Beyond The Wild Frontier - Misadventures In The Red Zone

by Rowland Woollven

My aim in this short article is to explore and promote an attitude of mind that remains aware of and open to our surroundings, no matter what local distractions might be demanding our attention as we paddle at sea. There are no 'lists of things to watch out for' - because by the very nature of what we do and where we do it, it is the unexpected that is likely to cause the problem. The key lies in developing our spatial awareness and having a readiness to continually reassess the situation - and then taking appropriate action. Venture with me into the red zone of sea kayaking.......

Scenario 1

Seven kayakers (5 singles, 1 double), paddling in an unfrequented area, are making their way north up an east shore, looking for a river entrance in which to take shelter from a rising (Force 5 plus) easterly wind. The seas are steep and short, the submarine contours indicating shallows extending a long way offshore. Suddenly 2 or 3 seas combine to produce a truly awesome breaker which grabs the double, capsizing it and forcing a wet exit by both paddlers. Kayak, paddlers and all manner of deck and cockpit cargo are now in the longshore rip heading towards the confused seas breaking over the bar at the river entrance. The surf is now 5 ft plus, dumping onto a steep shingle beach.

Scenario 2

Four kayakers (2 paddling singles, 2 in a double), on an expedition in a remote area, are heading south on an open coast exposed to massive swells. The day is overcast and misty, the wind (running across the swell direction) is Force 2 - 3. The group round a point, running south through the overfalls with the tide and start to cross an area of shoals, interspersed with reefs. Half way across the shoal area a huge set of swells come through - these are 2 to 3 times the size of any that have been through before, are 12 - 15 feet front face height and are breaking. The 2 singles escape over the unbroken shoulder of the first swell and head seaward rapidly. On pausing for breath, there is no sign of the double. After several minutes of waiting and watching, the double is spotted - capsized, both paddlers out, kit strewn all around the scene. The kayak and paddlers are directly in front of a reef, and are clearly incapable of helping themselves. The area is a formidable no-landing zone, and remains so for the next 7 nautical miles.

Scenario 3

Six kayakers, all in singles, make their way south through thick mist (visibility is less than 50 yards) on a no-landing coast exposed to large swells. They are scouting for a cove entrance in which to take a rest and prepare for the rounding of the cape which lies some miles to their south. The area is studded with shoals and reefs and the swells that are running can be heard breaking amongst the fangs and rocks along the shore. One paddler is working close inshore looking for the cove entrance when a rogue swell comes through the group, tubes over the scout, capsizes him and carries him into an area of rock fangs.

Scenario 4

Eleven club kayakers, all in singles, are rounding a point, bucking the tide in order to gain a cove on the north side of the headland. From there they will use the back eddy to run north east for 6 miles to the pick up point. The section of overfalls is a half mile long and the seas at their maximum are 5 - 6 feet and breaking. Early in the passage an older paddler capsizes twice, each time being put back into their boat by a single rescuer. On the third capsize, the rescuer recovers the paddler and then gets another kayaker to stabilise him before setting off to tow the rafted pair around the point. On reaching the beach, the older paddler is put into shelter and given food and drink. Another kayaker then arrives saying that a second person is in difficulty and needs assistance. The rescuer of the first casualty goes back around the headland and discovers a raft of 2 kayaks being towed by a single paddler. Because the group has taken so long, the overfalls are now at their fiercest, and going in the wrong direction. Both rescuers join forces and start to tow the raft in a V formation. At this point another paddler joins onto the raft, losing his paddle in the process! No-one in the rafted trio is carrying a spare paddle. As the combination enters the area of wildest water, a breaker takes down one of the towers; as he attempts to roll, the towline wraps around his body and paddle and forces him to wet exit.

Scenario 5

Two experienced sea kayakers, in single kayaks, are mid-way through the multi-day circumnavigation of a remote and wild island. The plan for the day is to make an open crossing of 6 miles and round 2 headlands, completing about 24 nautical miles before stopping to camp. The weather is overcast, with driving rain and a Force 3 plus wind coming from the paddlers' right side. Squalls are forecast. Shortly after leaving the shore, conditions worsen to a steady Force 4 coming from the right, creating tumbling white caps and reduced visibility in the swells. Two miles into the 6 mile crossing, matters worsen yet more: the wind is now Force 5, gusting Force 6, with breaking waves all around making boat control and communication difficult. The area directly ahead is a continuous belt of broken water - the 300 ft submarine cliff is creating a monstrous overfall in the present conditions. Both paddlers are apprehensive; neither rescue nor rolling in these conditions is guaranteed and the nearest land is an inhospitable islet 2 miles downwind and down sea. To reach this, the pair would have to skirt the overfalls and then surf 2 miles of breaking waves. The alternatives are to turn and work back to the shore they had left, or to claw seaward of the overfalls, continue the crossing and make the headland - off which are further extreme conditions. As the pair consider the alternatives, a squall comes through and reduces visibility to zero, with maelstrom conditions.

