By Moulton Avery and Nancy Soares
Editor’s note: This March I was privileged to join the North Sound Sea Kayak Association (NSSKA) for a rescue rodeo in 42-degree water at Lake Stevens in Washington State. It was awesome! Robert Nissenbaum, Chief Instigator, led the hour-long introduction on land. There were lots of good questions and an excellent discussion about gear, and Moulton Avery of the National Center for Cold Water Safety contributed his observations on kayaking safely in cold water. Once in the water everyone went for it big time. People were rolling and wet-exiting and re-entering and being rescued all over the place. It really was a rodeo! Time on/in water was about two hours and afterwards there was a 30-minute debrief, although as paddlers hit the beach there was some informal debriefing.
The goal of the rodeo was to practice rolling and rescues over a period of time in cold water in order to swim test gear. Endurance was also a factor as time passed and paddlers continued to wrangle. They had to be getting tired but the energy and enthusiasm did not diminish and no one got cold despite the chilly water and ambient air temperature. Mad fun and I’d do it again in a minute! Big props to Robert for instigating this event and to Graton Gathright, Trip Coordinator; Marie Mills, Steve Phelps, and Derek Coffman, instructors; and to all the gung ho students. Also thanks to Angie Lovett and Moulton for inviting me to camp with them. It was exhilarating to be with such a committed group of paddlers in the interest of promoting the safety of our sport.
Moulton: Being able to rescue yourself after a capsize is a critical sea kayaking safety skill. Roughly half of the 23 case histories on the National Center for Cold Water Safety website involve rescue failures. These failures can happen for a number of reasons:
• Kayaker has no idea how to do a rescue.
• Kayaker seldom practices rescues or conditions exceed rescue ability.
• Kayak sinks or swamps and can’t be emptied or pumped out.
• Kayak blows away.
• Kayaker is injured.
Nevertheless, few paddlers routinely practice rescues, and even fewer practice in cold, rough water – even though they paddle in those conditions. Press them, and they may say something about having a rescue practice day – an event that tends to be infrequent. So when ACA Instructor Robert Nissenbaum announced that he was holding a “rescue rodeo” for his Washington club, the North Sound Sea Kayaking Association (NSSKA), I took notice. In this case, I was particularly interested because it was going to be held on 42F water, which is especially challenging. I figured that with few exceptions, the participants would last about 20-30 minutes before they got too cold to continue. I was wrong. They practiced for roughly 2 hours, and watching them it was obvious that they were well-prepared and enjoying themselves.
With respect to the 5 Golden Rules of cold water safety, rescue practice falls under Field-Testing, and in this session, participants gained valuable knowledge and experience about how well their thermal protection and assorted gear like paddle floats, gloves, and hoods performed in 42F water. That’s huge, because if you don’t practice in very cold water, you have no way of knowing how well your gear and techniques are going to work under those conditions. In contrast, the feeling of accomplishment and security that one develops through rescue practice is a valuable safety asset, because when you’re confident about your ability to rescue, you’re more relaxed when conditions start to get pushy.
Why don’t more paddlers learn how to rescue and routinely practice? Perhaps many don’t give much thought to rescues because they’re lulled into complacency by the primary stability of their kayaks. And the longer they go without accidentally capsizing, the more complacent they become. Talk to many of them about rescue practice, and they’ll say they’ve never capsized and have no plan on doing so. In contrast, most experienced paddlers will tell you that we’re all “between swims”. Although they rarely capsize, they prepare for the possibility – even if they have a very reliable roll.
Learning how to do a self and an assisted rescue is a wise investment of both time and money. One benefit of taking a rescue class is that you can learn good technique and avoid developing bad habits. Practicing your newfound skills after the class is even more important – yet that’s the part most often neglected.
The advantage of practice is that it enables you to do a rescue without thinking about it. People often report that the technique “flows” in a smooth, confident manner. This process is very evident when learning martial arts techniques, or reloading a firearm under pressure, but it also applies to paddling activities like doing a low brace, rolling your kayak or completing a successful solo rescue. And once rescues get dialed in, it’s no big deal to do one on any outing, regardless of the water temperature and whether conditions are flat, calm or rough.
Nancy: Wrapping it up, I’d again like to thank everybody involved in this event. Something that deserves emphasis is how much fun we all had. Also, Moulton mentioned the feeling of accomplishment and security this type of practice develops. Confidence is key to good paddling, especially when the paddler is under stress, when competent decision-making and good skills are crucial. When you test your rescues, rolls, and gear, you develop a confidence that may save your life. For myself, I learned two important things. One, I can flip my boat, right it, hop back in and start paddling in under a minute. Two, I wanted to see how long I could stay in that 42F water in a wetsuit before I got cold. I started treading water but quickly took my ungloved hands out of the water because they went numb. Still, I was able to tread water with my hands (no longer numb once out of the water) up in the air for over an hour, and never got cold. My new-found knowledge is a huge confidence booster, and I owe it to this NSSKA event.
Moulton asks why more people don’t do this kind of practice. There are probably many reasons, but the bottom line is that if you get together with some buddies and whip up a little rodeo it’s a lot of fun, and you’ll come away with elevated skills and a greater respect for and confidence in yourself and your fellow paddlers. At the NSSKA event, there were 3 ACA certified instructors, 2 NSSKA coaches and 5 students, and for me the most impressive aspect was the good energy, how everyone was assisting and encouraging each other with unflagging enthusiasm. The team spirit was palpable, and I came away feeling positive, upbeat, and ready to rock and roll in the waves.
To contact NSSKA, click here. To contact Robert Nissenbaum, click here. To see him on Insta, click here. To check out Graton Gathright on Insta, click here. To visit the National Center for Cold Water Safety, click here.
Have you ever participated in a rescue rodeo, or swim-tested your gear? For questions or comments, please click below. Thanks!