

Colin had a VHF radio and could have summoned the assistance of a larger vessel if that had been required. In a life-threatening emergency, a Mayday call can bring other vessels in the area to assist and enlist the services of the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard can coordinate or assist in the rescue and prepare land-based emergency medical services to receive the rescued person. With handheld submersible VHF radios now available at under $100, there is little reason not to have one.

Most of the paddling sea kayakers do is very much like the summer afternoon outing that Colin, Dara and Ryan embarked upon. The benign conditions they paddled in were just what bring other boaters out in numbers.

Those times where we may feel least at risk may present us with situations where we can be of great service to othersperhaps even save a life—if we are well prepared and equipped.

Michipicoten Island – Atypical August winds turn an annual summer outing into a struggle to survive


I have been fascinated by Michipicoten Island ever since I became aware of it 43 years ago. The heavily forested island, located in the northeastern part of Lake Superior, is uninhabited by humans, seldom visited, and awash with wildlife, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines and jagged cliffs.

My partner, Judy, and I take a kayaking trip to Lake Superior every year. We usually go late in the summer to enjoy the cooler weather and fewer mosquitoes, but our 2010 trip began near the very end of August. We planned to visit Michipicoten Island and would begin our trip from Michipicoten First Nation land near Wawa, Ontario. The island itself is 15 miles long and 10 miles across. We’d cross to the island about 35 wilderness miles from the put-in.

I have been kayaking the Pukaskwa region of the Canadian north shore most summers for 24 years. I’ve made the full 110-mile trip from Hattie Cove to Michipicoten Harbour twice. Judy and I had made the nearly 10-mile crossing from Northern Ontario’s remote Pukaskwa region to Michipicoten Island for the first time the previous year. Despite my long-standing interest in the island, until our 2009 trip, time limitations, weather and caution regarding the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior had kept me from making the crossing.

The paddle out to the island had been a joy in fine weather and the return crossing had been even nicer; we’d only wished time had not constrained our explorations of the island. We had promised ourselves we would return.

Judy and I felt prepared for the 2010 trip. We were using a 21.5-foot Current Designs Libra XL, a tandem sea kayak I’ve had for 15 years. It has a great deal of cargo space and considerable seaworthiness. We added two deck mounts for sails that we would use if the winds were favorable. We dressed for immersion with 2-millimeter shorty wetsuits, which protect the body parts most vulnerable to heat loss—the body core, including the armpits and groin. Over the wetsuits we wore long-sleeve paddling jackets.

We also wore neoprene socks and neoprene sleeves on our forearms. I had deliberately chosen the shorty-style suits after hearing a Coast Guard medical doctor report on his studies of body-core heat loss in cold water. The study found that shorty wetsuits protect the shoulders and armpits better than farmer-john wetsuits. With neoprene on our lower arms and from our calves down, only our heads, elbows, knees and parts of our hands were exposed.

Our plan was to paddle from the put-in at Michipicoten Harbour to Floating Heart Bay, make the crossing to the island and explore its perimeter and larger streams. We would then cross back to the mainland, go 40 miles north to Hattie Cove, and paddle back to our starting point. If we had more bad weather days, we expected we would at least make it to Hattie Cove and shuttle overland back to our vehicle.

The previous year I’d felt vulnerable near the middle of this passage, so I purchased and registered an ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) as a precaution. When activated, it sends a distress signal and location coordinates (via satellite and a rescue-coordination center) to the appropriate search-and-rescue team.

It was our security blanket not just for paddling but also for mishaps that might occur on land while far from a road, a telephone or maybe even another human being. At 63 years old, and with Judy not much younger, I felt the PLB was a prudent addition to our safety gear. The model we chose also allowed us send daily “OK” messages and our location coordinates to our loved ones.

We filed our trip plans using ACR’s web-based trip registration service. If we activated the PLB, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards and ACR would have key information available, including our intended route, the type, size and color of the kayak, and the colors of our paddling jackets. They would be able to keep our contacts apprised of our status until the rescue was complete. I keep the PLB tethered to my person so I can activate it even if I were separated from the kayak.

Our trip in 2010 was colder, windier and wetter than any prior year. The first two days were quite warm and the winds were moderate, but after the first stopover at McCoy’s Harbor, we spent three to five nights at almost every campsite awaiting a break in the weather. Lake Superior can be formidable, and most days we were confronted with 20- and 30-mile-per-hour winds.

After spending three nights at Floating Heart Bay (the closest approach to Michipicoten Island), we were presented with strong northeast winds and predictions of more of the same, so we decided to put off the crossing and instead proceeded westward, hugging the north shore for protection from the wind. The coastline here roughly parallels that of the island for the next 15 miles. We could cross from another point if the opportunity arose or continue to our turn-around point at Hattie Cove and catch the island on the return leg.

Our strategy worked fairly well until we got to Le Petit Mort Rocks in the afternoon. Here, the shoreline begins to arc gently northward to the west of Floating Heart Bay, and once beyond Le Petit Mort Rocks, the shoreline was no longer providing us adequate shelter from the northwest wind. After about an hour of being pummeled by wind and mounting seas, we decided to turn around and overnight in a cove, above a small beach behind the “little death rocks.”

Contrary to the earlier weather reports, the next day was fair and mild, with a light north wind. The latest weather reports indicated the northerly would last no more than a few hours, then change to the west. We saw this as our opportunity to cross, and we did, using our sails to speed our trip. Fortunately, the fair-weather window remained open long enough for us to make it to the island’s East End Lighthouse at Point Maurepas–but no longer. The wind shifted just before we arrived and the wind and waves rose suddenly right after we landed.

Once we were on the island, the unfavorable weather pattern returned. We spent two nights at the lighthouse then another mild day paddling around to East Sand Bay, a deep, southeast-facing scoop out of the island’s southern shore.

The fifth day opened with a gale from the southeast—a howling, sandstorm wind, alternating with cold, driven rain. Weather radio indicated conditions were more benign everywhere else. The gale lasted a full 24 hours, and then the wind turned to the west, and for the next two days we watched leaping waves march past the bay.

Judy and I reviewed our situation and our calendar. We were not making the progress we intended. Approaching the equinox, daylight was diminishing by several minutes each day, and temperatures, already below normal, were following suit. Nights were sometimes at or below freezing, and days were now typically around 50?F. We decided to head back to the mainland.

The next day, winds were fairly stiff, but from the west. By hugging the south shore as it arced northeastward, we felt conditions would be favorable for our return to the East End Lighthouse. The wind rose and shifted to the east that evening, and we spent the next day listening to the waves pound the rocks, periodically checking the kayak to make sure the waves weren’t reaching high enough to grab it from the boulder ridge where we had secured it.

The next morning, we admired a spectacular sunrise but decided to ignore the old mariner’s saying, “Red sky in morning….” The winds were gentle and from the southeast, and the weather report was for the wind to change to the southwest and increase to around 20 miles per hour in the midafternoon.

We could be across by then, and if we weren’t, we would be close to land and able to make safe harbor before the sea rose too high. We also took comfort from the fact that, in a worst-case scenario, we did have a personal locator beacon. So we packed up and shoved off. We decided to strike out to the northwest, with the wind directly at our backs, for Le Petit Mort, the same bay that we had departed the mainland from.

Within a half hour of our departure, the gentle southeast breeze had become a brisk southeast wind. Apparently the sequence of events was not to be a wind shift followed by a rise in wind speed. The wind speed was rising first. By then, however, the prospect of fighting the wind to get back to the island was daunting, and we figured that the southeasterly would help us get to the mainland before it changed direction.

Our reluctance to reverse course and return to the island was part of our undoing. Yes, it would be very difficult to fight the wind and waves if we turned around, but plowing into the waves, able to see the oncoming peaks, anticipate their effects and compensate accordingly would have afforded us much more directional stability.

A heavy following sea knocks the stern to the side, and since the top of a wave is flowing forward, the boat must be moving even faster than the water in the crest in order for the rudder to function. I became fatigued by constantly correcting for direction and compensating, after the fact, for wave impacts.

As we got farther from the island, occasional waves crossed from the southwest, even though the wind had not yet shifted. These were a nuisance, as they crossed the southeasterly waves at roughly a 60-degree angle, and where they met, the combined crests peaked while the troughs deepened. I expected we’d experience crossing waves for a short period of time after a wind shift, but the wind was still from the southeast.

As we would learn later, this herringbone pattern of waves, well known by experienced mariners and called the Witch’s Grin, is caused by a 90-degree shift in wind direction, and was accentuated by the waves from the south wrapping around the island and intersecting.

Then the wind changed—two or three hours before we expected it to—and grew stronger. Building southwesterly waves intersected the well-established southeasterly waves. We decided to change course to avoid being broadsided by the growing southwesterly waves and started steering a little east of due north, aiming for Floating Heart Bay.

Judy and I struggled to keep moving forward but we were getting knocked side to side. Where the two wave patterns converged, waves would occasionally toss a column of water into the air that appeared fully double the other wave heights.

Slowly, the mainland appeared closer, and the island more distant. We took some comfort when the GPS told us we were at least halfway. The wind was stronger than anticipated, and by now the waves seemed over six feet in height and the peaks higher yet. (We later learned the waves were up to 10 feet in height.) The shore disappeared from view about half the time.

I felt the stern swing violently to the left as we listed to the right. Almost at the same time, a large wave crest from the right washed over my shoulders, burying the aft half of the boat while the forward half seemed to pitch upward as it was thrown to the right. I felt the kayak roll into the curl of the wave and I knew there was no coming back. I shouted in outrage at the elements even as my mouth filled with water. And then I was upside down.

OK, we’ve all been taught that all you have to do is roll back up. Try that in a fully loaded tandem in heavy seas. Especially when you’ve never done it very well in a single, in practice. Nonetheless, I tried. The kayak barely rotated. I evacuated the cockpit and bobbed to the surface.

Judy was already out and hanging on. She asked if I was OK. I sputtered affirmatively and asked likewise. I didn’t notice the water temperature. With our two-piece shorty wetsuits, long water socks, paddling jackets and water shoes, we weren’t completely exposed, but I knew we couldn’t afford to stay in the water for long. We both had our paddles, which were attached by paddle leashes to our paddling jackets. We also were both wearing backpacks carrying hydration packs. These provided some insulation as well as flotation.

I decided the first order of business was to attempt self-rescue, so together we righted the kayak. I dispensed with the paddle-float approach and had Judy hold one side of the kayak while I pulled myself up from the opposite side onto the rear deck. The kayak promptly tipped over again. The second attempt worked better, and I reentered the cockpit.

The waves within the cockpit surged back and forth, causing an eerie water-clap sound like the back of a sea cave. I contemplated whether I should empty the cockpit with the bilge pump or have Judy get in first. A crashing wave suggested I’d never get the spray skirt on, much less be able to empty the cockpit in these seas. Then another wave sent me over, throwing me a good six feet from the boat.

My paddle was between my legs and one leg was wrapped in the leash. I had to get untangled before I could swim back to the kayak. By the time I had myself straightened out, the boat was 20 feet away. I was upwind of the kayak, and the wind was blowing it farther from me.

Judy was holding on to the lee side of the kayak, watching the bilge pump float away. For the first time ever, I had failed to secure the bilge pump tether to the kayak. Had Judy pursued it as it floated away we both could have been separated from the kayak. Waves were breaking over my head, and I swallowed some water.

We didn’t have a throw rope. I had always thought of it as something to assist another boat, and we always went alone. If Judy could have tossed one to me, letting it trail upwind of the drifting kayak, I could have reached it and pulled myself to the boat. We later learned that 15-meter throw lines are required boating equipment in Canada.

I tried to swim to the boat, but my tethered paddle was like a sea anchor. I reorganized myself and used the paddle to swim, albeit clumsily. Slowly, I approached the kayak, and I put on a burst of speed to catch up. I gained on it somewhat more quickly, but ran out of steam.

I had to catch my breath, but the crashing waves kept that from happening. By the time I recovered, the boat was 30 feet away. I tried again and again, without success. Judy watched me with a look of desperation.

At this point it was clear to me we were not going to self-rescue. I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to catch up with the boat. I fumbled and found the rip cord on the belt pack for my inflatable life vest. It promptly inflated but was so rigid that it was difficult to pull over my head.

It was clear we were going to need help if we were going to survive. I opened the pocket on my spray skirt and pulled out the PLB. I hated having to do this. I’d never before gotten myself into a situation I couldn’t get myself out of. But I had no other choice.

I unwrapped the antenna and uncovered the red emergency button. I pushed it. Two seconds. Did I hold it two seconds? I thought. Was my sense of time even close to accurate? The PLB’s display showed that it was sending coordinates, and its strobe began flashing. It would do this, presumably, for 48 hours.

I knew we wouldn’t last 48 hours in Lake Superior, so that would be long enough to either summon assistance or be a moot issue. I tucked it into my PFD where it was generally above the water and its GPS was well exposed. It was still tethered to my spray skirt so I wouldn’t lose it.

By now the kayak was a good 75 or more feet away from me. Judy appeared not to have inflated her vest yet. I began to paddle-swim toward her but that was awkward. I had never practiced swimming with my PFD inflated. I swallowed more water as waves crashed over me.

I tried different approaches, once even holding the paddle aloft like a sail, hoping the wind might move me toward her and the boat. It seemed they were receding ever farther, disappearing except when they bobbed up on top of a wave. Once I saw Judy had righted the boat, but then it was over again. Once more it was up, and she was in it. “Good girl!” I spluttered, aloud, but then it was over again. Why didn’t she inflate the life vest? Finally, I could see the vest inflated, but not on her. She appeared to have her arm looped through it.

I was starting to feel the cold. I didn’t know how long it had been. I looked at the distant shore and thought, “Is this how it ends? If help doesn’t arrive, this will be how it ends.” I looked for the kayak. I wasn’t even sure where to look anymore. I began to despair. I flashed on a scene from the film, The Perfect Storm, where the last surviving crewman from the submerged fishing boat bobs to the surface in his PFD and the camera pulls away, revealing the vastness of the sea—and how hopelessly lost he is in it. I chastened myself for being such a media creature that I would even think of such a thing in this situation.

Then I saw Judy and the kayak, so far away, Judy with that desperate, searching expression on her face, searching for me. I had been swimming in the wrong direction. Then I thought, “No, it will not end this way!” I resolved to make it to her side. The only way I could possibly catch her would be to paddle-swim as efficiently as possible, at a rate I could sustain for a long time. If I could travel just a bit faster than the kayak was drifting, I could catch it, if I could keep it up long enough.

I didn’t know how long it would take for rescue, if rescue was, in fact, on its way. If rescuers found me by homing in on the PLB and strobe I needed to stay close to Judy so she’d be found quickly. So I swam using the paddle. It was hard to estimate how long. Paddle, breathe. Paddle, breathe. Ignore the breakers. Swallow water. Breathe, paddle. It occurred to me that at least I wouldn’t get dehydrated.

I was closer. I could see Judy and the kayak more frequently. This was heartening. It seemed Judy was turning the kayak into the wind. “Good girl!” I thought again. “That will reduce the windage and help me catch up!” But then it was parallel to the waves again. At one point it appeared I was almost even with it with respect to the wind, but a hundred feet off to the side. I had to course correct.

As I drew nearer I saw that the front hatch cover was missing. The bow was riding low in the water. Judy must have accidentally dislodged the latches while attempting to right the kayak or board it. The lower profile of the bow may have been what was allowing me to catch up. What I didn’t know was that Judy was trying to scissor-stroke the kayak in my direction. Whatever was happening, I was finally getting closer. I was getting colder, and I was running out of energy. It must have been an hour by now that I had been chasing the kayak.

Just keep paddling. I had almost reached it before and had run out of steam. If that happened again, my energy was too depleted to make another attempt. I had to avoid the urge to put on a burst of speed. Just keep plugging. And I knew I must not grab for the kayak too soon; if I missed, if it lurched out of reach, I’d have lost momentum and have to reorient the paddle, and that might have the same result. I waited until I was in contact with the kayak to reach for it.

I caught the rudder deployment lines with my fingers. Judy came around the bow to the upwind side and called back to ask if I was OK and if I had activated the PLB. I gasped yes to both, but I needed to rest. The waves were crashing over my head as the kayak and I bobbed up and down.

I tried to use the kayak to elevate myself a bit in the water, my inflated life vest holding me somewhat away from the boat. I just hung there for a while, recovering. Once breath and strength returned, I worked my way around to the downwind side of the kayak and Judy did the same at her end. I moved along that side to join Judy at the bow. I asked her about her PFD.

“I can’t get it over my head!” she replied. “I can’t use both hands because I won’t let go of the kayak!” We had never before inflated our PFDs so we were inexperienced at actually getting them on, especially in a situation where one is in the water and does not want to release the boat.

I told her to hang on and I pulled it over her head. It had not been easy to get my own PFD over my head and it was harder to do that for Judy.

“I’m going to try to reenter the boat again,” I said. “Try to stabilize it from the upwind side—but don’t let it get away from you!” I worked my way back to the rear cockpit while Judy went around the bow. After a couple of tries, I managed to get into the boat. It felt terribly unstable. Judy tried to get in, and we capsized.

I reentered. We repeated the experience. The kayak just wasn’t stable enough for her to get in too. We were less than fully practiced in self-rescue. Our practices typically had taken place in gentle, warm waters and low winds using an empty kayak. Reentry of both kayakers in a flooded kayak having the stability of a half-soaked log was much more challenging.

In the process of entering and capsizing, my coiled paddle leash became tangled in the deck-mounted sail yoke. Both Judy and I had our paddle leashes get wrapped on the sail yokes. We had kept the yokes mounted because of the inconvenience of stowing and retrieving them as needed. Our coiled paddle leashes compounded the problem in that they persistently fouled on everything they encountered. Judy was never able to release her paddle. I got it loose for her by releasing the leash’s Velcro fastening.

Judy gave up on trying to get back into the boat and hooked her arm over the forward cockpit coaming and hung on. I tried to paddle, partly to maintain some stability, partly to generate some body heat, and partly to try, however incrementally, to move us toward the mainland shore still four or five miles to the north.

Judy’s drag on the port side of the boat kept turning us in that direction. Trying to overcome the drag using the rudder and paddling mostly on my left was only slightly effective. I know at least once we turned in a complete circle. Eventually, I was paddling just to be doing something.

The chill was beginning to penetrate. We both had lost our hats. I could feel the heat leaving my body in the 25-knot wind. I was in the kayak, only half immersed, but Judy was still in the water. It had seemed warmer in the water, but sensation can be deceptive. Survival was beginning to look less likely. I could keep believing we would survive as long as I was reasonably strong and our objective realistically attainable.

But it had become apparent that even if we were to make shore on our own, we would be too hypothermic to survive. And at the rate we were chilling, we would never make shore. We had been heartened when I had regained the kayak, but dismayed by our inability to get us both into the boat without capsizing. Our inability to make progress toward shore was just as discouraging.

Our only hope was that the Coast Guard had received our PLB signal, and that they were en route. We spoke of it circuitously. We told each other that we loved each other. Judy told me how she feared she had lost me. I told her of the wrenching minutes when I couldn’t see her or the boat. We kept hoping to see our rescuers and wondered how far they would have to travel. We didn’t know how much time had passed, but it seemed like hours.

I kept paddling. My arms hurt. My hands barely felt like a part of me, but they continued to follow my instructions and I held on to my paddle. The waves must have been getting more organized, with less of a southeasterly component, as I don’t think I could have stayed upright if the herringbone peaks had been prominent.

I was beginning to weaken significantly and feel the cold in my bones when I heard a deep drone. I saw a magnificent, huge, four-engine prop plane approaching us from the southeast, flying what seemed to be only a couple of hundred feet above the water.

It was the Canadian Coast Guard search plane. We would later learn it had come all the way from Trenton, Ontario—some 90 miles east of Toronto. The C-130 aircraft was a beautiful sight as it flew directly over us. It seemed like forever before it turned and circled. It seemed to be flying a pattern and only flew over us again after completing it, then circled some more.

We assumed it must be checking to be sure we weren’t the only ones out here. But it also soon became apparent this aircraft was not going to rescue us. It was the search half of search and rescue, and the faster half, at that. How far behind was the helicopter? We could only wait.

Time was elastic. The half hour it took for the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to arrive seemed like well over an hour. It approached from the south, across Michipicoten Island, and pulled to a hover about 200 feet away. My arms were rubbery, barely able to brace the kayak against battering by the waves, and I hurt from chill and fatigue.

My field of vision had closed down to a tunnel, and I didn’t see the rescue swimmer leap from the helicopter. I looked over my right shoulder to see what looked like a finless dolphin slicing through the water at amazing speed toward us.

In a moment, the rescue swimmer reached me and said, “We’re going to get you both out of here. I’ll take your wife first and come back for you.” I would later learn his name was John. He then went to her, gave her the thumbs-up, said, “You’re going to be okay!” and told her the plan. He grabbed her by the loop on her backpack and towed her to the helicopter, placed her in the basket and sent her skyward. When he came back for me, he said we had a nice kayak and nice equipment.

I think I thanked him. At this point, I was only intermittently aware of things, as I was beginning to shut down, but when he said he was going to tip the kayak over so he could take me, I had enough presence of mind to reach behind my seat and grab the waterproof pouch tethered to it. It contained a credit card and ID, some money, and most importantly, the car key. I wasn’t capable of unclipping it, so as I fell out of the kayak, I just pulled until the cord snapped.

John told me to relax and let him do the work. He towed me through the water by my backpack strap at remarkable speed. The water felt so warm compared to the icy wind. He laid me on my back in the basket, which was submerged just below the waves, and told me to hold my glasses. As I rose through the air I turned my head to see my capsized kayak drifting slowly northward, presumably never to be seen again. I didn’t care.

