Rescue at the Yorkville Whitewater Park

yorkville rescue

I watched the canoe’s descent of the whitewater park out the front window of the store.  The paddlers navigated the top section cleanly but capsized in the wave train in the lower half of the park.  Both paddlers popped to the surface on the downstream side of their canoe.  Once they were oriented, they should have quickly gotten to either the upstream side of the boat or to an end.  Unfortunately, the only unsafe place to be is where the paddlers stayed, as they were pushed by the current towards the rocks.

The canoe wrapped on the rocks and from my vantage point, 150 yards away, it looked like both paddlers were safe but stuck on the midstream pile of rocks.  The pinned boat didn’t look like something the paddlers were going to be able fix on their own so I quickly threw on my paddling gear and grabbed the solo canoe off the rack.

As I paddled closer the pin site, I saw two additional people on the rock.  I grabbed the eddy below the pin and saw that what looked from above as a simpe boat pin was in fact much more serious.  The stern paddler was pinned by the canoe gunwales with his back against the rock and the gunwales against his chest and legs with his chin right at water level.  If the canoe slipped just 3 inches lower, we would have a head down pin and a truly life threatening situation. One of the bystanders was supporting the pinned paddler’s head and the other was trying to use a paddle to pry the canoe off the victim.  A couple of walkers had stopped on the adjacent sidewalk so I shouted for them to call 911 in case the situation deteriorated.

With the full force of the river pushing against the 16 1/2 foot canoe, using the paddle simply wasn’t working.  Part of the issue was that the paddler was pinned by both gunwales, so prying with the paddle only moved one gunwale and transferred the force to the other gunwale and to the victim.  There was enough force on the victim’s chest that we did use the paddle to relieve some of the pressure, easing his breathing.

With the victim somewhat stable, we tried a few different ways to free him, all unsuccessful because they either caused pain to the  victim or were lacked the strength to move the boat. 

The police and fire departments arrived and then began to show their complete lack of preparedness for the situation.  Their only idea was to throw ropes at us.  We didn’t want ropes, and they obviously didn’t have a plan for what to do if they got a rope to us.  At one point there were simultaneously three separate ropes in the water and they eventually managed to get 2 of the 3 ropes pinned in the river.

As ropes were being flung in our general direction, I waded out below the end of the canoe that protruded  into the current and attempted to push it upstream.  Fortunately, the river was just shallow enough and had enough solid footholds that I was able to put my shoulder into the gunwales and relieve enough pressure on the canoe that the other 2 rescuers were able to lift the victim from behind the boat and onto the rock. 

Immediate crisis averted.  Now we needed to get the victim across the current to the awaiting EMTs.  The solo canoe was not going to be a good choice for transporting two people.  Since everyone was stable and safe, I paddled the canoe to shore and ran to the top of the park to grab a better craft.  I took a Liquid Logic Versa Board, a combintion sit on top and stand up paddleboard that turned out to be an excellent rescue platform.  I paddled back down to the accident site, loaded the victim onto the bow and did a quick little ferry across to the medical staff.  While the EMTs were attending to the victim, I paddled back and shuttled the other paddler and rescuers off the rock.

The pinned paddler suffered some very severe bruising to his ankle and lower leg but received no other significant injury.  The canoe however did not fare so well.  It stayed pinned for a few days until we were able to set up a z-drag and pull it off the rock.  It was a total loss, gunwales broken in 4 places, thwarts and seats broken out and the kevlar torn or punctured in several places. At the same time we were able to cut loose the 2 ropes left pinned by the fire department.

Be aggresive in your own self rescue and avoid the downstream side of a boat while swimming.

Rescue squads have the best intentions but when it comes to technical rescues, they may not be prepared and when it comes to swiftwater rescues, you shouldn’t count on 911 to solve your problem.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of the right people being in the right place at the right time.

 Next step–Fix the problemOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the publicity of the accident and concerns raised by paddlers about the placement of the pile of rocks in the center of the main current and the potential entrapment issues, the state agreed to make changes.  They showed up with this giant loader.  It took a few hours but we were able to reposition the rock pile towards river right, just out of the main flow.  It would have been much easier and we could have done a better job if the machine had a grappling arm  since were only able to push or pull the rocks and weren’t able to lift and reposition them  Since we made the changes, I’ve not heard of another major pin here.


