A few months ago I promised to run a column on scouting. So here it is. Scouting is one of the most crucial sea kayaking activities; and ironically, it is often done perfunctorily or not at all. For logical convenience, let’s place scouting into three phases, starting with the most distant and ending with on-water scouting.
Phase 1—armchair scouting. This phase is practiced by most kayakers who contemplate paddling in a new location. This involves reading up on an area, talking with local fishermen and other ocean aficionados, and poring over topo maps and sea charts. Nowadays, before embarking, you can get weather forecasts from NOAA or the National Weather Service; and can go online to get the local surf forecast, complete with swell size and direction, wind speed and direction, tidal information, and water temperature.
Additionally, it is a snap to go online to Google Earth and view a satellite photo of any place in the world you might want to kayak. Say we wanted to check out a specific rock garden on the Big Sur coast. We could find it using Google Earth, as depicted in the photo above of a certain Neptune’s Castle.
There are also websites which feature photos and information on places you might wish to paddle. In the photo below, obtained from the California Coast Records Project (go to www.californiacoastline.org to view the entire California coast from the air), we see a bird’s-eye view of Neptune’s Castle taken from an airplane. Looking at the two photos, I can guess the height of the rocks, see that the clear water contains kelp, which means there are probably fish and other wildlife in the area, and note that there is a sandy beach I can land on and a trail to the highway above, which provides an escape route. Without getting up from my easy chair, I now know a lot about Neptune’s Castle. I can make a plan based upon Phase 1 information. So far, so good.
Phase 2—bluffs scouting. You arrive at the coast and are rarin’ to go, but you don’t suit up. Instead, you and your paddling partners do your best to find a good overlook on high ground to survey the sea state in detail. Now, you can make your plans and envision where you will paddle, which rocks you will explore, and what beach you will land on for lunch. You can check out the swell size and direction, and strategize based upon observed conditions. Use a spotting scope to zoom in on details, and search for safe zones among the rocks to protect you from big breaking waves.
If you are visiting a place for the first time, or have less experienced boaters in your party, you can formally assess the situation by using an instrument such as the Sea Conditions Rating System (SCRS). The SCRS looks at ten factors, ranging from water temperature and wind speed to wave height and hazards such as fog. Numerical values are assigned to each sea condition and this is converted into a class level ranging from Class I (relatively easy and safe) to Class VI (extremely difficult and very dangerous). A calm pond in summer would be rated Class I and a rock garden with big breaking surf would garner a Class IV or V rating. For a detailed explanation of the SCRS, click on this: http://tsunamirangers.com/articles/sea-conditions-kayaking-difficulty-rating-system/.
Phase 3—on-water scouting. After completing Phase 1 and 2 scouting, you may decide the general sea conditions are too much for you or someone in your party and opt out. That’s fine. The sea will be there tomorrow. Should you decide to go for it, and haul your gear down to the beach, remember that your scouting work has just begun. Now it is critical to constantly pay attention so you can make key safety decisions and avoid unplanned and unnecessary risk.
After launching through the surf (which looked smaller from the cliff!), you may start moseying down the coast, looking for fun obstacles, those opportunities you saw on the internet and from the bluffs. When the Tsunami Rangers are on the water, we assign roles to each of us (the benefit of a team!). One paddler leads and another sweeps, the captain stays in the center of the formation to send messages and orders forward and back. Burdened vessels (less experienced paddlers), cluster near the middle. Meanwhile a rover on the seaward side of the formation roams around and makes sure that no burdened vessels stray too close to the surf or other dangers. One really good boater is assigned as scout, and he is the one who kayaks up to a relatively safe spot near a rock feature and decides if and how it can be paddled.
The scout probes the feature a bit, and sees what can be done, if anything. He takes his time and uses TNT (tuning and timing) to figure out when to make a move, based on waves and other factors. He will have to really concentrate his mind and open his senses to grok (understand fully) the rock. Once the scout has it figured out, he reports back to the team and a decision is made about the feature. Go, or don’t go.
Sometimes the rock garden feature is so complex that it may have to be scouted by landing at a safe place, climbing up on a reef or rock, and looking at it for a good while to determine if it can be safely engaged. If it is doable, the team works together to make it happen. I will cover teamwork in rock gardens in a future post.
In last week’s post, I listed ten steps for surviving a crash into a rock. Step #2 dealt with scouting. Andy Taylor of Force Ten posted a comprehensive comment on proper on-water scouting. To read what he wrote, click here: http://tsunamirangers.com/2011/04/11/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-wave/ and then scroll down to about comment #23 and absorb his wise words. Think on them, and what I wrote above, and be sure to do all three phases of scouting the next time you go out.
Please feel free to add your comments or questions about scouting or the SCRS below this post. If you have a story about good or bad scouting, please share it with us. Be safe!