Friday, January 19, 2007

Wild Man

Walking back from a failed launch this morning, a friend spied me and called out “maniac!” It was a joke—and a compliment—but it is also something I get quite frequently from members of my paddle group and my social circle.
I walked out this morning to a beautiful day. There had been a light snowfall overnight, so the world was muffled and clean. The air was cold, still, and fresh, and the tide was just coming up on full flood in another hour. So there was the end of the flood, the slack, and the beginning of the ebb before the currents really got going. The tide tables confirmed that I should have close to two hours, so it looked like conditions where right for a lovely early morning paddle. So I geared up, slung my boat over my shoulder and headed for the beach.
In all it took what, maybe half an hour?, to get set up and ready to paddle. But when I put my boat down and looked out over the bay again, the Chain Islets had disappeared. And then their warning beacon disappeared. Slowly but surely the mouth of the bay faded away. “But, but, but…” my brain kept sputtering, “I want to go paddling!” I stood there a few minutes more, trying to make it all right, trying to convince myself that it would be okay to launch, but when the lights at the yacht club faded away behind the snow squall, I could only sigh in resignation, pick up my boat, and head back to the house.
Had I been on the water when the squall blew in, would I have been okay? Yes, I really think so. I had charts, compass and an excellent knowledge of the waters I would have been paddling. I have a safety signal light on the boat, I was definitely dressed for the occasion, and had my dunk bag with me. With what I had, I would have been fine adrift for a day, or stranded overnight. I had told a couple of people that I was going out, and had not indicated that t would be anything but a normal length paddle, so eventually I would have been missed. I’m not saying that I was safe as houses, but I certainly felt my preparations fell into the category of reasonable.
To top it off, I made the correct initial decision; I didn’t launch. Conditions had changed, for me, safety had been compromised, and I changed my mind. None of this qualifies me for “wild man” status.
This isn’t the first time I’ve changed my mind, taken altered condition into account, paid attention and cancelled a paddle. Sometimes before launching, sometimes during a paddle, but I am willing to consider the calculus of risk, skill, conditions and sense and make decisions accordingly.
There have been times, most in the first few months of paddling, where a post-experience review has indicated that a different course of action may have been desirable. Or, more precisely, wrung out my clothes, towelled off shivering, and said to myself “Well Christ, that was stupid!” Mostly I’ve been alone on those occasions, and had no one to blame but myself.
Paula (my life and paddle partner) and I started paddling in the late spring, which meant that the nicest days were ahead of us. I was excited by something new, something different, and something more physical coming into my life. I had been looking for a change, what with being in the whole mid-life period, the kids having both moved out, and leaving the farm. I’d stayed for a couple of months in Nelson with a friend, and had pushed my personal limits with biking (Nelson is built on the side of a mountain and along a lake, so it is one of the most beautiful cities for biking. Long stretches of rolling highway along the lake, serious slopes everywhere else), and I was open to new ideas when Paula said she wanted to get back into paddle sports. Our first trip around Elk Lake convinced us that this was a Good Thing To Do, and the purchase of a boat a week or so later seemed preordained.
July was difficult, with only one boat and two people. But by August, I’d begun going off on my own. We were working different times, so it wasn’t so much opportunity to go paddling alone, as it was feeling guilty at having gone paddling without Paula having the same chances I had. I paddled up and down beaches with no particular destination in mind, just getting used to the boat and the water. As is usual, when we get interested in something, both Paula and I reach for a book to start learning about whatever it is. So the library was quickly stripped and we both read book after book about where to paddle. This wasn’t so good. We weren’t planing on going anywhere. We just wanted to paddle our local waters. We read about paddle gear. Also not very good. Other than stoking the consumerist flame, what did we need in order to paddle? A boat. Check. And a paddle. Check. And a PFD. Uhm….. At first we didn’t have a proper PFD. What we had was a water-skier’s float belt borrowed from my brother-in-law. I don’t think Transport Canada even approves these as PFDs anymore (if ever).
But it was sufficient to get us out on the water. Well, Transport Canada has a few other items they want you to have, and we eventually acquired the minimums and then beyond. But ultimately, this is the point of all gear: to get you out on the water. And I got out on the water; from mid-August to mid-September, I was on the water twenty times in thirty days. After that, I backed off a bit, but was still getting out twice or more a week.