ACA Surf Kayak Instructor Workshop

Nov. 2008

I haven’t been in the surf in a short boat since sometime in 2003 or 2004; I’ve never had a lesson nor paddled with any kayak surfer who knew what they were doing; I’ve only paddled one whitewater river in the last four years.  Here’s my plan: take the new ACA Surf Kayak Instructor Certification Workshop!

Now, most people would say “Dude, shouldn’t you, like, know what you’re doing before taking an instructor workshop?”  That would be a good question for most folks…but where’s the fun in that?  I’ve always had a single priority going into a certification workshop.  That is, whether or not I come out of the workshop with a piece of paper suitable for framing, I will come out a better coach.  My goal has always been to continue to improve as a coach, so if the stress of having to “pass” a certification is removed (or at least minimized) then it frees me to get the most possible out of the workshop. 

I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to coach, all I need to fill in is the what to coach for surf kayaking.   I was hoping that I could pick up enough info about the what to coach as the workshop progressed.  It sort of worked out but I wasn’t able to incorporate the new material into my personal paddling quickly enough to pass any of the higher levels.

This particular workshop was the last of the pilot programs for ACA Surf Instructors.  It was a combined Instructor Development Workshop (IDW) and Instructor Certification Exam (ICE) called an Instructor Certification Workshop (ICW).  This has been the first combined course that I’ve attended and would now be disinclined to participate in another combined course.

The course was overseen by Ben Lawry who was also overseeing two Instructor Trainer Candidates, Nigel Law of Savannah Canoe & Kayak and Chuck Conley from Virginia Beach.  You can read Nigel’s blog posting about the workshop and see a pic of me trying to wiggle my fat butt into a tiny boat while everyone else waits, silently amused.

Day 1

We met for introductions at the Best Western Hotel right on the beach in Virginia Beach; it’s awesome to be able to paddle 100 yards from where you sleep. The day started with the usual introductions, expectations and inevitable paperwork.  The next phase was a way too long series of classroom topics that dragged on twice as long as planned. 

My personal view is that you should never do anything in the classroom that could be more effectively delivered on the water.  Afterall, the sport is called ‘paddling’ not ‘lecturing’.  As an example, one of the topics delivered by the ITs was ‘Teaching and Learning Styles’.  They had us each fill out a learning styles inventory to help us determine our dominant learning style.  This was fine but could also have been part of the pre-course work.  We next did a team teaching excercise of teaching someone how to put on a life jacket using 4 different styles (each pair of candidates delivered the session teaching towards a doer, thinker, watcher or feeler.  It was reasonably effective but could easily have been part of the on-water session and using a topic that was more reality based.  

Flatwater site

We drove to the flatwater site after lunch where a few candidates delivered one of their lecture topics. Then we were on the water for flatwater stroke sessions with each candidate teaching one or more strokes to the class.  I was asked to teach edging and rudders.  I screwed up my edging session a bit due to not thinking about when you would edge in the surf.  I fell back on my sea kayaking experience and had the students paddling in a circle while asking them to vary the amount of edge and direction of edge to discover how those two variables effect the radius of their turns.  What I missed was the fact that in surfing, you are mostly holding an edge while paddling in a straight line and the edge is used to hold the boat on the wave not so much to help it turn.  It would have been better to have the students experiment with edge while paddling in a straight line rather than a circle. It was at least a good example of a guided discovery style of instruction.

My second attempt at teaching strokes was the stern rudder and using it to run straight and turn on-side and off-side.  I got cut off by Ben after my demo, as I didn’t teach a progression, and jumped right into demoing all 3 maneuvers.  He then modelled the progression he would like to see.  I am in agreement with him about the progression and the fault is mine for teaching to the candidates and not at a beginner level.

