Australian sea kayakers Tess Dodd and Damiano “Gnarlydog” Visocnik recently completed a long paddle in their native Australia. They passed through a series of beautiful caves, which seemed alluring but possibly dangerous to Tess. She asked me a few questions about technique and safety when paddling in a sea cave. Today, I’ll answer her first three questions, and address her other questions in next week’s blog.
Tess: “Eric, what are the common dangers when sea cave kayaking?”
Several dangers exist in sea caves. The worst and most common is the infamous Wave in a Cave. If a wave hits you, you can capsize and possibly strike your head on an underwater obstacle such as a stalagmite. Or, you could be smashed into a wall, or wedged into a narrow part of the cave, or crash into one of your mates.
Even if the water merely surges in, the current can drag you to the back of the cave where the balrogs reside. (Read FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien to learn about balrogs. You will know them because of their terrible roar). Sometimes, the current sneaks in slowly and can lift your boat to the ceiling, where your head can bonk into a stalagtite.
Tess: “How does one judge when it’s safe to enter a sea cave? And, how deep is it safe to go in a cave that gets progressively smaller?”
From a safe vantage point outside the cave, watch what happens when waves enter. Scout for about 15 minutes, which is about how long it takes for a big set to come through. If it looks good (that is, safe enough and within your skill set), then go in as far as you could see into the cave that looked doable.
Then, from inside the cave, scout again for a few minutes to see what the next section of the cave looks like. Really powerful headlamps clamped to your helmets (you must wear a helmet to protect your head from the floor, walls, and ceiling!) will help you see in the dark. If you can’t see at least 10 meters, then your lamps are not powerful enough. Also, whether you use lamps or not, be sure to attach glow sticks to your helmets so your partners can see you. Continue the process of scouting then moving farther in, and so on, until you either reach the end or don’t feel like continuing.
You asked how deep into a cave should you go if it is getting progressively smaller? The answer is, “It depends.” Theoretically, you can keep going until your boat starts to wedge. Practically, it’s not a good idea to continue into a cave that gets progressively smaller, because you can’t maneuver and you and your mates are stacked up on one another, which could result in unavoidable collision when water surges through. Now, if you can see the back exit out of a tube (there will be lots of light!), it may be okay to paddle through a narrow stretch if it widens up or provides an easy escape. Err on the side of caution, if unsure whether to proceed.
Tess: “When contemplating venturing into a sea cave, are there indicators that would alert you to potential trouble?”
Well, when you are scouting outside the cave, look for waves of course, and see what happens just before a wave enters the cave. If you observe a bunch of exposed rocks sticking up, that is a danger sign. Also listen for odd sounds. If you hear the balrog roar of waves crashing in the back of the cave, that is a warning.
I look forward to comments and more questions from my readers! Next week I’ll answer the remainder of Tess’ questions, including what to do when you mess up inside a sea cave. Stay tuned.