By Robert Nissenbaum and Graton Gathright
Editor’s note: We wrote about Robert and Graton in our recent post on the NSSKA Rescue Rodeo. This month, they’ve put together an article on their training day with a regulation Search and Rescue team from Skagit Bay, WA, a day that went from practice rescues to the real deal. We hope you enjoy their post.
The SBSAR Training
The Need for Training
The drive for this cross-training was the December 2021 Deception Pass Challenge. An unexpected increase in wind speed and a directional change sent conditions from acceptable prior to 0900 to arguably unacceptable by around 0930.
The result was multiple capsizes. While the majority of paddlers re-entered their crafts on their own or were assisted by other paddlers, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office marine patrol unit and US Coast Guard were involved in a few rescues. While SBSAR was not directly involved in rescues, they were on the scene as part of the safety support.
Big Boats, Little Boats
Graton and I met up with Bay One and Bay Six, two SBSAR rescue boats, around 10:30 AM under sunny skies and in perfectly flat water with a knot or 2 of current. The plan was for only one of us to be in the water at a time allowing the other to manage both kayaks. Bay One would be the primary rescue boat with Bay Six providing safety support allowing crews to be swapped so everyone could have practice opportunities.
The goal for the day was to run through a few basic scenarios that would allow the rescue crews a chance to see how best to rescue paddlers and allow us to learn how to assist them. A big consideration was that SBSAR’s crews are not permitted to get in the water to help. With that in mind, our first exercises centered around how best to get a paddler out of the water and onto their boat.
The first few scenarios had Graton in the water. He simulated a solo paddler who had capsized and was unable to re-enter his kayak, but was otherwise uninjured and able to assist. The plan was for Bay One to approach us and have Graton use the swim ladder off the stern on the port side, then repeat the rescue on the starboard side without the ladder. On the starboard side it was also necessary to avoid cables running to the engines.
While it was clearly easier with the ladder, both rescues went quickly and worked well. Ideally, SBSAR would approach allowing the swimmer access to the ladder, but conditions or approach might rule that out, so we practiced the rescues from both sides of the rescue boat.
In The Water and Injured
After a break, we discussed injuries and how to get an injured kayaker on board. On the water, dislocated shoulders and other shoulder injuries are the big thing. Motion-sickness is another problem and there is the possibility of something more severe – as in the incident in Casco Bay in August 2021 where one paddler was slammed into the rocks suffering extensive injuries to ribs, shoulder, and lung.
We decided to focus first on the shoulder injury. To help isolate and prevent use of one arm, once in the water, Graton tucked one hand into his PFD, compromising his ability to assist in the rescue. The SBSAR crew worked through the best way to approach him and get him out of the water. Again, the ladder on the swim platform was an easy option. Once in position, Graton could grab the ladder on his good side, and the crew was able to grab his PFD or drysuit, assisting him to climb on board. Switching to the side of the platform without ladder access, the rescue was more challenging. Without a foothold, Graton needed more assistance to get onto the boat and while it went smoothly, we could see the possibility of aggravating the injury.
Bay One has a Jason’s Cradle® installed on its starboard side and we moved into testing it. It’s an amazing rescue aid, but implementing it takes practice. We tested several of the variety of ways it can be used, one in which Graton, the able-bodied victim, used it as a ladder.
A big advantage to using the Jason’s Cradle® was that it allowed 2 crew members to assist Graton. In conditions, it would make for a safer rescue with two sets of hands able to get the swimmer on board without risk of getting caught in cables or squeezing up between the stern deck and engines on the swim platform.
While deploying the cradle takes an additional minute or two and the SBSAR crew needed to make sure Graton was out of the way during deployment, it proved to be the best solution. It provided an easy hand hold AND the cradle sitting well below the waterline provided easy access for Graton.
The Incapacitated Swimmer
As the Casco Bay incident showed, there is the need to be able to get a swimmer on board when they simply cannot do so under their own power. The Jason’s Cradle® is designed, in part, for this scenario. But knowing how to use it and not causing further injury still needed to be learned.