As committed as I was to getting out on the water, I didn’t have the necessary breadth of experience to make sensible decisions about what was and what wasn’t a good idea at the time. I paddled to gain experience—experience that would have served to tell me when not to paddle.
I remember launching off of Canada’s smallest federal wharf, Turgoose Point public wharf, one afternoon. The day was overcast and there was a bit of wind, but I was launching into Saanichton Bay, a fairly sheltered bit of water. The water was choppy, but the waves hitting the dock weren’t too bad. Certainly not anything I hadn’t paddled before. By this time I had an old front-zip vest-style PFD we’d picked up for a couple of bucks at a second-hand store. I also had a half-skirt that kept much of the water off your legs as you paddled, but left half the cockpit open to the elements. So with this and a few other items, I set off for to explore the bay.
As I pulled up to the point off the southern end of the bay, I realized that this was a continuation of Island View Beach, which I’d paddled once or twice before. John (a friend and paddle partner) and I had paddled most of the way north along Island View to near Cordova Spit, and then cut across Cordova Channel to make it over to James Island . James was even closer here (about a kilometre away), and as I looked over the short stretch of the channel to the island, I thought that it would make a nice end to the paddle to be able to say “oh yes, I made it over to James again.”
What I wasn’t thinking about was the outflow tide and opposing wind. I came out from the protection of the point and started across the channel, and the further I went, the more the current picked up and the more unsheltered from the wind it became. By the time I was a third or half way over, the waves were approaching three quarters of a metre in height and I had pretty much reached the limits of my skills.
The problem was, I couldn’t turn around. Not that I was physically unable, but rather that it was too much of a risk. First, I would face, for a short time, a quartering sea and the risk of being swamped. This was long before my modifications to the Pamlico, so swamping was a very serious matter. I was also insufficiently dressed for overturning, and worst of all, running with the sea was much worse than facing into it. Facing the waves, or moving at an angle across them, was tough paddling, but not impossible paddling. Occasionally the bow would dig in and the kayak would ship a bit of water, but nothing really serious. Running in front of the waves was much worse. At an angle to the direction the waves were running, waves would regularly break over the back of the kayak and dump much larger amounts of water into the cockpit. Swamping was a very real possibility in this position.
What I had to do was the hard thing; to paddle across the channel and get into the shallower and more protected water near James. Here I could (and did) pull up on the shore, empty the boat, and then make my way back across the channel in much the same orientation I had while paddling over. With short tacks with the waves, and longer ones against, I could minimize the worst of the waves breaking over the back of the boat, and (hopefully) stay afloat all the way back to shore. And no risky turning of the kayak.
These days, this wouldn’t even be an issue (full skirt, more seaworthy kayak, better skills), but that day, that was the decision I made, and I still think it was the best decision at that point in the trip. To not have pulled out in the channel would have been smarter, but it was an intelligence I didn’t have yet. It took trips and decisions like this to generate the intelligence to not make trips like this, if you get my drift.
On the leg back across the channel, by far the more strenuous of the two, I found myself laughing and finally singing. After a few more experiences of this nature, it was Dennis who finally pointed out that you could tell how much trouble we were in by how much I was laughing. The more fraught the situation, the more I changed from chuckles to guffaws. If I was singing, you could figure that certain doom wasn’t more than a few feet behind me. This unconscious habit became so commonly known, that it became a running joke in our paddle group. It even became a shorthand to describe paddle conditions; I once said that paddling back from the Toronto Islands, I may have chuckled once or twice, but certainly didn’t get to laughter. Everyone understood what I meant….
I made it back to Saanichton Bay without any major (read “life-threatening”) problems. But it was one of those times when I did end up wringing out my clothes, towelling off, and saying “Well Christ, that was stupid!”
But it is experiences like this that train you to recognize your limits, your skill levels, and your overall abilities. Having run in front of waves built by wind and current, I can more easily recognize simple wind chop, ignore it, and focus on the underlying state of the ocean. Wind chop can be annoying, but it’s not much more than that. Certainly it’s not something to get bent out of shape about.
