by Moulton Avery
Editor’s note: Moulton Avery is founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety. He started out paddling canoes in the early 70’s and transitioned to sea kayaking in 1984. His pioneering article Cold Shock appeared in the Spring 1991 issue of Sea Kayaker.
“Risk assessment is a key safety element of every sea kayaking endeavor.”
- Eric Soares
In the long list of things that can go wrong, one of the worst calamities that can befall a paddler, particularly a cold water paddler, is to lose his or her boat. This can happen because it blows away, it sinks, or the paddler is unable to reenter it.
More than twenty years ago, on a cold, windy day in February, I found myself – much to my surprise and dismay – swimming my guts out in near-freezing water and large, confused seas in the tide race at Cape Henlopen, Delaware. My beloved sea kayak was nowhere in sight, and unless things got better really fast, I was shortly going to wind up out in the Atlantic Ocean on Hen and Chickens Shoal, which I figured to be an even worse place for a swim on that particular day. It was, as the saying goes, a real “learning experience”. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let’s backtrack a bit…
Roughly nine out of ten sea kayaking fatalities result from capsizing in cold water without the protection of a wetsuit or drysuit. At the National Center for Cold Water Safety, we promote Five Golden Rules that enable any paddler to build a strong cold water safety net. This post examines Rule No. 5: Imagine the Worst That Can Happen and Plan for It.
When something bad happens out on the water and you’re unprepared to deal with it, you’re in trouble – sometimes big trouble. That’s why it’s a really good idea to make a practice of thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong, and making sure you have those bases covered before you go out.
Knowledge and Experience
The safety hurdle faced by many paddlers is that they don’t have enough knowledge or experience to imagine the all the things that can, and often do, go wrong – even on modest outings. This places them at a huge disadvantage when trying to plan for the unexpected. So what can these folks do to improve their odds? For starters, they can learn from the bad experiences suffered by other paddlers, and thereby avoid making the same mistakes – or at least be better prepared for them.
The Value of Second-Hand Knowledge
A lot of people believe there’s no way you can learn to kayak, rock climb, backpack, scuba dive, fly a plane, ride a horse, a bicycle, motorcycle or whatever just by reading about it – that the only way to really learn about that kind of stuff is by actually doing it. That’s true enough, but only up to a point – and it’s a very important point, because as it turns out, there’s a LOT of stuff that you really don’t want to learn about the hard way – by direct personal experience. Some sea kayaking examples:
- Getting totally creamed when you decide to paddle out that little inlet or river mouth “just to check things out”.
- Getting swept into a tide race or blown offshore into much rougher water even though the TV weather report you watched in the morning said nothing about dangerous tidal currents or small craft advisories.
- Watching in horror as your kayak does a “Cleopatra’s Needle” or sinks like a stone because it has no floatation. Ditto watching your kayak blow away. (More on that later.)
- Capsizing 200 yards from shore in 50F water and finding out that the guy who tried to warn you about the danger of cold water really did know what he was talking about.
- Getting really and truly lost when fog rolls in and your trusty GPS runs out of juice, breaks, malfunctions, can’t get a signal – whatever – and now it’s getting dark and cold and you don’t have a map and compass and even if you did, you wouldn’t know how to use them.
- Floating around in the dark, shivering and watching the lights of boats and helicopters searching for you but having no way to signal them because you have neither flares, a waterproof flashlight, cell phone, VHF radio, or emergency strobe light.
- Breaking or dislocating a finger, or cutting it to the bone.
- Getting to the take-out and realizing that Mary is missing – she capsized 2 miles back but nobody knew it because your group didn’t have a designated sweep.
- Being unable to function because your hands are completely numb – even though your drysuit is keeping the rest of your body toasty warm.
The mistake that led to my 45+ minute February swim in near-freezing water at the mouth of Delaware Bay was basically a failure of imagination. I totally failed to anticipate having the kayak knocked out of my very firm grasp and blown away while I was doing a reenter and roll that I’d nailed hundreds of times before.
During that long, drysuit-assisted swim, I developed a visceral appreciation for the value of a boat tether and belatedly installed one shortly thereafter – as did a lot of our fellow paddlers when they heard about the incident. Ever since then, I’ve been a proponent of using boat and paddle tethers.
Many sea kayakers today use paddle leashes, and most carry spare paddles, but it’s worth pointing out that nobody carries a spare boat. Most board surfers consider tethers to be standard equipment, and it appears that most surfski paddlers do as well. For some inexplicable reason, however, sea kayakers rarely use them, although losing a sea kayak can be every bit as hazardous as losing a ski. Many cite a fear of entanglement – an understandable concern, but one that should really be a non-issue. For the record, you can’t get entangled in a yard-long tether.