We started with Graton in the water floating on his back as if he was helpless. Graton would not assist in any way during this exercise. Bay One headed out and back to simulate their approach. Once in position the Jason’s Cradle® was deployed and they proceeded to test ways to float Graton into it. That proved challenging. They were able to guide him in feet first using a modified fishing gaff with a blunt ‘hook’ to position him. Once in the Cradle, they could slowly roll him up and onto the deck. However the Cradle wraps snugly and the victim’s arms are at risk for injury. Also, the victim’s head is at risk for hitting the boat. Graton was able to provide feedback and adjust position to see what was the safest way to get himself on board, but this rescue needs more practice.
The second half of this rescue scenario was getting Graton on a backboard. Due to the design of the rescue boat, the process wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped, but it worked. If there was real concern for a back injury, we looked at the option of dropping the backboard into the water within the cradle, floating Graton onto it, then using the cradle to cinch him to the board. At this point, rolling him up was a problem and the best solution would be to slowly head back with him in the cradle off the side of the boat, or to wait for support. While not ideal, we could get him immobilized and out of the cold Puget Sound water.
The Incapacitated Paddler
We chose to test 2 aspects of a rescue for this one. The crew would arrive not knowing what happened, relying on Graton to inform them of the situation (I got to play victim for this one). The scenario had me unable to use the right side of my body and unable to speak or assist in any way. The point was to see if they could extract me from my kayak.
As Bay One approached, I was rafted up with Graton in a contact tow with my spray skirt still on. Once on scene it took the crew less than a minute to determine I’d had a stroke. Knowing there was limited time to get me the medication needed to minimize the effects of the stroke, they worked quickly to come up with a plan. Graton popped my spray skirt and helped position my kayak between the rescue boat and his own kayak, adding stability. The SBSAR crew were able to smoothly lift me right out of the cockpit and onto their deck.
The Big Take-Aways
- While SBSAR can get called out to rescue a kayaker in distress, they generally provide support at local events. That means they are already on scene. IF we placed a Mayday call, their response time to our practice location would have been 45 minutes. Think about that. Even dressed properly, that’s likely the full limit of our immersion gear before hypothermia sets in.
- SBSAR personnel CANNOT get in the water. If they cannot get us on board (Bay Six is NOT equipped with a Jason’s Cradle®), either the victim or another paddler on the water will need to be an active participant.
- It was hard for them to compensate for our drift. On approach with Graton as an incapacitated swimmer, he found himself up against the hull off the bow of Bay One. That means they need to be slower and more precise on approach, and as swimmers, we need to be in a ‘tucked’ position if possible.
- We need to be active participants in the rescue to as great an extent as we can, either as the victim or as members of a group. Everything must be a coordinated effort.
- The rescue crew is in charge. Our role is to provide them with the critical information when they reach us, then let them determine how the rescue goes. Let them ask for the help they need and tell you how to provide it. The goal of trainings like this is to ensure that the crew understands what they need to do and how we can help them do it.
- The Jason’s Cradle® takes time to deploy and it’s harder to maneuver the boat with it in the water, but it’s highly effective and can be used to transport a kayak if traveling at just a few knots, but SBSAR will NOT bring a kayak or SUP on board unless they have time. If there is any doubt about how fast they need to get you ashore, your kayak or paddle board will be left behind.
Notes of Interest
- Visibility. Color helps but they aren’t looking for color. They are looking for movement. The regular movement of a paddler paddling or waving is visible sooner and from further out, even with binoculars, than the kayak itself.
- SBSAR had a nifty thermal imaging device. Once close enough, they can use it to look for ‘hotspots’ to locate a swimmer. That makes immersion gear even more valuable. The longer we can retain body heat, the greater the chance we have of being found.
At The End of the Day
This exercise was much needed, both for SBSAR and for ourselves. We practice assisted rescues with other kayakers regularly, but we also need to know how to manage rescues when other crafts are involved. A kayaker won’t always be able to assist. What we learned with SBSAR will help us manage a rescue with ANY power boater coming to our aid.
Going forward, the next step is to move these exercises into conditions. We want to practice in Deception Pass where the need for these scenarios could play out. We’ve also discussed running these practice sessions multiple times per year to keep skills sharp and train new personnel. My hope is to see this become a regular thing with other local SAR teams.
