Rescue in the washing machine

Jim Greenhalgh

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In almost 30 years of sea kayaking, I have been involved in many capsized-paddler rescues. Serious paddlers regularly practice rescues to be ready when called upon.

In my experience, all capsizes occur instantaneously and unexpectedly, and the actual rescues are never as perfect as you read about or as smooth as you practiced in calm water. The goal of any rescue is to ensure that everyone gets home safely.

After a rescue, review the incident to learn from your mistakes and consider how to do it better next time. In this recent rough-water rescue postmortem, I look at the mistakes made, the lessons learned and the running rescue.

The plan

Last June, four other Kayak Adventure Group members and I planned to circumnavigate Caladesi Island on Florida’s west coast. After launching from the Dunedin Causeway around 9 a.m., we headed west toward Hurricane Pass. The current was in ebb, the wind was southwest at 10 to 15 knots, seas were 2 to 3 feet and the water temperature was 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Outside the pass, there’s an offshore sandbar surrounded by deep water. Waves usually break over the bar, and local paddlers call this area the “washing machine.”

As we neared the pass, we saw rough seas and large breaking waves outside in open water. Two members decided to abort and stay inside St. Joseph Sound. Therese, Goti and I—three experienced sea kayakers who enjoy rough water paddling—considered the conditions and decided to go ahead with the plan.

With the current flowing out of the pass to the west and an onshore wind, we felt safe to continue. We paddled out into the Gulf and around the washing machine.

The washing machine

During a hurricane years ago, Dunedin Pass, on the southern end of Caladesi Island, became blocked with sand. Paddlers circumnavigating the island must land and portage their boats over a narrow strip of land.

After paddling south on the Caladesi coast, we realized the large waves breaking on the beach would impede a safe landing. Instead, we’d paddle in the seas for a while before returning through Hurricane Pass.

After some enjoyable paddling, we turned around and made our way through a deepwater channel between Caladesi and the washing machine. We didn’t notice that the outflowing current was slowly sweeping us into the washing machine.

Hit by colliding waves, Goti’s boat capsized on top of the bar in 4 feet of water. While maintaining contact with her boat and paddle, she dumped out the water and attempted to reenter the boat several times. Unfortunately, the water was too deep for her to successfully reenter while being pummeled by breaking waves. Therese and I moved in to attempt an assisted rescue.

Rescue attempts

Assisted rescue requires the rescuer to raft up and stabilize the empty boat while the swimmer reenters. With the constant breaking waves, neither Therese nor I could get close enough to the empty boat for fear of collision and serious injury.

I prepped my deck-mounted short tow rope to tow Goti and her boat out of the washing machine. Hollering for her to hang onto her boat, I swept in, connected my short tow and took off.

I won’t repeat that mistake. All I succeeded in doing was lashing two bucking broncos together. Breaking waves drove her boat overtop mine, slamming it into my side and almost capsizing me several times.

Fortunately, my life jacket protected my ribs from injury and my bracing paddle strokes prevented me from capsizing.

Readjusting the short tow to move the empty boat further aft allowed me to paddle forward with Goti and her boat in tow. However, I could only paddle north parallel to the waves; I couldn’t turn east to head back toward the pass. I disconnected the tow and pulled away to consider how to solve this problem.

The outflowing current had now increased toward maximum, and the incoming wind and waves held us in the washing machine. We needed to get out fast. The longer the rescue took, the more exhausted we’d become.

Not expecting such rough water, I had stowed my 30-foot long-line tow belt inside my boat. Fortunately, my Greenland T kayak has a small hatch just behind my right hip, and I had placed the tow belt right under the hatch cover. To retrieve it, I had to open the hatch in rough water, and my boat took on seawater before I could reseal the hatch.

Once I got the tow belt on, I hollered for Goti to hang on, swept by her boat, attached the towline to the bow and paddled hard back toward Hurricane Pass. Out of the breaking waves, the empty boat stabilized, and Therese rafted alongside.

Towing two boats and paddlers into the inlet against strong current and standing waves, I couldn’t turn around for fear of capsizing. I paddled as hard as I could to negotiate the standing waves. Although we hardly made headway, Therese could now stabilize the empty boat while Goti performed a heel hook reentry back into the cockpit. Once seated in the boat, Goti reattached her spray skirt, Therese disconnected my towline, and we returned through Hurricane Pass. The entire rescue operation took around 20 minutes.

Capsize! After Goti capsizes, Therese and Jim move in to assist. They spend the next 20-plus minutes trying to effect a rescue.

Lessons learned

Don’t attempt a close contact tow in breaking waves and surf with the possibility of a hard collision and serious injury. In these situations, use long-line tow equipment to remove the paddler and boat from the area immediately. Tow belts or boat-mounted tow lines need to be in place on deck and ready for immediate deployment, not stored inside a hatch when entering rough water.

You want to perform a rescue quickly and efficiently, and most take just a few minutes. The longer a rescue takes, the more exhausted the paddlers become. By increasing their exposure to hazardous conditions, this can compound the problem, causing injury or additional capsizes.

What we did right

First, we paddled with a minimum of three experienced paddlers, all wearing life jackets and carrying marine VHF radios. Second, we regularly practice for these types of incidents in various conditions. This helped us remain calm until we found a solution.

Most importantly, the swimmer maintained contact with her boat and paddle throughout the situation. During a capsize, inexperienced paddlers often focus on themselves and fail to hold onto their boat and paddle, making rescue far more complicated.

Running rescue: a calm-water reenactment of the running rescue used in the washing machine incident by Ken, Marilyn and Bill of the Kayak Adventure Group

The running rescue

The rescue used in the washing machine incident didn’t have a name, so I’m calling it a “running rescue.” In America’s Boating Club advanced navigation courses, we teach a technique called a “running fix,” a position fix derived over time while the vessel is underway.

We completed this rescue the same way—over time while underway. A vessel underway is much more stable than one floundering without power in heavy seas and strong currents.

In these conditions, rescuers need to get a swimmer and boat underway using a long towline. Once out of breaking surf or other danger, the paddler(s) pulling the tow should head against the wind, current or sea—whichever is the strongest. Once underway, the boats will stabilize enough for another paddler to safely raft up and assist in rescue.

The preferred way to raft up two kayaks during rescue is bow to stern so the swimmer is clear of the rescuer during reentry. In this rescue where the vessels were traveling forward though the water, the raft up should be done bow to bow.

In the washing machine incident, the swimmer on the sandbar could dump water out of the cockpit before the tow. In most situations, boats will require dewatering. If this cannot be done before reentry, the swimmer must reenter the flooded cockpit, reseal the spray skirt, and pump the water out through the edge of the spray skirt while the rescuers continue the rafted tow.

Prepare for the inevitable

Paddlers should practice different rescue skills and scenarios regularly to be ready to handle any type of situation. Usually unexpected, real rescue situations play out differently than those practiced in training. Paddlers should be flexible and ready to change things up. In paddlesports, there’s a saying: “We are all between swims.” So, practice regularly and be ready. Let’s make sure our paddling friends all come home safely.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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