The prop wash from the chopper blades was intense and freezing. Whatever body heat I had left seemed to get sucked out of me on that ascent. I was helped out of the basket by one of the crew, positioned on the floor in the back and given a blanket.

Judy was sitting in the one spare seat in the rear. We both expressed our relief at being reunited and for our rescue. Cramps set in my entire body, especially my neck. Mercifully, Judy didn’t experience any cramping. A crewman put a radio-equipped helmet on me so the crew and I could hear each other. He pulled off our PFDs and our water socks, and said the heater in the cabin was cranked all the way up. It was stifling for them but good for us. John turned off my PLB and said he would love to learn the whole story.

When we arrived at the Wawa airport, the ambulance was waiting. We were each asked whether we could walk to the ambulance. For me, there was no way that was going to happen. Judy was able to walk the few steps to the ambulance.

We had spent over three and a half hours fully or semi-immersed in the water. The Coast Guard reported the water temperature at 55° F. I was more hypothermic than Judy. The paramedics couldn’t get a temperature reading on me using a forehead scanner.

They immediately stripped all the wetsuits and gear from us and wrapped us in warm blankets. Once we were in the emergency room at Lady Dunn Hospital, they were able to take ear-probe temperatures. Mine was 93°F, and Judy’s temperature was 95°F. I was still cramping. They put us both under hot air blankets, and because my hypothermia was more severe, I was put into the trauma room and administered a warm-water IV, followed by warm liquids to drink. Judy recovered more quickly, and after three hours of treatment, we both enjoyed a hot shower.

I learned later that it would have been dangerous—possibly fatal—to have taken a hot shower early on. Warming the skin too rapidly can cause a sudden rush of cold extremity blood to move into the body core, causing cardiac arrhythmia. We were given wonderful care, receiving the almost undivided attention of a physician and the ER staff for four hours.

After we had both recovered sufficiently, the hospital staff provided us with warm clothing and summoned a pair of community volunteers from the Wawa Area Victim Assistance program to return us to our vehicle, which we had parked not far from the hospital. One of the volunteers, hearing our story, told us we had been caught in the “Witch’s Grin.”

Five days later, we were contacted by Dave Wells, a kayak outfitter in Michipicoten Harbour near Wawa. We had provided him, the police, local fishermen and anyone else we could think of with a list of the kayak’s contents in case any of it were to show up.

Dave told us that our kayak had been washed ashore on a sand beach adjacent to his facility. It had drifted 35 miles to one of the few patches of sand in a coast that is nearly all rocks.

Dave and his staff had emptied the kayak of sand, brought it to their facility, emptied the hatches and dried out the gear. The kayak was nearly undamaged. We lost my camera and some non-floating items that had been stored in the cockpits, but recovered almost all the rest. Even my paddle was retrieved by local folks who turned things over to the police or Dave. Our GPS was found on the beach, and it still works.

After the accident I wondered if having the PLB had influenced our decision to proceed even when we had doubts about the crossing. I know it went through my mind that morning, weighing the factors, that if conditions turned really rotten and we got into trouble, we always had the PLB to fall back on. Would we have proceeded without it?

I don’t know the answer, but I know I will be wary of allowing it to influence me in the future. No doubt our family and friends will demand we carry one on future excursions (as if we weren’t convinced ourselves) and after this event, I expect they will be tracking our movements and status carefully.

Surviving a near-death situation can be a life-altering experience. In our case, it has served to cement the bonds between Judy and myself. Seeing a loved one’s life at genuine risk, especially knowing you may be responsible, can be more frightening than being at risk yourself.

It reprioritizes your values in a hurry. Both of us are more aware of how precious we are to one another. The single strongest memory I have of that event is the image of Judy in the distance, clinging to the kayak as waves intermittently heaved her into view, her face filled more with concern for me than with fear for herself.

We two aging, far less than optimally conditioned sea kayakers, capsized in Lake Superior under adverse weather conditions and weren’t able to self-rescue, yet we survived thanks to a combination of technology and the extraordinary efforts of a team of people who have dedicated themselves to bailing the rest of us out of situations we should never have put ourselves into. Certainly, our experience underscores the importance of kayakers having a Personal Locator Beacon for any but the most protected waters.

The only consolation we perceive in consideration of the public resources expended to save us is the hope that our case contributed positively to the justification for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard budgets. We cannot fully express our gratitude.

Robert Beltran retired from EPA in 2007. He is a coauthor of The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book. He and his late wife kayaked Lake Superior annually from 1986 until she developed cancer in 1997. Bob resumed kayaking the lake with his new partner, Judy, in 2005.

Judith Gottlieb retired from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2009, where she was a wastewater engineer for the Milwaukee River Basin. She has been kayaking Lake Superior annually since Bob introduced her to the sport in 2005.

Lessons Learned

by Roger Schumann

When analyzing most kayak accidents, one rarely has to look very far beyond a few common basic safety measures to see what went awry. The majority of mishaps typically involve hypothermia and one or more (too often all) of four basic errors.

Paddlers who got in trouble were 1) not wearing PFDs, 2) not dressed for immersion, 3) paddling a kayak without adequate flotation, and 4) had inadequate rescue training and practice for the type of trip attempted. There is often a bad decision to launch, followed by one or more unexpected waves and/or gusts of wind and, voilà—deep trouble.

In this story bad things happened to paddlers who thought they were fairly well prepared. Both Robert and Judy wore PFDs as well as wetsuits, and paddled a kayak that had demonstrated “considerable seaworthiness” to them for the past 15 years.

They also had several years’ experience in the area, and a personal locator beacon “as a last resort” to get them out of just about any trouble they could get themselves into. In spite of their feeling well prepared for the trip, trouble did come, and it came in spades.

While stories of survival can be inspiring—Bob and Judy’s determination after they found themselves in the water was no less than heroic—our goal is to avoid putting ourselves in circumstances where our survival is in jeopardy.

Back to Basics

Bob and Judy did wear PFDs, although the inflatable type they wore proved less than ideal when they ended up in the water. Although the PFDs ultimately did the job of keeping them afloat—despite the obvious operator error—standard PFDs that use foam for flotation would have caused them fewer problems, and the inherent insulating properties of foam would have kept them somewhat warmer.

Bob and Judy hadn’t practiced paddling, swimming and doing rescues with their PFDs fully inflated. Bob told me that they just didn’t think that practice seemed necessary. Making time to practice with the gear you will be using on a trip can help reveal any unexpected complications you might encounter.

While Bob and Judy had considered themselves dressed for immersion, they were not dressed for a capsize and wet exit in the middle of a 10-mile crossing in very rough conditions and in 55-degree water.

Full wetsuits designed for paddling, or even drysuits and neoprene hoods would have been better options. Had Bob and Judy both been warmer after Bob’s long swim back to the kayak, they both might have been better prepared, not just physically but mentally as well, to explore and execute a wider range of reentry alternatives, such as deploying their paddle float (more on this later), that might have gotten them both out of the water and back aboard the kayak.

No immersion wear can assure survival in cold water forever, but what’s more important than survival time is the time immersion wear provides for clear thinking, adequate strength and manual dexterity.

Most tandem kayaks are quite stable, especially when loaded with camping gear, but they can take on a lot of water after capsizing and lose much of their stability. With a hatch lost and the forward compartment flooded, Bob and Judy’s tandem was made even less stable.

Also, paddling a tandem kayak “solo,” that is, without another kayak to help out and provide stability for reentries and pumping, definitely limited their rescue options. Other gear issues, such as getting tangled in paddle leashes and not having a throw line, compounded their problems. (Given their luck with the paddle leashes, I don’t know if having another few dozen feet of throw line in the roiling water would have improved their situation much.)

The main lesson still left to learn before Judy and Bob attempt paddling solo in open water again—and the most important point, I believe, for readers to ponder—involves shifting our focus away from gear.

Focusing on things like tangled leashes and throw lines they wish they’d had and difficult PFDs is a bit off the mark (like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” I believe the saying goes).

Certainly a throw rope could have saved Bob from the epic swim, but then what? And life jackets that didn’t have to be awkwardly forced over their heads would have been much more helpful, for sure, yet still left them essentially in, or rather out of, the same boat—miles from shore without the skills to reenter their kayak, shivering and waiting for a helicopter ride to the hospital.

While the PLB certainly saved their lives, and their shorty wetsuits kept them alive long enough for the Coast Guard to save them, the fourth safety principle I listed above could have spared them the trauma and danger of requiring a rescue: Paddlers should have adequate self-rescue skills and practice for the trip planned.

Bob admits that they were “less than fully practiced in self-rescue.” Bob had done some rescue training in calm conditions and had even managed to roll an empty single in practice.

Judy’s only background involved having taken a basic canoe course as a teen. They had not practiced at all together nor practiced rescues in a tandem or in a loaded kayak. Most importantly, they hadn’t practiced in a loaded tandem together in conditions similar to those they could and did encounter on Lake Superior.

Bob mentions that rescue “practices typically had taken place in gentle, warm waters and low winds using an empty kayak.” Unfortunately, this is all too common an approach.

While protected areas are a great place to begin your rescue training, allowing you a safe place to learn, it takes more than flat-water practice to develop the sort of self-sufficiency that might actually keep you from having to activate your PLB. Once you feel confident with your technique in calm water, a good next step is to move to a safe place to practice in more challenging conditions; for example, off a wind-blown point where you’re being blown back into a calmer area.

After that, the third step might be to head back in to the calm area and practice in a loaded kayak, since it handles much differently than an empty one. While it might sound inconvenient to pack your kayak full of camping gear for a practice session, you might more easily simulate a load by filling jugs of water held in place by float bags.

You could also practice with an actual load of gear on the first day of a trip, in the shallows near shore as you’re coming into camp. You wouldn’t even have to get your head wet; just jump out in waist-deep water and tip your boat over to see what it takes to get back in.

Many paddlers I know resist this, because they say that they don’t want to get wet and cold. This would be a valuable reality check on whether or not their immersion gear is adequate for a capsize in actual conditions. If they aren’t eager to get in the water to practice, it’s a pretty good indication that they’re not properly dressed. The information you gather during an in-trip practice could provide you with invaluable information on how well you are equipped to carry out any crossing you may have planned in the days ahead.

If Judy and Bob had done such a practice session before even considering their initial crossing to the island, they likely would have discovered the same weaknesses in their gear and skill in a much less traumatic venue. Knowing that the weather was worse than usual, they might have reconsidered the crossing if they found any reason to be less assured about their current level of skill and the suitability of their gear.

The fourth step in preparation would be to practice in a loaded kayak out in rough conditions. Such a practice session would duplicate what Bob and Judy went through but without the dire consequences. Without a graduated series of practice sessions, the mid-crossing capsize they experienced was like learning to swim by jumping straight into the deep end of the pool.

By practicing before the cruise and the crossings they would have discovered that their inflatable PFDs were difficult to deploy, and they could either have had a chance to figure out a technique for getting them over their heads more easily or else decided to switch them out for foam-equipped vests.

They would have learned that their shorty wetsuits were perhaps a bit skimpy for immersion in 55-degree water and that they needed more thermal protection. And they might have prepared for the drill by making sure essential gear like the bilge pump was securely attached to the kayak.

They also would have discovered that the latches on their hatch covers were a problem. Fifteen years ago, when their double was made, the lever-and-slider systems for hatch cover straps were common and prone to release accidentally.

Manufacturers have since addressed this problem in a number of ways—bending the end of the levers upward, putting jogs in the sides of the lever arms, or putting webbing with snaps on the slider—all to help prevent accidental tripping. Unfortunately there are still hundreds of the old closure type still lurking on hatch covers, and they are susceptible to getting tripped, especially in reentries when people are crawling over the decks.

Regular practice would have revealed this problem and sent Judy and Bob to seek solutions. Ironically, as Bob pointed out, the flooded bow and the resulting change in the trim of the kayak may have been what made it possible to catch up with the kayak.

Bob’s leash was attached to his spray skirt, instead of his kayak, leading to his becoming tangled in it away from the kayak and precipitating his long swim. He and Judy found the coiled leashes they used were especially prone to tangles and snares.

Practice would have exposed the possible problems with their paddle leashes and left them better able to weigh the pros (such as not losing your paddle) with the cons (entanglement issues) and consider possible alternatives.

Most of all, taking the time to practice gives paddlers a more realistic idea of their reentry skills, allowing them to make better informed route decisions. Crossings require a higher level of expertise in rescue skills and knowledge of alternates. The greater the exposure, the higher the risk of bad conditions and need for practice in rough water.

My standard advice to students is not to paddle in waters that are rougher—or likely to get rougher—than they’ve practiced rescues in. To take this a step further, always add a set of conditions to your skills and equipment.  Saying, “I’ve practiced paddle-float recoveries” won’t help you make decisions as well as it would to say, “I’ve done solo-reentries in three-foot seas and twenty-knot winds with a loaded kayak”. Similarly, an assessment like “I’m dressed for immersion” is not as useful as “I can still function well in my immersion wear after twenty minutes in fifty-degree water.”

A rescue is something that happens to paddlers who don’t yet have the skills to reenter their kayak after a capsize. Capsizing is in itself not the problem for kayakers. For those with a solid roll, it’s just a momentary dunking. It is when paddlers end up in the water without the proper gear or regularly practiced skills to reenter the kayak that a capsize can become life threatening.

The major lesson to be learned from this incident is what can happen if you take a set of skills and equipment that may be adequate for touring in calm, warm water along a friendly shoreline, and then attempt to pull off a significant open-water crossing during a fluke of a weather window on a large body of cold water with a nasty reputation.

Exposure is a key consideration. It makes a big difference whether you are paddling five minutes or five miles from the nearest safe landing zone. On longer crossings, you’re allowing more time for the conditions to change. Your decision to cross has to be based not on what conditions are like at the start, but on what they could become before you make a safe landfall and how much strength you’d have left to deal with adversity, say several hours after leaving shore.

Bob and Judy’s first crossing committed them to a second crossing, doubling their time of exposure. The brief weather window that allowed them to get to the island wasn’t forecast and was merely a break in a pattern of unfavorable conditions. They would need a second break in the weather to get back to the mainland. While I agree with their assessment that making the crossing back to the mainland was a poor decision, making the crossing out to the island in the first place set them up for trouble.

Once they ended up in the water, Bob mentions having a paddle float, but decided not to use it for his reentry because Judy could stabilize the kayak for him while he got in. That strategy ended up being a good way for Bob to get himself out of the icy water, but while Judy provided the stability to allow Bob to get back in his cockpit, he was not able to brace well enough in the conditions for her to get back in without re-capsizing them. Using a paddle float can provide much more stability than braces alone. Better yet, if both paddlers have paddle floats, especially ones that they’ve practiced with previously, it can provide enough stability on either side of the kayak to help counteract the effects of confused sea conditions, such as those encountered by Bob and Judy.

Even with a pair of paddle floats deployed, there might not have been enough stability to remain upright in the teeth of the Witch’s Grin, given some of the inherent issues with rescuing tandem kayaks. Although they are usually perceived as being a safer, more stable craft than single kayaks, after a capsize tandems pose several problems. Their decks are generally higher and can make reentry more challenging than it is with single kayaks. The reentry sequence needs to be coordinated between the two paddlers. The large cockpits allow for the entry of lots of water and for lots of sloshing (free surface) that creates instability. Bob was able to get back in the kayak for good once they drifted into the somewhat less confused seas beyond the Witch’s Grin, and it is quite likely that paddle floats would have worked to get Judy aboard and kept the double upright, especially if the two had done a little rough-water practice beforehand.

While investing in a PLB is a good idea, investing in some rescue classes, as well as some time practicing before heading out is an even better idea because the training can help you avoid the trauma of having to deploy a PLB. Having some expert guidance can provide an invaluable source of advice and perspective, and nothing but actual practice—especially in at least some moderately rough seas—can reveal weaknesses in your gear or skills that might land you in trouble.

Practice your reentry skills regularly, at least every paddling season. Before every trip, ask yourself when was the last time you and your regular paddling partner practiced reentries? And did you practice together, in the same boats and conditions you are likely to capsize in? Reentry skills are perishable. When was the last time you checked the “expiration date” on yours?

Shipwrecked in Ujung Kulon (Kayaking SE Asia)

In late January 2000, my buddy Dave Stibbe and I set out on a paddling adventure in Southeast Asia.

Our starting point was Phuket, on the north end of Thailand’s west coast. Our planned finish was Bali, Indonesia-2,800 kilometres away. We had a three-month window to complete our trip, and agreed beforehand to just go with the flow. We were equipped with a reliable folding double kayak and two cases of Spam, so we were feeling pretty confident.

Each of us had a wealth of experience: I had paddled 9,000 kilometres across Canada in 1995, and Dave had 18 years of experience as a guide in the outdoors. We had already spent several weeks on dry-land adventures, after which we had paddled the 300-kilometre Thai coast and the whitewater Selangor River in Malaysia.

While I was on the river, I had come down with a nasty systemic blood infection through a cut on my elbow, and we had spent a couple of weeks in the Malay capital of Kuala Lumpur, waiting for me to get out of the hospital. A bit of surgery and ’round-the-clock IV drip antibiotics cleared it up.

From there, we traveled inland through Sumatra and Java, eventually ending up in the city of Jakarta. After a few days in the crazy, bustling city of 17 million, we were ready to head out onto the water again for some peace and quiet, and a little adventure. We made plans to paddle 1,200 kilometres of the Indian Ocean along the exposed south coast of Java, to Bali.
This would be the last leg of our journey.

From Jakarta, Dave and I traveled by bus and ojeck (mini-bus) to the fishing village of Sumur, on the west coast of Java. We settled into a basic losmen (guesthouse) for the night; it catered to local Indonesians, and was the only place in town for us to stay.

A single dim light bulb hung in our musty room that was furnished with two worn cots. A well outside provided water. The central toilet was a hole in the ground that you squatted over and flushed by scooping water into it from a basin. Par for the course and all we could expect for $2.50 U.S. per night (for both of us). Because of tumultuous national politics over the past couple of years, Indonesia has been in a tourism slump.

The proprietor of the losmen told us (with help from our phrasebook) that we were the first “white people” to stay there this year. In the morning, Dave and I carried our gear down the dusty dirt road that served as Sumur’s main street. We passed by food stands overflowing with bananas, coconuts, papayas, cigarettes and shiny cellophane-wrapped treats. People sat in front of their simple wooden and corrugated tin shacks, smiling and saying, “Hallo, mister!” to us as we passed by.

“Hallo, mister” is the one English phrase that every Indonesian man, woman, and child seems to know and use quite liberally. Two hundred yards from the losmen, the road ended at a beach lined with a dozen fishing boats. They ranged from 15 to 25 feet long, with rotted planked hulls, rusty diesel-powered outboards or inboards and black oil-stained wooden decks. A small, covered captain’s cockpit popped up at the front before their deep, upswept bows.

A few puffy clouds lounged in the backotherwise brilliant blue sky. With an entourage of a couple of dozen villagers in tow, we picked an open spot between two of the boats and set about our construction project. Dave began stashing our gear in dry bags while I assembled the kayak.

Word travels fast in a small town like Sumur, so a hundred or so of the locals crowded in tight to see the kayak take shape, giving me only inches of breathing room. When I accidentally poked some of the kids with kayak frame parts, the villagers laughed. They followed my every move, pointing and giggling as if they were watching a major sporting event. “Ooohs” and “aaahs” reverberated throughout the audience as our kayak steadily came into shape.

Gentle one-foot rollers splashed against the Hypalon hull of the kayak. Ujung Kulon National Park is made up of 800 square kilometers of roadless wilderness on a peninsula on the southwest tip of Java. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991, and achieved its park status in 1992. It’s bordered by wave-thrashed volcanic cliffs and jungle-covered volcanoes to the west; alligator and crocodile-rich swamps and mangroves to the north; endless uninhabited stretches of surf-pounded beach to the south; and unique flora and fauna-including endangered Javan rhinos and leopards-in the jungle of the east.

We followed the east coast of Selamat Datang Bay for 15 kilometres until our lunch stop. Turquoise waters lapped gently onto the golden-sand shores of the bay. Children played in the shallows, and fishermen casting hand nets pulled in the shimmering, struggling bounty of the Indian Ocean. We had lunch beside the bleached wooden skeleton of a fishing vessel on the beach, and looked west, across to the park.

The middle of the bay was far less protected than the shore; whitecaps danced on the water all the way across. After lunch, we crossed over the bay through one-meter swells, the ocean spray coating our boat and bodies as the sun sparkled off the ocean and the wind rippled across the water.

We arrived at Peucang Island at five in the evening after a 30-kilometre day, and set up camp at a ranger station, the only spot clear of swamp and mangrove in this low-lying area of the park. We erected our tent in a rough grass field sprinkled with coconut trees.

A simple wooden structure with a map of the park posted by the doorway served as the ranger’s cabin, while an empty, three-room motel-style plywood building stood across from it at the other end of the field. Launching the next morning, we paddled in heavy monsoon rains and wind, in swells up to three metres high. There was no place to land on this flat, northern-exposed, rock-rimmed swamp for 20 kilometres.

Broken volcanic rock blocked any chance of landing. We ate lunch while paddling, and arrived at 6:00 p.m. at Handoelum Island, soaked to the bone. Over a hearty Spam-and-noodle dinner, Dave and I shared our concerns about the relatively slow speed of the kayak and its open design-with no bulkheads, and a canoe-style spray deck-on big Indian Ocean water.

Our main concern was how the kayak would handle during the really big surf landings that we would have to tackle on the exposed south coast of Java. The following morning, March 22, we tied all of our gear into the kayak and headed southwest. We planned to paddle 25 kilometers around the notorious Gedeh and Gehakalok points.

