Scouting the Sea

by Eric Soares on April 19, 2011

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.

At Google Earth, you get a satellite view of Neptune's Castle on the Big Sur coast

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.

Neptune's Castle in Big Sur at the California Coastal Records Project site

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.

Tsunami Rangers with Andy Taylor (2nd from left, w/hat) scope out the southern Oregon coast for a kayaking adventure

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.  

John Lull climbs on the reef at Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay to scout the surf and rocks

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.

Steve King observes a magical seascape on the Oregon coast

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!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Fat Paddler April 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Aside from the great details in this article, do you have ANY idea how many hours I poured over Google Maps (unsuccessfully) trying to find Neptune’s Castle?? Not knowing California at all I started at the norther border and tracked every rock formation down as far as the very northern tip of the Big Sur before collapsing in a defeated mess on the floor. And now I find out I probably only had a few more miles to check!

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Eric Soares April 20, 2011 at 8:52 am

I’m sorry you had to go through all that work to find Neptune’s Castle, Fat Paddler. It’s a made-up name, as is almost every place we go, because we have a policy of not letting anyone know the exact places we paddle, as we don’t want to deprive them of the joy (and pain) of discovery.

Also, we know that if we blab about a specific place, it may get inundated with curious folks. A case in point: Two decades ago, we could surf at Pillar Point with no worries of crashing into other kayakers. Now, because someone spilled the beans, on weekends, it can get too crowded. But on week days, especially in fog and big waves, we can have it all to ourselves.

Pillar Point is also where the Mavericks surf contest occurs (thanks to board surfer Jeff Clark letting everyone know about it), so Herbert hordes rush to the coast like lemmings, elbowing each other for the best view of someone crashing on a giant wave. Then the clueless onlookers sue when they get knocked down by a wave on the breakwater or get wet on a tourist boat or have dirt and rocks slide on their heads from the crumbling cliffs above them. I kid you not. I heard that Mavericks surf pros recently lost their big $$$ sponsors (aww shucks), which might nix the contest (God forbid they go out there for pleasure alone). Personally, that’s wonderful news to me.

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Rainer Lang April 21, 2011 at 9:33 am

I agree with the need for scouting an area prior to paddling it.

Several years ago, I did a coastal paddle with several friends. It was a one-way down the coast trip. Everyone unloaded their boats and gear at the put in, up by Pigeon Point and were shuttling their cars to the take out. I volunteered to watch the boats and gear while waiting for my friends to return.
It was an early morning and there wasn’t anyone else around. I had time to just and watch the ocean. I was there for a half an hour and really began to see the patterns of waves; their heights, where they broke, and how far the run out zone carried. Very interesting. I guess I was learning TNT by grokking what the ocean was doing.
When my friends returned, they were anxious to get on the water. So they suited up and charged out. I launched with them; got past the surf zone, continued to a safe area, waited for the run out, paddled like mad to get well outside. All the while I’m thinking, I’m glad that I won’t have to land at this beach. When I was safely outside, I looked back to see where everyone else was, I didn’t see anyone. Very strange. Looking closely at the beach I could see my friends running around collecting their paddle gear and swamped boats. Apparently, no one else made it outside, yard sale!
Now I was faced with a dilemma, do I look for a better take out paddling solo, or land at the beach that I didn’t want to land at? I decided to return to the launch by angling my way in, so that I could keep an eye outside as I moved closer to the beach. I moved in stages working with the patterns, not against them. I surfed a little, back paddled when necessary, waited. I made it back in upright. I remember having blood blisters on my fingertips from grabbing my paddle too tightly.
I learned the extreme value of absorbing the information that was being expressed all around me, and being able to process it. What is it they say: “Fools rush in”?

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Eric Soares April 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Ha ha. Yeah, “Fools rush in.” The next line is “where angels fear to tread.” Since no kayaker I know is an angel, and we sure want to reduce our fear, it’s incumbent upon us to check things out, just the way you did. Then, as you showed, you can carefully yet confidently make your way through the little pathways of the surfzone without incident.

