Margin of safety and training

This is a followup of an exchange between GuideBoatGuy and myself.

The trip below describes a high standard trip through a large tiderace in the San Juan Islands on one of the largest tidal exchanges of the year. This trip was intentionally planned that way and in so doing it narrow’s the margins for safety. Through deliberate training, in general - not specific to this trip, detailed trip planning and careful selection of companions this trip went off with relatively few hitches though with huge potential for catastrophe. Dave was fine and has nothing but positive things to say about this trip.

My point in the posting of it is to illustrate that deliberate training for catastrophe will minimize your exposure and mitigate it when catastrophe rears it’s ugly head.

The trip report is long but has generally been regarded as good reading.

Cattle Pass
Cattle Pass is always a trip I set up and paddle with careful planning and a little trepidation. It has two technical cruxes: the initial crossing of Rosario Strait at maximum ebb (3.2kn, in our case) and, of course Cattle Pass, which is a large and notorious tide race, especially during the summer Solstice period, which this trip was scheduled for.

It was posted as an SK V trip, which I judge as the appropriate level given the length of the crossings, the speed of the currents, the level of exposure and difficulties of rescues, should they be needed in crux locations (they were). One person, who had no interest in participating on the trip, sent me a link to the Sea Kayaker Magazine 2008 incident report/write up by Rob Gibbert. I kindly thanked the person who sent it to me and informed them that was the reason for the trip rating and the careful screening I would be subjecting participant to.

As the trip filled out I had one planning session with Kim, who had recently taken a SKILS class and was told she needed to work on her navigation and planning. I also asked the participants to send me their trip plan, which would let me know that they had some idea as to what they were getting into. Kim and Bill had both been to Cattle Pass before, Dave was the only on to whom this was a new experience, and what an experience it would be.

As the day of the trip approached I watched the weather, almost obsessively. The weather was just a mite sketchy and a few plan B’s were generated. But the morning of the launch was perfect, though cloudy. We assembled on the beach: Dave, Kim, Bill and I. My friend Rob ended up joining us. He’d turned up as we were getting ready. He was paddling the same route and figured some company never hurts. We left the beach and made the crossing ahead of schedule, which left some time to poke around in the rocks as we made our way west across the south end of Lopez Island.

At Iceberg Point State Park we had a nice long break and we went and explored the park a bit as we waited for the tide to build at Cattle Pass so we would get a maximum assist on our way north through San Juan Channel, which is the sloggiest part of this trip…usually. We caught a little sun and Bill and I walked out to the survey marker from the Treaty of 1909 that is used to help reference the US/Canada border. As we were preparing to launch, another of my old paddling compadres paddled up, Wade. He was on his own and was happy to meet a few other paddlers and to reconnect with me. Alas, we left him standing on the beach eating a sandwich waving goodbye and wishing us good luck.

We approached Whale Rocks and the water was moving through them in a few different directions with some nice standing waves. This seemed like a good place to limber up so we all took a few turns through them, surfed some waves and moved on, everyone feeling pretty good.

Now we’re being inexorably drawn into Cattle Pass and there is no escape. The waves off of Davis Point are 4’-5’. Dave looks a bit nervous. Kim looks a bit nervous. I remind them that they’ve both taken surfing classes and have both participated in my classes in the Room of Doom in Deception Pass. They loosen up a bit. Rob is surfing a juicy wave and, as I’m setting up, I hear Bill yell “Swimmer!” I break off of my wave and look into the sea of huge waves and see Dave’s paddle standing straight in the air marking his position and Bill is charging after him. Good.

“Mark, I don’t like this!” I can hear the fear in Kim’s voice. As I look over Kim capsizes. I paddle over to her and get a grip on her boat. The waves are bouncing us around pretty good, now and I tell her to turn her boat over. It took a few times for it to penetrate the fear and with every wave I come close to capsizing myself as I hold onto the toggle on the end of her boat. Finally Kim flipped her boat and came to me. As I get the rescue going I get Kim talking so as to settle her down and remember the skills she’s worked so hard to learn. Now is when she needs them to work. Kim, gets in her boat and powers through the waves into the eddy at the S side of Deadman Island. Dave is in good spirits and all are ready to go the rest of the way through Cattle Pass.

I decide that we’ll head through on the west side of Deadman Island. The waves are bigger and the water is rougher but everyone here is comfortable with the bumpy ride. As we go through I hear shouts of exhilaration and excitement. This is why we’re here! We get to a huge boil on the N. side of Deadman Island and it sets off a sense of dread. Where’s the whirlpool that must accompany this boil? We all start paddling away from the boil and slowly, at first, then picking up speed, I watch Dave’s bow start to rise until it is vertical. Dave’s eyes are huge! He manages to maintain a brace for a bit before rolling over. He exits his boat and comes up gripping his boat at the cockpit and is holding on for dear life!

At this time Kim is well ahead of us. Bill, who’s acquitted himself beautifully is sent on ahead to stay with her so no one is left alone while Rob and I sit and watch Dave whirl around with alarming velocity as his boat whirls around at a threatening pace.

“Are you all right?” I yell at Dave, knowing full well the answer. He takes a moment to think about his response and slowly, so slowly, shakes his head, no.