This brings up a significant point.  All the ACA courses I’ve been on have never used ‘real’ students for the instructor candidates to teach.  The candidates are only teaching each other. I am absolutely convinced that using students that are actually at the level that the instructor will be teaching is vastly superior to teaching ‘fake’ skills to other candidates. I fully appreciate that it is much more difficult to run an assessment when you have to deal with the needs of the ‘guinea pig’ students, the instructor candidates and the IT candidates but in the end I am sure it is a more accurate assessment when the candidates are teaching actual students and not eachother.

Our last excercise of the day was to have our skills video taped for later review.  Ben set up his camera on a dock, looking down at the candidates and each person was filmed doing forward and reverse sweeps, rudders running straight and turning to both sides, low and high braces, forward paddling, stopping and finally rolling (for those that had a roll).

Day 2

Let the carnage begin!

We started the day with a few lecture topics and a review of the prior day’s video tape.  Ben played the video and focused on one particular stroke from each candidate, so by the end we had the high points of each of the strokes but missed out on much individual feedback for any of the other strokes.  I think it was just a time management decision to do it this way.  On the ACA Open Water ICE, we also did video analysis but all the candidates were filmed doing a particular stroke.  During the review session this allowed feedback for everyone’s stroke while the feedback for other candidates was still fresh in each person’s mind.  The downside, is that this took longer than the technique we used during the surf workshop.

The seas on day 1 were completely flat, no surf at all.  The forecast for day 2 was 2 foot swell at 3 seconds period, building to 4.5 feet and 5 seconds period by the end of the day.  winds were forecast for 16-22 MPH out of the northeast and the swell running from the north.  This presented our first challenge.  Having seas with such a short period (the 3 seconds in the forecast was very optimistic) and coming from the north meant that the waves were hitting the beach at about a 45 degree angle, one right after another.  Trying to launch into those conditions (even with only 2 feet of swell) was quite entertaining.   One thing I know from paddling through surf is that it is not a time to lolly gag.  There’s a reason the phrase ‘punching out’ exists; it’s not ‘drifting out’ or floating out’ or ‘casually paddling’ out.  If you’re going to get your butt off the beach, once you decide to go, you go and keep applying power until you’re clear of the break.  Many of the candidates learned this through repeated pummelings on the beach, sand in the hair, bashed by flying boats, the works.  Fun to watch, not so fun to do.  It seems that there is some sort of primordial impulse, that, when in a kayak, and a breaking wave is about to hit you full on, forces both hands straight up over your head while at the same time makes you yell wa-hoo! Unfortunately, this particular reflex really doesn’t serve one well as the consistent outcome of stopping paddling right as a large wall of water smacks into your chest is to get thrown backwards and pounded into the sand.

I paddled a ‘proper’ surf boat for most of the day and was a bit surprised at how twitchy it was.  I was in a Mega Maverick first and had a tough time doing a respectable forward stroke. It was forward, brace, half forward, brace, etc.  In the second part of the day, I switched to a different, higher volume surf boat and had a much easier time of it. I was also a little surprised at how slow both surf boats were.

We wrapped up the day at night with a quick dinner and then more lecture topics.  It was a long day with folks a bit sore from the beach pummellings and their minds fuzzy from the presentations.

Day 2

As if yesterday’s carnage wasn’t enough

The surf forecast was for 5 foot swell at 6 seconds period with the swell from the northeast, switching to east with winds northeast at 11-15 MPH. I decided to hop in my old Dagger Ultrafuge whitewater kayak for the day’s session rather than thrashing around in a surf boat. 

We did an interesting rescue excercise of a swimmer with a spinal injury.  The basic technique is to stabilize the head with your arms as you pull them from their life jacket straps.  I played the victim for a few tries and am quite sure that had I actually had any sort of spinal injury that I would, in all likelyhood, be completely paralyzed after being ‘rescued’.  The technique seemed fairly simple but turned out to be much more dufficult, trying to stabilize the head while at the same time walking backwards through the surf zone dragging 180lbs of dead weight.  This was something worth practicing some more, since if it ever needed to be used for real, the consequences of doing a poor job are rather significant.  Of course, I suppose it is a little like doing a poor job at CPR–it’s still better than nothing since the guy is already dead, if you do it wrong, he can’t get more dead.

