Monday, October 15, 2007

Lessons From October's Kayaking Tragedy

The recent kayaking tragedy off Anvil Island in Howe Sound gives pause for thought. Eight kayakers were in four double kayaks, two of which capsized. Two kayakers survived immersion but had to be taken to hospital. Two kayakers died.

In calm seas they could easily have made the crossing between Anvil Island and the mainland. But the seas were not calm. The wind had come up and the eight kayakers had collectively decided to make the crossing anyways. Why not? After all, they were in top physical shape, all extreme sports enthusiasts. They had just paddled over to Anvil Island, ran up the steep slope to the top and back down and were intending to paddle to the mainland and bicycle one hundred kilometers to Whistler over logging roads the same day.

We need to respect the power of the sea at all times. And that means always err on the side of caution. Being a strong experienced paddler can give one a false sense of security. It didn't keep two men from drowning.

We can have a false sense of security in numbers too. It's obviously safer to paddle in a group but paddling in a group of eight still didn't stop two of those eight paddlers from dying.

I notice that fishermen deeply mistrust kayaks because they have little “freeboard”. The distance between the water-line and the top of the deck is measured in inches on a kayak. In reality, kayaks are very sea-worthy because they have covered decks and the kayaker wears a “sprayskirt” that attaches around the cockpit and forms a waterproof seal that keeps rough seas from entering the boat. However kayaks, being fairly light and narrow, are tippy. They are especially vulnerable in steep breaking seas. Unless the kayaker knows how to execute the proper brace against a breaking wave the kayak can potentially capsize.

We can draw some lessons from this tragedy:

1.Know the area you are kayaking in – the prevailing winds, waves and the local hazards. The steep slope of the coast of Howe Sound and of Anvil Island and their close proximity to each other probably contributed to the high winds through a funnelling effect. If they had known of this effect beforehand they could have made a more accurate assessment of the dangers.
2.Dress appropriately for exposed crossings. The eight kayakers were all wearing life jackets but they weren't wearing wet suits or foul weather gear. Three of the kayakers were in the water for about an hour before they were picked up. They were all hypothermic. The two who died could have survived an hour in cold water if they had been wearing wet suits or dry suits. Ever since I capsized off Tugwell Island on a cold December day fifteen years ago I always wear a wet suit when I am paddling in exposed waters. Even if the weather is fair, always bring a paddling jacket that can keep you warm and dry in rain and high seas, and stow it in your cockpit where you have easy access.
3.Use an appropriate type of kayak for the waters you will be paddling in. The first kayak that capsized was a racing kayak. Racing kayaks sacrifice stability for speed – not a good trade-off when you are paddling in strong winds and high waves.
4.Anticipate the worst and be ready to back out if conditions deteriorate too far. If nothing else, this alone could have prevented the tragedy. If the kayakers had turned back once they encountered the wind and waves they could have gone back to Anvil Island and waited until conditions improved or radioed for help.

The deaths of two kayakers was a terrible tragedy but it could have been avoided.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your insight on this tragic accident, Charles. Having travelled up the outside coast of Alaska with you on a 2.5 month paddling trip, I know you can handle much rougher weather than I would be out in. I am happy you were willing to stay in camp and let the high winds and waves die down before we shoved out to sea. You taught me alot about kayaking during that trip and I think my only contribution was showing you how to light a fire under the most inclement weather conditions.