When you least expect it...

-- Last Updated: Jan-12-05 2:13 AM EST --

A situation arose on a trip this past weekend that illustrates how rapidly problems can arise, even under relatively benign circumstances. I felt that it would be instructive to detail it.

Seven of us set out for a leisurely paddle on an overcast day, with a light wind and only enough swell to keep us from being bored. The air temp was in the upper 30's and the water around 40. All but one of us was an experienced winter paddler and we were all dressed for the conditions, with dry suits, neoprene hoods, etc. We decided that our best course was into the wind on the outbound leg, so we would have a nice ride home at the end of the day. We set off for a distant coast that entailed an open water crossing of ~ 4.2 miles. So far, so good.

At around the 2.5 mile point, one of the generally more capable paddlers in group began to have difficulties and two of us dropped back to assist. Initially, he was having some leg cramps, but his condition declined to inexplicable, complete fatigue, eventually getting to the point where he was having trouble holding himself upright. The three of us rafted up, fed him some Goo and water, then set off again. At that point, the other four paddlers were ~1/4 mile ahead.

The stricken paddler's condition worsened and we were forced to set up a rafted tow with just the three of us. We informed the other four of our situation via radio and we all continued toward shore, albeit still in separate groups. The lead group of four began to string out, with two paddlers well ahead, the third well back and the forth farther back still. We hadn't been on tow more than five minutes when the forth paddler in the lead group capsized and wet exited. A quick radio call alerted the third paddler who turned around to assist, but the other two paddlers continued on, oblivious to the events behind them. One of them had a radio, but it was turned off, stashed in a plastic case that made it impossible to turn it on without removing it, and further buried in a PFD pocket. The two lead paddlers never looked back to see how the group was progressing, despite the fact that they knew we had someone under tow. At a distance of over 1/4 mile, even a Safety Blaster Horn couldn't get through their neoprene hoods, despite the relative lack of wind and wave noise.

The towing paddler had to race ahead as fast as possible to get to the rescue site, unclip the tow from the assisting paddler's boat, then raft up with the stricken paddler while the other two affected the rescue. The swimmer was in the water for at least five minutes while this went on. Once back in his boat, he claimed to be OK, but since none of the other paddlers left with him had ever paddled with him before, we weren't sure what to think, given his capsize and swim. In the meantime, we had drifted ~ 1/2 mile off course and out to sea.

So there we were. A mile and a half offshore, one paddler down, one questionable and just enough people available to deal with the situation, as the other two were now invisible in the distance. Fortunately, the paddler who swam was indeed OK - thanks to his new-that-day dry suit and hood - and was able to paddle back under his own power, though we felt compelled to have another paddler shadow him all the way, just in case. However, we were all acutely aware that one more straw would have broken this Camel's back.

Ultimately, everyone made it to shore safely, though the stricken paddler did require land transportation back to his vehicle. We had plenty of food, drinks and spare clothing to make sure he and the other paddler who stayed onshore with him were comfortable while the rest of us paddled back to our vehicles. Fortunately, the return trip was quick and uneventful.

Lessons learned:

1) When you're wearing a hood, it's more important than ever to keep your eyes moving and watch the rest of your group, since you may not hear a problem.

2) A radio is useless unless it's turned on.

3) When one paddler has a problem that requires assistance, it's imperative that the rest of the group stay close in case other problems occur. Everyone should be on a hightened level of alertness.

4) Proper immersion clothing is essential in cold water. If the paddler that capsized had become incapacitated, we would not have had enough people to deal with the sitation and still be able to get the two stricken paddlers to shore quickly. We would have been left with one person to tow the other four, since both victims would have needed stabilization. The fact that the paddler who capsized was properly dressed prevented a bad situation from deteriorating into a potentially life-threatening one.

5) Things can go seriously wrong, even in a good group of paddlers under relatively easy paddling conditions. It's best to assume that Murphy is always looking over your shoulder, ready to teach you a lesson if you get too complacent.

OK people, let's be careful out there...

Good report
of what happened and how you dealt with the situation. I can’t believe that the first 2 people didn’t seem to even look back to see if everything was okay…you guys were lucky to react to the situation in a timely and as correct manner as you could.

I Am Reminded

– Last Updated: Jan-12-05 6:10 AM EST –

of John Lull's thoughts on "groups." Are you going out as:

1. part of a "guided group."

2. As "club" or "pick up" group where the members are not all familiar with each other's skills or even agenda.

3. As a "team" where each member is pretty familiar with each other's skill levels and there is mutual knowledge plan of what to do in situations and folks are operating of the same page/plan when headed out. A team, depending on size, can deal with one or maybe two new members on a trip. If the poop hits the fan, more folks whose primary skills and back up skills are questionable can actually execerbate rather than help the situation.