I’m curious. After the “yard sale,” why didn’t your friends do the TNT for awhile, then try again?

BTW, your “angling your way in” is a good way to describe route finding through surf. What you might call an “angle” we call a “vector” and Force Ten calls a “trajectory.” Basically, it’s all the same thing.

In a few weeks I’ll start a series on the ins, outs and betwixts of surfzones, so stay tuned to this station.

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Nancy Soares April 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I find things look easier from bluffs. You see just where you want to go and the waves look nice and safe. Then you get down on the beach, and everything changes. You can’t see outside, and the waves look huge. It’s not always that way, but often.

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Jim Kakuk April 24, 2011 at 12:18 am

RECON: Reconnoitering an area before entering is standard routine for many activities. In kayaking it could be the simplest form of observation, like looking ahead and observing what’s in the distance. Scouting has always been essential with advancing armies or when a migration caused people to need information about their route. Wagon trains crossing the west used scouts to find the trail for the advancing party. In the TV series Rawhide, the Wild West show on cow herding across the range, I wanted to be like Rowdy Yates, who scouted out ahead of the roundup, riding along the ridge looking for what lies ahead.

LOOKING: Approaching something new in small increments by yourself or with others over time. A “drive by” or checking out a spot along an often traveled coast and taking a “over the shoulder look” is casual scouting. We do this whenever we move through situations or peruse the path that lies just ahead. Early recon includes observation and prelim Intel from maps, Google and other people. Basically, it’s sizing up the situation and asking, is it doable? Next up is “boy scouting”, which is a clear, methodical approach to recognizing a set of conditions and following a “check list”, like the SCRS.

ADVANCED SCOUTING: is looking with the intent of going on a “mission”. This is checking a situation out from a distance and putting yourself in the picture, which is different than fantasizing. I remember one evening above Ross’s cove at Pillar Point. After kayaking at “Micro” we stood on the bluff watching the trains roll into Mavericks and talked about what it would be like to surf a true monster. We were juking and jiving in our minds but not really thinking of going for it. Standing just down the ridge from us I could see a young male surfer like a statue staring motionless at what could be the ride of his life. He was “psyching up”. His posture was like a jet fighter pilot looking at his craft that was about to break the sound barrier. As the sun glinted off his dark Maui Jim sunglasses, I could see him picturing himself screaming down the towering wall of moving water with the lip pitching over just above him. At that moment he was on the cover of surfer magazine and world famous, “on top of the heap”. Or, maybe he was just another pudknocker. Ego scouting does help build confidence and fantasy is a good thing, just ask any Tsunami Ranger.

STAMPEDE: The mob approach, A pack of adrenaline seeking bozos that advance in a drove going into the action without scouting, often pushing the front person into the mosh pit and then dog piling on top. Fun to watch but I’ll stay on the fringe, take pictures, and laugh.

JUST SAYING ”HI”: Looking with hidden intent. Surreptitiously, you are planning on going in but just glance over your shoulder and say “hi”. Approaching from the other direction and again, you just say “hi”. By the third look you are ready to jump in, jump out and make a clean get away, a quick “hop and pop” mission.

PRIVATE EYE: My favorite technique of gathering Intel includes parts of the above but is done in a low profile and sneaky way and is called “stealth scouting”. Hiding in camouflage you are an army forward observer for an invading unit checking out the opposing forces. Planning the trajectory while evaluating the obstacles, dangers, hiding places and escape route. Evaluating all of the variables while also developing a “plan B” if things don’t work out. Or imagine you are a master thief in Ocean’s 13, casing the casino, memorizing the floor plan and cruising the joint without being noticed while planning the ultimate heist. Scouting is fun and the follow-through is the prize. -Kuk

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Eric Soares April 24, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for your comprehensive reply, Jim. I suppose if you were the scout Rowdy Yates on the big Rawhide cattle drive, that would make me…”Gil Favor, trail boss.” I like the sound of that!