What do we do? There’s no way to approach with his boat whirling like a propeller and even if I could get him my tow rope, then what? I could hardly pull him out with my kayak; I’m more likely to get myself pulled in! Rob approached closer, thinking that maybe he can at least get a grip on the boat. It whirls by narrowly missing Rob and on the next revolution hits Rob bow, punching a hole in Dave’s boat just above the waterline.

In my typically inappropriate way I want to yell “don’t worry, slack is only 3 hours away!” but I don’t think this will help at the moment.

We sit there a moment longer and we can see that Dave, after being submerged and having his boat pass over his head a few times is getting tired. I’ve never seen a whirlpool last this long! I’m starting to get worried as there is nothing I can do that won’t put Rob or me in danger. I’m getting ready to throw the tow rope. It’s worth a try and I can always ditch if I have to. Suddenly, Dave is out! He, and his boat are flung out and Rob is on him!

Dave is completely out of gas and scared and not feeling so well, as is only reasonable. Rob gets him in his boat with a little help from me and we wait a few moments and let Dave collect himself before we head off keeping a close eye on Dave waiting for the inevitable crash. A few moments later Dave is over again and out of his boat. We get him in again and wait a moment again before we head off. It was the last capsize of the day.

The paddle to Turn Island is uneventful, thankfully, and Dave gets over the post adrenaline nausea. He picks up a bucket out of the water and he and Rob fiddle around for a bit rigging in onto Dave’s back deck (really glad there wasn’t a capsize with that on his deck) and we get to Turn Island.

On Turn Island we tape up Dave’s boat with some waterproofing tape and have a nice long break. Dave is feeling better and is recounting the incident with the whirlpool and saying how glad he is that he was taught to hold onto his equipment! After a quick inventory the only thing missing was a pair of sunglasses.

We paddle the rest of the way to Friday Harbor and we’re done. The takeout goes smoothly and we are at the Cask and Schooner for a drink in record time.

Kinda like a big rapid on a river but without the option of portaging around. And yep, clearly the reason things turned out okay was training and preparation.

Pretty Scary
And those tidal races up there approach amazing. If you are unfamiliar with same and want video of what it can be like, hit the link:

There are even stronger rapids between the islands, the Nakwakto Rapids being the most notorious. Example: “Tremble Island, aka Turret Rock is located in the middle of Nakwakto rapids. It is reputed to shake during large tides when the current may exceed 18 knots.”

Nat. Geo. did a special on the underwater life that survives these conditions. You can probably find better video than this, but it’s impressive nonetheless:


Links didn’t work
I wish I could see what videos you were linking to. Some of the other major tide races in the PNW and the East side on Vancouver Island are:

Deception Pass - I and others use this stretch of narrows as a training ground for how to maneuver in dynamic conditions involving fast currents (annually up to 8.5KN on the ebb and 7kn on the flood). There are powerful eddylines, large boils, whirlpools that will twist your boat like a swizzle stick and a washout for picking up the pieces with relatively low stakes for screwing up.

Tacoma Narrows - This has a long and messy eddyline and a huge eddy that is almost a 1/2nm long. This is a great place to teach rescues and boat control in the rough stuff, plus a rental place on Owens Beach has great rent - a - coffins for people looking to get pulled in during big exchanges. GReat float from Titlow on the South to The Tides in Gig Harbor for lunch and a float back.

Skookumchuck - This is a tidal rapid that is frequently surfed with good eddy service and terrible washout if you miss it. Nice clean wave if you look on Youtube.

The list goes on and on, these are just some of them without me getting into listing all of them. Some other noteworthy ones are Quadra Narrows, Surge Narrows, Okisollo (I think this is a part of Quadra Narrows.

All of these are regular playgrounds for kayakers around here as well as the Washington and Oregon Coast where things can get pretty scary really fast with 25’ breaking waves.

Try These
Ok - some additional links and repaired the others:


And what happens when the tugboat driver fails his high brace in those currents.


a picture of Cattle pass

– Last Updated: Jun-28-12 1:35 PM EST –

This is a picture of a section of the pass on a big day. These are the initial clean waves that people play in. The current is moving left to right at about 4-5 kts with a wind blowing opposite. There's more action with the more chaotic waves and whirlpools out of the photo to the right.
One thing that makes this trip a challenge is you come to this after paddling 14nm.

Woke up from a nap…
And read that as cattle piss. Gave me a giggle at the least. The link needs to be fixed, however, so I can’t check out the jpg.


Anyone tried their roll in the rapids?

All of the participants on this trip had experience and training on surf zones as well as training and much experience in tide races (Deception Pass in a few of the spots, on bot flood and ebb, including the Room of Doom. Generally, they all have pretty reliable rolls as well. My estimation is that the conditions were larger than they they had experienced before and it pushed their envelope a bit.

I was struck by so many rescues
So wasn’t clear to me they all had tried their roll but failed to come up, or they didn’t try at all even though they had rolled on flat water.

I assumed, correctly as it appears, they all have roll, to some degree of reliability.

fatigue is another contributing factor

– Last Updated: Jun-28-12 7:03 PM EST –

Even the most reliable roll gets less so as you get tired. This trip tends to see its fair share of swims as you get to the tide rip after 4-6 hours of paddling. Which is why increasing fitness increases your margin of safety.
Another factor is getting nervous and stiffening up. The first time there it is definitely unnerving backing into turbulent head+ high waves and feeling the current pulling you backwards into them.