Between these two points are 12 kilometres of 50- to 200-meter cliffs that drop off from the emerald-forest-covered volcanic peaks on the western tip of Ujung Kulon. Exposed to the full might of the open Indian Ocean, this section has laid claim to many a fishing boat. Quiet, focused, and a bit nervous, we ventured into the chaos around Gedeh Point.

Massive, house-sized swells (five to eight metres high) crashed into the cliff faces with incredible force. The resulting rebound waves came back and smashed into the incoming rollers. We were being hit from both sides with these giant colliding waves, making for tricky paddling. The ocean’s color transformed from turquoise to a dark blue, indicating a change to deep water and open-ocean conditions.

The kayak remained stable as we moved away from the point. As we crested a swell, we spotted a tanker out on the open water, then it disappeared as we entered the canyon-like trough of the wave. After we rounded Gehekalok Point, we were getting quite used to the roller coaster ride through the swells, and had lunch aboard the kayak.

Nearby, the ocean was hammering a small rock island, shooting 10-metre vertical sprays of water. Only 20 metres from the action, I pulled the camera out from under the deck for a shot, when both Dave and I heard a loud roar coming from behind us. We turned to see a steep six- to seven-metre rogue wave breaking and heading for us. Up to this point, the swells had been clean, but in that instant, in the trough of the wave that created the break, I spotted a shallow reef.

Dave shouted, “Put the camera away! Put the camera away! Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” I hurriedly jammed the camera under the deck and paddled like mad. Pumped full of adrenaline, we made that kayak move as never before, narrowly evading the oncoming wave that would have crushed us against the lava cliffs. We were instantly filled with pure joy and elation; we laughed giddily, and whooped in relief at escaping the close call. We aimed toward Cibandowah Beach, a deserted 18-kilometre stretch of white sand rimmed by dark, low-lying jungle.

It was late afternoon and we had to land somewhere along this shore, since beyond the beach was another long stretch of rocky cliffs. We were ushered into shore by six- and seven-meter swells, indicating that the shore break would be nothing to sneeze at.

As we approached, the waves along the shore were popping straight up like rooster tails when they hit the beach. This meant it was a steep beach with a short, abrupt surf zone. Time to check out how the old kayak, and we, would do in some seriously trashy water.

Within 40 meters of shore, the break was big, steep, fast and powerful. I scanned up and down the barren coastline, but the story was the same everywhere. I was ready to go for it. As we entered the surf zone, I knew we were in trouble. The first couple of five- and six-metre rollers steepened and broke just after passing under us. The next big roller approached and opened its gaping mouth at us. I shouted, “We’re going down!” “Not yet!” Dave replied. We balanced precariously on its tip as it broke. Looking down the face of the wave, I gauged the distance to be roughly that of a two-story building. It didn’t take us and, in the brief reprieve, we glimpsed a stretch of flat water leading to the shore.

We paddled hard for land, trying to work through the strong suck-back off the beach before the next wave hit. Unfortunately, it was to no avail. A six-metre roller came quickly behind us and grabbed us. For a split second, it held the kayak completely vertical before body slamming us face-first into the surf. Our 600- pound kayak (with us and our gear) was tossed like a toothpick.

Underwater, I was violently jettisoned out of the kayak by the force of the blow. I popped up to be hit by yet another wave that shot me in toward shore.

I swam after our capsized kayak and grabbed it, then fought to get the water-filled boat to shore. I noticed immediately that its hull buckled sickeningly in the center.

After struggling with the strong ebb and flow of the surf zone, I got the boat partly on shore. I turned to see Dave knee-deep in the shallows, thrashing around, trying to collect the smaller “yard-sale” items that had not been tied into the boat. He flashed a smile at me, indicating that he was OK. I helped him, and we eventually got everything high and dry.

The casualties: two lost pairs of  sunglasses-and our kayak. I inspected our craft and found that the two main center ribs, the side supports, the coaming, all of the bow pieces, the metal rudder fitting and the rudder were broken clean through: eleven parts in all completely trashed. About half of the frame was broken, and impossible for us to field repair.

It would be unthinkable to paddle the kayak in this condition, especially on the Indian Ocean. It would act like a slinky for a while, until it broke apart due to stress on the unbroken frame parts. We were in the only uninhabited, roadless area of Java, in the farthest corner of Ujung Kulon. The water had destroyed our map; we had only a macro map of Java to go by.

From my memory of the ranger maps and our macro map, we figured that we had at least 40 wilderness kilometres to cover with all of our gear to get to the first inhabited village. Dave and I packed our soaked gear and kayak into our two large duffel bags, the kayak skin bag, the frame bag, the rib bag, Dave’s backpack, and my large camera case. In all, we estimated the bags to be in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. I felt pretty good, actually.

This castaway gig was pretty cool. We were by ourselves in the wilderness, and had a mission: To get ourselves and our stuff out under our own power through unpredictable and unknown terrain. True adventure never really starts until you mess up really badly.

We fulfilled that criterion. After shuffling the gear about ten minutes down the beach, we set up our tent on top of a sand dune. It was getting dark, and a thin band of orange was the only light remaining on the horizon. On one side of our perch, we peered down into a firefly-lit, swampy jungle; on the other, we could see and hear the vastness and power of the surf that had crushed us. Our stove was soaked, but I dried it out and managed to get it going. It clogged up after a few minutes, so I took it apart to clean it.

With almost everything still wet, and camping on a sand dune, I clogged the stove even more. The more I fiddled, the worse it got. Spam time, once more! After being gnawed on by no-see-ums during dinner, we went to bed tired, damp and full of spiced ham, knowing that we had a big day ahead of us.

The next day was humid and, fortunately, overcast, with intermittent monsoon rains rolling in off the ocean to cool us. I shuttled 60- to 100-pound loads for ten minutes at a time, eastward down the beach. I’d then run back for the second load and haul it to where the first one was. I wore sandals, while Dave trudged at his own pace, barefoot.

Dave likes the feel of sand on his bare feet and, despite my warning, thought he’d fare fine, even with the extra weight. “Uh, Dave, we’ve got a long way to go. You sure you want to go barefoot?” “I always walk barefoot in the sand. It feels good. Just like a foot massage.” “Suit yourself.” We needed to cover 15 kilometres along Cibandowah Beach before we entered the jungle. Once in the bush, we needed to find a trail that I recalled from the ranger map that led north to Selamat Datang Bay, where we had started.

Once at the bay, we would have to make our way up its eastern shore toward Sumur until we reached the village of Tamanjaya, where the first road out was. I cruised along in a Zen-like state, funneled forward along the beach by the ocean on my right side and the waving trees and vegetation of the jungle on my left. I thought of nothing much in particular except pushing forward. Black rain clouds rose off the ocean and soaked us, followed by a brief blaze of equatorial sun that dried us off.

We dodged between driftwood, discarded sandals, fishing nets, seaweed, shampoo bottles and anything else the sea had carried from far-off lands and deposited on the fine white sands of Ujung Kulon. I sang Village People and Abba songs to help keep myself occupied. We traveled seven kilometres in four hours, until we finally approached the Cikelesik River.

What we saw gave us pause: The river flowing out of the jungle was broad – about 20 metres wide, and the incoming tide rushed up the river like a rip. We had no choice. We forded the armpit-deep river with our heavy loads, digging our feet sideways into the sandy bottom to keep from being knocked over by the relentless force of the sea. My sandals sank deep into the sand as I strained to keep moving forward with my pack. After a prolonged struggle against the force of the flow, I finally emerged on the other side. As I turned around to check on Dave’s progress…..

I saw him lose his footing, and the surging ocean current swept him upstream into a lagoon next to the jungle.

I trudged up the channel toward the lagoon to offer my help. He struggled in the deep water to swim his pack to shore, swinging and splashing wildly with one arm, while keeping his other hand on the sinking  pack. Once he got near the edge of the lagoon, he found his feet and sloshed onto the beach with a sheepish grin on his face. We were relieved to have made it across, in whatever fashion. We later found out from some rangers that the Cikelesik is home to a good-sized population of saltwater crocodiles-some reaching up to three metres in length.

We needed to resupply our water, so I took out our water bottles and examined the brackish water. Unsure whether the water would be good, I sipped a mouthful, then disgustedly spit it out. We decided to follow the Cikelesik upstream through the jungle to see if we could find some fresh water higher up.

Grabbing our water container, we followed a crude trail into the dark bamboo, ficus and fern jungle. Water dripped off the funneling leaves of the tree ferns and cascaded like tiny waterfalls down to the muddy floor of the jungle. The still, muggy air of the tropical forest replaced the refreshing breeze off the ocean.

Betel nut trees, bamboo, bushes and vines grew in a dense thicket along the shore, hanging out over the river’s edge. We slipped and slid our way along the path, in and out of the trees and vines, our senses bombarded by everything around us.

After about 15 minutes of tramping, we came upon a small tributary. I walked down to the murky, still water and tasted it: more fresh than salt-good enough. As I stood knee-deep in the small river, slowly filling up the 10-litre container, raindrops peppered the still surface of the water.

Once the brown water had filled up our jug, I waded out of the stream and we made our way back to the beach along the slick trail. By now it was pouring. By 4:00 p.m., we had hauled our gear for ten hours and gotten to the end of the beach. We still had a couple of more hours of light, and planned to go through the jungle across the bottom of Tereleng Peninsula into Karong Ranjong Bay to camp.

I had become well acquainted with my burden. On one load I carried the kayak knapsack-style skin bag that also contained the spray deck, seats and PFDs. On top of this I threw the long, narrow frame bag that also contained our paddles, pumps and sail. The total was about 100 pounds. I walked in a crucifix-like position with my hands spread out to the sides above my head to support the frame.

My other burden was a 60- to 70-pound duffel bag that I carried backpack-style, with unpadded straps. Dave, meanwhile, had gimped his arches from walking barefoot in the sand all day with heavy weight. He hobbled around like a wounded animal. We followed the tracks of the wild dogs, Javan rhinos, boars, and wild buffalo that had blazed a trail along the beach before us.

At the end of Cibandowah Beach, we looked for some sort of trailhead to take us through the jungle. A small brown patch stood out in the grasses on top of a rock shelf where the beach ended and the forest began. Tired of trudging in sand, we welcomed the change of scenery, and headed down the narrow, sloppy jungle path.

It led through ankle-deep mud and over and under fallen logs. Leaf monkeys and gibbons squawked and jumped in the canopy above as I passed in the approaching dusk. Biting flies and mosquitoes hammered me as I moved slowly along the trail.

I lathered on 95-percent Deet Muskol on my bare arms, legs, neck and face to keep the bugs at bay. Unfortunately, I was sweating so much, the bug-dope didn’t last long, and they came back again. I put on more Muskol again and again, but it was only effective for a brief time with each application, and I was bitten all over in between.

Near dusk, about three kilometres along the path, I came upon a bare patch of grass on top of a lava cliff overlooking the bay, and decided to make camp there. I dropped my bags and doubled back for my final load, telling Dave about the site as I passed by. On my way back with my last pack, I cheered Dave on as he made tracks for his last load.

Arriving at the camping spot thoroughly sweaty and grimy, I clambered down the cliff to a small beach, where I took a dip in the ocean. My shoulders had large, open wounds from the packs, and they stung as I submerged beneath the surface of the ocean.

I was spent. My head ached and my stomach felt queasy. I had pushed hard for 12 hours, and felt terrible. I had picked up some sort of bug, and had diarrhea. I walked slowly back to the campsite. Dave was sitting, gazing out at the ocean with a stunned stare. When I approached, he jumped and said “Whoa-It’s you . . . have I ever got a story for you!”

I sat on the rock beside him and he began telling me about his last half-hour. He had been walking down the trail focused on the ground, putting one foot in front of the other, when he heard a loud rustling in the bushes. Before he could react, a good-sized leopard sprang onto the trail only two metres in front of him.

His eyes and the wide, focused eyes of the predator met for a moment, then it leaped from his path and disappeared. He had gathered himself together, trying to still his pounding heart. Dave then moved on, figuring that the leopard had been more scared of him than he of it. Dusk was turning to dark, and everything went eerily quiet.

Dave flicked on his headlamp and continued on, following the beam of his light through the inky blackness. With his injured foot and large pack, he hobbled along like Quasimodo. After 15 minutes, Dave approached a dip in the trail and was about to step over a log when he heard a sound that sent shivers up his spine and made his hair stand on end. A deep, guttural growl rose from just off the trail, and Dave froze. The leopard was stalking him.

With his hobbling gait, he probably looked like a potential meal; predators always target the sick and the weak. Trying to control his panic, he walked the rest of the trail expecting the big cat to pounce on him at any moment. He arrived at camp relieved and a little shaken.

Dave’s been through a lot of experiences in his life as a guide and adventurer; it takes quite a jolt to get him unnerved. I listened to his story with astonishment but, with my intestines in knots, I felt too miserable to react. Adding a leopard to the mix was a bit too much for me to process, so I just discarded it.

I’d had lots of bear encounters in my past, and I didn’t worry about large mammals too much. I was more worried about severe dehydration, since I couldn’t keep food and water in me for more than a few minutes. Exhausted, we decided to turn in for the night.

The mosquitoes were already starting to come out. We pulled the tent out of the pack, but the tent poles weren’t with it. Exhausted and frustrated, we searched through everything until I realized that I had left the tent poles 18 kilometres back, at our beach site on the dune. With the mosquitoes out in full force in a renowned malaria zone, we couldn’t risk sleeping out. (The mosquito that carries malaria comes out to feed at night.) We improvised, and strung the fly up from some trees, then suspended the tent body from the fly.

We would need sticks to use as makeshift tent pegs. I walked off, searching the jungle’s edge with my headlamp for some sticks, when something caught my eye. Hundreds of fireflies were moving about like a pulsing galaxy in the blackness of the underbrush. Two of these flies were very large and still, lighting up only when I shone my headlamp at them.

As I continued to look at them, I slowly realized they weren’t fireflies at all, but the eyes of the leopard. I could make out the outline of his large head as he crouched perfectly still, gazing intently at me, only four metres away. In my tired, sickly state, it was more than I could deal with. I just shrugged, went back to the site, and told Dave, “Your leopard friend is back.” He mumbled something like “Great…just great,” and we both went to bed. What else was there to do? I spent the night popping Imodiums like candy, and jumping up to relieve my bowels outside the tent.

The Imodium hadn’t worked and, by morning, I was very dehydrated. One positive result of my diarrhea was that I had unintentionally made a circle of scent around our campsite that seemed to ward off any potentially threatening wildlife, including the leopard. We had treated all of our water and Dave was fine, so we figured I must have gotten sick testing for brackish water, even though I had always spit it out.

I went to my emergency kit for a dose of antibiotics, and within half an hour I could take in water and food again. Our day began with a six-kilometre jungle slog to the main beach in Karong Ranjong Bay. This time, I suited up in long pants, long-sleeved shirt, socks and running shoes, along with lots of bug dope. We were both quite weak from the day before.

Dave’s feet were killing him-he had serious tendonitis in one arch-and I was still dehydrated. The trail was similar to the previous day’s trail, and we made the beach in relatively good time. After trudging another two kilometres on the beach, we arrived at a grassy opening with a scattering of open-air shelters and a larger thatched-roof bungalow at the back. Dave and I turned to each other with blank, disbelieving faces, looked back at the opening, dropped our packs and walked side by side into the camp. As we neared the bungalow, a weather-worn sign spelled out in dull yellow letters, “Karong Ranjong Ranger Station.”

Three men stepped out of the darkness of the front door and walked to meet us. All had black, tousled hair, dark skin and gleaming smiles. The slim, moustached man in the centre wore a beige ranger’s shirt, shorts, and flip-flops on his feet; the other two simply wore ragged T-shirts and shorts with bare feet. Machetes hung from belts at their sides.

In broken English, the point man with the facial hair introduced himself as Arnasan, and his two friends as Hutbi and Tegbuh. They were the park rangers for this sector of Ujung Kulon.

Arnasan immediately invited us in and offered us tea and a much-needed lunch of ikan goreng (fried fish), rice and greens. (A few days of pure Spam and oatmeal builds up your taste for other food-any other food.) Arnasan spoke a bit of English, and gave us excellent information on which trails would best get us to Tamanjaya.

The rangers get here on foot as well; Arnasan said boats just don’t land along this stretch of ocean. They take a day to hike in from Tamanjaya and spend a month at a stretch here, doing one seven-day walk-about during that time. For dinner, we had Spam fried over the rangers’ fire, along with some rice and noodles they offered us. Even though I wanted to rest, I hiked the kayak pack partway down our next day’s trail, to give us a head start for the morning. Using our phrasebook, we chatted with the rangers into the night.

All of the rangers had contracted malaria at least once. Armed with machetes and rifles, their main job is to protect the wildlife here-especially the Javan Rhino-from poachers. There are only 60 left in the world, all of them in Ujung Kulon. I was so dehydrated that I drank 15 glasses of water and five cups of tea, and still couldn’t pee but, thankfully, my diarrhea was gone. We went to bed feeling a lot better than the day before. The next morning, the rangers offered to help us with our load but, after carrying a couple of our packs for about 20 metres, they decided we’d best do it ourselves.

They were a diminutive trio-the rangers, like most Indonesian men, stood between 5′ and 5′ 5″. Carrying packs close to their own body weight didn’t sit well with them. Offering them a hearty terima kasih (thank you), we set to our task. Our day’s trail would take us four kilometres, to Selamat Datang Bay. The route ran through a swamp, so I prepared the battle gear. I wrapped my head in a smelly, Muskol- and dirt-soaked T-shirt, with only my face peering out of the shirt sleeve (an old tree-planting trick).

The only parts of my body that were exposed were my hands and face, which were liberally covered with Muskol. We sloshed in a monsoon rain downpour through ankle- and knee-deep mud and water, accompanied by a cloud of mosquitoes and biting flies. The duffel-bag straps ripped my shoulder scabs open for a second straight day.

My skin dissolved from the bug dope. Birds were chattering, monkeys screeching; lush ferns and palms glistened with the new rain and humid jungle heat. The jungle opened up a little, and we began to see open sky through the cracks in the foliage ahead of us.

We pushed on through, and arrived at the southern tip of Selamat Datang Bay. Mangrove trees, fallen logs and bushes crowded the shoreline with open water beyond. There was no sign of civilization save for a fishing boat moored 50 metres off shore. We stumbled over the raised roots of the mangroves into waist-deep water, and flagged it down. Its old diesel engine fired up and the boat smoked and sputtered its way to within ten metres of us. The boat’s sole occupant was a young man who appeared to be more than a little curious as to what we were up to. Having a better grasp of Bahasa Indonesia (the native tongue) than Dave, I negotiated a price of 50,000 rupiah (US $7) for him to take us to Tamanjaya, a half-hour boat ride away.

We waded our load of gear out to his boat, heaved it up, pulled ourselves onto the deck, and were off. Ujung Kulon was not such a bad place to be. We had explored it by kayak and by foot over six days, and saw a total of five people, all of them locals or rangers. If our kayak hadn’t broken up on its shores, we never would have had the full range of experience that, in retrospect, I will cherish.

Sometimes suffering is the only way to achieve such experience. If I get malaria because of it, I’m sure the suffering will continue. Afterword: With only three weeks left and no way to repair the kayak, we headed to Bali via bus. There, we rented a couple of bikes for a buck a day, and did a weeklong lap of the island. After that, we hiked up a couple of volcanoes and learned to surf.

Not Your Average Afternoon (Kayaking to Todos Santos Island, Mexico)

October 31 began beautiful and sunny down here at my Punta Banda hacienda, about twenty minutes south of Ensenada, Mexico, and I thought I’d take a good kayak outing to Todos Santos Island about ten miles away.

I told my girlfriend, Mary, where I was going by email, and left about 10 a.m. I thought I could do the round-trip in four or five hours. The seas started out calm enough, and in my old-style high-volume riverboat I had with me my spray skirt, whitewater paddle, wetsuit, sunglasses, visor and a little water bottle, just in case. I even put some sunscreen on.

I don’t usually bother with a PFD because I love to swim in my wetsuit. It provides plenty of buoyancy to keep me afloat. There was so much big, beautiful water out there, I had girlfriend issues and other stuff to think about, and I needed some time with me and the big guy upstairs, to sing, pray, figure things out—you get the picture.

A steady, nonstop nine-mile pull from the mainland, taking a little over two hours, brought me within a mile of the island. The wind started to kick up. Ferociously. Five-foot rollers with the occasional eight- to ten-footer—no big deal for a whitewater kayaker, except that the wind and current I was now fighting was not letting me make any forward progress.

Of course I was sealed in my boat with the neoprene spray skirt, which was supposed to be keeping all the water out. Well, it was a little worn and with all the wind and water spray it seemed to be opening up around my waist just enough for a trickle, which became a steady flow, to get inside my boat. I was suddenly up past my ankles in water.

Now this was not that unusual of a development, but the sad thing was that I was not making any forward progress at all, and this was a high-performance kayak with an expert paddler—as I like to think of myself—at the helm. Egos get us into all kinds of trouble, as I was about to find out.

Soon the water was up to my knees and the boat, with an additional few hundred pounds of water inside, was responding sluggishly. If I leaned over too far one way or another, it wanted to help me complete the circle, or at least the first half of it. Suddenly, I was paddling as hard as I could, still not close enough to the island to get in the lee and what I hoped would be calmer water. I paddled as hard as I could.

Every time I stopped to rest, even a little, I would lose all the ground I had gained, and the wind blew on— steadily. I couldn’t go back for nine miles or I might wind up farther away from any land when my boat filled up completely, and I knew that would be bad. The wind-driven spray was working its way under and through my spray skirt, and there was nothing I could do about it. Drip, trickle, drip, trickle.