There was still a fair bit of pummelling going on.  The waves were much cleaner compared with the day before but they were also a bigger.  At several times during the day I looked around and the only people still in/on their boats were me and the other guy that passed at level 2.  There was plenty of rescue practice to be had, fortunately, there were 3 candidates on sit-on-tops and 3 in decked boats, so the SOT folks did self rescues and the decked boaters just swam in after a wet exit.

We worked on bottom turns, diagonal runs, cut backs, peel offs, and made a stab at top turns.  The waves weren’t quite good enough to get a top turn (especially for those of us new to the technique.  I certainly had more fun using the boat that I was more familiar with but also reverted to some more whitewater style techniques that aren’t part of the surf style (flatspins and cartwheelie-type flopping about).

In the end, 2 of us passed as Surf Level 2 Instructors which allows us to teach sit-on-tops in up to 2 foot surf.  Five candidates were not yet at the standard and need further development. The other candidate who passed is also super close to getting his level 3 and if the conditions on the course had been just a little bit better, would probably have gotten it during the course.  I think the Level 3 is attainable for me with just a little more focused effort on the actual skills.  Level 3 can be assessed in either sit-on-top, whitewater, or surf boats; Level 4 is surf boat only.  I’m not sure if it makes sense for me to try for level 4 as a Great Lakes based paddler.  It seems that the surf boat is great when the surf conditions are ideal which I haven’t seen a whole lot of on the Great Lakes.  So, having a sea kayak and whitewater boat to surf seems to be sufficient for now.

The vast majority of my instructing time is in sea kayaks and my BCU Coach Level 4 and ACA Advanced Open Water certs allow me to teach in sea kayaks in any conditions I’m likely to be willing to take students into on the Great Lakes.  I’ll have to experiment a bit in 2009 to see if surfing short boats is better for cross training sea kayakers than having them surf in their sea kayaks.

All in all it was a very enlightening workshop.  I finally found out a good deal about what I didn’t know about kayak surfing as a separate discipline. For too long I had surf kayaked  with folks who knew as little as I did and there was just no one around to show me where the next level was.  Now I know where the next couple of levels are and will work towards getting there.  


My Wild Irish Rogue

County Donegal on the extreme northwest coast of Ireland offers some of the best sea kayaking and kayak surfing to be found anywhere. The convoluted coastline consists mostly of steep rocky cliffs punctuated by pale sandy beaches and protected harbors. No matter from what direction the wind is blowing there are always waves to surf or when the seas are really kicking up you can usually find a more sane place to play without being pummelled by the big stuff.

We awoke to horizontal rain and 45 degree air temperatures. What a perfect day for curling up by the turf fire or heading down to the pub for a game of darts and perhaps a pint or two of Guinness. No such luck. Since we had come all this way to paddle Ireland then paddle is what we were going to do. We hopped into the car and headed off to Tramore, our favorite surfing beach. As we drove past the harbor and fishing pier at Port-na-Blagh we had our first indication that the surf might be slightly more entertaining than usual. All the fishing boats in the harbor were still at their moorings. Out here where the fishermen live just slightly above the subsistence level, they fish 6 days a week no matter what the weather.

Tra more is a 3/4 mile long gently sloping beach which faces directly out towards the North Atlantic. Ordinarily, you can be assured of consistently long rides on regularly shaped waves so Tra mor was typically our first stop. As we drove along the approach road which parallels the beach, but on the other side of some large dunes, we began to hear a rumbling. We stopped the car thinking we had jarred something loose on the rough dirt road. As we got out to inspect the damage we realized there was nothing wrong with the car but there was something wrong on our beautiful surfing beach. The rain had stopped half an hour ago yet we needed to turn our windshield wipers on to clear away the salt spray blowing in from the waves as they vaporized onto the beach. Joe and I looked at the waves, looked at each other, looked at the waves and got back in the car.

