Thursday, January 16, 2014

New Tip for Urban Kayakers

This tip we owe to four-time Olympic athlete Simon Whitfield. It's a kayaking tip for paddlers in urban settings -- and it's not necessary to be an Olympian to make use of this tip, but if you are then you probably should... if that makes sense. I'll explain the tip in due course.

This photo is borrowed from Whitfield's twitter and the CBC!
Y'see, Whitfield takes advantage of the mild winters here in Victoria to paddle year-round, as many of us do. Now, "mild" is a relative term. Weather here is mild when compared with, say, Winnipeg -- which has had weather reports so far this January including daily high temperatures lower than the weather reports from the Curiosity rover on Mars (as you can read here and here). Winter in Victoria can and does mean that there are many days above freezing in temperature, with little wind and even some sunshine. But let's face it: If you're a winter paddler in Victoria, you take your kayak out in the rain and even some wind.

Yes, I know whereof I speak. The nice thing about paddling in cool weather and rain is that I don't feel hot inside my shortie wetsuit like I do in summer. Oh, and the beach is less crowded, as the only people along the shore are willing to cope with a little drizzle. But it's those people who are behind the New Tip for Urban Kayakers.

And that tip is: keep some of your attention on whoever is watching you. Now, for one thing, that means having a ground crew who knows you are on the water and where and when to expect you back. But that part of the tip isn't new. The new part is being aware that other people can see you.
Can you see Whitfield? He's a black dot in his friend's photo, borrowed from Twitter.
Being seen is a great thing! It means that our kayaks or paddleboards or canoes are less likely to be run down by someone in a powerboat zooming along. It also means that people onshore can participate vicariously in our enjoyment of the water, and that's a great thing for an admiring child or a 98-year-old with a hip replacement. And another positive result of being seen is that if a paddler is seen in trouble, a concerned citizen can call for help.

Concerned citizens can also call for help even when a paddler isn't in trouble, as Simon Whitfield learned on Monday afternoon. You can read the local paper's article about the rescue that wasn't needed, and another article is here on the CBC's website. Whitfield had a visit from the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue station 33 which scrambled from Oak Bay Marina to find him on his paddleboard near Trial Island.

The photo above of Whitfield on his paddleboard was a selfie, taken on Monday afternoon. You can see part of Trial Island behind him, and the fact that he's wearing a proper drysuit. What you can't see is the Search and Rescue zodiac boat coming up on him at that moment for a friendly meeting on the waves. After confirming that Whitfield had a life jacket and was tethered to his paddleboard, the rescue crew suggested that he should also carry a VHF radio with the Marine band. That way, next time someone calls for him to be rescued (and it looks like it could indeed happen again because this is his usual place to paddle) Whitfield can respond to the broadcast to confirm whether he needs rescue.

The photo also shows part of why Whitfield didn't know anyone was worried about him: he's wearing earbuds. Yup, this Olympian triathlete was out in gale force winds playing in the waves of Enterprise Channel, and needed something to occupy his attention. So he was listening to an audiobook.

If you're not a local paddler, I'll put those terms into perspective. You can read about gale force winds here. Now, I routinely go on the water during a small craft warning, but only inside Cadboro Bay and I stick close to the beach in case I tumble. The only time I'm on the water during gale force winds is when a gale blows in while I'm paddling back to the beach... happens about once a year. By the way, looking at the photo taken on Monday afternoon by Whitfield's friend, it wasn't blowing a gale, just breezy as the waves aren't much bigger than he is.

You can read about Enterprise Channel between the Trial Islands and the Victoria city shoreline here, on our blog's post about John and Louise having a lesson on Navigating Currents. The current gets pretty strong here on both a flood tide and an ebb tide. Let's just say that the First Nations name for this channel in Leukwengen dialect of Coast Salish translates roughly as "Nobody talk now while we're paddling through this channel!"

As for the earbuds and audiobook, well... As a half-deaf paddler, I can report that it can be hard to hear exactly what someone on shore might be shouting. But it is worth looking over at the shore from time to time when a random shout carries across the water. So our New Tip for Urban Kayakers is finally: put away the earbuds and recorded music or audiobooks, unless you've got plenty of attention to keep scanning the shoreline for distressed onlookers waving at you.

I'm all in favour of audiobooks. There are loads of 'em at the public library that you can borrow!


  1. In a racing kayak, it is next to impossible to let go of your paddle in rough water and safely use a radio. If you are in the water, your efforts are directed to re mounting if using a ski which will not flood.

  2. Yup! Carrying a marine radio, turned on and clipped to one's life jacket, is a good idea for paddlers who can hear the radio, and answer a broadcast call. Whitfield could have answered to say that he was the only paddleboarder in sight and that he was okay.
    I have a hearing loss, and to me marine band VHF radio sounds are garbled squawking. My paddle partner carries a radio, not me.

    A VHF radio can be used to call for help -- but only when a paddler can use at least one hand to push the buttons and hold the radio at head level. That's one reason why I carry a SPOT tracker clipped to the shoulder of my life jacket, turned on. I routinely push the OK button with one hand and without looking at the SPOT.
    If I couldn't push the HELP button to call my ground crew or the 911 button to call a rescue, well darn but I'd be having the kind of emergency that wouldn't be helped by someone arriving even ten minutes later.
    It's important for paddlers to remember that radios or SPOT trackers and other beacon alerts are not what saves our lives on the water. The radio or beacon can only call rescuers to find us. It's up to us to do the actions that could keep us alive. And by actions I mean good responses to emergencies as well as sensible planning that makes emergencies less likely.
    Emergencies happen. We at Kayak Yak do safety practise, and we don't take foolish chances, and we've still been caught in emergencies. There are several kinds of emergencies we will never set ourselves up to face. And so far, so good.