This went on for another three hours, and I was paddling as hard as I could just to stay in place. It was killing me that the island was getting no closer. My arms and shoulders and back were screaming, but I dared not stop. I couldn’t chance opening my spray skirt to bail a little because wave after wave was washing over my deck and I couldn’t risk having the kayak fill all the way up.

The waves and whitewater action were taking my full attention every moment, and I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand. I dreaded the thought of going into the water, so I paddled on as long as I could—bracing, adjusting and reacting to a kayak full of hundreds of pounds of water, floating barely above the surface. This really sucked.

I have not bailed out of a kayak in years and can usually roll and weather any kind of conditions, unless I have a boat full of water, that is. I’ve flown my kayak to Cabo and Hawaii, caught mako sharks off of it and surfed it in Encinitas for 25 years.

I have taught and guided river, ocean and surf kayaking for literally thousands of people. I am comfortable floating around offshore, at night, you name it, but I have never been in a boat full of water stuck offshore with a howling 40 mph (35 knot, 64 kph) wind before, that’s for sure. I was praying a lot and using all the whitewater skills I had just to stay upright.

Finally, a complex combination of waves hit me in the front and the side simultaneously and that was it. I was over. No point in rolling, the boat was full. Out of my boat swimming.

Damn. I quickly went to the stern and looped the webbing sling around my wrist. I was almost relieved at being able to stretch my body out a little for a change and take a rest, of a sort. I floated there as I weighed my options. I knew I should stay with the boat. It was bright red and stood the best chance of being seen from a distance. Dressed in my black neoprene wetsuit I looked like an injured seal, a notion I tried not to think about too much.

I worked at every combination of bailing out the boat, convinced that I could get back in the kayak if I could get the water out. As I splashed and splashed with my cupped hands at the water inside the boat, I thought about the old fisherman’s trick of slinging a bailer full of water over the surface of the sea, mimicking a school of excited bait fish, to attract the bigger predator fish, even sharks. I tried to put that thought out of my mind as well.

Even if I had to climb back inside upside down under water and roll back up, I was ready to go for it, but wave after wave was splashing over me and the boat, so this idea was hopeless. I was no longer a kayaker. I was a swimmer.

The sun was out, the water wasn’t too darn cold, and I like to swim in the open ocean, so I had that going for me anyway.

I was really tired from the effort I’d put into paddling, and I was still about a mile from the island. I got kind of a sidestroke and frog-kick thing going and pushed the boat in front of me;

I kept it upside down to keep a bubble of air inside to help float it. It looked like I could actually make some headway. I didn’t want to lose my paddle, of course, and experimented with holding it in various positions where it wouldn’t create any drag. I just kept kicking and pushing, kicking and pushing, switching sides as fatigue set in. The island didn’t look like it was getting closer. At all.

Even when I went into the water I had already given thanks for all of the blessings in my life and the people I have loved and the experiences I have had, and did some hard-core should-I-live-through-this contracting with the man upstairs. Now that I was slogging along completely alone in a big, empty ocean, the conversation deepened.

It seemed that only a little time had passed when a fishing trawler came close by, and I screamed and waved my paddle for all I was worth. But it kept on driving, sadly, unbelievably.

My scrambling forays up onto the back of the overturned kayak to rest and get warm were coming closer together while I was having serious conversations with myself, not believing that I was going to go out this way.

I tried a kind of paddleboard technique of lying down to swim my upside down boat, but my arms were absolutely dead, and my feet fluttered in such a spastic fashion that I was sure it would attract sharks. One little bite would do me in for sure.

My pushing and kicking were actually having just the tiniest bit of effectiveness, but I was still very far off from Todos Santos Island and it looked like, at this rate, it would take me until about eleven at night to get there. I started to think about being out when the sun went down.

I knew after the first hour in the water that I was already getting hypothermic: my dexterity was going, my breathing was rapid and my thinking was a little desperate. That’s not to mention my screaming muscles. I had been in the water for three hours now.

The one big decision I had left was whether to abandon the boat and try to swim for it. I knew I could swim the distance of a mile on a good day, even if I had to float on my back and kick, but the idea was not exactly a reassuring one. What if the current just carried me away from the island? I knew that if I abandoned my boat no one would see me at all and then I might not make it. The current and wind still hadn’t slowed down. Blowing like stink out of the west. Nonstop. All day.

I was getting really, really tired and it took every bit of mental control I had to keep myself together. I have been in plenty of hairball situations before, but this one was sapping my energy fast. It was something I was not in control of, and I was getting really cold. Things were looking bleak, but I refused to give in. I just kept pushing and kicking. It helped to have something to do, to have a goal.

Suddenly a giant tug appeared behind me. It was pulling a garbage barge from Ensenada and it looked like…YES, HE SAW ME! He took forever to maneuver to a position where he could get close enough to present the side of his big tug to me. I was still pulling my boat along and swimming for all I was worth, which was not much at this point.

The wind was not through with me yet, however, and it pushed him away from me faster than I could catch him by swimming. To say this was discouraging is to put it extremely mildly. I still had a chance to swim for the huge, long barge he was towing though, and I could see guys on deck scrambling around trying to manage the gigantic cable between the two massive craft. They didn’t want it to be the first thing that I reached. If it suddenly went taut or I got tangled in a loop while I was near it, the result could be fatal.

I had to make a decision. It took me about a millisecond. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss that barge, so I left my kayak and paddle behind and set out with the strongest stroke I had left to catch that barge! Being a giant boxy thing, it stuck out in the wind even more than the tug and it moved away even faster. Now I was literally up the creek without a paddle, or a boat, and really, really, really tired.

Now the tug had straightened out its trajectory and was moving away from me. It couldn’t be, I thought. It was leaving. NO! I yelled, I screamed. I used some expletives about the code of the sea or some such thing, but off it went. I just could not believe it. This was going to be it for me now, I was sure.

My kayak had not drifted too far away and somehow I was able to get back to it with some effort and to scramble and sprawl my huffing and puffing frozen, tired body over it once more. OK. I was still alive. The paddle was nearby and I grabbed it too, thinking I had my signaling device back, but I knew there would be no more swimming for me. It was getting later, I had now drifted farther from the island than where I started and I was “running on fumes” at best.

Just then, out of nowhere, came one of the biggest bow-smashing, rooster-tailing high-performance watercraft I have ever seen. It was about 60 feet long, and most of it was low to the water. There were a bunch of uniformed guys on deck. They were Mexican Marines! The tug must have made a Mayday call for me and left me only because they knew I’d soon be rescued. The Marines’ vessel had a cockpit way up front that looked like a stealth fighter, and these boys could drive. Their high-performance machine was built for catching drug runners or whatever else the mighty Pacific threw at them. I was saved.

It was unbelievably scary to be alongside a big boat rising up about 15 feet and then smashing down in each huge roller. The crew threw me a rope and I was able to grab it without letting go of my boat and paddle. They hauled my kayak on deck, took my paddle and pulled me aboard.

I was now quite hypothermic and my body was working hard to compensate for a very low core temperature and abnormal metabolism. My vital signs were all screwed up; my breathing was rapid and my heart was racing.

Thank God this vessel had a warm and cozy inside where they blanketed me up and we tried to converse in my terrible Spanglish. Between chattering teeth I told them to drop me at the Punta Banda boat ramp where I’d left my truck—I would be OK to swim to shore.

They insisted that I go back to Ensenada for a medical screening and I was certainly in no condition to argue with that. I had been running on pure adrenaline for six hours, with three of that in the water, and I was starting to come down. I felt pain everywhere and was a little nauseated and light-headed.

It took about 18 minutes to cover the 12 miles back to their Navy base where I managed to clamber with some assistance up onto the side of a cruiser—a good-sized Navy ship—that the Marines had tied up alongside, and then onto land on the other side. They loaded me into an ambulance for a short ride to their ER, where I was stripped down and heated up with hot blankets, heat lamps and about six nurses working on me. It took my core a good hour to return to some semblance of normal temperature.

The nurses kept jamming a thermometer under my arm and then pulling it out again. I don’t know what my actual core temperature was, but each time they read the thermometer they seemed to get more excited about getting me more blankets and heat lamps. The lamps felt really good. I drank some tea and hot chocolate and tried to massage the aches out of my really sore chest, arms and shoulders. I had definitely used up one of my nine lives on this little outing.

I didn’t have a nickel on me, of course, but no one asked me for any kind of payment either. “We’re the Navy,” they explained. It turned out this group was the most highly trained maritime rescue group in all of Mexico. My prayers had been answered by the best of the best. They not only had a high-tech fleet, complete with helicopters and rescue swimmers, but they regularly respond to emergencies as far as Tijuana to the north and 120 miles to the south of Ensenada.


Now I’m not what you call a “normal” paddler. I got hooked on paddling large-volume plastic roto-molded riverboats when the company I was guiding for on the Green and Colorado Rivers let me take some boats home to my San Diego beachfront house in the early ’80s. I quickly discovered how to surf and was literally out there every day, right alongside the board surfers and loving it.

I have been paddling in the ocean for more than 25 years, comfortable in El Niño 15-footers, competing in the Bay-to-Bay 21-mile race we have here in San Diego, and exploring every river channel, estuary, marina and whatever is happening on the water, all in this same type of kayak, which, on balance, tracks as well as most sea kayaks out there.

I regularly do endos and paddle spins, surf backwards, paddle up to the sportfishing party boats miles offshore, and go out with a fish finder and gear to catch all kinds of fish— including mako sharks—a story for some other time. I have used my kayak as a dinghy for my sportfishing boat on solo trips on the Sea of Cortez.

At an annual parade of lights in San Diego Harbor I illuminate my kayak with glow sticks and do a 15-foot drop off the end of the pier into the drink. To say I am comfortable in my kayak is pretty accurate. And yet, I found myself in an unexpected situation. It’s obvious that I should have told someone, other than my girlfriend by email, that I was going to the island, but for me ten miles is no big deal, and I like going solo. I like the peacefulness and experiencing nature at its most pure. It’s essentially a private experience.

I often go as a kind of meditation and I rarely tell anyone. I have soloed big mountains and big rock walls for days at a time and come back with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of being the expanded man. All that time alone in contemplation is great for the soul, or at least it feels like that to me.

It would have been a simple thing to paddle with someone else and do a simple rescue and dump the water out, but there really isn’t another serious paddler for a hundred miles down here. If there were, I would probably be paddling with him or her already.

Frankly, there is no one down here who could have done much about it if I had gone missing anyway. I knew that and, as the saying goes, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

What about the PFD?

Let me tell you about that. You see, I am comfortable rolling. Very. The PFD messes up my act underwater, upside down, and when I’m up top it is just one more piece of gear that either chafes or rides up or just makes me hot. When I do wear one—mostly I use a trimmed down PFD when I’m fishing—it’s mainly for the pockets.

My wetsuit gives me great flotation and is almost a vehicle in itself. I regularly jump in the ocean and drift and swim for a mile or two in it. I know it won’t keep my face out of the water if I am unconscious, but the Type III PFDs that most kayakers use aren’t designed to float wearer’s face up either. The lack of a PFD didn’t figure much in this situation.

I am not saying don’t bring one, just giving you some insight into my personal thinking here. I’m sure it was my wetsuit that kept me alive. It is a full-sleeved, full-legged wetsuit. I don’t care who you are, three hours in the water is a long time. I would put on a full wetsuit before a PFD anytime.

I think of it as a survival suit, and, remember, I paddle the relatively warm waters of Southern California. If you paddle colder waters up north, you should be paying attention and get the neoprene hood too.

Once we’re past the surf down here in Southern California, and even more so in Baja, it’s usually just pretty darn nice so we are quite spoiled. We generally paddle warm and dry. On this particular day I was literally thinking that I wouldn’t even get my hair wet.

My kayak has 5-inch-thick foam columns inside, front and back. They stop the boat from oil canning when a few thousand pounds of water crash down on it in the big surf and they keep it floating when it is filled with water. They were the only reason I was able to paddle a boat full of water for three hours, and they kept the kayak afloat when I climbed up on it as it floated there upside down.

But it’s not enough for built-in flotation just to keep a boat from sinking—it has to keep it capable of being paddled effectively. Without float bags, my kayak could take on a considerable amount of water, enough to make it extremely slow and vulnerable to capsize.

If I’d had float bags, I wouldn’t have been so bogged down by a load of water, rolling might have been an option when I got knocked over and I would have been able to stay aboard where I was less exposed to the chilling effects of the water.

As far as techie gear like a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) goes, well, prices are coming down so if you can afford it, why not? The current models are compact enough to fit in a PFD or paddle jacket pocket. The PLB signal is picked up by satellite and relayed to a mission control center and then to the local rescue authorities.

I have a VHF radio on my fishing boat, but my experience with having electrical devices aboard my kayak has generally resulted in batteries shorting out, short equipment life and more hassle, and let’s not forget the expense. I hadn’t looked into the more recent waterproof handheld models; I had never been interested in electronics until now.

My solution has always been this: When in trouble, paddle out of it. That didn’t work this time.

I like to go lightweight and fast, and don’t carry much of anything if I can help it. Just to give you a concept of what I’m talking about here, this is how I launched that day: I backed my pickup truck up to within about 25 feet of the water on a rocky beach next to a slippery old cement boat ramp.

I untied the one rope holding the boat in the pickup bed. I had the boat on the ground and was inside with spray skirt attached and paddle in hand in less than 45 seconds. With a gorilla push start I was doing a slide down the boat ramp (see, plastic boats do make sense sometimes) and splashed into the water, already moving, not stopping in this case, until about nine miles later. That’s just me.

I regularly laugh at all the sea-kayaker fishermen who buy literally thousands of dollars of stuff, from electric bait tanks to pedal-driven kayaks, who have to use wheels to get all of it to the water. My whole boat is light enough to carry it on my shoulder for quite a ways

Bottom line, I don’t really want to carry a lot of extra stuff. What I can tell you is this: I go out there several days a week, year-round, so I get very lean with my gear. Every area is different, every paddler is different. This is just me. And in Baja and Southern California, the ethic is a little different perhaps because the weather is so mild and forgiving.

Now the weather on this particular day was different, unexpected and unpredictable. I am also a paraglider pilot with about 1,000 hours, and I’m very tuned in to wind and direction and developing fronts, different types of clouds—you name it.

This particular blow actually ripped the roofs off of houses down here and knocked out power lines—and it was not forecast. It was just my luck to be out there that day.

Normally I can bail quite effectively with a sponge and get most of the water out, but in this case I couldn’t even let go of my paddle with one hand, and I dared not open up my spray skirt, something you don’t normally think about.

Statistically, if you paddle a lot, things will happen to you. It is these unforeseen incidents that are the “statistical outliers” that we need to be prepared for, as I found out.

The smaller version of aerial flares commonly carried by kayakers wouldn’t have fared too well in the wind, and wouldn’t have been all that visible in the daytime anyway.

I think a smoke signal would have been useful. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the sea will tell you that you can see smoke for miles. In my sportfishing boat I am regularly 50 miles or more offshore, and whenever you see the horizon interrupted by smoke, it definitely gets your attention. I will be looking for some from now on. I also find myself newly curious about shark repellent.

Thinking about the potential of being “benighted” out there, provided I hadn’t succumbed to hypothermia by then, one of those clip-on flashing strobes would have been great to make sure I could be seen by ships in the area who could easily have run me over and never known it.

I do give thanks to the Lord above that someone did see me out there and that I was rescued. As a climbing guide, kayak instructor and head of a ropes-course company, I have managed high levels of risk and made safety judgments for more than 200,000 of my clients. I’ve been in some scary situations before on personal adventures and expeditions, but I have to say that this was my closest call yet.

It is an amazing thing to watch your strength atrophy, your stamina degrade and your mental anguish get right to the very edge. And believe me, you never, ever, want to get that cold. I took a good measure of who I am and what I can take that day, and I now have a very accurate idea of where my own personal edge really is.

This incident was personally memorable and definitely up there with the intense experiences I’ve had in my life, even as a kayaking and climbing guide. In Yosemite I once saw a guy die in a climbing accident right in front of his girlfriend. After his body was taken away she decided to climb again that afternoon, to help her process the experience. It’s been two weeks for me. Maybe I need to go for a paddle tomorrow.

Coincidentally, I am working with some folks on our peninsula to organize a rescue group there. We do our own cliff-rescue training and have made plans with the Commandant of the Ensenada Naval search and rescue station to coordinate our efforts and training with them.

There are a surprising number of accidents and incidents on the Punta Banda peninsula, with everything from fishermen being swept off the rocks and boats sinking to cars over the side and the occasional tourist making a misstep along this beautiful, but exposed and potentially treacherous coastline.

As a rescue trainer I never thought I’d be a victim myself. It looks like some much needed rescue team coordination can come out of my experience, something I can use to benefit others who find themselves in perilous situations.

Bart Allen Berry is a professional climbing guide, kayaking instructor, ropes-course and corporate trainer who has been living and working part time in Mexico for the past eight years.

With a corporate ropes course and training center on the Baja coast north of Ensenada, Bart leads regular team-building and leadership trainings for the Baja Norte Maquiladora industry. You can contact him by email at [email protected]

A Note from the Editor:

Bart’s story comes on the heels of a discussion of experienced kayakers who find themselves unprepared for the conditions they encounter.

Paddling the Pocomoke and Nassawango

On the west side of the Chesapeake Bay, as Captain John Smith famously wrote, “…were five Faire and delightfull navigable rivers” (the James, York, Rappahannock, Potomac and Patuxent ), but for a kayak, some of the best paddling is on the smaller rivers and tributaries that run down to the bay from the east in the dozens.

One of my favorite destinations is the Pocomoke River that flows into the bay from the Eastern Shore, and its most pristine tributary, Nassawango Creek. This area was not strange to John Smith, either, during his explorations of the area from 1608 to 1609.

“Passing along the coast, [we searched] every inlet and bay fit for harbors and habitations…The next day searching them for fresh water we could find none, the defect whereof forced us to follow the next eastern channel, which brought us to the river of Wighcocomoco [The Pocomoke].”

Coming to the Pocomoke from the Bay, as John Smith did, you’ll find the wide estuary of Pocomoke Sound is bounded on the north and west by the Maryland shore that now harbors the town of Crisfield. The south and east are bordered by the Virginia salt marshes and the fishing village of Saxis. The Pocomoke enters the sound at the northeast corner, meandering north and east to cross the Delmarva Peninsula from its source in the Great Cypress Swamp of Delaware.

The Pocomoke is the deepest river for its length in the United States. There are two towns along this stretch of the Pocomoke River: Pocomoke City is on the south bank of the river where the major north-south route (U.S. 13 Ocean Highway) crosses the river. Snow Hill is a smaller town at the head of navigation on the river where MD 12 comes south from Salisbury.

My kayak companions and I  do several trips to the Pocomoke each season, focusing on the sound and farther up the river.

Paddling Pocomoke Sound

When paddling Pocomoke Sound, we generally camp either in Maryland at Janes Island State Park, or in Virginia at a private campground called Tall Pines near Saxis. Janes Island State Park  has regular car camping sites, cabins, and primitive camping at three sites on a water trail through the marshes separated from the dry land by Daugherty Creek Canal.

You can reach another launch by driving to the ramp at the Cavalry Road bridge across Jenkins Creek, south of Crisfield. To get to Pocomoke Sound, paddle south on the canal past Crisfield on the Little Annemessex River, and either west and south out into Tangier Sound around Cedar Island Wildlife Management Area, or shortcut through the Broad Creek Cut-through and Ape Hole Creek. The latter is preferred if the wind is strong and particularly out of the north.

The entire north shore of Pocomoke Sound has excellent paddling and numerous creeks and inlets bordered by salt marsh. The area is exposed to westerly and southerly winds and develops substantial waves in the shallow confines of the sound with the long fetch from those winds.

If you stay at Janes Island, consider spending a day paddling the Big Annemessex River just north of Janes Island. The crossing from Janes to Mine Cove and Hazard Cove at the tip of the Fairmount State Wildlife Management Area is a treat on a fair day, and the dunes and lagoons in the tidal marsh are a great place for lunch, a swim and a snooze. Greenhead flies have a vicious bite and materialize wherever there is no breeze to keep them down.


The southern shore of Pocomoke Sound is easiest to explore from a base near the fishing village of Saxis, on a marshy peninsula extending out into the bay and made up almost entirely of the Saxis Wildlife Management Area. You’ll find friendly car-camping accommodations at Tall Pines Harbor, on the inner arm of the sound near Holdens Creek.

The low-lying nature of the land has been made clear to us by the fact that more than once the tent campground we’ve used has disappeared beneath the waves! One time some returning kayakers paddled over their campsites to land, only realizing it when a Good Samaritan paddler told them where to find their salvaged tent and gear.

Good paddling destinations in this corner of the sound include the numerous small creeks, including Holdens Creek and Bullbegger Creek on the eastern shore of the sound, Pitts Creek on the Pocomoke River, just after the first meander, and Messongo Creek on the south of the peninsula on which Saxis is located.

While Crisfield to the north in Maryland depended on crabbing, oysters and fishing for its livelihood, the diminutive village of Saxis depended exclusively on fishing and now that much of the fishery is reduced, the village appears forlorn and abandoned.

A few fishermen and crabbers still go out, though more and more on a part-time basis. Fishing Creek and Back Creek form a shortcut through the peninsula at Saxis, but watch the tide since the creeks become very shallow and muddy when it is out.

You can launch off the beach at Tall Pines, but there are also ramps into Messongo Creek at the end of Hammock Road (Route 788), and into the Pocomoke at Shelltown on Williams Point Road.

