When you launched an hour ago, the bay looked like a mill pond with a barely perceptible breeze blowing.
As you paddled farther from shore, wind and sea grew. At first, the wind merely pushed you along, making the paddling almost effortless. And the choppy seas were fun; the kayaks seemed to dance over the waves. Then the steep chop started throwing a little water into your open cockpit, a few drops of spray turned into cupfuls of seawater and, before long, a noticeable amount of water collected in the boat. Looking astern for a moment, you now realize the launch spot is not only far away, but an upwind paddle away.
The laid-back outing has turned into a serious paddle, and the banter and laughter gives way to a grim concentration.
It seems to happen in slow motion and there is nothing you can do to prevent it: you feel a sickly roll and grab for the cockpit coming as the boat completely swamps. You are swimming in the bay, in 20 feet of water and a half-mile from shore as your friend paddles alongside. What do you do?
Or, it’s a perfect day to paddle over to the Ruins and all your paddling friends are busy. It’s early October and this might be the last time you can do it this year. “Hell,” you think, “I’ve never capsized before, the conditions are calm and the forecast is perfect. What could go wrong?” Well, soon you’re reaching down beneath your spray skirt to scratch an itch on the top of your foot that’s driving you crazy … almost … just a bit farther … if I shift my weight a little … whoops! Splash! What are you going to do now?
Sorting out a capsize at sea involves several key elements: knowledge, ability and the right equipment. Knowledge can be gleaned from paddling friends, courses, books and experience. Ability comes from practice. If you’re counting on that paddle float to self-rescue, make sure you are able to climb back aboard with it. And don’t wait until you’re far offshore assisting in an “X” rescue to realize that your spray skirt is easily dislodged, and all the water that was in the swamped boat has poured into your cockpit.
Practice will also give you some confidence, which helps diminish the shock and panic factor inherent in most capsizes. You are more likely to remember to hang onto your paddle, and you’ll know whether or not you have the strength to climb back aboard without assistance. Knowing the latter, and knowing how to set yourself up to be assisted back into your boat could save a lot of wasted time and energy that would be better spent paddling back to safety.
There are many types of paddling craft available today, and some have severe limitations in terms of dealing with a capsize. Many of the popular sit-inside kayak models in use today lack bulkheads. When these capsize and fill with water they require Herculean strength to lift, or even slide as in the “X” rescue. You might not have the strength and stamina to empty it with your hand pump. These problems can be avoided by adding some flotation in the form of inflatable bladders placed forward of your feet in the bow, and aft of your seat astern. Canoeists venturing far from shore should also consider securing additional flotation. Even a pair of inflated tire tubes, if secured properly, will displace enough water to enable self-rescue.
Equipment would include a bailer of some sort. The “sit-on-top” kayaks avoid the bailing issue entirely. These have become more popular for general touring and some new models have nice lines, watertight storage compartments and comfortable seats. These are more difficult to capsize since they can’t swamp, but in the event you do capsize or fall overboard, make sure that climbing back on is as simple as you think it might be before venturing into deep water.
The simplicity of the “X” rescue is one of the reasons to paddle in convoy with another boat. But what if you just have to get out for a paddle and there’s no one around to accompany you? By all means go. But give careful thought to your route, equipment and expertise. There are actually many excellent paddling areas on the East End that can be explored in waters that are shallow enough to stand in.
Be aware that paddling within easy swimming distance of shore changes dramatically if you want to make it to shore with your favorite paddle and boat in tow. Towing a water-filled kayak is slow going, and a weak swimmer might not make any progress at all hanging onto a swamped canoe. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.
Aside from kayak surfing and white water canoeing, I’ve never capsized in a canoe or kayak. But when I do, and if I’m alone, I don’t want to make matters worse by facing a mile-long swim because I didn’t bring along a paddle float. The paddle float is simply an inflatable tube that folds flat and can be easily tucked under deck lines for an emergency. When empty, it slides over the paddle blade. A few breaths inflates it and secures it tightly in place. The float-tipped paddle now acts as an outrigger support that you can use to climb back aboard and stabilize the boat while you bail the cockpit.
If you would like to learn some kayak safety skills, consider enrolling in one of my classes this summer. The first class is being held on Tuesday, June 29, at 6 p.m., in the Noyac area (contact me at 631-267-5228 for details). The Southampton Town Recreation Department kayak courses for the summer are listed at southamptontownny.gov/content/760/762/782/1048/1452/default.aspx.