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kayaks

Return from Broken Group Islands - Kayaking Safely

We just finished up a fantastic 8 days, 7 nights in the Broken Group Islands (BGI) off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and there is an incredible amount to write about. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a couple different upcoming blog posts:
• Loading kayaks for camping
• Food for kayak camping
• General route and trips
• Wildlife

But first, I have to start with the realization that perhaps we’re kayak snobs. Ok, maybe not snobs, but we couldn’t help but talk about a lot of the kayakers given our concern about them being out there. We usually do remote trips which require preparedness, skill, and knowledge. The Broken Groups are a spectacular place to paddle and are accessible to all levels of paddlers, from real beginner paddling options to advanced paddling on the outside islands in more dynamic water. Because of the variety of options available this meant that we saw a lot more kayakers than we normally do, primarily many novices.

Many of the beginners were out for their first paddle and a few too many were going without guides. This is worrisome to us and we couldn’t help but be anxious for their safety when they talked about plans to paddle to the outer islands (which should be left to the experienced folks). To be fair, as beginners they don’t know what to be prepared for, but then that means they probably haven’t read the charts and books so don’t know what areas are safe and which to avoid as a beginner. Buying a chart at the “orientation” meeting an hour before paddling out in rental kayaks doesn’t really cover what you need to know.

I’ll admit that perhaps we were a little over prepared given that there is a lot of beginner-level paddling in BGI, but I’d prefer to be prepared. Here is Richard in his dry suit checking out a chart on our first day out. He is happily wearing his PFD, tow belt, knife, flares, VHF radio and his spray skirt has temporarily been taken off during the break. His kayak has a spare paddle, chart holder, compass, and GPS.


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Given our safety awareness, we just couldn’t help but comment when watching paddlers come into some islands with paddles upside down and backwards, wearing t-shirts and shorts with rain boots (which can pull you under in a capsize), crunching their rudders over the rocks. I’ll skip detailed comments about dragging kayaks up a long rocky beach since I know many will say it is just the gel coat, but I’m pretty sure it was more than just the gel coat during those extensive drags across rocks and shells.

Toward the end of our trip I found we were commenting on the other kayakers so much it was making me feel like a snob. That feeling probably comes from us chuckling at the beginners with guides, which isn’t really fair since you have to start somewhere and at least they had a guide. But it is the really unaware beginners without guides we worried about most.

Appropriate attire: You should really dress for the water temperature rather than air temperature. 15 minutes in the water in what you’re wearing (or not wearing – one person was only wearing swimming trunks) and you’ll likely start to become hypothermic. You can become hypothermic even on a nice day in 65+ degree water, and here it is closer to 40F. We were the only ones in dry suits, which may have been overkill for the inside islands, but they kept us warm, dry, and happy, including on the windy days among the inside islands when water sprays up onto the kayak.

Safety: Have you practiced getting back in your kayak? How long does it take you? Can you get back in when windy and with swells? It amazed me that the place renting kayaks does provide a paddle float but they don’t check that people know how to use it or talk about how to get back into a kayak. I did hear several people say that their kayak is really stable, especially from many folks in tandems. Even if it is stable, that is just initial stability and it can still go over. And what about handling it in waves and swells and strong winds? One person told me their kayak was stable so they would be fine in waves and swells.

Weather: But you’re only going out when the weather is nice? How do you know the weather will be nice? You’re going off the warden’s statement that it will be sunny all week? I noticed that the 20-something warden’s weather prediction was for “sunny all week” and didn’t include additional weather elements. It was sunny, but the wind often picked up in the afternoon, usually 10-15 knots. One day was beautifully sunny but there were 25+ knot winds and a gale warning in effect! Three kayakers we met paddling in through those conditions realized after the fact that they shouldn’t have gone out in it and were thoroughly exhausted and glad to have made it back without incident. At least they had previously practiced rescues but they didn’t have radios or dry suits. If they had gotten into trouble they would have ended up in the channel far away from anything given the direction the wind was blowing.

Fog: Another morning was so foggy we couldn’t see the outer islands and had to navigate with compass, charts, and GPS. The warden’s suggestion at our “orientation” was “if you get lost in fog just paddle north and you’ll hit land eventually.” Nice advice. Well, if you’re going to make it seem like something you don’t really have to worry about does everyone at least have a compass so they know which way is north in the fog? Below is a photo of our foggy morning, this photo was taken when we were about half way across the channel and you could almost see the islands through a tiny break in the fog (it was also pretty windy and we started getting white caps broadside):


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Almost there:


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Other conditions: The outer islands are exposed so there were swells to deal with. There were typically 1-2 meter swells when we paddled along the outside of the islands (plus wind waves one day). Below is a photo of what swells mean when the water interacts with land. Those are not waterfalls, that is the water rushing off the muscle and barnacle-covered rocks on the low end of a swell. I enjoyed rock gardening through some of these areas, but I intentionally skipped some areas that would certainly have ended in kayak damage or personal injury. Hopefully beginners are giving these areas a wide berth, you have to know how the water interacts with the surrounding area and how to handle your kayak or you might end up sucked in, flipped over, and injured due to the sudden push/pull/drop into an unexpected sharp rock.


