Deciding When Conditions Are Too Much

This past Sunday, I was coordinating a paddle for the R.I. Canoe / Kayak Association (RICKA) out of the U.R.I. Bay Campus in Narragansett, R.I. The Marine forecast was within the limits of what we call a Level 4 paddle (20kt wind max.). I had scouted out Bonnet Pt. around 9am, and it looked reasonable, with some smooth swells. The plan was to head south from the Bay Campus, to the mouth of the Narrow River. There were eight of us when we took off around 10:20am. We fought a not-too-strong headwind southward. As we approached the Cliffs of Bonnet, it started getting rougher. The furthur south we advanced, the larger the swells became. I stayed closest to the rocks, paddling my Tsunami double as a single, from the rear cockpit. I was beginning to wonder how the others were feeling about the conditions, and was looking for signs of anxiety or lack of appropriate manoevering for the conditions. Waves were now up to 9' high, and it was like paddling up mountains and down valleys. I was surprised that no one had said anything about feeling uncomfortable, but as the group leader, I was starting to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of having to rescue someone in such conditions, with just surf-battered rocks to land on. Shortly after we had passed Bonnet Rock, I blew my whistle, and gathered everyone together. I announced that we were well beyond the scope of a level 4 paddle due to the large, almost breaking swells, and it would get even worse if we headed further south, with possibly no safe landing point until Narrow River, and even there, a risky surf landing with large, possibly closing out waves. We turned around and headed back, but I kept a close watch on everyone, knowing that paddling in following seas takes more skill than paddling into it. Everyone made it back to calmer waters without incident, and we decided on a less dangerous trip out to Dutch Island, then to Ft Getty and beyond. My instincts proved to be correct when most of those in the group thanked me for turning back. Some were quite anxious, others were downright frightened. It amazed me that none of them had spoken up (and three were women, who usually are a lot more sensible than us macho men, always trying to prove something). I guess there is that thing about not wanting to spoil it for the rest, and sticking it out. Add to this the fact that I was not familiar with several of these paddlers as far as skill goes, but the fact that they all made it back indicates a good skill level. A couple of years ago, I went on a paddle in the same area, with similar conditions, except much higher winds (gale warning)...however, these people I knew were excellent, skillful paddlers, and I wasn't the leader. Even so, we landed at Bonnet Beach (it was off season) and had a shortened trip.<br />

I learned from this that you have to watch for signs of anxiety, and respond accordingly. I had previously thought that someone would speak up, but no one did this time, whether out of fear or out of not wanting to be the party pooper. At the time of my decision to turn back, I was not then certain that it was the right decision (I thought, maybe it’s just me, being a nervous Nellie leader), but as I spoke with the other paddlers, I knew I had made the correct decision.


Good Call
You made a wise and good decision. I’m glad to hear that the participating paddlers appreciated your decision.

When with equals or less experienced paddlers, I am keenly alert to conditions and conservative. However, I am often hesitant to voice unease when with more experienced paddlers, I appreciate your note for being alert to signs of anxiety.

Group Think
A group of just four of us managed to get into a spot that we got out of, but turned out to be a pretty imprudent read of the weather, launching from the same location and out around Dutch Island last year. When we debriefed later, it turned out that at least two of us had major concerns about the course we were taking but neither spoke up because of a sense that the others didn’t seem perturbed so maybe we were wrong.

To add to the red faces, these were conditions in which at least two of us would have normally checked better beforehand and called for a more sheltered route had we been in a location where we had a better understanding of how things tended to build. Naragansett Bay was new territory for all of us, and heck it seems so little and contained… (yeah, I know now, dumb)

A lot of it was that we were beat and not working with our best array of brain cells. But the group think/assumption factor, even with just four of us, was amazingly strong. With an larger group it would be even more powerful and make it harder for the first person to say that it was time to turn around.

I would imagine that, in hindsight, a number of people on that paddle would have been very happy to turn around well before you made the call, perhaps when the swells started going solidly over 6 feet. But probably every one of them was hesitant to be the first person to say it.