Always have a “Plan B”. We drove to a mellow little beach called Marble Hill Strand. In order for the waves to reach Marble Hill they must bend around three different headlands, making it one of the most protected beaches in the area. We had been surfing 5-8 footers for a couple of hours and been getting really long rides because of the very gently sloping beach. I was paddling back out through the breakers and had almost reached the point where we had been catching the best waves. I was just about to accelerate to catch a wave when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed on the horizon, a pronounced bubble of water moving shoreward. I back paddled so as not to catch the wave building under me. I turned my boat with a quick sweep stroke to get a better view of this wave moving my way. My first thought was “Alright! Here comes the best wave of the day and I’m in the perfect place to catch it.” As it got closer it got bigger, much bigger. Now I’m thinking this is not the best wave of the day; this is the best wave of the day to kill somebody and I would prefer it not be me. The wave got steeper and taller the closer it got to me and I had to decide whether to try and catch it and hope I could somehow surf it to shore without damaging major body parts or to try and climb up the face of the wave before it exploded over me. After pondering the matter for most of a second I drove my blade into the water and sprinted straight towards the oncoming wall of water.

As I hit the base of the wave I realized just how big this monster was and how brilliant I was to not try and surf this one in. I planted my paddle into the base of the wave took four more strokes and just as my bow came even with the crest of the wave it started to break. Right then I wasn’t so sure I’ was going to make it. I have been back endered unintentionally once or twice by much smaller waves and have not particularly enjoyed the experience. The effect is something like sticking a garden hose up each nostril while someone spins you around on a tire swing while pelting you with pugil sticks. I generally try to avoid these situations whenever possible and now here was a wave that would turn those garden hoses into fire hoses and pugil sticks into baseball bats. With a surge of adreneline powered by the single thought “this is gonna hurt” I pulled up and over the frothing crest and for an instant sailed out into mid air. I made it! HA! I beat you, stupid wave, I am alive and sailing through the air. Yes! As I splatted down into the trough on the back face of the wave I expected to see nothing but the mild swells we had been surfing all morning. Instead, what confronted me I was not prepared for. That one rogue wave had a twin brother, a nastier, more evil twin and this wave heard me laughing at its little brother.

Now I’ve got a situation. I know there is absolutely no way I am going to paddle over this wave before it breaks and that whole back surfing scenario really is not very appealing. I could bail out of my boat and try and dive under the wave like I have seen some board surfers do or I could try to ride it out. I hate swimming out of my kayak so much I would rather risk it all and at my funeral have them say “At least he didn’t swim”. I gave a quick sweep stroke to turn the boat parallel to the face of the wave as the wave approached from the side I leaned into it with my body and my boat as I stabbed the paddle into the wave for support. The wave curled over my head, way over my head and as I sat there moderately terrified and presumably about to die I thought Wow! This is really cool, not many kayakers actually get to see inside the tube of a wave”. The side of the wave I was bracing on was incredibly smooth and transluscent on the shoreside was total chaos white foam and a whole lot of noise. Here I am in my itty bitty kayak perched between a boiling cauldron of pain and this beautifully serene wall of calm. I will myself towards the calm and the wave wills me towards the mash zone, the waves will was stronger than my own and as the wave collapsed around me I sucked in my last lungful of air.

I fully expected to be getting spun around and around by the swirling water but I had no sensation of turning over or even being upside down. I opened my eyes a little bit to try and discern which way was up and much to my surprise the light was still coming from over my head. Somehow I was still pointed in the right direction (lungs up). Still inside the waves frothy clutches, my air supply was dwindling rapidly. My body forced me to exhale. I remembered reading somewhere about a paddler who was stuck in a not dissimilar situation and that she was able to breath by gritting her teeth and sucking in the froth, breathing the air trapped in the froth then spitting out the water. I didn’t really believe it when I read it but I didn’t have a better plan so I bent my face forward opened my lips gritted my teeth and sure enough Air! After the third or forth suck I’m beginning to wonder about popping out of this froth and getting a real lung full. No sooner had the thought/wish crossed my mind than like the submarine Nautilus in the opening sequence of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I exploded free to the surface.

I was still being flung towards shore by a still huge and powerful wave but at least I was mostly in the air.  I knew that if I hung onto my side surfing position that the wave’s energy would begin to dissipate and I could pull through to the back of the wave and be free of its grip. Just as the wave drove me in past my paddling partner I popped off the back face to end my ordeal. With eyes bulging and a look of genuine concern he asked “Are you O.K.?” I said “Well, I believe all my appendages are still attached and I don’t think I’m spurting blood anywhere but I might need to drain the pee from my drysuit. Can we go to the pub now?”