On the other hand, recognition of an inflow tide will remind you to watch for currents, standing waves, waves built by an opposing wind, and other standard phenomena. Wind chop may disguise underlying conditions, and it is those underlying conditions that will cause you trouble. So when the underlying conditions are fairly mellow, I am going to ignore the chop and head out into the more interesting places to paddle.
This comes from experience. Experience comes from trial and error. Trial and error comes from exposure. If you aren’t out on the water, you will never get any better. And if you don’t pay attention when you are out on the water, you really won’t get any better as a paddler either.
I don’t insist that you have life-threatening experiences to make you a better paddler. But you do have to push your limits out as you develop your skills in order to continue improving. Paddling a hundred metres off shore can be extended to a hundred and fifty. A five hundred metre jump between islands can become a kilometre.
More formal training helps as well. John and I took a class in basic strokes and braces one evening. When it became clear to the instructor that we were paddling beyond our skill levels, he quickly expanded the lesson to include basic assisted recovery. This was terrific; we would have managed something resembling a recovery had the situation arisen, but now we had a formal, mutually-agreed-on pattern for a recovery. Something we could practise.
The first opportunity for practise came much quicker than expected. At the end of the class, we raced out into the lake and turned around to race back. I managed my turn first, and then pivoted to check on John. This was my undoing; I still don’t exactly know why, but as John finished his turn, I was very suddenly upside down. I wear glasses, and as I hung there, upside down, thinking “well, that’s not what I expected,” I could feel my glasses suddenly shift and then quickly fall away into the black water. I’ve lost or broken a lot of glasses since grade school, so I knew what was happening. I could visualize exactly how they were drifting away from me, and, finally letting go of my paddle, I thrust my hand out to where they should be, caught them, and then performed my wet exit.
What seemed like a long time to me under the water was considerably less time above water. John finished his turn, looked up to see me, and that’s when my head came above water and my first words were “I got them!” He didn’t get it at first, as he was still processing the fact that my kayak was unexpectedly upside down.
We did exactly what we had been trained to do by the instructor; an assisted recovery. Partially empty the cockpit of water, right and support the kayak, re-seat the paddler, pump out, reseal, continue paddling. We got back to the beach and the first question was “Was that practise or an accident?” When I had to confess that it had been an accident, it was announced that we had both passed the course. Couldn’t have written a better final exam. But the real examination took place a few weeks later.
Five paddled out that day. Only two came back. Well, the other three were still out paddling, so they came back later.
Baynes Channel is what turns the trip from Cadboro Bay to the Chatham Islands from a doddle, a beginners paddle, into an intermediate paddle. When the tides are pulling the ocean in and out of the space between Vancouver Island and the Mainland, the currents in Baynes can run up to six knots, pulling an enormous amount of water through an opening that”s maybe twelve hundred metres across. Even without winds, this creates standing waves, vortexes, and upwellings that can make paddling across it a most interesting experience. Add wind, and you often feel like the waves are coming at you from three different directions simultaneously. And Dennis and I had paddled across Baynes less than twelve weeks after I’d started paddling, knowing none of this.
Neither Dennis nor I had been back since, but it was still a notch on our kayaks that we’d made it over and no one else in the paddle group had. This mid-February, our paddle had started out cold but bright, and it hadn’t taken me long to stop and take off a layer of fleece. We launched from Cadboro Bay and headed out around Flower Islet and over to Cadboro Point, just taking our time and looking about. The current in Baynes Channel was running and the outflow current and the wind were interacting to produce some moderate chop moving in all directions, which John, Dennis and I felt was perfect for playing around in. Paula and Louise were less interested in being bounced around and being splashed, so they hung back out of the current.
The three of us ended up a hundred metres or more away from them, and we looked across at Chatham, just laying there in the sun, and I thought about the condition of the water, the beauty of the day, and said “Anybody want to go over?” Dennis, I knew from past experience, may have a quiet and self-effacing exterior, but he has the heart of a tiger (he keeps it bottled in formaldehyde on his mantle), so really, the deciding factor here was John. I think John hates competition because he finds himself powerless to resist it. Dennis and I had made it over to Chatham, so of course John was up for it.