For what it’s worth, I doubt it’ll take that long again. Since Naragansett I’ve been a lot more willing to be the one who says it’s time to call it. Some of the paddlers in that group probably feel the same.

not having fun
Sometimes you look at someone in big conditions, and you simply see that they are no longer having fun, maybe with a determined, worried look. This is how they are saying they are over their heads. A paddler with experience and skills would probably have a big grin in identical conditions.


Comfort Factor / Enjoyment
I think I paddle with lots of folks who are not enjoying themselves unless they are scared to death, and nobody admits it until everybody is back on shore. People go on group trips to push their limits, safety in numbers. so yeah I have been there, scared to death but not wanting to be the first to back down. But on a few occaisons I have been the one to say … this is nuts.

I am going to go home feeling outclassed, or at least go paddling feeling outclassed. I have only been in seas over nine feet once and I was the person that Celia was talking about, (looking scared and hopefully determined). I was out with a class and had already asked/voiced/wondered about the conditions twice, LOL. I was told both times that we could turn back as a group any time but that we were within limits. All was well there were three competant instructors and we were never more than three quarters of a mile offshore.

Happy Paddling,


and here i had been thinking about-
going and surfing the incoming swell in the mouth of the bay…i had gotten beat in the surf at the beach in my surf boat…it was the next step!!!

Sometimes the less exprienced boaters are the ones that don’t want to call it quits because they don’t want to be seen as weak links.

You can kinda tell by the way they look at you that they want you to be the one to call it a day…

Growing up on Lake Superior, I know what can happen to people who are overconfident in their boating skills. A thrilling trip in those kinds of water conditions is not worth a life.

SPEAK UP for your own and others’ sake
Being a novice kayaker, I can only imagine what climbing a 9’ wave feels like, however, I’m no stranger to the great outdoors; in my opinion, you’ve made a sound decision.

What irritates me most, and I’ve noticed it on several occasions, is the fact that despite valid concerns and justified anxiety existing among participants, nobody says a word… Your group is not the only one.

I wish everyone venturing into the outdoors RECOGNIZED his or her personal limits (be it skill, strength of body and mind, etc.) and externall threats and ACTED on them, before these limits were reached or threats became a cause of a tragedy. It’s not only responsibility for one’s own safety that dictates it, but also a responsibility for the safety of others. After all, there are countless examples of rescuers paying the highest price for the victim’s lack of self awareness, improper risk assesment or perhaps… victim’s passive silence when realization comes they can’t continue for whatever reason.

Regardless of the cause of this silence, ambition, macho attitude, embarrassment, fear of being rudiculed, there is no room for it in the outdoors, especially when conditions call for a retreat; there’s no shame in it when health or lives are at stake.

Once again, I command you for your decision.


paddling my Tsunami double as a single,
in 9’ seas!!!

was i the only one who read that part?

dude you are indeed into extreme kayaking, yikes.

Spotted that too
Sounded pretty astounding to me as well, to the point that I truly didn’t know how to say it.

Don’t you know you’re supposed to be in a ski for that?

He Is The "Tsunami Dude…"
should see him surf breaking waves in his 14’ T-x15.

Tony, should have been on the beach with rob… :slight_smile: I am envious. I missed all the action this past weekend.


My Tsunami double…
paddled as a single, for me, is the most secure and seaworthy kayak I own, by FAR!!! I take it any time I lead a challenging group paddle because of its great rescue potential…you can immediately get a swimmer into the front cockpit. If my anxiety as a group leader hadn’t been a factor that day, I would have been having a great time.


Ego is a killer
Good call. I find it’s good to have regular conversations and ask how everybody is doing. Rescues in rough water are really tough and many times paddlers (like me) like to paddle along rocky shores where basically there would be no rescues. I also find the group unity breaks down realy fast when conditions get tough. People spread out and are fighting for their lives and usually have no clue how everyone else is doing.

Tom Berg (Maine BCU instructor) once said at a talk: Destination-itis will get you in trouble. Forget your plan and use your head.

On our recent Pukaskwa Coast/Lake Superior paddle my buddy and I had an agreement. Though we are experienced canoe trippers neither of us had paddled something as large as Superior before. Whenever either one of us had enough of the wind, waves or swells we could call for a break, the next pull out spot would be our refuge.

Several times it wasn’t the severity of conditions but the psycological strain that called for a breather. Usually after 15 or 20 minutes we were ready to hit it again.