What Happened On the Way Back to the Take Out
A little backstory is required. I had planned our launch so I could take my wife Valerie on a little kayaking tour before our rendezvous with SBSAR. This meant that I needed to prepare our gear the night before and leave early to arrive at the launch with plenty of time. I had other family responsibilities the night before and ended up prepping our gear till late. I still had some prep to do in the morning before we could get on the road. As a result, I got little sleep and we left nearly an hour late. We were en route to the launch when Robert called to say that the launch wouldn’t work because the tide would be too low. We adjusted to a different put in. We judged that we still had time for me to take Valerie out for a tour, but we would need to be very quick.
We suited up and staged our boats and gear on the beach, and Robert and I began setting up video equipment. Valerie asked if she could launch while she was waiting and assuming that she meant to paddle around immediately in front of us we both said it was fine. In fact, Valerie meant that she wanted to start off to visit a small island in the distance. Soon, we looked up from our work to see Valerie already some way away. I launched hastily. Valerie is a novice and I wanted to ensure her safety and also stay closer to the beach since our time was limited. I caught up with her about 10 minutes later near the island. We needed about 20 minutes to return to the launch and the rendezvous with SBSAR was still 60 minutes away, so I suggested we do a quick circumnavigation of the small island.
After going around the island, we started paddling back to the launch and SBSAR began hailing us via VHF to let us know that they were at the rendezvous point. I responded, but Robert did not. I could see him near the launch, so I signaled with my paddle for him to come to us. He had heard the conversation between me and SBSAR, but his radio wouldn’t transmit. Also, it turned out that our alternate launch was much further from the rendezvous point than I had thought. Instead of being close to the rendezvous with a few minutes to spare, we were nearly 2 miles from the rendezvous and I still needed to escort Valerie back to the beach. We communicated to SBSAR that Robert would paddle directly to the rendezvous. Once I dropped Valerie off I would join him, with the result that my ETA was at least 30 minutes past the original rendezvous time.
Finally on my way to the rendezvous, I concentrated on using an efficient forward stroke to make all speed without over-exerting myself. The sun was shining brightly and I was dressed for extended immersion in very cold water as part of the training. Before long, I was sweating inside my drysuit. I could feel myself overheating. I doused myself with ocean water at intervals to cool off, and hydrated from my hydration pack. However, I quickly used up the water in the pack as I had not taken the time to replenish it, opting instead to pack an extra Nalgene of water in my day hatch to save time.
It was a relief to arrive at the rendezvous. After introductions and a quick briefing on the plan, I jumped into the exercises (and the water!) with gusto. I had 2 thermal layers under my drysuit, but I could still feel that the water was very cold, especially on my scalp which was covered only with a thin helmet liner and helmet. For more than an hour I was in and out of the water, and immersed for easily half the time. Finally we changed locations and I got to stay on board for a while.
Aboard the vessel, I started to feel nauseous. I ascribed the nausea to motion-sickness or the diesel fumes from the boat engines, but it also made me realize I had not consumed the extra snacks that I had brought to make up for my inadequate breakfast. I nibbled at a PBJ but found it unpalatable. I was feeling pretty miserable and somewhat chilled. I felt embarrassed to be motion sick among all these ocean boaters, but when the vessel stopped, I told the crew that I was feeling cold and unwell and that I’d like to hop back in my kayak and paddle around the vessel to warm up and get my vim back. Paddling did help to mitigate the nausea and chill somewhat, but I still felt miserable. For the first time paddling, I wished I was home!
Robert and I were both on the water when Robert started explaining the next scenario. I told him I wasn’t doing great. He immediately drew up and lay across my foredeck to stabilize my boat. He fetched my Nalgene from the hatch for me and offered me ginger for the nausea from a small container in his PFD pocket. He offered Dramamine from his first-aid kit, but I declined. Robert said he would take the victim role in the scenario and when it was done we would wrap up the training. We completed the scenario, and Robert and the SBSAR folks debriefed as I continued to circle the boat in my kayak. We concluded the event, expressed our delight to SBSAR to be able to participate in the training, and started paddling back towards our take out.
