Last week, I answered a few questions Australian sea kayaker Tess Dodd posed about navigating a sea cave. This week we answer the rest of her important questions.
Tess: “In the event of an unexpected large wave entering the sea cave, what is the best way to minimize injury from being pushed farther in or getting bashed against the ceiling of a cave?”
Whether expected or unexpected, a large wave entering a cave is no laughing matter. The best way to minimize injury from being pushed farther in (and thus getting wedged in the side walls or crashing against the back wall) is to paddle like the Dickens right into the wave and clear it, so you don’t get pushed back.
The best way to avoid getting bashed against the cave ceiling is to paddle toward the wave and/or the spot with the highest ceiling, and purposefully roll upside down just as the wave is lifting you toward the ceiling. This will protect your head, as it is imperative that you avoid getting knocked out. If you get knocked out, you are toast. So, let your hull hit the ceiling. As soon as the wave begins to subside, and the danger of hitting the ceiling passes, roll back up and skedaddle out of the cave. You can reassess the situation once you are outside and safe.
The trick to dealing with waves in caves is to be thoroughly aware of your environment. Instead of being awestruck with the beauty and/or terrified of the danger, tune in to what is all around you. Go to the safest spot in the cave and stay there until it’s okay to transition to another safe spot. Tsunami Rangers call a safe spot a “station.” Look for stations as you pass through the cave. You may just need them!
Tess: “If someone capsizes and ends up in the water in a cave, what is the best recovery scenario?”
The easiest and by far the best recovery scenario is the paddler rolls right back up and continues on like nothing happened. If the person is out of her boat, then she needs to get back in the boat pronto (using a practiced method of self-recovery) and proceed to a station so she can take a few moments to check herself out (e.g., make sure her spray skirt is attached) and catch her breath.
The above is the easy way only if you are a competent paddler. This is why I don’t recommend that beginners enter sea caves unless it is very safe (i.e., a huge cavern with flat seas). Why look for trouble?
If you are a good boater and can’t get in your boat for some reason (e.g., it gets yanked out of your hand and disappears into a black hole), then you’ll have to swim. It may be that you can easily swim to your boat and recover, but if not, then swim out of the cave. If waves come in, take a breath and dive for the floor, letting the wave pass over you. Then pop back up and continue swimming for the exit. This could go on for several minutes until you reach safety, so it pays to stay calm and be a good swimmer. Note: if you are a panicker or a poor swimmer, NEVER kayak in a cave!
If you have a competent team of kayakers with you (and you should!), and if it’s safe for one or more of them to be in the cave (you don’t need a bunch of victims getting in your way), one of them can back his boat up to you so you can climb on the back deck and be paddled to safety (which usually means out of the cave, but could be to your boat or a station).
Alternatively, another boater could throw you a rescue bag and then tow you out as you help by doing frog kicks. Finally, another boater (only if it’s safe) can retrieve your boat and get it to you after you are at a station, and together you can effect a recovery.
Note that I said roll or recover as the number one recovery scenario and swim out as number two. Note that having other boaters assist you is the last recovery option. The reason is that whatever caused the capsize may still be present, and you don’t want everyone to be endangered trying to attempt a rescue. It’s better for the person in the water to save herself. Does this make sense? The lesson is DON’T GO IN A CAVE IF YOU CAN’T SELF-RESCUE!
Tess: “When entering a tight cave, is it better to go in forward or to back in?”
Usually, it’s better just to paddle forward, so you can see where you are going. However, if you do this, you must have good back paddling skills and keep a weather eye out for what’s behind you.
Sometimes it just feels better to back in to the cave so you can get out easily. This method usually makes you feel safer. The drawback is you can’t easily see what is ahead of you. Bottom line: Either way is okay. Whatever works for you.
Tess: “Can a group enter a sea cave, or is it better to have just a few people in the cave?”
Generally, it’s better to have just a few people in the cave at once. Two is the ideal number, as you reap the benefit of the buddy system but avoid the liability of a herd of kayakers filling up a small space. It’s best to tackle a cave as a team. Two good people go in first, while others stay outside the cave and relay information (such as “Here comes a big wave!”). When the first two are out of the cave, the next two go in, and so forth. It’s probably okay for a group of tourist kayakers to occupy a huge cavern with no waves. It makes for good pictures.
To be safe and have fun in sea caves, work with trusted kayaking companions on caving techniques. Practice rescue scenarios and perfect your recovery and swimming skills.