Pocomoke River State Park and the Middle Pocomoke

Farther up the tidal Pocomoke, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources maintains Pocomoke River State Park, which has two locations, the Milburn area on the north bank of the river, and the Shad Landing area, about 4.5 miles farther upriver on the south bank.

Both have camping sites amid sheltering loblolly pines close to launch sites direct to the river, bathhouses with hot showers, and at Shad Landing, a laundry and camp store.

Shad and Milburn Landings have been our camping base for many of the trips on this stretch of the Pocomoke. A potluck feast is traditional with our group, and over the years we’ve vied to outdo each other’s culinary delights.

Ecologically, the Pocomoke is a transition zone between northern and southern hardwood riparian gallery forests, and is also one of the northernmost concentrations of bald cypress, whose “knees” push up around each trunk and become mini-ecosystems of their own with accumulated flotsam and small bushes taking root.

While much of the land above the incised banks of the river has been cleared and drained for corn, soybeans and wheat to feed the Delmarva’s poultry industry, paddling the black water of the Pocomoke’s shores feels more like being in the sweet bay magnolia, sweet gum, red maple, black gum and bald cypress swamps of the Carolinas or Georgia.

In the spring, understory shrubs blossom with wild azalea, fringed white orchids and purple blooms of pickerelweed. The area swarms with brightly colored warblers, mostly passing through, including the yellow and bluish green Prothonotary Warbler, who stays nearly all year. In the spring, harmless northern brown water snakes festoon the branches and hang over the water, soaking up the sun and keeping an eye out for watery prey.

When startled, they instinctively drop into the water, so spray skirts serve double duty.

I’d paddled this area for years, enjoying what I thought was a neglected remnant forest overlooked by the loggers who cleared the Eastern Shore. But when I visited the museum at Furnace Town, I was shocked to find that nearly all the forest had been cut and burned for charcoal to feed the bog iron foundry from 1831 until it closed in 1850.

Nassawango Creek now appears to be a tortuously winding creek, but in the 1840s it was channelized into a canal that moved ocean-going schooners to the furnace. One hundred sixty years later, Nature has regained her own.

Dividing Creek

This waterway enters the Pocomoke from the north about 4 miles downriver from Milburn Landing. On the paddle down to it, you pass the stately Cellar House, which has stood in a grove of large black walnut trees on the north bank since 1740.

The grounds are decorated with many modern sculptures, but the real gems are stories about Cellar House’s mysterious past: a Native American burial site unearthed in the cellar in the 1960s, a French sea captain builder who smuggled goods in a tunnel beneath the house, his young wife’s mysterious murder on a dark night when the captain returned unexpectedly from the sea, and later, many north-bound slaves swimming the dark Pocomoke to shelter in the cellar on the Underground Railroad. Cellar House is privately owned, so enjoy it from the river, and do not land unless invited ashore.

Dividing Creek itself is narrow and winding, hemmed in thickly by flooded swampland on either shore. Wildlife abounds in this area, including many water snakes and turtles. One sharp-eyed member of our group spied a Barred Owl swiveling his head to get a better look at our fleet of waterborne intruders.

You can paddle up the creek to the Route 364 bridge and beyond, and the paddle back to Milburn brings the round-trip total to about 12 miles. Some have launched from the public dock at Pocomoke City, underneath the Route 13 bridge, for this paddle. The distance to Dividing Creek is about the same as from Milburn Landing.

Corkers Creek Water Trail

If you are staying at Shad Landing, Corkers Creek Water Trail is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. This 1.5- mile trail loops around the island that sits at the mouth of Corkers Creek.

Marked with interpretive signs, it can introduce you to the unique vegetation and wildlife of the area, and some of the history. You can also paddle up Corkers Creek by turning left (south) instead of following the trail. Corkers winds around in habitat similar to that of Dividing Creek, and passes under U.S. 113.

Nassawango Creek

In 1977, “Nassawango Joe” Fehrer retired from his job as property acquisition specialist with the National Park Service on the nearby Assateague National Seashore, and began working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to acquire easements on property along Nassawango Creek. Thirty years later, TNC has protected 15 square miles, nearly all of the creek’s watershed, and the Bog Iron Water Trail helps lead kayakers and canoeists along the maze-like channels.

Our usual trip launches from either Milburn Landing or Shad Landing, up the main stem of the Pocomoke to a sentinel bald cypress near green day mark #9 that marks the mouth of Nassawango Creek (about 1.8 miles from Shad Landing and 6.2 miles from Milburn Landing).

From the mouth, paddle up Nassawango Creek about 4 miles to Red House Road. The lower creek is fairly broad and open, with numerous cut-throughs across the meanders. After the bridge at Nassawango Road and a broad pool, the creek squeezes down to a twisting, jungle stream that echoes with bird calls, kerplunking turtles or otters and the keening of a red-shouldered hawk circling high above.

About 1.5 miles from Red House Road on the south (river right) bank is TNC’s Francis M. Uhler Nature Trail, which offers one of two places to pull out and stretch or take a lunch break. If you miss the Fran Uhler area, you eventually come to the Red House Road Bridge take-out, a timbered and grassed area that is slippery, requiring teamwork to get everyone’s boat out without taking a swim in the deep, cool pool just down from the bridge.

You can paddle beyond Red House Road, but Joe Fehrer, Jr., who now oversees the preserve his father led in creating, and his crew of chain-sawing canoeists concentrate on the lower creek, so your passage may be blocked unexpectedly.

The Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum is upstream of Red House Road another mile, as is TNC’s visitor center and the Paul Leifer Nature Trail. These are worthwhile stops before or after paddling and will help fill out the area’s history and ecology for you.

Freya and the Great Australian Bight

By the time this issue is delivered, if all goes according to plan, Freya will have finished, or be very close to finishing, her yearlong, 9,400-mile solo circumnavigation of Australia.

I spoke with Freya by phone on November 9th, shortly after she had finished the third, longest and last significant stretch of cliffs. She and her partner Greg Bethune, driving a support van, had rendezvoused at a beach east of the 112-mile long Bunda Cliffs and were taking a day off.

Some stretches of the highway along the Great Australian Bight are quite a distance from the water. Did Greg have any trouble finding places to meet you?

The first part of the section, from Albany to the end of the first Baxter Cliffs, the highway was a long way from the coast, not so much in miles but time. On some very rough bush roads, he could only travel at 10 or 15 kilometers an hour.

On the Bunda Cliffs he could often see me from the top, but when it got dark he would eventually fall asleep and I just kept on paddling. It was quite funny.

Was he able to keep in touch with you by phone while you were along the cliffs?

We have VHF radios, but the problem was the battery on Greg’s radio did not last long enough for him to entertain me continuously. I would have liked to have had his encouragement while I was paddling, but we had to keep things a bit shorter.

The satellite phone would have worked all the time, but with it I would have been talking instead of paddling. The VHF radio worked well but the battery wasn’t up to date. That’s just like it is. It was good enough for basic communication.

Are you progressing as well as you’d hoped?

If you follow Paul’s [Caffyn] schedule, that’s kind of what I’m aiming for too. Right now I’m about three days behind the dates of his schedule, so if I want to finish like him, before Christmas, on the 23rd, I need to catch up on those three days. I’m still 14 days ahead of him [Freya started at a later date than Caffyn, so she’s ahead of him in elapsed time], but I’m not really sure if it’s good to finish so close to Christmas or the first week of January.

My visa is running out on the 10th of January. I applied a couple of days ago for extending the visa, but there has been no response yet. I’ll make it in time before the visa runs out, but it’s still threatening. I would like to stay [in Australia] for a while after the whole thing.

Do you think shooting for the middle of December is too much of a rush?

I think it may be possible but it all depends on the weather. I can’t tell. Comparing to Paul’s schedule, he had a couple of days off later and I probably will have to, too. But as I said, I can’t speak for the weather. I’m able to paddle as long as he did, especially with an empty boat right now, but on the other hand Greg has to be off for two weeks in two week’s time to look after his business. So I will be alone again for a while, but that shouldn’t slow me down too much. Perhaps not at all.

I don’t have anything hard, I just have to island hop on the leg from the mainland to Kangaroo Island. So that’s the one [challenging] thing, but that’s all. I’m aiming for… well about 8 days before Christmas would be nice. I don’t know what’s better, publicity-wise. [In late December] everybody’s busy with Christmas preparations and the first week of January is when a lot of Australians have holidays.

If the weather slows me down I definitely won’t mind finishing the 2nd or 3rd of January, or something like that, but definitely not between Christmas and New Year’s. That’s stupid. Nobody would be there.

If you found you were on a pace to finish in that off week would you slow down?

I can’t say, sorry. Maybe I’ll just be happy to get it done and if I finish on the 25th, well, I finish on the 25th. Ideally it would be on the 20th or earlier when it is not so hard to get people together. It just depends on what the weather says.

The next few days are supposed to be nice so tomorrow I should be continuing. I didn’t have that many sores from that long night paddle [along the Bunda Cliffs].

How has the routine changed with the support from Greg driving the van?

Quite a bit, quite a bit. No doubt about it. It would be easier if we were an old couple, but we’re not an old couple. Still, it’s working out quite nicely. Getting the van set up was Greg’s main chore and I had only one day to spend with him to outfit the whole thing to suit our needs.

And on that day when I couldn’t paddle I needed to spend my time on the household stuff. After everything was set, it was just nice and comfortable to be helped at night with warm shower water and food and things. Can’t complain about that.

Greg does a great job. I doubt that the time I have to recover after a long day’s paddling is any longer, because we have to talk so much and there are different chores to be done around the van. But it is definitely nicer and more pleasant and entertaining. Simply different. It’s a fully different trip with a support crew.

Sometimes I have to push hard to get to the spot where he’s waiting and can get beach access. Sometimes I have to paddle shorter than I could because the next twenty miles may have nothing where Greg can get to the beach. So I have to adjust my paddling days and distances as well.

I’ve already pushed him to take four-wheel drive tracks that nobody else would have gone in, but he made it. Without four-wheel drive and without four-wheel driving skills it would be trouble. Greg is very impressed with where this van has taken him.

What has it been like getting to know someone during this trip?

It’s a stressful way. I have to paddle all day and he has his chores to do too to get to the next place to meet me, sometimes to shop and do laundry, to reconnoiter and to talk to local people to get information about coast access and tracks ahead. It’s not like there’s a paved road here. He has his fair share of work to do, too.

I’d imagined he’d drive ahead and relax on the beach waiting for you.

Oh, it’s only happened once or twice where he’s relaxed on the beach and caught fish while waiting for me. His time is quite short and he’s very happy to talk to locals about beach access. That’s quite important because in this part of the country there are few road signs on the tracks going through the bush and dunes to the beach. Sometimes the signs are hidden. Sometimes there are big hand-carved ones, but they’re not alongside the highway, they’re in the bush and we can’t tell how they got there. You have to go to the next roadhouse and ask someone where the next spot is or ask anyone you meet along the way.

GPS is very helpful in finding the tracks. Greg met some other four-wheel guys who were using aerial photographs. There simply aren’t any road signs and not many landmarks, especially not here in the bush and in these plains. There is simply nothing. You need to know where you want to go and have a compass and, these days, a GPS is very helpful. Talking to the locals is the best thing. Greg is very good at that and is a “local” anyway.

How is the drinking water situation?

The roadhouses have enough good quality rainwater that we can fill up. There are days where water is limited but we carry enough on the van. With the water bags full it’s not an issue. We have to save water but I’ll always have a shower at night, even if a tiny one. We’re never out of water.

Any groundwater comes from deep wells at roadhouses, etc., and apparently is very poor quality and often even salty. Eucla town had a desalinating plant. We have not had to buy the water like I thought. We ask and are given access to precious rainwater tanks—they’re the main source of water.

Are you done with cliffs now?

I’m done with the cliffs now, thank goodness. Three sets of them [Zuytdorp at 106 miles (171 km), Baxter at 102 miles (164 km), Bunda at 112 miles (180 km)] were more than enough. There may be some other cliffs ahead, but nothing that long.

The last two, the Baxter and the Bunda were somewhat similar because the water was quiet with no swell and I could paddle close. With the Zuytdorp Cliffs I had quite a bit of swell so I was paddling way offshore. I paddled a lot of it at night so I didn’t see much of those cliffs. The last two sets of cliffs were similar, though one was longer than the other, but it was basically calm water. Even when I had some wind going it was choppy but there was no swell, well, very little. Still enough to make me seasick though.

On the first set [Zuytdorp] I didn’t take my outriggers, but on the second set I had them out at night even though I had perfect conditions. There was bright moonlight—there was no lack of a visible horizon—but I still got seasick. There was a bit of rebound, and after throwing up a second time I thought “Now you need to pull out your floats.”

I was making great progress and throwing up made me feel much more comfortable. I was enough ahead of schedule on that two-day paddle I felt I could be a bit slow. For safety’s sake I paddled off the coast and into the wind so I think I made only 25 kilometers [15.53 miles] that whole night. Good enough to arrive at the end with decent daylight left.
When the sun was up again, I felt all right and could take off my floats and switch into normal fast-paddling mode.

The third set of cliffs was similar. I had the moon for the second half of the night and I put out my floats in the first dark half just for taking a few power naps. It was all feeling quite nice when I had my floats out. Then at midnight this big wind came up. It had been a calm but very warm and muggy day, and up until midnight a calm night, then it was 25 or 30 knots. Luckily it was a following wind—west-northwest.

I had to steer the boat a little bit away from the cliffs. I just sat there and got a bit of a push. It was not too bad but I didn’t get any catnap at all. I’d napped a couple of times before midnight. I survived about two hours of very strong following wind. Then the wind came down and came at me as a headwind but it was not that strong, just 10 to 15 knots. The moon came out at about two o’clock. At about 3 o’clock I took my floats off and started paddling. The headwind was just a bit too strong to paddle against with the floats on.

Luckily I had taken enough ginger tablets and had taken them early enough. That night I was thankfully without seasickness.

Have you only been getting seasick at night?

No, not only at night; I get sick during the day too. When I’m fiddling around too much—typing text messages, getting stuff out of the cockpit, putting things on.

When I switch into night mode that will set it off too. That’s why I tried doing things in stages on Baxter, the second set of cliffs, but that wasn’t working. I could have tried the ginger tablets [to ward off seasickness] but I just didn’t feel like taking anything. You can’t do much about seasickness when you’re already feeling the nausea.

I don’t mind throwing up. It’s all right usually. It takes maybe one time or two and then your stomach is empty and you’re done. That night it took more. It took five times. That was still all right. There was still some stuff coming out. It’s amazing what comes out of the stomach. But I have to say I had the advantage. I didn’t have to do number two the next morning. There was nothing left in the digestive tract.

You say it’s amazing what comes up. Were there things you didn’t remember eating?

Oh no, it was everything I had eaten, I reckon—a couple of oranges. Actually it was nice and dark and I didn’t look at what was landing on my spray deck. I was continuously staring ahead. I’d just let it go until I was done. Why should I look in detail at what was down there? It probably wouldn’t make me feel much better. I’d just wash it off and keep on going.

How’s your weight? 

Hmm. It’s all right. I’m not really thick and I’m not really thin. I think I’m quite good. I had a chance in a roadhouse to look at a bigger mirror and thought, “I’m not getting younger.” Without things plumped up nice and round by fat, the skin starts to hang here and there. No more details, nothing that can be printed.

With another month and almost 1,000 miles left to go—a distance that would be an expedition in its own right—are you thinking that you’re very close to the finish?

Oh yes, I’m almost done. It’s longer than going around Iceland, that distance I’ve got left to do, but that’s all right. I’ve done everything that’s really tough and I reckon the next leg won’t be that tough. There’s one 200-kilometer [124 miles] stretch of beach, Coorong Beach, which might be kind of fun, but I don’t know. We’ll see how it looks, whether if I can land or not land. Paul had a little trouble there. We’ll have to see how the wind and surf situation is there. I hope when I get there Greg will be back from his business trip.

I must admit I’m ready to be done. I simply need more mental input, rather than just planning the next day, landing and weather and stuff. It’s getting boring. I need more to think about, more to talk about, and more to deal with. More to manage and to organize. Even Greg thinks it has become quite the same routine only after six weeks . He’s not really happy that he has to go for this [charter] business trip on his own boat, but it will give him something else to do. He’ll be back, we’ll finish the whole thing and we’ll be done.

Every day is a different day, and every day we’re staying in different places and every day brings different things but still, I’d be happy to do some other sport as well at this point, and see something different. This morning I was doing a bit of driving in our van to go to a roadhouse for fuel and a shower. It was fun doing something different.

Does Greg have time to talk?

You’ve been providing support while Freya has done a couple of long stretches of cliffs and been battling seasickness. What has that been like from your perspective?

You know, with everything else she’s dealing with on these extremely tough sections, you, being a kayaker, can imagine perhaps better than I, you don’t want to be seasick as well. The mental strain of it all, then when it’s rough, and dark, there’s no visible horizon, you’re in survival mode and you’re sick, it’s pretty nasty. I feel a bit sick at times too.

It’s not without worry for me you know. If she tells me she’s going to call at two o’clock in the morning and she doesn’t call until half past two, then that’s 30 minutes of worry for me, thinking of the worst and wondering what’s going on. It’s very stressful. But everything has turned out all right and she’s going fine now and the worst is over. It’s the homeward stretch now.

It seems that you’ve been pretty busy. Has it been more work providing support than you thought it might be?

Yes, it has been more than I thought. Although she might only paddle 60 or 70 kilometers [37 or 43 miles] for the day, I thought when I was planning this trip that distance is no more than an hour’s drive in a motor vehicle and I’d have the rest of the day sitting around doing marketing [for my business] or something on my laptop. It’s not that at all.

Quite often I’ve got to drive 300 kilometers [186 miles] to get back to the highway, drive along the highway and then find a track that I might only be able to drive 13 or 15 kilometers [8 or 9 miles] per hour on very slow tracks. It’s been many, many days where I’ve actually arrived after she’s landed, you know, and she says something like, “What you been doin’ all day?” and I say, “Bloody hell, I’ve been very busy, thank you very much. I’ve done the laundry and I’ve bought some food and I’ve done this and I’ve talked to these people and I’ve talked to those people.

And that way we were going to go isn’t right and won’t work because that track’s not there and we have to come in this way…” Australian bush people are very genuine salts of the earth and very much fun to talk to.

It’s been very interesting and certainly not boring. Yeah, it’s been very pleasurable for me. The Great Australian Bight is a drive that not everybody does. People ask if I have driven the Great Australian Bight and now I can say that I have.

We haven’t done it on a highway. Very, very few people have driven the Bight the way I have, on the tracks along the coast, which there are a lot of, you know. I’m not on the highway sharing the road with big semitrailers and all the gray nomads with their caravans and motor homes.

We’ve been rolling along seeing some absolutely magnificent countryside and a coast that is spectacular. These cliffs are probably the most spectacular landforms that I’ve seen in my career.

Have you had any experience as a kayaker?

No. As a kid I had one my dad made when I was 8 years old. I’ve lived and worked on the water as a professional career since I was 18 years old. I’ve mucked around in them but I would not say I’m a kayaker by any stretch of the imagination.

What did you think when you first met Freya?

I had my charter boat on the dock at my home port and one of my crew said to me, “There’s a woman paddling a kayak around Australia who’s looking for you for some local knowledge. My first thought was, “Yeah, here’s another nutter.” I’ve seen other people go past doing different things—sailing to New Guinea on sailboards and what have you. But when I met her I changed my mind a little bit. She’s very well prepared and well organized and stunningly attractive, as you well know. The rest is history.

You must have developed a fair bit of admiration now that she’s paddled around most of the continent.

That’s right. I jokingly say to people, “It’s a good thing she became my girlfriend during the trip because if she was my girlfriend prior to the trip, one of two things’d happen: She wouldn’t do the trip, or she wouldn’t be my girlfriend.”

Cold and Alone on an Icy River

Friday, February 19th, the weather was better than it had been in some time with temperatures in the upper thirties and overcast. I knew I couldn’t make a Saturday trip with friends and I was in the mood to paddle solo.

My plan was to launch into the Mississippi River from the gravel ramp at the Foley, Missouri access, 3.5 miles above the Winfield Lock and Dam and paddle upstream in the calm, slow-moving water sheltered from the main channel by a string of islands.

On my return I could easily pop out into the main channel and return downstream to my car. I realize the risks of paddling alone. Even my wife, who rarely paddles, had heard enough discussions that she voiced some concern about my decision to paddle solo in the Mississippi River. The Foley access is one of the closest to my home and I paddle there frequently either solo or with the St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club.

It has been a long time since I unintentionally flipped a sea kayak, and far longer since I had to wet exit, so I felt quite secure paddling in a familiar setting on calm water.

Getting my QCC 700 kayak ready to go, I stowed my spare paddle—a two-piece Euro-blade—on the front deck. I’d paddle with my mainstay Greenland paddle. My paddle float and pump were already in the aft compartment, often stowed there during transport, and I decided to leave them there. I felt they wouldn’t be needed for a flat-water paddle, although they were still available. I knew there was phone service in the area so my cell phone joined my wallet and car keys in the dry bag with basic gear I always carry.

In the back hatch with that dry bag were some snacks and a sports drink in case I chose to land along the way. Over my insulating poly base layer I wore splash-proof nylon pants, a fleece pullover and rubber-soled booties with waterproof socks. A breathable rain jacket, knit watch cap and waterproof neoprene gloves completed my gear. I had a hydration pack and new camera secured to the PFD I was wearing.

At the river’s edge there was an apron of ice about 3 feet wide and not quite a quarter inch thick. I used a fallen tree branch to clear a path through it. Launching into the slough and paddling near the shore brought me in sight of a few bald eagles, several pelicans and other waterfowl, most just out of camera range. The large flights of waterfowl passing high overhead were a sign that spring was on the way.

