by Michael Pardy
first appeared in Kayak Touring 2007

It started simply enough. Andrew and I were paddling with a group of eight inexperienced paddlers around a small headland, about 300 yards wide, into the shelter of a large bay. The wind was near 20 knots, and it was with us. The waves were one to two feet high, and there was a one-knot current around the headland. Everyone wore a wetsuit and had a change of clothes in a hatch.

Then things got complicated. Mark capsized. I got him to shore and back into his kayak. Unfortunately, by then the wind had pushed the others away from the beach toward the headland. As Mark and I tried to catch up with the rest of the group, he capsized again, this time farther away from shore. By the time I got him back into his kayak, the group was at least 300 yards away and moving fast with the wind and current. I clipped in a towline and tried to catch up with the group.
Andrew, my co-leader, was having problems of his own. As the group rounded the headland, Jennifer capsized. The group was unable to stay near Jennifer and Andrew because of the wind and current, and quickly drifted out beyond the headland into the mouth of the bay. Jennifer lost her paddle, so Andrew gave her a spare and towed her back toward the main group, who were trying to paddle into the lee of the headland.

I dropped Mark off at a sheltered beach in the lee of the headland and headed out to support Andrew and the other paddlers. Jason was having a hard time turning his kayak into the wind, so I towed him to the beach where Mark was. Andrew clipped his towline onto a second paddler and towed Jennifer and Simon back to the beach, followed by the rest of the group. Everyone was reunited at the beach less than 15 minutes after Mark's initial capsize.

In this scenario we had a number of issues to deal with: multiple and serial capsizes, rough water, the group drifting apart, and the challenge of communicating over a distance. Andrew and I relied on regular practice, pre-established guidelines and plans, and previous experiences to resolve the problems.

Andrew and I had previously agreed on a series of signals, which helped us to communicate quickly in a crisis. We were able to divide responsibilities and support each other, even though time constraints precluded having a conversation. I used a predetermined paddle signal to let Andrew know that I had Mark's first capsize under control. Andrew signaled back that he would look after the rest of the group, so I was able to concentrate on Mark without having to worry about the others. Once Jennifer capsized and the group drifted apart, I signaled to Andrew my intention to take Mark in to the beach. Andrew's response, a simple hand signal, confirmed that we were working toward the same outcome while he towed Jennifer to rejoin the main group.

Effective decision-making during a crisis can be a challenge.

Andrew and I had identified the small sheltered beach as an alternative landing spot just in case we had problems going around the headland. As a consequence, we were both working on a similar plan despite the fact that we didn't actually speak as events developed. Once I had dropped Mark off at the beach, I paddled out to the others and confirmed our plans. Andrew clipped Simon into his towline with Jennifer, I helped Jason, and we all paddled back to join Mark at the beach.

Reflecting on our situation, Andrew and I identified several lessons. The most important was that we had ignored previously established guidelines for staying off the water with less-experienced paddlers when winds exceeded 15 knots.
We felt comfortable with this decision because the distance around the point of land was relatively short, there were frequent landing options, the wind was pushing the group into a bay, and everyone was wearing immersion gear. Clearly our decision had unintended consequences; nevertheless, the terrain, equipment, and our skills and judgment provided a safety net that allowed us to recover quickly when the situation deteriorated.

Effective decision-making during a crisis can be a challenge. There are clear and potentially bad consequences if you take time deciding what to do. The group can get separated, other paddlers can capsize, equipment can drift, and injuries can go untreated. The stress caused by these consequences creates tunnel vision and makes rescuers nervous, which can precipitate additional problems and poor decisions.

We don't plan to have problems on the water, but they can and do arise. Responsible paddlers recognize the risky immediacy of kayaking. There is reward in being on the water—a sense of accomplishment, relaxation. There is also the risk of anxiety, fatigue, even injury.

Rescue skills are a lot like first-aid skills, seldom used but important. In a real emergency, we don't want to be second-guessing our skills and actions. Regular practice is an excellent way to ensure a timely and effective response when a problem does arise. A preseason skills tune-up can include practicing wet exits, a few self- and assisted rescues, towing, and nonverbal communication.
In addition to the simple work of practicing rescue skills, responsible paddlers should anticipate common and some not-so-common challenges and develop action plans. These action plans allow paddlers to make certain decisions in advance, away from the stress of a real emergency.

Reflection is equally important. After each trip, take a few minutes to review successful decisions and try to identify lessons for future trips. Reflecting on our experiences develops judgment, which prevents us from making the same mistakes over and over again.

There is no substitute for experience, skills, and judgment on the water. Problems will arise and we work to solve them. By practicing our rescue skills, developing simple protocols to direct our rescue efforts, and reflecting on our successes and challenges, we continue to grow as paddlers.

Michael Pardy is the executive director of the Trade Association of Paddlesports and a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada. When time allows, he can be found paddling the waters around his home in Victoria, B.C.