My favorite on your list here is the JUST SAYING “HI” recon method. I remember that you taught me to do that while spearfishing. You swim right by the fish-in-question and say “Hi!” then keep going. On the third pass, he’s used to you, and then you zap him. It works!

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Moulton Avery October 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm

I apologize, Eric. I should have written this many moons ago, but BLN.

You wrote that “Scouting is one of the most crucial sea kayaking activities; and ironically, it is often done perfunctorily or not at all.” That’s really it in a nutshell. True in spades and one hell of a accurate commentary on the way in which so very many people approach the great outdoors. Like Rainier so aptly noted, they just “rush in”.

Why? Well, for one thing, there’s a lot of momentum and excitement associated with any outing, and it’s hard to resist the urge to just get on with it and start having fun! What people hopefully learn, through experience, is one of the Great Eternal Truths associated with outdoor recreation: Great experiences seldom happen by accident. They’re the result of solid planning and careful execution. The default outcome for poorly planned and loosely organized outings is set, by Mother Nature herself, to bummer – which can be a little bummer or a huge one. The Little Bummer: Just skip the checklist, as I did once, and try bumming toilet paper for a week on the AT. (Wish we could spare some, dude, but we got six days to go and…) The Huge Bummer: One or more people get seriously injured or killed.

On a related note, I think your Sea Conditions Rating System (SCRS) is positively superb, and a tremendous safety contribution to open water paddling. Every paddler, instructor, guide, clinic, course, symposium, certification program, education program, school, club, outing group – whatever – should be running an SCRS check before so much as a toe goes in the water.

On many occasions, I’ve asked folks what they think of the conditions at a particular venue. I’ve found that they generally understate the difficulty or danger, sometimes by a considerable margin. That’s no surprise, really, because there are a lot of variables to consider, some of which have never occurred to them. It’s a very educational experience to sit still, grok the situation, run through the checklist, add up a few numbers and come up with a rating.

Experienced paddlers also have a lot to gain from using the SCRS because, oddly enough, even they sometimes fail to see what’s right in front of their noses. In the complex terrain where reason dukes it out with emotion, weird things happen and even experienced people make mistakes that seem glaringly obvious – in hindsight.

In his excellent book “Deep Survival”, Laurence Gonzales recounts an incident on the Illinois River in southwestern Oregon in which two people drowned. They were both river guides with years of experience and they were leading two separate rafting groups with a total of 13 people. The Illinois could be “safely” run at flows between 900cfs and 3000cfs, but the night before the accident, snow-melt coupled with 3 inches of rain raised the volume from 2000cfs to 13,500cfs.

By dawn, the river, which had risen a foot an hour overnight, was chocolate brown and roaring, with 18 inch diameter trees zipping past at 15mph. It should have been a no-brainer for the guides to do what other groups did that morning – just bag the trip. What in the world were they thinking? In summing it up the accident, Gonzales wrote: “It is unlikely that professional guides would intentionally take clients on such a risky run. They probably thought, if they thought at all, that it would be okay. They had a lot of experience running the river and it had always been okay. Big water, said their emotional systems, equals big fun.”

It’s pretty sobering stuff. As I wrote in Anatomy of A Bad Decision, “that kind of mental gymnastics happens all the time in life…in many situations you really don’t think at all – a bad idea can pop up and before you have time to think, you can act on it based solely on your feelings. You don’t so much fall for it as go for it.” Doing an SCRS check requires you to stop, assess the situation, and think about it before you put in. In my view, that’s a really good thing. http://www.seakayakermag.com/2010/10e-newsletters/november/november-nl.htm#1

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Eric Soares October 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Moulton, wow, you make some good points here. I remember reading the Illinois River story in Gonzalez’s book, and when my wife and I swam there for the first time last summer, it was on my mind and I kept looking for major danger, but the river was at 950cfs and safe–and gorgeous. The Illinois is a great place to swim or raft–most of the time.

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