One insurance company used to advertise its services with the slogan 'we don't make a drama out of a crisis' - which is a fairly good way of looking at the scenarios above. In each of them, a critical point has been reached - but the important factor to draw from all of them is that the critical point was not, in fact, one distinguishable point but rather somewhere on a sliding scale from 'OK' to 'very much not OK'. The key lesson is that it is the small incremental steps that matter - and it is usually only in hindsight that it is possible to realise that the red line has been crossed! So, how do we improve our 'vision' to enable us to see when we approach the red line, rather than merely forever recognising it in the rear view mirror?

Look again at the scenarios in turn - in Scenario 1, was it necessary for the double to be so close in as to be vulnerable, until it was on its landing run? Probably not - given the option, scouting in difficult conditions is better done in a single than in a double. Could the conditions have been foreseen by a more thorough reading of the charts, combined with a cross-reference to previous experience of steep seas over shallow bars? The answer is probably 'yes'. In Scenario 2, did the desire to stay in contact with the shore drag the group further inshore than was wise, given the submarine topography? Almost certainly 'yes'. Could the effects of swell over submarine plateaux have been foreseen? Certainly 'yes'. Scenario 3 is almost a replica - the effects of swell barrelling up as it approaches shore through reefs and fangs are eminently foreseeable; when combined with an over-focussed concentration on finding the cove entrance did this mean that the appreciation of this dangerous position was largely overlooked? Almost certainly 'yes'. Scenario 4 is the breeding ground for a mass casualty incident - was it wise to continue with a plan when it became clear that at least one paddler could not cope? Definitely 'no'. Was it sensible to tow upstream through overfalls in the first instance? Probably 'no'. Was it sensible to tow upstream through overfalls in the second instance, even with the prospect of a split group if a different decision was taken? Almost certainly 'no'. Could the group have been better organised and prepared? Definitely 'yes'. In the last scenario the paddlers are, like Macbeth*, stuck in the middle! To return to shore means turning in violent seas; to turn and run to the islet means accepting the prospect of wild surfing in loaded expedition sea kayaks for a considerable distance - both of these options have a real risk of capsize. Rolling and rescues are not guaranteed and will certainly be hazardous. To continue to the headland, into an area of visibly dangerous water seems suicidal. Could the deterioration of conditions have been foretold from the forecast and a reading of the sky signs? Certainly 'yes'. Would turning back on the first noticed deterioration of the weather been a better solution? Certainly 'yes'. Would, in fact, opting to camp and wait out the weather and not leaving the shore that day have been the best and most sensible option? - without doubt, 'yes'.

Most dramas do not develop 'out of the blue' but result from the continual adding of small pebbles to the avalanche. By the time you have to deploy your skills to the full, you have usually already passed the stage at which you should have taken some different action! The best way of avoiding having to paddle for your life is not to put yourself in that position in the first place - and, in the manner of the majority of avalanches being triggered by those subsequently caught in them, most paddlers are the architects of their own misfortune!

One approach that may be useful is to visualise the paddler and kayak being at the centre of a sphere or globe in both time and space. Use the awareness of time to compare things past with things present and future as the timeline passes through the paddler - in other words apply past experience to present conditions in order to foretell future conditions. This is not 'rocket science' - but we do need to remember to do it! All of us, even the paddler newest to sea kayaking, have background knowledge and experience of weather - is a raincoat required today? I don't know, go and have a look! As we gain more experience we can recycle it to improve our ability to forecast how particular weather and sea states might impact on us as paddlers - the key is not growing idle, complacent or lazy, because that way lies arm wrestling with Neptune!

Think of the 'space' sphere as the need to consider all manner of possible influences upon us as paddlers - from things overhead to things underwater and all around us. Only if we maintain this global awareness will we lessen the chances of being caught unawares. Avoid over concentration on one particular task or aspect to the detriment of the bigger picture - that dark patch at upper left of your vision might actually represent a more critical problem than the one you are concentrating upon.

The size of your awareness sphere will depend on your ability, your confidence, your approach and, above all, on the prevailing conditions. At the very least, make sure that it extends beyond the bow and stern of your kayak and the ends of your paddle!

Lastly, listen to your body. If your mouth has gone dry and your pulse is somewhat elevated, there is usually a very good reason for it! How you deal with the physical and mental reactions to danger is a very personal judgement call, but if you are in the red zone, way beyond the wild frontier and heading for catastrophe, should you be there at all? - and can you see just a faint splash of red in the wing mirrors.....?

* ‘Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act III, Scene IV

steen bondo