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I go on these rants about unprepared kayakers and then realize that lots of people are paddling the Broken Group Islands and returning home just fine. So am I being paranoid and fatalistic? There is a story in the book “Deep Trouble” in which an experienced kayaker loses his kayak on the outside of Wouwer Island, one of the more exposed areas of the Broken Group. But outside of that incident (where the kayaker should have known better and been better prepared), it sounded like there aren’t that many incidents. When I asked the warden about it one morning, it sounded like the only incident during our week was someone going over and losing their camera and wallet (but their cigarettes were safe!) and that was on a guided trip so the guide was able to get them back in their boat quickly.

It isn’t the guided groups I’m concerned about though, you have to start somewhere and I’d like to think that the guided groups will prepare properly and avoid dangerous conditions for their clientele. But what about the beginners who don’t know any better and might get into unexpected trouble? Coming back from this trip I saw this news story about a kayaker death on the east coast (2nd one in a month there) http://bangordailynews.com/2011/07/10/news/hancock/man-dies-after-kayak-overturns-in-eastern-bay/?ref=mostReadBox  and I know of a few too many coast guard rescues in the Puget Sound just from the first half of this year. I don’t want to regulate people, but it seems reasonable to worry about kayaker safety (I suspect these news stories are what causes some of our family and friends to worry about us on these trips).

Here are the two people I’m currently most concerned about:


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No spray skirts, not wearing PFDs (will they share the one on the deck between them?), one originally started out with their paddle upside down, and what are they thinking with all that stuff on top of their kayak!?!?! I’m not convinced the person in front can see over all the gear. It was windy so I wish them good luck with all that stuff that will likely cause the wind to push them off course. And even if they think it is a stable tandem, what happens if they do go over? Can they even right that kayak with all that stuff on the deck (assuming it doesn’t sink due to lack of flotation and weight)? Hopefully they’ll get a chance to enjoy those folding chairs; I truly hope the two of them come back in one piece.

When we landed at the dock at the end of our trip there were more kayakers going out, and it wasn’t even the busy season yet. There were three kayakers who joined us in gawking at some of the other paddlers (primarily the two in the above photo). I appreciated their statement about noticing the difference between those getting ready to go out and us coming in. It was a general observation of how to kayak properly (us with all of our safety gear) and how not to kayak (many of the others). Overall, it was a relief to meet other people about to paddle out who will be as prepared as we were.

I truly hope this post doesn’t come across as snobbery. I’m very aware that when I first started kayaking I was ready to jump in a kayak and go paddle without being mindful of conditions and safety gear. I learned fast and now am extremely respectful of paddling conditions. Overall, I’m glad people are enjoying the sport, but I seriously hope they’re all coming back safely and then continuing to learn so they can reduce their risk on future trips. There is a lot of great paddling to enjoy, I just hope it ends positively for all who try it.

With that, I'll get off my safety soapbox and work on additional posts about what a spectacular trip we had to the Broken Group Islands!

Comments

(Anonymous)

I don't know that the guided groups were all that safe either

The BGI park requires all the guides to be certified, but I don't know how rigorous the certification requirements are. I do know they limit the guide:paddler ratio to 1:5 (a few more paddlers allowed with an "assistant" guide, who requires less certification). But the guides I saw did not appear to be dressed appropriately either (we've seen similarly ill-dressed guides in the San Juans). If the group is entirely relying on the guide for their safety, they will be in very deep trouble if the guide ever had a problem. I'd also hate to see 2 or 3 paddlers have problems at the same time - the way the paddlers were dressed it could easily be a serious incident by the time the guide got around to saving the last person.

Hopefully the guides have enough sense and local knowledge to keep their groups in the more beginner-friendly areas & paddling times. I kind of doubt that though, since the whales and other interesting sights tend to be in the more challenging outer islands.

What really shocked me was the denial. We tried to talk with some of the park/lodge employees and other paddlers about some of the safety issues (hopefully in a friendly way), but were met with denial and fundamental misunderstandings of how kayaks and kayaking work.

Given the conditions we experienced there, I'm surprised there aren't many more incidents. Luck is always a factor in kayaking safety, but only the few other Kayak Academy alumni we ran into seemed to understand how much most of the paddlers were relying on luck. We were certainly over-equipped for most of the paddling we did, though I don't think I'd be willing to give up any gear for our 2 outer island circumnavigations. And I was well served by my kayak surfing experience.

- Richard