We were not ready for the trip. I was paddling the Pamlico with its half-skirt and no flotation. John was in an eleven-foot Bayou that was equally ill-suited to the trip—but at least he had a full touring skirt. And Dennis was paddling his Advanced Elements inflatable. Of the three boats, his was probably the best choice for uncertain waters. Quite wide, the boat has a very high initial stability, making it quite difficult to flip. And as long as it doesn’t spring a leak, you really can’t sink it.
But ready or not, we’d judged the conditions as acceptable, and were decided. Dennis pulled out his cell phone and we called the rest of the group—both of whom were happily watching shorebirds and being watched by seals—and let them know what we were doing. And we set off.
Paddling with a group is difficult. You cannot just go charging off in all directions, no matter how much you want to (well, you can. But it’s very bad manners and soon you find you don’t have a paddle group). Paddle groups must paddle to the level of the least skilled member, which is really difficult in a testosterone-fuelled environment. Every guy figures his member has way more experience than the other guy’s, so oneupmanship is inevitable. But among the three of us, our skill levels were quite similar, so for any one of us to propose a challenge, it was not certain doom for another to accept it. My assessment, for example, of the skills/conditions equation for crossing Baynes and deciding to go, probably meant that John and Dennis would also be able to manage the crossing. As our skill levels are similar, so too are our risk levels (personal risk-tolerance aside).
And the crossing, while challenging at our skill-level, was not particularly difficult. We experienced some of the interesting features of Baynes Passage, like the moments when the chop or waves seem to be coming from three directions simultaneously, but we stayed reasonably close together, took our time, and soon found ourselves at the north end of the islands.
At the north end of Chatham is Stongtide Islet, a well-named chunk of rock around which sweeps a powerful current during the inflow and outflow phases of the tides. During the inflow, the water seems to break on the northern end of the islet, with the majority flowing into the channel between the islands, and the other being forced west into Baynes Passage. This portion of the water ends up looking like a strong river flow, with standing waves and a lot of noise. The other portion of the water runs between the Chatham islands, exiting at the south into Plumper Passage. But a portion of this flow is caught by a rock formation and forced into a side channel that bends back around a full 180°before bending west again to exit on the south end of Strongtide Islet before being pulled into Baynes Passage. And this was the channel we found and paddled into.
We paddled close to the east side of the channel, as the current on the middle was a bit to strong for our wimpy selves. When we approached the point where this side channel met the main channel between the islands, the water was ripping through the entrance with the power of a river rapids. I was the first to try and make the run against the current into the main channel.
At first I tried a straight-on, hard-paddling run into the current. Not only could I not hold my ground against the water, but very quickly found myself twenty or thirty metres behind Dennis and John. Their laughter and mocking comments cut like a flensing knife through the belly fat of a seal. Well, not really, but they did seem to find the whole thing pretty funny….
Up until Dennis made his move. His thought was to sneak up on the entrance as much as possible, dart across the current to the lee of a rock, and then make his assault from there. It went pretty much as planned right up until he tried he darting across part, and he ended up being swept back until he was behind me. John was next, and his efforts pretty much duplicated both Dennis’ and mine.
It was pretty clear that there was no way we were about to paddle through the opening. But rather than simply turn back, we decided that this seemed to be a bit of fun. After all, these were not conditions that we faced on our regular paddles; rather this was something new and different and, therefore, fun.
The edges of the current were pretty clearly defined, so you could paddle near the edge up until you were forced into the current by the geology of the passage. Then the current would firmly grab you and fling you back the direction you’d come from. Dennis, in his inflatable, was almost immune from the effects that the current had on both John and my boats; when turning into the current, the water would strike the side of the boat with such force that it would be pulled downwards quite sharply. Dennis was just spun, and zipped along until he could pull himself out of the current.