Widely scattered rafts of ice were drifting in the gentle current; I took several photos of one and even tried setting my camera on the ice for a self-portrait but was unable to get far enough away for a decent picture. Once I heard a loud ripping sound and turned to see the gentle current shred the quarter-inch ice over a log snagged on the river bottom.

A few times I heard a loud metallic racket in the distance. Not being able to determine the source, I assumed it was coming from the lock and dam downstream.

After an hour of zigzagging up the slough taking pictures I reached the head of Jim Crow Island. I heard more metallic clanging, first upstream, then across the main channel. It finally dawned on me that the noise was caused by rafts of ice striking the marker buoys in the navigation channel. Thinking this would make an interesting video I headed out to the middle of the river to the nearest buoy.

While there were more and larger rafts of ice moving down the main channel, it was still no problem crossing between them. It was amazing to see how the quarter-inch thick sheets of ice moving a few miles an hour could knock the several-hundred-pound buoys about so violently. I took a video of the buoy as I drifted downstream with the ice.

I had to pick a route through the ice floes as I headed back. While there was a clear path down the left side of the river, from this distance I wasn’t able to see an easy way to cross the channel to get back to the landing. An hourglass-shaped sheet of ice beside me left only about thirty feet of ice blocking an easy crossing. I decided to become an icebreaker, something I’ve done several times before, although usually in a plastic kayak rather than in my Kevlar boat.

Ice breaking in a kayak is fun, but you don’t move very fast. You chop the paddle down to punch a hole in the ice, then using that anchor point you slide ahead until the boat’s weight breaks the ice beneath it. With only six or eight feet of ice left between me and open water, I brought my paddle down to make one last anchor point; instead of punching a hole in the ice, the blade hit and skidded across it.

I was suddenly upside down. I made two unsuccessful attempts to roll up and while both attempts got my head above water, neither was good enough for me to stay upright. I’d never had a problem with gasp reflex underwater, but I was definitely gasping when I surfaced.

I bailed out and came up on the left side of the boat. My first thought was: “You have minutes to do something.” I could feel the icy water on my legs. I had chosen not to wear a wetsuit, assuming I wouldn’t need one for a flat-water paddle.

Previously our club’s coldest day out paddling had been 9° F and I had worn a drysuit that day, but the suit had worn out since then and I hadn’t replaced it. Unfortunately on this day, the coldest I had paddled solo, I was in trouble wearing only a poly base layer and a fleece pullover under nylon pants and a waterproof jacket. Only my neo gloves worked well in the water. My cap had fallen in the water and I threw it in the cockpit, but I didn’t notice the cold on my head.

I turned the boat upright and popped the cover off the back hatch. It was a simple matter to grab the paddle float. I had it mostly inflated before I thought to put it on the paddle. During the paddle-float rescue I put my foot on the paddle to climb in, and the boat leaned over taking water into the cockpit and open back hatch.

I knew this wasn’t working but didn’t immediately grasp why. Thinking it was better to call for help too soon rather than too late, I opened my drybag and found my cell phone. I was afraid I would drop it into the water so I held it over the open hatch.

That made it hard to see the keys to dial 911. The call to 911 failed twice; then I noticed there wasn’t any signal strength showing on the screen. This was odd since I’d heard my phone signaling an incoming message shortly after launching and I’d made calls from the shore on other days.

I thought that if I could swim the boat through the remaining ice, the current would carry me toward the car while I worked on a self-rescue. It soon became evident I could not swim through quarter-inch thick ice as fast as I needed to. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should tie myself to the boat to make it easier to find my body, but I wasn’t willing to give up yet.

It then dawned on me that I had not finished inflating my paddle float. That explained the failure of the first self-rescue. I blew more air into the float and tried again. I was able to get myself belly down on top of the boat and even take a moment to slide the paddle under the bungee more securely. As I started to rotate my body upright, a wrong shift of my weight dumped me back into the water on the right side of the boat, away from the outrigger. This was probably the low point for me.

Fortunately, the partly flooded boat did not flip and dump all my gear into the water. I once again repeated my mantra for the day—“you have only minutes”—and I kept moving. Pulling my marine radio from the deck bag I struggled to control my gasping, then made a Mayday call twice and listened for a reply. Silence. Changing the power from one to five watts I tried the Mayday call again. Still no reply. That’s when it really sank in that I was on my own.

Moving the paddle float to the right side I saw my pump in the hatch and put it in the cockpit. Then, gingerly climbing onto the flooded boat, I was able to get completely out of the water. I took a minute to rest. The rest of the paddle-float rescue went just as it’s supposed to with one hitch, sitting up in the cockpit I realized I was on top of my pump. If I’d had feeling in my lower extremities I’m sure it would have been uncomfortable.

A couple attempts to reach the pump convinced me the flooded boat was too unstable to risk pulling the pump out. It was under my right hip on the seat and the float was now on that side. I’m not sure of my thought process at the time but I didn’t feel I could get it out without shifting my weight to the left and capsizing again to that side.

I knew I couldn’t survive going in the water again. Deciding not to remove the paddle float, I very gingerly retrieved my spare paddle. The three inches of water in the cockpit didn’t help with the cold I felt or my stability. Working through the remaining ice was uneventful and soon I was in open water.

Paddling back was a slow, methodical process. I remember trying to reach the pump once or twice and was stopped by the boat’s lack of stability. I remembered a chemical hot pack in my jacket pocket. I felt around but it was under my PFD and I wasn’t willing to tempt fate by trying to get it out. I did take a moment to drink from my hydration pack. I hadn’t realized till then how thirsty I had become.

It was about one half mile to the car and for the last several minutes I noticed my vision getting dark around the edges and a roaring in my ears that almost covered the usual river noises. I don’t really remember shivering much during the paddle. Pulling into shallow water and attempting to dismount resulted in landing on my butt in six inches of water. The next attempt got me on my feet and I dragged the boat ashore. I immediately went to the car and got it started.

Before long I had wet gear spread out all over the landing. My PFD and wet clothes were scattered on the ground, the roof racks and roof of the car. I changed into dry clothes but I didn’t remove my soaking briefs. I don’t know why, but that certainly caused me to take longer warming up.

Back in the car I got a couple drinks of Gatorade but I was soon shivering violently. I found a chemical hot pack and stuck it to my shirt near my armpit. Weighing my options, I knew I couldn’t load my boat and I wasn’t willing to leave it unattended.

With my cell phone now working and slightly damp, I called my friend Mark. He lives nearby and we often share rides to and from trips. As soon as I spoke Mark asked what was wrong with me. Hearing I’d taken a swim and needed help loading my boat was all it took to get him on the way.

A few minutes later a car with two men and a pickup with another guy pulled up. Seeing the debris field between the car and the water and taking one look at me, the pickup driver came over and asked if I needed help.

They all offered to load my boat, so with minimal instruction and even less real help from me they pumped it out, put it on the roof rack, tied it down and helped me pick up the scattered gear. I was still shivering violently, so the pickup driver urged me to get back in the car, saying he’d stay till Mark got there. Most people on the river are decent, hardworking souls. These guys were some of the best.

Within a few minutes Mark arrived and the pickup driver left before I could properly thank him. Looking over the situation, Mark took my Gatorade and began heating it on an alcohol stove he’d brought with him. I have to say hot grape Gatorade tastes terrible, but it felt really good!

Sitting in my car Mark gave me another hot pack and found that I had turned the car’s blower on high but hadn’t turned the heat up. He dialed it up and that helped warm me, but not nearly as much as the warm drink. Fortunately, Mark had put it in a spill-proof cup or I would have worn it. He still had to do a lot of coaching to get me to drink. I tended to just hold the warm cup, pant and shiver unless told to do otherwise.

The warm drink worked its magic quickly. Even though Mark had offered to follow me home and help unload, by the time we reached the highway I told him I could make it on my own and we parted ways. I had nagging thoughts that someone may have heard my Mayday call and started an unnecessary search, so I phoned the lock and dam to make sure someone knew what happened. The lady who answered the phone told me they only monitor Channel 12 for lock operations and do not monitor Coast Guard Channel 16. No search had been initiated.

When I got home I put together a timeline from time stamps on the camera and cell phone. The 911 calls weren’t completed so they didn’t register in the phone log.

About 12:15 – Launch
12:21 – First photo
1:20 – Last photo at the head of Jim Crow Island
1:35 – Video of buoy
2:21 – Called Mark
3:40 – Called lock and dam

Time was a very relative thing that day, but I’m estimating I spent about ten minutes in thirty-something-degree water. Assuming I dumped about ten minutes after the video and called Mark about ten minutes after landing, that leaves sixteen minutes to paddle from near the head of Turners Island to the ramp just over one-half mile away.

Lessons Learned

I had filed a float plan. My wife knew where I was going and when I planned to be back. However, given the limited survival time in cold water, a float plan may have only indicated where to look for the body. The single best thing that I did was never give up.

Every time one attempt failed, I moved to the next. While I was making calls for help I was thinking of what to try next. I knew even if a call for help got out, I had to get back aboard my kayak. Staying in the water till help arrived would have been fatal. Paddling upstream first is always a good idea. Whether you’re tired, hurt, or just late it’s always best to have the easy downstream or downwind leg at the end of the day.

What I did wrong: Not listening to my wife. Even if things go well, that’s always a bad idea. Going solo is not necessarily wrong but when you do, it has to influence every decision you make from then on. Going into the navigation channel was probably OK; my decision to cross the channel between ice floes was questionable.

Deciding to break through the ice was definitely a bad choice. Getting among ice floes at any time can be dangerous. If the ice had jammed up on an island or sandbar, the current would have crushed the floes together. Being caught in its midst would be dangerous for a person in a boat and almost certainly fatal for a swimmer.

Not dressing for immersion in 30° water was a critical mistake. I didn’t then own a drysuit, but even my wetsuit would have kept me much warmer. Proper cold-water immersion wear would have led to better composure, fewer mistakes and a quicker self-rescue.

I wear a wetsuit when paddling whitewater where the odds are good I will roll and probably swim, and the protection it offers makes a big difference.

Several weeks after the incident a friend pointed out a sale on semi-dry suits. My wife insisted I get one, so I did. I wasn’t going to repeat the mistake of not listening to her.

Doing a radio check before launching would have told me no one in the area was monitoring Channel 16. The lock tenders monitor Channels 12 or 14 and while they have no capacity for rescues, they could have called 911 for me.

I hadn’t been practicing rolling last summer as much as usual. In the ice I think I rushed and overpowered the Greenland paddle. The paddle works best for me with a very slow sweep and more of a gentle knee lift than a hip snap. I feel my roll is less reliable with a Euro paddle but with it I complete half of my rolls in cold whitewater.

All of my failed rolls have been in shallow whitewater where I’m bouncing off rocks and can’t seem to get set up properly. In the past I have sometimes dealt with an unsuccessful roll by switching to a sculling roll, which may have worked in the ice had I thought to try it.

I demonstrate paddle-float rescues at our club’s safety clinics but because it’s a technique I feel confident with, I don’t regularly practice it. More practice may have helped it work the first time. Leaving the paddle float and pump where they were stored in the back hatch was another critical mistake.

Had I placed the pump and float in their normal position on the back deck, when the first reentry attempt failed, the kayak’s buoyancy would not have been compromised by water getting into the open rear compartment. Had the pump been secured in its place it would have been available to clear the cockpit after my successful reentry.

Without the pump under me I would have had my weight lower in the boat and therefore would have been more stable. Getting the water out of the kayak would also have restored its stability.

I survived the day more intact than I had any right to expect. I had two palm-sized bruises on my right thigh, perhaps from sliding out of the thigh brace during the wet exit, and right calf probably from the coaming. I also had some numbness of the skin in my midsection.

My doctor said it was inflammation of the nerves. It’s almost totally gone and improving. He also said my darkening vision was possibly low blood pressure brought on by shock or hypothermia. He explained that during initial submersion all the blood vessels constrict, forcing blood into your core. As hypothermia gets worse you lose the ability to constrict the vessels and they relax, dropping your blood pressure—the same effect that shock has. The doctor thought that dropping blood pressure would have caused the roaring in my ears.

I think about that day a lot and it will definitely influence my decisions on future trips. Two days after the swim my wife and I went to see the movie The Wolfman. One of the characters was in an 1880s mental institution and as part of his “therapy” he’s strapped to a chair and lowered into a tank of ice water. That was hard to watch and caused me to tense up enough that my wife asked if I was OK.

Time can take on new meaning as quickly as a kayak can flip. Resting on a warm beach we can while away a few minutes with barely a thought. Submerged in icy water gasping repeatedly as your body reacts to it’s warmth streaming away in the current, every thought races past and you try to grasp their importance and cling onto the thoughts that will help you.

Our comprehension of the river can change just as quickly as we make the transition from kayaker to swimmer. Sure it’s just a flat-water paddle—so what if it’s colder than last time I was here? It’s easy to dismiss these concerns because we have no intention of swimming.

But we can’t control the water, and that’s part of what draws us to it. When we make that sudden transition from kayaker to swimmer, the outcome hinges on choices we’ve already made, maybe days before, when we were on land, warm and dry. Good decisions should come and go instinctively. But you will ponder a poor decision for the rest of your life, be that decades or minutes.

Rescue in Alaska A rising wind overpowers two visiting kayakers

I had been thinking about paddling in Alaska for a long time. Many kayakers I know have paddled there, most of them in organized groups, and almost all of them in Prince William Sound. My friend and fellow kayaker, Albert, instantly accepted the idea of paddling in Alaska, but proposed a different Alaskan destination, the Kenai Fjords.

We both are committed kayakers. I’d been kayaking for six years year-round, along the Mediterranean coasts of Tel Aviv and Herzlia. I made a few kayak trips in Greece, visited Wales during summer and winter for the intense BCU Five-star training, and joined the three-man Ireland expedition, paddling 400 miles clockwise from Dublin to Galway. I feel quite comfortable in tidal races and in surf zone and have a good roll.

Albert had been paddling for four years. He has never taken serious advanced kayak training; he can roll but his roll is weak. He has done a couple of kayak trips in Greece and paddled for two weeks in Alaska with a strong group, both in Prince William Sound and in the open sea.

Our plan was to explore the Kenai Fjords launching in Seward, rounding the Kenai Peninsula and taking out after roughly 300 miles at Homer.


On the bus from Anchorage to Seward, our driver updated us on the weather situation: “We’ve had a very dry summer this year, very unusual, but now, at last, we’re getting the first real rain.” We could see the dark clouds from the bus window.

At Seward it was already raining heavily and we were informed that the wind outside Resurrection Bay was southeast at 45 knots. Alan, the local kayaker who helped us with the kayaks, commented on that: “You wouldn’t believe what beautiful weather we’ve had all this summer, but we always knew that when the storm would come, it would come big.” We decided that even in this weather we could start our trip if we kept to the sheltered water inside the fjords and bays. We left on the next day, knowing that we would stay in Resurrection Bay, until the conditions improved.

We were paddling rented NDK Explorers, the same model that both of us own and paddle at home. Both of us carried NOAA nautical charts of the area on our kayak decks. We each had a compass mounted on our kayak fore decks. Albert carried a simple waterproof Magellan GPS in his day hatch. He carried a backup GPS, this one a Garmin, packed below deck.

I had an Icon waterproof marine radio, kept in a waterproof bag that was attached to my deck. I also had a Macmurdo PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) with GPS in a pocket on the back of my PFD. In a dry bag deep in my day hatch, I had two aerial flash rockets.

While on the water we both wore drysuits with one layer of fleece and a hat. Each of us used a paddle leash and had a spare paddle on deck.

The constant rain stayed with us for the next eight days, usually accompanied by wind and fog. We continued our trip, cautiously passing from one fjord to another, always having escape plans ready and usually using them. On one occasion we had high and rising choppy seas and strong wind just before the narrow McArthur passage, but we found shelter safely in Chance Cove that was one of a few escape places that we prepared for that day.

On another occasion we were surprised by the enormous strength of the tidal race at the entrance of the Northwestern Fjord—it was clearly impassable so we camped on the western side of the upper Harris Bay. It was the only place that day without big surf and suitable for landing. We didn’t have a day without a new challenge.

By July 29 we had covered 155 nautical miles and more than half of the distance to Homer.

On that day we camped at Berger Bay on Nuka Island. It was a beautiful gravel beach with a place for the tent and a natural place for our kitchen. We had a fresh salmon that I caught and it was our first camp almost without rain. What else does a kayaker need?


We knew that Gore Point is often a difficult place. It has high cliffs, unpredictable currents and rocks all around. But Gore Point was not our main concern. We worried more about the day following our rounding of the point. On that day we would have to leave very early to catch the flood. It was the only way to continue west from Gore Peninsula and cover the long distance to reach the first landing spot.

To set ourselves up properly for the following day our objective was to pass Gore Point as quickly as possible and to camp at the first place that presented itself. We knew of one potential campsite, Ranger Beach, located on the west side of the base of the Gore Peninsula. It is a sandy beach and the landing should not be a problem with the usual SW winds. Ranger Beach was located 15 miles from our camping site on Nuka Island.

At that point in the trip we were in good shape and could easily paddle at 4 knots, so the entire way with the favorable wind and current should take less than five hours. That was the good news. The bad news was that the last 11 miles, everything west of Tonsina Bay, offered absolutely no place to land. It is all high cliffs and we knew very well from the previous days that even in a moderate swell we would do well to stay at least one mile away from the land. We hardly had any rain that evening and our weather forecast, for a change, was not bad.

The last forecast that we got by satellite-phone text message from our weather support man in Israel was for wind ESE at Beaufort Force 3 to 5, and waves at one to two meters coming from SSW. The VHF reception was very bad at our campsite, but from what we were able to make out seemed to be a forecast that was no different from our satellite-phone forecast. Before we retreated to our tent that night we watched the northern lights on the horizon. We felt encouraged by our prospects for the following day.


We left our camp on Nuka Island at 1 P.M. The sea was very quiet and there was almost no wind. It was foggy but not too bad; the visibility was about two miles. We decided to go in the same manner as we did on the previous days—keeping within sight of land. It made navigation easy and we could quickly determine our location based on the shoreline shape and the mountain relief. We headed west and then southwest to Tonsina Bay.

Very soon after we left, we started to feel some wind. It was NNE at Beaufort Force 3 to 4. This direction was unusual and not the forecast. The wind was, however, ideal for us, and I had nothing to complain about having it help push us along. In about one hour we could see Tonsina Bay on our right side. Our speed was very good, the weather was great and we continued south to Front Point.

On our way to Front Point the wind changed to northeast but still was at Beaufort Force 4. There were only the occasional whitecaps. The only thing that worried us was that the fog was becoming worse. We could still see the land from about one mile’s distance, but it was behind a hardly transparent screen of fog. We worried that our view of the land could disappear in a few minutes. But the sea conditions were not bad at all at Front Point and we continued to Gore Bight.

The three miles from Front Point to Gore Bight took about one hour and within that span of time everything changed. The wind grew stronger with frightening persistence. In one hour the wind had changed from a friendly Force 4 to a challenging Force 7. The direction of the wind changed as well, shifting from northeast to east.

At 3:30 P.M. we were two miles northeast of Gore Point in a rapidly strengthening wind and in waves reaching eight feet and coming from all directions. We still could see some shape of the land to the north, but the fog obscured any hint of the Gore Peninsula. (The log kept by the captain aboard the nearby fishing vessel Vigilant noted “15:30 … Gore Point, Winds 45 miles per hour, Seas 10 Feet.”)

I had to brace constantly just to stay upright. Albert was much less experienced in a sea like this, and I knew his situation had to be much worse. We were pushed by the wind toward the most intimidating place on the whole Kenai Peninsula. The locals know it as the best location to find interesting debris that has been driven ashore by wind and waves.

It was absolutely clear to me that we were in serious trouble. I called out to Albert, “I think we should call for help.” He quickly agreed.

We brought our kayaks alongside one another. Albert held my cockpit with both hands and I took the VHF radio from my deck and attached it by the wrist strap to the clips in my PFD’s right pocket. Then I switched the VHF on, put it on Channel 16 and pressed the transmit button.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. We are two kayakers two miles northeast of Gore Point. We are still in the kayaks but cannot paddle and we are drifting in the strong wind.”

I had very little hope that anyone would receive our message as we hadn’t seen any other boats since we left Aialik Bay five days ago. We hadn’t seen anyone onshore either. To my surprise, the call was answered. The blowing wind and the fact that English is not one of my native languages didn’t help. I could understand only part of what came across the radio. I heard: “This is … Star, … specify your position.” I didn’t know who had responded to my call. I replied “Please wait.”

In the strong wind and high waves Albert and I concentrated on keeping the kayaks rafted together. I put the VHF into my pocket, then held Albert’s cockpit while he retrieved the GPS from his day hatch. We couldn’t make any mistakes. He switched the GPS on and held my cockpit as the coordinates appeared on the GPS screen.

I took the VHF out and relayed our coordinates using numbers as well as the words “degrees, minutes, seconds, north, west.” (It was explained to me later that I was expected to use only digits, everything else only made the reception more difficult.) The VHF came back: “… sending the boat … will come in one hour and fifteen minutes. It is a big black boat; you will see it.” I was not so sure that we would see it in the fog. The hour we would have to wait seemed like a very long time, too long a time.

I looked at Albert: “Let’s activate the PLB.” Albert took the PLB out of the pocket on the back of my PFD, and opened the safety. “The lights are on,” said Albert.

We were so focused on operating our electronics that we didn’t look around even though we knew we were drifting. Albert glanced up, “Gadi, look!”