Now we could tend to me. We were very near the SE corner of Hope Island and I could see that the low rocky beach point of the island was bathed in sunlight. I told Robert that I’d like to stop there and warm up. We beached. I dug out my storm cag, staggered to the sunlight, donned my cag, sipped some water, lay down, and fell instantly to sleep. When I awoke I felt better – the nausea was gone – but I felt more chilled. I noticed my thinking was somewhat muddled and my speech was slow. Hypothermia was setting in. We launched and Robert attached a tow line to my bow. I paddled to help warm myself, and I also rested, even nodding off to sleep at times.
When we got back to the beach I felt invigorated to have made it, but I was shivering, so I changed my clothes and climbed into my sun-baked car. I woke up sometime later feeling warm and much recovered. When I exited the car I found that Robert had hauled my boat up and prepared all of my gear for loading. He helped me load everything and tie down my boat. We visited and joked for a bit, then took our leave and headed home. By the time Valerie and I passed the exit for the Burgermaster, I felt myself again, and we stopped for burgers like it was any other paddle.
This experience helped me appreciate how a bad situation could easily escalate without appropriate action. This situation arose from a series of multiple small lapses, none of which alone would necessarily be a problem. A late departure, miscommunicating with Valerie, and misunderstanding our position relative to the rendezvous with SBSAR were among the many seemingly minor things that could have led to trouble.
Some best practices that we didn’t follow
1. We could have designated a leader. Where did the buck stop on planning the launch location?
2. We could have vetted the plan.
3. We could have checked everything with each other.
4. We could have prepped earlier.
5. We could have resisted the allure of planning around best-case scenarios.
6. We could have pivoted. When something shifts, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate the whole plan. Given that we arrived late and had to change our put in, did it still make sense to do a tour with Valerie? Did the rendezvous time and place still make sense?
7. We could have had a pilot’s checklist. I have started using a packing checklist and the incidence of forgotten items has dropped considerably! At the put in, a physical “pre-flight” checklist including radio check and beach talk would have been helpful.
8. I could have spoken up sooner. Because I was embarrassed I initially withheld my discomfort from SBSAR.
9. I could have started to hydrate in the 24 hours prior to the training. Then even if I didn’t have enough water in my pack I might have felt better.
Some stuff that went well
1. Robert and I are a team and we acted like it.
2. We both brought radios and one of them worked. The odds are low that 2 radios will both fail.
3. We are both capable of caring for each other. Odds are low that all members of a team will need care.
1. In our budding kayak team, Robert and I have a great group of fellow-paddlers. I’m grateful for them. A good motto for the team would be “Care for each other”.
2. There is a distinction between being good at paddling strokes and rescues and being good at kayaking.
3. Developing wisdom and judgement is key and requires actual experience.
4. Debriefing after a trip is useful whether there is an “incident” or not.
5. Training is useful, and our nascent team is doing an incident management training in July with BodyBoatBlade. Also, I am working on an ACA certification as Sea Kayak Trip Leader, which requires, among other things, “familiarity with the signs and symptoms of hypothermia”. Check!
6. I loved being a part of the training exercise with SBSAR. I learned a lot about what to expect and how I can facilitate a rescue, whether as a victim or an assisting kayaker.
Tsunami End Notes
Thanks, guys, for writing up this eventful day! It’s a total stoke that yet another group of sea kayakers is on the road to creating a formal team. After reading your account of your SBSAR training day, I feel confident that your team is going to be great. Being a team doesn’t mean that shit doesn’t happen. It means that WHEN shit happens, as it eventually does, the team acts together to make sure everything works out, as happened in this case.
When I first started paddling with the Tsunami Rangers, Eric told me in no uncertain terms that I was on my own. Doesn’t sound like a team thing, does it? But the idea is that each paddler has an obligation TO THE TEAM not to be a liability. I quickly learned to be responsible for my mental and physical welfare, my boat, and my gear. Thinking that you’re a member of a team can be enabling, in a bad way. Each member is ideally totally self-sufficient. Of course the Rangers help each other all the time, but each of us is fully capable of wrangling our own gear and self-rescuing if necessary. If that wasn’t the case we couldn’t go where we go and do what we do. Kudos to both of you on successfully completing your first “team test”. I‘ll be following your future adventures with considerable interest.
For questions or comments, please see the comments section below. 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.
Jim Benson says
Thanks for sharing your experience and the debriefing. It’s a great example of the learning process in kayak rescues and the need for practice in real conditions.