My tether has a working length of 25 inches (<1 meter), and as the picture shows, it clips into a stainless steel ring that runs on a line across my foredeck. It doesn’t impede a wet exit from my smaller ocean cockpit or interfere in any way with a smooth reenter and roll.
I unclip if I’m reentering my boat via an assisted rescue, and also unclip when launching or landing in surf, but otherwise I remain tethered – particularly in rough conditions, tide races, or when surfing offshore bars.
After getting back into sea kayaking in 2010, I was surprised to find that commercial tethers were quite long, and appeared flimsy compared to what I use. The forces trying to separate paddler from boat can be huge at times, and under the wrong circumstances, a broken tether can have a fatal outcome.
On our National Center for Cold Water Safety website, each Golden Rule is followed by a description and analysis of one or more often fatal accidents. The case that follows Rule No. 5 involves a very experienced paddler who died when the tether to his surf ski broke in very windy, rough-water conditions. You can read it at http://www.coldwatersafety.org/Rule5.html
Food for Thought – What will you do if…
- Incapacitated by cold.
- Blown out to sea by high wind.
- Paddle breaks, drifts away, or is lost in rough water.
- Tether breaks and boat blows away.
- Waves dump water into cockpit and boat fills with water.
- Capsize and can’t get back in boat.
- Cell phone and/or VHF radio lost when boat blows away.
- Hit a rock and smash hole in boat.
- Dislocate shoulder.
- Caught in thunderstorm.
- Night falls – can’t see anything.
- Paddle float blows away.
- Become seasick or exhausted and can no longer paddle.
- Lose the cover to the rear hatch.
- Lose prescription glasses– can’t see.
If at all possible critical elements should have a backup – even if the backup is to make a repair. Is all of this overkill? Maybe, but you don’t often hear about “overly prepared” sea kayakers getting into trouble.
Checklists Are Your Friend
It’s easy to forget stuff – at home, in your car, and at the take-out. Consider having a checklist for each situation.
- Leaving Home – a list of all the things you want to have with you at the put-in.
- Launching – a list of all the things you want with you on the paddle.
- Returning Home – a list of stuff that you don’t want to forget at the take-out.
I’ve never regretted being too vigilant, or safety conscious, or infatuated with checklists and meticulous planning, or cautious about my choice of paddling partners, but almost every single time I’ve made the mistake of being sloppy, lazy, or complacent about those things, it’s come back, in one way or another, to bite me on the rump.
Full Disclosure: I’ve forgotten all sorts of stuff, on various occasions, because I got sloppy with my checklists. Among other things, I’ve left my VHF radio, tow rope, and swim trunks at home, forgotten to pack lunch, left my compass or headlamp in the car, and forgotten to bring my wallet, a towel, a comb, and sunscreen. I also lost a very nice paddle because I left it on a boat ramp at the take-out and on one truly memorable occasion, was fortunate that someone miraculously had a spare PFD…
One of the best ways to expand your horizon of knowledge is by reading about bad stuff that happened to other people and reading safety articles written by paddlers with a lot of real-world experience.
Deep Survival by Lawrence Gonzales is an excellent book that answers the question often asked after accidents: “What the hell were they thinking?”
www.tsunamirangers.com – The Tsunami Rangers website itself contains a wealth of information related to safety and preparation, including the following posts:
- Risk Assessment for Kayaking on the Exposed Coast
- Rating Sea Conditions
- Scouting the Sea
- Between a Rock and a Hard Wave
- Kayaking and Cold Water Immersion
For additional articles on this website, click the Sea Kayaking Dangers category.
Sea Kayaker magazine is an excellent resource. Most issues have safety articles, and the magazine has also made 15+ years of back issues available online to the paddling community. See their website’s Articles and Resources tabs. The PDF section links to an excellent article by Doug Lloyd that appeared in the February 2000 issue: Staying Connected – The Case for Tethers.
Deep Trouble by Matt Broze and George Gronseth contains 22 stories and lessons learned that appeared in Sea Kayaker magazine. The stories are riveting, but the book’s cold water safety information is pretty thin.
Share Your Thoughts! Please share your comments about this post or any experiences you’ve had in which better preparation or equipment would have made a difference. What articles, resources or gear have you found particularly helpful? What’s your take on the issue of boat tethers?