I looked and saw the landscape looming over the fog. The land wasn’t the coast we’d been seeing to the north. It was to the west. It was the Gore Peninsula.

We were drifting very fast in a very bad direction. There was very little chance we would survive being washed ashore on the peninsula. The only solution was to paddle away very fast. We needed to move about one mile south, to avoid getting washed ashore.

I called on the VHF: “This is the two kayaks; we will try to paddle south and get around Gore Point.”

We started to paddle again, bearing ESE to make sure our real progress was to the south. Our effort was mostly against the wind now, and it helped our stability to have the waves coming over the bow.

But the farther south we moved, the worse the sea conditions became. It wasn’t surprising. The sea around the end of a headland is always the worst.

It is hard to say how much time passed, but at some point we had the Gore Peninsula behind us. Now, without the danger of being thrown on the rocks, we could try to go to the peninsula’s west side where we would probably be protected from the strong wind and waves. We continued to paddle west, but the sea was the worst we had met that day. The 11-foot waves coming from the SSE were constantly breaking in the strong east wind. One cresting wave hit me from the left and turned me over. The water wasn’t as cold as I expected. I noticed it wasn’t as salty to my tongue as the Mediterranean; I felt like I was turned over on a river.

My roll is quite reliable, but when I was nearly upright, another blow turned me over once again. I made a much more aggressive attempt and came up expressing my feelings in my native Russian language. I realized that if the waves could capsize me, they could do the same to Albert, and he probably wouldn’t be able to recover by rolling. Albert was on my left and I reduced the distance between us to about 30 feet. In a few minutes one wave crushed violently on both of us.

I did a high brace and survived. Then I looked to my left after the wave passed and saw the white bottom of Albert’s kayak. Albert had bailed out and was holding onto a deck line. The strong wind made it difficult to maneuver alongside him, but I eventually reached his kayak. I didn’t dare try to empty the kayak, so I just made the rescue and got Albert back into a cockpit full of water. We had a hand pump on my deck and I hoped to use it to empty the cockpit. We rafted up and started to pump. Our success was only partial. We took some water out but the process was very slow, and we had to protect the cockpit from the waves.

I asked Albert if he thought we should try to paddle toward land. He said that he preferred to stay rafted together and wait for rescue. It was quite understandable. The water remaining in his cockpit made his kayak less stable. The wave that had capsized Albert had washed away his hat and glasses, despite the fact that they were tethered.

Albert’s glasses are a very strong prescription and he had never even tried to paddle without them. I looked around and couldn’t see any hint of the land—the fog was obviously stronger than before and, besides that, at the time of the rescue we were drifting out. I looked on the GPS—it was dead, just a black screen. I agreed that the best thing right now was to keep our raft upright and to wait for the rescue.

As we were moving away from Gore Point, the wind remained strong but the seas became more regular. The waves were still big, but now they came from only one direction. A strong rain had started, making the visibility even worse.

We couldn’t put our paddles at 90 degrees to the kayaks. The wind was shaking our raft structure and threatened to take our paddles away. So we had no other choice but to put the paddles under the deck lines. They were not so vulnerable to the wind there, but they were not in the best start position for us if we failed to keep the kayaks rafted and needed the paddles to roll.

We had to pay attention to every wave. It was all about having the right angle of the kayak to meet the wave. All the waves came from Albert’s side. My left hand was on Albert’s kayak and on each wave I pushed the far side of his kayak down. It was a kind of low brace edging without a paddle that gave us some control of our stability. While we were rafted up we maintained contact with rescuers over the VHF.

“This is two kayaks; we are drifting in strong wind.”

Rescue Ship: “Do you see any land around?”

“Negative, we are in fog; we don’t see any land.”

I later learned that the captain of the rescue ship was not confident that we had actually succeeded in getting beyond Gore Point and was searching for us in the worst place, on the east side of the point. This is why the question about land was asked more than once.

“We activated our PLB. Do you have our position?”

No answer. Some time after, the rescue ship responded: “We turned on our searchlights. Do you see us?”

“Negative, we see nothing. We activated our PLB; do you have our position?”

Rescue ship: “Do you have any flares?”

Deep inside my day hatch I had a dry bag that we got with the kayaks. I knew that we had flares in there but I didn’t think it was worth the risk for one of us to let go of the deck to open the day compartment and grope for the flares. Even if we had been able to find flares, I didn’t believe that they would have been able to see them when we hadn’t been able to see their searchlights.

I replied on VHF: “Negative, we don’t have flares. We activated our PLB; do you have our position?”

The search by the ship continued quite a long time, but they couldn’t find us. Then we got a new message. “A helicopter is coming for you. It will direct us.”

Then after some time we heard a transmission from the rescue helicopter. It was hard for me to understand every word: “… radio … count … ten …“

What I got was enough. “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten. Should I do it again?”

Rescue Helicopter: “… count …”

“Should I count again?”

Rescue Helicopter: “Yes, please count.”

“One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten. Should I do it again?”

Rescue Helicopter: “Yes.”

This back and forth continued for some time.

It was explained to me later that I had been asked to count repeatedly to provide a continuous radio transmission.

Rescue Helicopter: “Great! The signal is stronger now!”

In one minute we saw a big red helicopter coming out of the fog just above us. It was a moment that I will never forget.

“We are in good condition. We can wait for the ship.”

A few minutes later the helicopter dispatched a rescue swimmer.

He approached us with a huge smile on his face: “Hi! I’m Chuck.” It seemed he would jump on our kayaks and shake our hands. “How are you?”

“Albert lost his hat and glasses but we are well.”

“What are you doing here?”

“We are paddling nine days from Seward to Homer. The weather changed suddenly.”

“Where you from?”

“We are from Israel.”

“Israel? Really?! You are quite far away!”

In a few minutes we spotted the Vigilant with all of the searchlights on. It was bouncing up and down on the waves and our first attempt to come to the ship with the kayaks didn’t go well.

But Chuck was very cool and very efficient. We were told to leave the kayaks and climb up using the ship’s tethered life ring. The ship’s crew pulled us aboard. Chuck held on to our kayaks and helped the Vigilant crew haul our boats aboard. In short time we were safely aboard with all of our gear.

It was 6:00 P.M. Two and half hours had passed from the moment we had transmitted our first Mayday.

The fishing boat Vigilant, a 58-foot fish tender, was handled by captain Dennis Magnuson and the deckhand Quinn Tavfer. We couldn’t imagine a better welcome than what we got on the Vigilant. Fortunately for us, the Vigilant had been nearby in Port Dick Bay collecting salmon from three smaller fishing vessels. We stayed aboard the ship for two days, and when it was full of salmon and ready to head home, we were dropped off at Homer.



We allowed ourselves to be distracted from our safety procedures. Our routine was to get a weather forecast via the satellite phone text message, and listen to the weather radio twice a day to get the regular updates at 4 A.M. and 4 P.M. Even when we didn’t have reception for the weather radio at our campsite, we still could paddle out from shore and probably have reception out on the water.

With the good weather around us, the forecast for fair weather we had gotten a day before and the general feeling that conditions would likely improve after the eight days of rain we’d been through, blunted our senses, and we didn’t maintain the necessary level of alertness. The radio forecast was drastically changed that day.

If we had received it, we would have heard the gale warning. We did ultimately receive the SMS message announcing the change in the weather forecast, but it was received by our satellite phone—when we were already on the fishing boat—after a delay of more than twelve hours.


Both the PLB and waterproof VHF radio were necessary. If we had had only the PLB and not the VHF, we would have had no knowledge about a rescue being launched until it got to us. At least two hours could have passed while we waited and wondered. I can say that it would have been highly unpleasant.

According to the Coast Guard, the location of a transmitting 406 PLB beacon like we had can be determined within approximately three miles by the first satellite pass, and to within one mile after three satellite passes. In our case of very poor visibility and fast drifting in the wind, it would be very difficult not only for ships but also for the Coast Guard helicopter to find us without the radio signal.

The fact that our VHF radio call was heard by the fishermen was just good luck. The annual salmon season in Port Dick Bay lasts only twenty days in a year. Without large vessels around, our PLB would have been the only means to call for help.

We had flares, but they were stowed deep in the day hatch. In the fog they might not have done much good but, as a rule, safety flares should be kept handy and ready for use.

A Rocky Rescue – a Deceptively Gentle Swell Puts a Bay Area Kayaker in a Tight Spot.

I enjoy kayaking in the rocks outside San Francisco’s Golden Gate, so I was happy to see a post from Bill Vonnegut about paddling north from Rodeo Beach. When hearing there might be a lot of paddlers from our club (Bay Area Sea Kayakers, BASK) for this outing, I was delighted at the chance to kayak with some folks I might not have seen in a while.

I even thought the large group might afford the opportunity for a little rescue practice. Ultimately there were about 22 people on this trip. Another smaller contingent with another four to six BASK kayakers started shortly after our group.

We paddled off the beach into 3- to 4-foot waves. Most of the waves we encountered after leaving the shore were much smaller. On this relatively benign day we headed north up the coast, much closer to the rocks than is typically possible for the area.

With this sort of club trip it is not likely, nor necessarily even desirable, for everyone to stay in one large pod, so it wasn’t long before we were in groups of about four to six people.

We stopped to play in the passages into caves and through arches and we rode waves through slots between rocks or over them. Groups split apart, swapped members and merged into new groups.

That there was not a single paddler that day who lacked the skills or experience to be out there made this an easy affair. There were capsizes with and without wet exits, as well as a few simple rescues throughout the day, but we were all having a great time.


It was a nice day with very little wind and maybe-two foot swells. Usually they’re bigger than this. Shortly into the paddle, Tony Johnson and I negotiated a small pour-over at the same time. I tried to make a hard left turn to avoid Tony.

I went over and rolled back up again. No big deal. I hit the pour-over a few more times, and, I have to say, I was having fun. Then I got hung up on a rock and went over again. My bow got stuck on a rock and I blew my first two roll attempts. As I was setting up for a bomb-proof roll, I saw someone’s bow next to my boat so I did a bow rescue instead. Conditions seemed very calm and my guard was probably down a bit.

I paddled back outside and someone asked, “How many times have you been over already?” I said, “two,” and thought to myself, this is going to be a long day—possibly a 14 mile paddle—and I should probably dial it down a bit.


Because of my penchant for play and exploring, I tend to find myself taking up the rear in the group on any rock-garden trip. As I rounded one bend, a large arch came into view. There was a large group of people sitting a bit outside the arch. It seemed as if folks were just casually chatting, but then I heard someone say something about someone getting flushed from “there.”

I didn’t know where “there” was, but then I saw Ciaran abruptly appear, flushed from a cleft in the rock. He was out of his boat and hanging onto a toggle. Just as suddenly as he appeared, Ciaran and his boat were sucked back into the crevice. Several of us started shouting at Ciaran to let go of his boat and just swim out. I couldn’t tell whether he could hear anyone or not.


There was a big arch that some kayakers were playing in and to its right there was a small slot. I was observing the slot for a short time when I saw someone do a little pour-over inside the slot and come out at the front of the arch. I observed a little longer and decided I was going to go for it. So much for my decision to dial it down.

I went into the slot on the next surge but wasn’t fast enough and landed on top of the pour-over. No big deal, I figured, I would just wait for the next wave to carry me through to the front of the arch. The next wave came in but, instead of washing me through to the front of the arch, it sucked me back into the back of the slot.

I completely failed to anticipate this. I went into combat mode. There was a lot of whitewater around me and I went over. I rolled back up, tried to paddle forward in the slot, but it was only three- to four-feet wide. The next surge came in and sent me back even farther and rolled me upside down again. I thought bailing out was not an option and would make things very difficult. It was too narrow to roll but I managed to push off the bottom to right myself. I headed for the exit only to be hit again by the incoming surge and sent back to the back of the slot.

I think I went over again and managed to right myself by climbing up the side wall. There was no room to roll. At that point I was feeling this was becoming a bad situation and attempted to rush for the exit again. The next surge sent me flying backward again. My boat got stuck sideways between the two walls and I was sucked out of the cockpit.

I hadn’t been unintentionally out of my boat in about three years and thought, “This isn’t going to be good.” The water pulled me down and under what seemed to be a ledge underwater. I was held there for what felt like a long time. When the surge subsided, I made for the exit again, grabbing my boat along the way and trying to swim with it and the paddle. I guess this was instinct—“never lose your boat or your paddle.”

After the surge came in and out a couple more times, I could no longer hold onto my boat so I let it go. The boat came back and forth, crashing into me a bunch of times so I held onto it again. I even thought, “If I hold onto the boat, I might get washed out to the exit with it.” At one point I tried to climb on top of the boat, but that didn’t help any. I was held under the ledge for about twenty seconds at a time, and drank a lot of water.


Though the outside swell didn’t rise above 3–4 feet, the effect was amplified in the tight confines of the slot, causing the water to slosh in all directions at once, creating standing waves in a clapotis effect.

Given the way the water was sucking in and out of there, creating lots of strong currents and whirls and alternately exposing the mussel-encrusted rock or pounding it with whitewater, it seemed debatable as to whether another boat in there would make the situation better or worse.

Jeff, a Class-V whitewater boater, paddled his whitewater boat into the melee and attempted to rescue Ciaran. He left me with the bag end of his tow rope but I very quickly had to let go as it was not long enough, and my holding onto it was preventing Jeff from paddling in.

Even with a slack rescue line Jeff still went in. By this time Ciaran, despite having on his PFD, was repeatedly disappearing beneath the waves. He would only be gone for a few seconds, but those seconds seemed to stretch out when he would not immediately pop to the surface.


After about ten minutes in the slot I was feeling fatigued. Jeff Hastings came in with his small blue riverboat and tried to extract me. We both got bashed around back and forth in the surge. Jeff rolled at least once but, no matter what, I couldn’t seem to hold onto his boat.

Jeff is a very strong kayaker and, at first, I really thought he was going to drag me out of there. He also inspired me to keeping fighting. He told me to let my boat go which I think I did but was concerned about it hitting me again. I felt like a pin in a bowling alley.

Someone threw in a throw rope which I grabbed and started to reel in. After I reeled in about 50 feet, I realized there was no tension on the other end. So I let it go. The next surge wrapped the rope around my body and legs, which I managed to brush off. I ended up in the back of the slot again, under the ledge.


Jeff reached underwater a few times to pull Ciaran to the surface. Unfortunately Jeff was getting banged around pretty hard as well and was over a few times, but he always managed to roll up. Once when the area was sucked partially dry by the incoming swelI, I saw Jeff’s boat wedged upside down between two rocks inside the crevice. It’s a testament to his skill that he didn’t end up out of his boat himself.

Still, despite all Jeff’s efforts, Ciaran never had the strength to hold on when Jeff would attempt to extricate him. And the longer Jeff’s boat was being tossed around in there, the greater the chances of injury to Ciaran and the chances of him becoming a victim himself. Ultimately, Jeff was forced to abandon his efforts in the slot.

At some point during all of this, Ciaran’s boat finally got washed out and Bill and others grabbed it and took it out of the way. I could see Ciaran’s expression clearly during one of the times he came to the surface. The look on his face was grim at best.


Jeff, my boat and the rope were gone. I felt myself being sucked under the rock and let go a bunch of times. I certainly got my money’s worth out of my helmet. It was a pity it did not cover all of me. I felt like I was in a giant toilet lined with rocks and being flushed every ten or fifteen seconds. I had no energy left and could not fight anymore.

I felt I had done 15 rounds with Mike Tyson and was setting up for another 15. I realize now that after all that struggling I was not getting close to the exit at all. First I was angry and then I was accepting of my fate. I was quite sure I would die. I told myself that my wife and kids would be okay and tried to picture them.

It came to a point that I thought I would go under the rock only one — maybe two — more times. And that would be it. I had swallowed a lot of water but still had not inhaled any. For a fleeting moment, I considered inhaling water to bring the inevitable end on quicker. Then I pushed this idea out of my mind. I only hoped it wouldn’t take too long and not hurt too much.


I was desperate to try another tactic and thought about climbing onto the rock outcropping close to the arch. I paddled to the arch side figuring the currents would be easier to deal with there and scouted the options. I hadn’t yet committed to that decision though and went back to check on the progress.

Tony, a very experienced sea kayaker, had been having the same idea but he had committed to his course of action. He told me he was going to jump out of his boat and clamber onto the rock and asked if I would take care of his kayak. I agreed and suggested we do it on the arch side of the rock where I had just been scouting.

Tony, full of adrenaline, was already heading in that direction. He and I paddled to the north side of the rock outcropping. Once there, Tony quickly exited his boat and swam to the rock. I held his boat and tossed him my rescue belt. By this time Jeff had arrived near us.

I think he was also thinking of jumping on the rock. As I was already exiting my boat, Jeff instead helped organize folks to take care of the kayaks after I’d released them to swim to the rock.

When I arrived at the rock, I set my paddle as high up on the rock as I could without it being in the way of the precarious footing available to Tony and me. At some point, I have no clue when, my paddle was washed away by the waves repeatedly washing over the rock.

By this point, Tony had thrown a line into the slot. Fortunately it landed right over Ciaran’s shoulder. He was now wedged toward the back of the crevice and while still splashed by the waves, he was no longer in the water and being battered about.


After about twenty minutes, I started to hear Tony’s voice and then saw him standing on a rock above and to the left of me — about 20 feet away. I was in a daze at this point. My arms and legs no longer worked. To be honest, I found him a little annoying. I figured these were my last moments and I wanted to be in peace. He was disrupting this.

Tony is a great friend and kayaker and consistently manages to inspire me; he seems to always say the right thing at the right time. I remember him saying, “Be strong, Ciaran.” It is something he says a lot. He kept saying, “Grab the rope, grab the rope.” I made one last attempt, figuring he was not going to go away, so I may as well make an effort.


At this point Ciaran had probably been in the water about 15 minutes. He was hypothermic and physically exhausted from his struggles, had swallowed lots of water, been beaten by the rocks and his own boat, and was now suffering a post-adrenaline-rush crash.

There was no way for him to climb out from his perch, and jumping back into the water was not an option either.

Tony had to very forcefully yell at him to “Stay strong!” while giving him directions about what to do with the rope. Despite the wave noise, Tony heard the click of the carabiner around the rope; he gave the word and Ciaran jumped back into the water.

There were brief moments when the surge pulled him toward us, allowing us to reel in the rope. But it seemed most of the time we were tugging for all we were worth to keep him from being pulled back into the crevice. The opposing forces of the fast moving water rushing like a river in the crevice, and Tony and I struggling against it, caused Ciaran to slide just beneath the surface as the water rushed over him. Seeing that made us more determined to hold on, and we eventually worked him alongside the rock we were standing on.


It took everything I had to wrap the rope around myself and click the carabiner onto it. The rope tightened around me as Tony pulled me out toward the exit. He tried to pull me up. Then I noticed Gregg Berman standing behind him, also holding the rope.

I saw the next surge coming down and I tried to hold onto the rocks. I don’t know if I was any help. We all nearly ended up in the slot. They pulled me farther and farther toward the exit and then up onto the rocks. Gregg reached out and said, “Take my hand,” which I did. At this point I actually thought for the first time that I might make it. I was completely exhausted.


We were at least ten feet above Ciaran and the rock was too steep to even consider attempting to haul him up the face. From my position, I was able to back up to a lower, though more wave-washed portion of the rock while maintaining my hold on the rope.

Once I was set, we timed it and Tony let go of the rope and I pulled Ciaran, now in a much weaker part of the current, the last few feet to the rock. As he got there, I yelled for him to take my hand and initially got no response despite the fact he was looking right at me. I yelled again and he slowly reached out his hand. It was a struggle for Tony and me to haul him onto the rock and initially he just lay there face down trying to recover.

I was now more afraid that he was going to be washed off the rock, and no matter which direction he was taken, it would not have been good. My language became quite dictatorial as I barked like a drill sergeant that no matter how tired he was, he had to move his butt higher up the rock. While Ciaran attempted to crawl, we hauled him higher onto the rock just before the surge washed over the spot where he had just been lying.


Tony and Gregg held on to me, asked me questions and tried to get some life back into me. I told Tony, “I have to rest. I can’t move anything.” I had never felt so helpless. I guessed this was what being paralyzed feels like. At least once a wave almost washed us off the rock, so we moved up higher.


As we turned Ciaran over, I noticed how dark purple his face had become. He was conscious and talking, even if totally spent. I quickly checked him over and he eventually was able to sit up.

Ciaran had fought beyond what we might typically be capable of and was completely exhausted. I wanted to get some calories in him before he crashed further. I always keep a few strips of fruit leather or energy bars in my PFD. Initially Ciaran could not eat, though he ultimately managed to slowly get some of the food down his gullet.

Other members of our group were rafting kayaks so Ciaran could be hauled away from the rocks to a landing site. Ciaran was lucid and had some energy coming back and he, Tony, and I decided if we could get his boat on the rocks and get him in it, that would be the best solution. His boat was brought to us and Tony and I held it in place while Ciaran climbed in and took up his spare paddle.

When the swell rose again and the group in the water was ready, we pushed and Ciaran easily slid down the steep rock to the kayakers waiting below to catch him.


Tony and Gregg pulled the boat up onto the rocks and I managed to climb back in. They snapped on my spray skirt, assembled my spare paddle, and launched me down the rocks into the water. I managed a little brace and stayed upright. It took all I had to stay upright.


Tony and I then moved to the farthest seaward portion of the rock to prepare to reenter our boats. It wasn’t until someone offered me my paddle that I even realized it had been gone. I jumped in the water and paddle-swam to my boat and Tony swam to his.

At this point Elizabeth and a few others were rafted up with Ciaran and supporting him. It was agreed that we would do a rafted tow with another paddler holding on to Ciaran to support him while we headed back to Rodeo Beach. I clipped on and started a tow.