Personally, at this point in the season, I am reluctant to be out there with anyone whose skill levels I don't know. Capsizing in relatively flatwater and not performing a self rescue to wait 5 minutes in cold water for an assisted rescue make me wonder what level the skill of that person.

"Careful" these days, for me, is going out alone or with a small group of folks who I am very, very familiar with in terms of their skills. The skill level is more important to me than any gear that they may be humping along on their bodies or boat.

Thanks for posting the situation report. It may sound like I am "second guessing" but I am not. If the report is intended to spark some thinking, then this is my thinking... reinforced even more.


Good report
Most of the time we report all the good stuff that happens, and a report like this will certainly make us aware of the bad things that can happen.

I very seldom paddle in groups. It is usually just my wife and I.

When I have, I make sure that I constantly keep the group together, and if someone took off, it would be the last time that I would paddle with them.

Last year we showed up at a race on the New River, and it was postponed a week due to extreme high fast water.

Quite a few people were disappointed so a bunch of us some who never even knew the others decided to do a long run anyway.

As soon as we got going, it was obvious as to who the novices were, and it was a pleasure to see the more experienced paddlers hang right with them, even though not a word was spoken on doing it.

Did the person who got sick ever figure out what it was?


#5, Murphy is always vigilant
I’ve often wondered why WE sometimes aren’t. Great wrap-up Brian.

Close to home
as I paddle thru the winter with a small group of competent paddlers, and I’d like to believe that none of us would get that far ahead without frequent looks back. Lesson learned about the neoprene hooods.


What was wrong
with the paddler who needed the tow? Just curious.

good report
I appreciated the way you presented the story and the lessons learned without doing a lot of moralizing. I’d like to think that the folks in the groups I paddle with do a good job of looking after each other, but I know that occasionally we get a bit strung out and it would be easy for the lead paddlers to not notice problems further back in the group. Thanks!

First, I’m really happy everything worked out well and that everyone made it to shore safely. Just reading your account of the situations made me hold my breath a few times! We mostly paddle lakes, calm rivers and creeks, but it’s always important to keep track of those paddling with you, no matter what the circumstances. I find myself checking on people I’m not even with on other bodies of water, just to be sure they are safe! That’s probably just me, but it’s something I do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t “stalk” them, just make a mental note of where they are. While running a shallow river in PA last year, my friend and I were concerned with a few paddlers (including children), in aluminum canoes, that obviously had no experience in moving water. It was actually funny how we kept track of them even though they were in their own inexperienced group! It was because of the children that we were overly concerned. No one in the group was dressed appropriately, which added to that as well. Glad all went well! Thanks again for the report. Dori

group dynamics are a big
part of paddling.

In my BCU assessment the assessor used some interesting dynamics to point out the need to be more aware of what’s going on.

I was towing someone and there was another paddler rafted up with the victim. I was so into towing, I had not looked back in a while. He intenionally capsized the victim and the person aiding the victim . The “victim” that was capsized wet-exited and the raft boat was instructed to wet exit. So I had two victims instead of one. But actually if the victim had been ill, or injured they might not have been able to wet exit on their own. It was a big lesson to me to really be aware of what’s going on. The same is true for folks plowing out ahead of a group and never looking back, there’s not much point in paddling together if everyone is going to do their own thing.

Reasons why I have not seen it coming…

– Last Updated: Jan-12-05 10:30 AM EST –

For me it has been life saving to see why and how accidents happen and how to prevent them through active involvment not just always looking for danger. Like, sing, no moralizing, second guessing, telling others how to be, etc. So what do I learn for me?

For me, it is useful to see how my early life training makes it hard for me to see a balanced way to be invested in hanging out with everyone, staying together, being in touch with the early signs of danger, finding involvement in these aspects of situations.

I grew up the only kid in steel working Pittsburgh community. It was a very rough neighborhood, on a daily basis (names, threats, fights, exclusion, coldness). I coped by becoming hyper competitive in school and athletics. I EARNED respect. However, unknown to me I also learned to disregard danger, take big risks, ignore feelings.

But it now gives me an insight into why when mostly guys, and some gals (especially those who have to make it in a world of guy athletes) end up frequently in just these situations.

From my life experience here are some reasons these things MAY have unfolded as they did.