Dragging our boats up the beach I said In my best Elmer Fudd voice “That was verwy verwy scarwy”.

Death Avoidance Strategies for Paddlers

We as kayakers are participating in an assumed risk sport; which is to say that there are risks inherent in the activity. These risks can be minimized by prudent decision making, but can never be eliminated. Much like skiing, or mountain biking, participants need to accept the fact that someone may get injured or killed, we each hope it won’t be us, or someone we know. There are a few ways to manage these risks.

Here’s a scenario:

You and 2 friends are meeting in the morning for a 10 mile round trip out to an island (1 mile open water crossing). The forecast is for on-shore winds at 10 knots. The water temp is 63 degrees. On the way to the launch site one friend calls on the cell to say he can’t make it. You arrive at the launch and note that the winds are now blowing off shore and it feels like a bit more than 10 knots.

So even before you get on the water you’ve got a red flag for having the group drop to 2; a red flag for offshore winds, and a red flag for cold water (haven’t bought your drysuit yet) Everyone is going to have a different comfort level for how many red flags they are willing to accept before changing plans. For me 1 red flag I’ll make a mental note, 2 red flags and I’m starting to think about other options, at 3 red flags I am seriously considering plan B. If another red flag pops up then I am almost certainly changing plans.

What makes those red flags:

Less than 3 paddlers–if someone needs help your options are very limited–you might be able to tow a paddler but not if they are incapacitated and need to be stabilized. There were 2 recent incidents each involving a pair of paddlers where one person was unable to stay upright in their boat. The conditions in each case were such that a contact tow was not feasible and use of a towline would only work if the victim could be stabilized. One incident resulted in a fatality as the victim succumbed to hypothermia; the second duo averted a more negative outcome when another paddler came to their aid.

Offshore winds–If you are unable to paddle or wet exit and get separated from your boat and have to swim, getting back to shore against the wind is at best extremely difficult and potentially impossible. Furthermore the greater the distance from shore you are, the larger and more challenging the conditions will become. So, if you have an incident in offshore winds, it will only get worse as you drift.

Cold water–Is 63 degrees cold? How about 75, 85? (anything less than 98.6 starts the decline into hypothermia) It all comes down to how you’re dressed and how long you may be in the water.

The Route–Given the plan for the 1 mile open water crossing to the island you have the potential of being out of your boat a half mile from land.Put on a wetsuit or drysuit and try swimming a few laps at a pool and see what the likelihood of swimming a half mile is going to be.

The prudent response to these red flags would be to modify the route to explore the coast. That still leaves a couple of flags for only the 2 of you and the water still might be a bit chilly but you’ve radically reduced the chances that something is going to go wrong.

One key is always asking the “What If?” questions. What if we capsize 100 ft from shore, or a half mile from shore? What if the wind picks up to 25 while we’re on the island? What if I need to be towed? It pays to keep your mind sharp while paddling and always be on the lookout for potential problems and to be building a mental list of possible responses.

The level of risk you’re willing to accept is very much a personal decision. I once ran an instructor training program in whitewater. We got out of our boats to scout a rapid that I had run many times before. We looked at possible routes and pointed out the nasty hole near the bottom where a paddler really didn’t want to be. I asked the group what they felt their chances were of making it through the rapid successfully and based on those chances would they choose to run it. One person said they felt they had a 50/50 chance of making it and wanted to run it. I suggested that for me I need to be 98-99% sure I’m going to make it based on the consequences of not making the line (in this case having a bad ride in a big hole). I vetoed the 50/50 shot and we all walked the rapid. While some paddlers are content with marginal odds they still must take into consideration the consequences of being wrong.

You will likely never regret making the conservative decision. You may very well regret ignoring all those red flags. In almost every accident report I’ve ever read there is a progression of events and rarely a single factor that led to the incident. Paying attention to a series of small, seemingly unrelated issues, could very well keep you from becoming a statistic.