Anders quickly offered to help with an in-line tow and attached to my bow. Tony clipped to Ciaran’s boat as well, so now we had both an in-line and a husky tow on the same boat.

After we’d covered about half the distance back to Rodeo Beach, Ciaran regained enough strength to balance himself without being rafted up with a supporting paddler. With just a single boat in tow, the work was much easier. He still had a kayaker paddling on either side of him though, just in case. By this point he was much more communicative and doing much better. We all even joked about the new feature we would name in his honor, “Ciaran’s Crack.”

We decided to paddle to the southern part of the beach. It was farther from our cars but it had much smaller surf. As we neared the beach, Bill paddled in first to assist with the landing. Before crossing the surf zone we disengaged our tows for the paddle in. Ciaran said that he had lost his contact lenses and could barely see. I jokingly promised him I’d go back and look for them. We didn’t want to risk any more calamity with a collision in the surf so with Bill on the beach to catch Ciaran, I escorted him the last couple hundred feet through the surf zone. We timed it well and had an uneventful landing.

We all headed up to the cars, and as we were getting Ciaran changed into dry clothes, Lynnette, Tony’s wife, appeared. She had been hiking on the bluffs overlooking the coast. When she saw a contingent with Tony’s boat moving “too slowly” back to the beach only a short while after launching, she knew something was amiss and came to meet us.

There had been talk of getting Ciaran to a hospital. Jeff had been worried about the risk of secondary drowning, where your lungs fill with your own body fluids up to 72 hours after a near drowning as they try to clear themselves of any contaminants. There had also been talk of someone driving him home. At this point, however, his breathing was doing great. Despite the large amounts of water he surely swallowed, it seems little entered his lungs, as not once did I notice him cough from the time we pulled him onto the rocks till we got him safely back to the put-in.

With his strength returning, warm clothes, plenty of food, a public place with lots of resources and Lyn and Anders to stay with him, we decided to just let him rest and recover before determining whether he was safe to return home on his own.

The rest of us headed back to the water to reconvene with the rest of the group. Anders stayed there quite a while and Lynnette talked with Ciaran for at least three hours there in the parking lot to help him sort his experience.

Lessons Learned


I had heard of BASK long before moving to California and joined shortly before I moved out here.

BASK provides ample opportunity for a whole host of training sessions, most of which are free or only of minimal cost to members and are run by other members. The club also promotes classes conducted by professional instructors. Each summer we select about a dozen lucky participants to take part in our annual monthlong skills clinic.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more thorough mental and physical course on paddling. On this particular outing, being in a club like BASK gave the group an advantage. Most of the participants were either graduates of, or instructors for the BASK skills clinic. Most had organized or participated in club skills and rescue practice sessions. And of course we all have the benefit of the online forum on a wide range of topics with lots of lively discussion on all aspects of paddling.

Ciaran himself commented that he had already had a few problems that day and should have dialed things down a bit. That’s a judgment call only he could have made.

The people on the water I respect the most regardless of skill level are not the ones who blindly rush into everything they see or try to impress or keep up with or be cajoled by their friends.

The people I am most impressed by are the ones who have the personal strength to say, “You know, I think I’m going to pass on that,” or “I’m just not feeling it today.” That is not to say you shouldn’t push yourself or be complacent, but rather you should push yourself only when you feel it appropriate. On some days it may be appropriate and on others not. I look for that kind of attitude in those that I paddle with and try to cultivate that sensitivity in myself.

Tony, Bill and I had no indication that something was amiss when we approached the scene where Ciaran was in trouble. Perhaps everyone was just too involved in what was going on and didn’t expect the situation to continue for the length of time that it did.

It should be common practice to blow some whistles, raise some paddles or in some way alert others to an emergency situation. If things resolve themselves for the best, then great, no harm done, but if they don’t, then more resources become available when more folks are aware of something going on.

After we delivered Ciaran to the beach, most of us resumed paddling. Later in the day I helped rescue someone else I saw come out of their boat. Calling it a rescue seems ridiculous compared to earlier events, but I did not blow a whistle before going in. I should have in case it had turned out to be more involved.

At another time near the end of the day, I also capsized in the rocks and while I rolled up and got out fairly quickly, would it have been prudent for those who witnessed it to alert others until I was not only upright but back out of the rocks? A simple whistle blow to alert others just to be on the lookout likely would never hurt. And for an incident that continues, being a bit more vehement in your signaling to actually draw others near then becomes imperative.

Some of the group members later asked me about the decision to call or not call the coast guard. Anders wondered whether he should push the alert on his satellite messenger. Deciding when to use distress signals is a worthwhile debate. As previously mentioned, this situation just continued to drag on in a manner that nobody expected, but then the worst is never expected. When should a call have been made and how do you decide? Should it have been done in this case?

Well, when I spoke with the coast guard following the rescue of Ciaran, they said to call any time you suspect trouble. They recommended calling early. They further stated that calling on VHF radio channel 16 (as opposed to by cell phone) had the advantage of reaching the coast guard but also other boat traffic in the area.

A commercial or recreational vessel nearby could potentially respond even before the coast guard got on scene. In our situation there was a fishing boat sitting within close sight of us. They might have been able to get Ciaran to safety without our having to put him back in a kayak to leave the area. Instead, they remained unaware of our plight.

I always have food in my PFD as a safeguard against hypothermia, fatigue or even just getting cranky from lack of food. For Ciaran I wished I’d had something other than a very chewy fruit leather. In a truly weakened state such as Ciaran’s or a diabetic reaction, it simply takes too much energy to chew and swallow.

In the future I will carry a tube of glucose paste or cake frosting in a PFD pocket. The tubes are small, the paste need not be swallowed (though it can be), as it will absorb through the oral membranes. Thus it is less likely to induce vomiting, is more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, and is a readily available source of energy.

Warm fluids are great and can be helpful as much psychologically as physically. Be careful though; if they are too hot, consider diluting them with some cooler liquid to avoid the risk of burning the recipient.

I was happy to have my paddle for the swim to and from the rock. Swimming with a paddle is something I often practice just for fun. It comes in handy when wearing full kayak gear, and over the short haul it dramatic improves your swimming speed and power when done right.

Though the rescue knife I carry on my PFD gets used most for spreading peanut butter or cutting foam for outfitting, it’s great to have when it’s really needed. In this case it was only used to regain as much of the anchored towline as we could.

But if something had gone wrong while pulling Ciaran in, it would have been invaluable. I keep it on my left shoulder for easy grabbing with my right hand. I have used it many times to cut sea birds free from fishing line. A knife that won’t be corroded by salt water is best for use in the marine environment.

It is important to be aware of the possibility of secondary drowning. If someone gets too much water in their lungs, the subsequent filling of the lungs with fluid from within the body requires medical treatment even if that person seems to be fine.

This holds true whether you are in salt water or fresh water. Of course the importance of keeping your certification current in first aid, wilderness first aid and/or CPR can’t be overstated. While Ciaran managed to keep from inhaling any water, at least two of us in the group knew to look for signs of secondary drowning before we determined he was safe to go home.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been paddling or what your skill level is, taking advantage of additional training is always worthwhile. After more than 17 years of paddling and teaching, I know that the more experience I get, the more I realize I have to learn.

Every change in your gear or routine merits more practice. Something as simple as a new whistle on your PFD can throw a whole new wrinkle in your T-rescue if it gets caught on your deck lines as you try to climb out of the water.

You never know what an emergency will require of you. Anything you can add to your bag of tricks to help you assess situations and solutions may just make a very big difference. Practice everything and practice often. Tony and I have both paddled extensively and participated in numerous training sessions, including time spent practicing self-rescues and swimming to and from rocks with a boat in tow.

The attempts to perform a rescue by kayak, while valiant, were not working. Had we remained in our boats there would have been little else we could have done for Ciaran. I believe it is this training that prompted both of us to come to the conclusions we did independently, and made it possible for us to swim to the rocks where we were in a position to help each other with Ciaran’s rescue. Tony’s decision to dump his boat and climb on the rock may have saved Ciaran’s life.


Three weeks after the accident I went paddling again for the first time. We did the same trip and made it all the way to Stinson this time. The waves were much bigger than the last time. We all stayed outside for the most part. The slot beside the arch looked a lot different.

I have been paddling for about five years now and consider myself a reasonably good kayaker. It still bothers me that I did not see the danger in that slot. It did not look like a big deal at the time, nothing I hadn’t done before. I hope I recognize this situation in the future.

I can’t say for sure that I will and this does bother me. I hope I don’t start second-guessing everything I do. Hopefully I will get my “mojo” back soon. I love kayaking and I want to keep going out as long as I can get my dry top on by myself.

I truly believe that if Tony had not dumped his boat and climbed up on the rocks, I wouldn’t be here now. I don’t think I would have responded to anyone else’s voice when I believed I was in my last moments.

I can’t thank everyone enough who helped in my rescue. Because Tony, Gregg and Jeff took action, my 11-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son won’t have to say, “Yeah, we miss our dad, he died in a kayak accident.”

Thanks to Tony Johnson, Jeff Hastings, Elizabeth Rowell, for helping piece together the events. After this incident Glenn Nunez set up a rescue practice and Q&A; session with the local Coast Guard Station. Finally thanks to all of the Bay Area Sea Kayakers for providing critical training, support and feedback when events like this happen.

Gregg Berman is an ER nurse living and playing near San Francisco. He spends time as a tide pool naturalist or teaching kayaking and has been an expedition leader around the country from the Florida Everglades to the Alaskan glaciers.

Ciaran, a native of Dublin, Ireland, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1987 at the age of 22. He is a building contractor, married with two children, living in Sonoma County. He started kayaking six years ago, after his wife bought him lessons as a Christmas gift, a decision she has regretted only occasionally.

Leaving Australia’s West Coast in her wake

In early September Freya called me by cell phone while she was taking a day off near Lancelin, a town about 75 miles north of Perth in Western Australia. Poised to turn the corner and take on Australia’s southern coast, she had over 6,000 miles (9,700 km) behind her. She was outside of her tent and looking at her kayak. I could hear the wind rasping across her cell phone.

It sounds windy. Are you outside?

I was just looking on the bottom of my boat and I have a bit of a hole. Something to repair, I reckon. Yesterday I was paddling close to shore and hit a bit of a reef here and there. The damage doesn’t look too bad but I need to fix it.

Will you be meeting up with Greg in Perth? (Greg Bethune, a charter boat operator Freya met at the Gulf of Carpentaria is now her partner and plans to provide support for Freya as she paddles the south coast.)

No, he’s going to meet me at the end of September. We’ll meet around Augusta, right at the southern corner [of the west coast], so there are still three to four weeks to go. We may have a couple of days off to get the van Greg bought in Perth set up to support the whole thing, do some shopping and then get going again.

It looks like it’s going to be nice and easy weather for the next few days, at least. That’s what I saw on the long-term forecast. Yesterday was lovely but today is horrible. Last night and today the wind was supposed to be from the southwest and it’s exactly that. It was blowing like heck at night and I was stupidly camped right on the open beach.

I should have been hiding in the dunes but I didn’t expect the wind to be so strong. My tent eventually got buried in a sand dune but I was nice and warm in my sleeping bag. That was the most important thing. I got sandblasted and the sand came under the tent fly and through the mosquito net. That’s just the way it is when you camp on the beach in the wind.

Are you out of the tropical weather and into cooler temperatures?

It’s pretty chilly at night so I had to add this blanket thing to my sleeping bag. My thin sleeping bag isn’t holding up to the cold anymore. I already got a fleece blanket and just a couple of days ago borrowed a down duvet as an extra cover. It’s nice and warm.

During the day it’s cool—not really hot, not really cold. The nights are coolish. It’s a lot like German summer weather. It’s not bad, but it’s not inviting to jump in the water at the end of the day. The water is still about 20 degrees [Celsius] (68° F), but I’m spoiled. It’s supposed to be getting better again because it is getting to be summer again. Now it is the springtime weather and I have three or three and a half months to go. With summer coming it should be hot again. We’ll see.

How was the passage along the Zuytdorp Cliffs? (The cliffs span a distance of 170 kilometers and preclude landing anywhere along their length.)

We were waiting for the right weather window. That’s why I was sitting in Denham for a couple of days. Then the weather was right. The forecast was good for the two days I’d need to paddle along the cliffs. There was supposed to be a following wind, and there was during the days, but at night it was quite rough.

There was a front that came through that nobody predicted—none of my three different weather forecasters had. So it was quite lumpy and bumpy with a strong wind at night, instead of the calm that had been forecasted. I knew there was going to be no moon, but I was not expecting having no stars and no open sky at all. I didn’t have any visual horizon for sixty to seventy percent of the whole night. Instead of paddling I could only lie on my back deck to stabilize myself with my paddle.

I stupidly didn’t take my floats like I did on the big crossing [the Gulf of Carpentaria] because I couldn’t afford to take time to sleep. I had to be paddling all night to get done before nightfall on the following day. So I wasn’t thinking about taking my floats. I was not expecting having no visual horizon, but that’s what happened. And then it was very, very rough. I’m very good at balance, no doubt about that, but if you have no visual horizon and big water you simply can’t paddle.

So it just wasn’t working. I had breakers crashing over my boat every now and then. It was nice that I had following seas, so for at last three quarters of the night they pushed me in the right direction when I was not paddling. Later on the weather turned and was pushing me toward the cliffs. I had my GPS on and I could watch how close I was getting. I was getting closer and closer and eventually I had to sit up and do a little bit of paddling that would take me away from the cliffs.

There was a bit of a horizon then, but five times it rained so it was completely dark. The few stars I had were over me instead of on the horizon. The horizon was always covered by big clouds. It was not what I expected. I had never experienced that [loss of horizon at night] so I was basically lying on the back deck and surviving the whole thing stabilizing myself with the paddle alone. I was in a basically empty boat so it was tippier than usual.

The lighter kayak was good for strong paddling but lying on the back deck I had to put the paddle out to one side to feel the water instead of relaxing and doing nothing as I’d usually be doing [in that position]. I really had to clamp my grip on the paddle and feel the water all the time; otherwise I was not comfortable in the complete darkness and crashing breakers. There was no chance of seeing anything so I just had to feel and hear for when the breakers would come over me.

That’s what I needed to do to survive until morning. It was only survival, nothing else. At least I was pushed in the right direction. I got no rest at all. It was highly stressful for the mind and body. I didn’t get any naps throughout the whole thing. I was fully awake and in full survival mode.

Were you annoyed at yourself for having left the floats behind?

Oh yes. That was definitely a mistake. The next two sets of cliffs I will definitely take the floats. [At Zuytdorp] everything came together: no moon, no stars because it was raining, the visual horizon was gone and the seas were… well it was not much fun.

In the middle of the Great Australian Bight there are two sets of cliffs of similar length. We’ll see what kind of moon and stars I’ll get at night. It will be better there than at Zuytdorp because there are roads that go right along the cliffs. If I carry a light, drivers will be able to see me down there on the water. It’s kind of funny.

[At Zuytdorp] I had a headlamp I could shine around a bit and see some of the breakers that were coming. Shining it around a bit was all I was comfortable with. I couldn’t shine it on my GPS or my chart without getting blinded. At night I usually leave my GPS on with its light on a very low level so I can check it. The headlamp was all right because I could at least see the top of a breaker coming. It was better than nothing but it was definitely scary. I was not scared to death, but I really was very aware that I needed to just hold on and wait for the daylight to come.

The next day there was just a bit of headwind, but luckily it shifted and the seas calmed down. I made good progress. I had to keep myself awake by singing. I didn’t get any rest that night. No sleep, nothing. I had to keep on paddling, but it was all right. I was doing different movements at night but not paddling—I’d just been pressing on my paddle as an outrigger—so in the morning the paddling was good. I was making seven kilometers per hour.

It’s a big difference paddling an empty boat. [Terry Bolland of Perth drove to Denham and shuttled the bulk of Freya’s gear to Kalbarri at the south end of the cliffs.] It adds about one and a half to two kilometers more per hour. This will make a big difference when I have my support crew.

You don’t think the lower stability of an unloaded boat will be a problem?

No, I don’t think so. If you want to rest it makes a difference. If you lie on the back deck it’s not that nice. But I don’t really need to rest that much.

What effect did your successful crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria have on your approach to the cliffs? Did that eight-day crossing make you think that an overnight passage along the cliffs wouldn’t be much of a challenge?

Exactly. That’s what I thought to myself. When I was about ten Ks away from the cliffs I was not that scared about being pushed into them, even when the wind shifted in the last quarter of the night. I didn’t feel any rebound from the cliffs.

Even if I would have had my floats and had a bit of sleep I wouldn’t have felt rested because you never know what the current and wind might do. Close your eyes and then the cliffs are suddenly there.

The GPS tells you where you are and this is quite nice compared to Paul’s [Caffyn] day. He had a pitch-dark night as well. Basically I wasn’t really scared of the cliffs at all. I’m used to paddling through the night without getting any sleep, so one night is all right.

But if you paddle with fear it’s much more stressful. I had more stress there after that single night going without sleep and with high attention to surviving than the eight days [of Carpentaria] with decent sleep at night. I was more mentally tired—not physically tired. I know how it feels having no sleep at night—working through the night more than dancing through the night actually.

I’ve spent more time working at my shop all night than I have partying all night. The body needs a rest. That may be the reason a virus caught me. [Freya was ill for five days after reaching Kalbarri.] Maybe without the stress I wouldn’t have caught it.

With many of the worst challenges behind you were the cliffs a reminder that you can’t let your guard down?

I don’t have the worst behind me yet at all. There are lots of things coming up in the Southern Ocean. There are two more sets of cliffs. I’ll definitely be carrying my floats so it can’t be so scary as Zuytdorp. Big swells will be there and huge, ugly seas.

I would rather paddle through the crocodile country again with flat seas than deal with fat, heavy seas. But I’m going to make it. I’ll have limited landing spots but I’ll have to go for it. It will be similar to [my circumnavigation of the south island of] New Zealand. Pick the right day, wait for the waves to be low enough and the wind to be fair enough.

Has Greg arranged to support you along the southern coast?

Yes, that’s 100 percent sure. He may have to leave for a week in November but after that he’ll be back. [An Australian paddler] David Winkworth said he’d be happy to support me in the Great Australian Bight.

Will he be paddling with you or on shore driving?

No, I don’t want him to paddle with me. I don’t want anyone to paddle with me for more than an hour. He volunteered to help me along the Bight, so there may be two guys in the four-wheel drive.

Is wanting to paddle alone a bit of a change? Before the trip you entertained the idea of having someone paddle with you, especially across the Gulf of Carpentaria. Are you now set on paddling alone?

Yes, I had been looking for someone to paddle with me, but I’m happy in the long run not having anybody around. It’s definitely now the case that I won’t paddle with anybody for longer than an hour on this trip. That’s usually when I’m getting into or out of a town.

I’ve changed my mind about the [land-based ] support thing, for sure, because I want to be with Greg. It will be nice to have the support. It changes the rest of the trip quite a lot. If I were to compare what I’ve done so far with what Paul [Caffyn] did with a support crew, it’s simply easier with support, not only with paddling but also mentally, plus with setting up camp, organizing things and all the logistical stuff I have to do by myself.

What would be the problem with having someone paddle with you?

I just don’t feel comfortable with probably anybody on this long trip. I want to stop when I want to stop, rest when I want to rest and eat when I want to eat. I don’t think there are many female paddlers around [who could join me] and the men are always trying to race me.

This is what I’ve experienced. I had two guys paddle with me for a half day. They started out paddling with me but eventually they were just pulling ahead and showing me “I’m the bigger paddler.” They were paddling an empty boat and they’re tall, strong and very aggressive guys, and I had a fully loaded boat and had already paddled quite a bit not only on that day. What’s that worth?

With a support crew you’ll be traveling lighter and faster. Do you also anticipate a psychological advantage knowing that there will be someone waiting for you at the end of the day?

Well, it’s very nice, especially if it’s your own partner. With anybody else it’s nice as well, and you’re motivated to keep on going to get to a certain meeting point instead of just pulling ashore at a nice landing spot if you’re tired. It definitely motivates you to make a little bit more distance.

Three days ago I was lucky to have somebody help me [along the coast] south of Port Denison. Some people who just met me at the beach and traveled [on shore] with me for two days. So I had a nearly empty boat for those two days. I had bloody hard headwinds and with a fully loaded boat I would have just stopped. It makes such a difference to have support. To know that somebody will be there who’ll already know what I’d like to eat at night and what needs to be shopped for helps a lot for my organizing.

Are you concerned about how people might view your trip when you go from unsupported to supported?

Sorry, I don’t give a [expletive deleted]! It’s my trip. If anybody wants to do the upper portion of the Great Australian Bight unsupported, he can try that, but there simply is no water. That’s the issue. I really need to think of my water spots and how much water I’m going to carry. The water issue is the main thing for support.

I also just want to get done as soon as possible. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I don’t mind if it’s done. I won’t feel sorry when [the circumnavigation is] finished.

On the north coast water was no problem. Even in the Kimberleys there were enough people around [who could give me water]. In the Great Australian Bight there is no water and even if there were people, anyone who is just pulling off the road can’t just go up to a roadhouse and turn on the water tap. You have to buy water in big canisters. You might be able to get water from people driving the road but there are not that many people traveling on that road. There simply is no water.

I could carry my desalinator, which I haven’t yet used [and is in storage in Melbourne], but I haven’t calculated if I really would need it. I haven’t calculated it out; it’s just easier this way [using a support crew].

It has started raining now so I have to climb into my tent. This is bloody ugly weather. [sound of tent zippers] I’ve got too much sand in here. Everything is coated with sand. How funny is that? At least it’s warm and dry.”