I moved into a backwater that allowed me to move quite close to the narrowest part of the opening in the rocks, and I was setting up to jump into the current while John was a bit further back setting up to do the same thing. And Dennis had just pulled himself out of the current and was paddling back to where we were. I pulled into the current and tipped, recovered, spun, and saw John entering the current. John turned into the current and tipped sideways quite sharply. Sharply enough that he promptly braced to remain upright. A low brace, where your hands and arms remain in close to their regular paddling position, means twisting the paddle 90° and using the flat of the blade to push on the water. John did this and the current promptly grabbed the paddle and shoved it under his boat. It happened so fast that I had to reconstruct the events by going back through the movie in my head five minutes later. John was side-on to the main force of the current. His boat tipped sideways towards the current. He braced, the paddle was caught by the water and forced under the upstream side of his boat. And so quickly that he didn’t have time to let go of his paddle, he was upside down in mid-February in the Pacific Ocean. I was already end-on to the current and was sweeping down towards him as he flipped, and we had just been through the lesson on recovery, so I was pretty confident that we both knew what to do. While John realized he was upside down, focused, and then popped his spray skirt off and performed a wet exit, I zipped in to assist his recovery. As I pulled up next to his boat, John splashed to the surface. Things had slowed so much for me that, although it had been less than thirty seconds between his flip and appearing on the surface, I was already wondering if he was having problems underwater, and whether I would have to go in and get him. But for John, things were happening much faster. By the time I got to him, he had wet-exited, come up to bump his head on the boat, gone back down, and then come up an arm’s length away from the boat.
John shook his head and swore while reaching for his boat and grabbing on to it. After all, even though he was the only person in our paddle group wearing neoprene that day, he still had taken an unexpected plunge into water that was only between seven and nine degrees Celsius. He looked up and saw me practically on top of him and the first words out of his mouth were “At least mine stayed on!” And sure enough, his sunglasses were firmly in place.
As Dennis paddled up, we let him know that things were under control, and began to position the boats for a T-recovery. In this recovery, one boat is pulled up over the other in a “T” and the water is drained from the cockpit before the boat is flipped back upright and the paddler re-enters it. This was going to be interesting in that the cockpits of both John and my boats were as long as the boats themselves. Neither boat had bulkheads installed to provide watertight flotation compartments and limit the amount of water that could be taken on. And, as both boats had been purchased second-hand, were unaware either that flotation bags were available to make up for this shortcoming, or that we needed them.
As we arranged ourselves and got the bow of John’s boat over my own, suddenly John said “Never mind.” As we had been preparing for our masterful assisted recovery, the current had been pushing us along until all of a sudden John was standing on the bottom of the channel and we were near one of the islets. Dennis and I beached our boats and John simply walked his in.
John got out of his wet shirt and put on my fleece pullover that I’d removed much earlier in the paddle. Soon he was warm enough to resume paddling, and we called the rest of our party, who were by now safely back on dry land and talking about where we would all be going for coffee after the three of us returned. We pulled back out into the current and then into Baynes Channel and back to Cadboro Bay. The return trip was taken with a little more care and attention than the trip over, and we agreed that, as John said, paddling back in another man’s clothes; “What happens on Brokeback Island, stays on Brokeback Island.” Yeah, like that was actually going to happen….
But none of this was a mistake. It’s only a mistake if someone dies, otherwise it’s a “learnable moment,” a decision that more experience would have shown to be faulty, or even an amusing anecdote. The next week when the group got back together to paddle, we all had dry bags with a dunk kit. Soon after, I had installed the bulkhead behind my seat, and flotation in the front end of my boat. Paula’s new boat had waterproof compartments fore and aft, and a longer waterline, making it a true sea kayak. And a few months later, both John and Louise had brand new Delta sea kayaks, and the paddle group was meeting in the local pool to practise wet exits and both solo and assisted recoveries.
Certainly some of these responses to the incident could have happened before John went over. But once again we didn’t know we needed to know these things until we had been through the experience. After all, we never paddled alone, and we never paddled far from shore—until we did. We never paddled in anything other than bathtub conditions—until we did. And we never had any problems—until we did.
The theory of risk homoeostasis suggests that we all have inherent levels of tolerable risk. We will go so far and no farther, our comfort zone is pre-set. But it also suggests that the more we develop our skills and abilities, the more risk we are willing to assume and so the balance between the level of risk and our skills remains the same. So, with better equipment and a better skill set, I quite cheerfully approach conditions that were out of my comfort zone a year or more ago. The waves in Cordova Channel? A regular day’s paddle now. The currents in Baynes Channel and around Chatham and Discovery? Old friends now. The risks I now assume are an order of magnitude beyond what I would have considered when I first started paddling. But then again, so are my skills and equipment.

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