1. Do not listen to one’s body.
2. Do not need anything.
3. Do not communicate with yourself or others when tired, hungry, cold, or sick until forced to. It is a weakness to be overcome.
4. Don’t ask for help. Don’t accept help when offered.
5. Tell people you are fine even when not.
6. Don’t try out a dry suit the first time in protected place.
7. Don’t go at the pace of the slowest and make the most cautious person comfortable; because that is boring.
8. Over estimate one’s skills, strength, judgment, and depend on yourself only.
9. Don’t even discuss safety, how to handle emergencies, it spoils the good vibes.
10. If other people cannot take care of themselves they should not come out here.

I cannot say for any out there if this applies really. But for me, this is how I could have gotten myself in the place of each and every person there. I can have adventure and minimize the down side more than what happened there. But for me it only comes if I am willing to be really honest with the reasons for MY own choices. Also like sing, to be honest with the reasons I choose others to go with as well.

Reminds of me of a time I called a “sho&go.” Different folks showed up. It was a calm day (I would not have called a sho&go were it not relatively benign).

Anyway, a more “experienced” kayaker shows up for the sho&go. Fine. Can always used more experienced folks around. We get going. “Experienced” paddler naturally takes the lead and I stuck to the slowest paddler the whole trip, more or less taking sweep. Cool.

Everything proceeded according to the posted itinery. We gott to lunch stop and every one headed in. “Experienced” paddler wanted to go muck around on his own. Cool. This was a “sho&go” and not a led trip. Do what you want (and take responsibility for it). When we were finished with lunch, experienced paddler came back from around some shoreline bend and asked whether our radios were on. I said, “No.” I turned it off since I didn’t want to hear coast guard chatter while I was eating lunch and taking a break.

We took off again to finish out the trip. Experienced paddler takes the lead. Some wind picks up. I stuck to the slowest paddler. We got strung out a bit. But no big deal with conditions still relatively benign (in my eyes) and that fact we hugging near shore (no more than several hundred yards).

I thought it was a nice trip. Then months later I get some indirect BS from “experienced” paddler about not knowing how to use a vhf. Freakin’ guy couldn’t lay his bs to me face to face right there and then…

Screw that. I have been turned to most group paddling since, especially with the self selected “high and mighty” types.


Could you have radioed for help?
Not knowing all the info but a sudden weakness in an otherwise healthy person is a medical emergency and requires prompt, skilled medical evaluation. If you had access to Coast Guard, Harbor rescue, you decision to tow was not the the optimal one. Time is brain and heart. If your friend has not been seen already, get him into the hospital.

My first thought as you described the symptoms… Heart Attack.

Thanks Brian
Nicely written.

Speaking as a less skilled and equipped paddler, your report assures me that I shouldn’t be part of the kind of trip that you described. I would be a liability to myself and the group.

I have a question Brian. Do you think that knowing how to tow is a basic skill that most paddlers should have, or is this for the more advanced paddler? I’ve learned how to have a tired paddler raft onto my boat so I can do the paddling, but I think this type of tow may be inefficient for a longer tow.


Also interested in towing
I am interested also. In my club few know how, are interested in practicing, leaders don’t take em, and not many see the need for it in emergencies and even less for situations where towing is a way to keep different strength people together before an emergency develops.

I was fortunate to have Jed and others show me the rainbow of reasons for towing. Gracias.

did the incapacitated paddler feel bad and apologize or acknowledge not being prepared or what not? just curious if he felt bad and learned a lesson…if there was one to learn.

good job
nice de-brief of what happened. it sounds like a ‘scenerio’ right out of my notebook of leadership training techniques!

the paddlers who aren’t aware of their surroundings should be hung out to dry. this is inexcusable, especially on a offshore, winter trip. NO ONE should get out of talking range, let alone sight.

did you have any leadership positions identified? this is a must on our trips. regardless of the conditions/participants/logistics we pick a leader and co-leader and they make the calls all day. it sets a protocol and gives everyone a position. Personally I seldom lead, I’d rather be available to assist and provide a safety net.


Sea Kayaker ran an article a while back on trying to eliminate the stigma of being towed. As you said, it’s a good way to keep a group together and prevent problems. It’s also a way for paddlers of different strengths/ages/abilities to enjoy being on the water together if you don’t have doubles. The folks who want a workout can get one without breaking up the group, and the weaker paddlers enjoy being included.

The idea is to make towing a normal part of an outing. Make it clear from the start that you expect to do some towing, and being towed is not a big deal. You don’t want folks to rely on it, but if they know that everyone gets towed sooner or later they’ll be more willing to ask for help before problems get serious.

An Important Point There
The guys out front shouldn’t get out of calling distance of the last boater. Which is usually me…

Good report. Non-inflammatory title.