Kayak Safety Gear or Not ?
As one of the owners of Clavey, this story is not easy to tell, but alas…Last winter I had an unusual experience I thought I would share with the rest of you in the hopes that none of you will repeat it. It was a beautiful winter morning and I decided to head out at about 5:30am to check the surf at one of my favorite breaks in the Point Reyes National Seashore. I loaded my boards and wetsuit in the van and, as an afterthought (because I had a new NeckyChatham 16 Carbon kayak on top of the car anyway) I threw in SOME – but not all – of my kayaking gear. I got to the parking lot and was greeted with a wonderful sunrise but minimal surf. I sat there drinking my coffee and petting the dog and then decided, because of the lack of surf, to take the new kayak out for a spin. I put on my Mysterioso tops and bottoms, a pair of Soft Seat Guide shorts, my PacLite Pullover, a MsFit Tour lifejacket, grabbed my favorite Werner Kalliste paddle and hauled my kayak down to the shore (what am I missing??). I slipped into the kayak, put on my neoprene skirt and headed out into the 2’-3’ shore beak.
Once past the breakers I began paddling the 1.5 miles down to the mouth of my favorite estero just to see how the sandbars were setting up for the winter. The paddle down was calm with a nice tailwind (air temperatures in the 50’s and water temp about 52°). I was paddling with a right-handed feather because that was what the paddle was set at and, while I can paddle comfortably with a left or right feather, my “bomb proof roll” is only good with a left feather. To tell you the truth I did not even notice I was paddling with a right feather. When I got to the estero mouth there were some fun little waves breaking about a quarter mile offshore. I paddle over to the south side to check it out and then headed back to north side where I had seen the waves.
As I began heading back I decided on a whim to see how the Chatham surfed. I caught one wave, had a nice ride and then decided to catch one more. On the next wave I got caught sideways and upon trying to exit the whitewater I rolled the boat. No big deal, I’ve gone over plenty of times. I set up to roll and failed. I tried again and again to no avail. I could not figure out what was wrong and I finally had to exit the boat. Now is where the real fun began.
I surfaced, grabbed boat and paddle, and looked for my safety gear (paddle float and bilge pump) that, I quickly realized, was not there. So there I was with no wetsuit and no paddle float in breaking waves quite a ways from shore. I was surrounded by harbor seals and their pups and could not help but think about the great white sharks that frequent the area this time of year. I tried a number of times to get back in the boat by balancing my body on top and slipping my legs in but the swell kept pushing me over. At this point I was getting a bit chilly and started to imagine my obituary in the local paper “kayak store owner drowns in home waters because he did not have the brains to carry the right gear that he pushes on people very day” I made the decision to get to shore, got on top of the kayak like a surfboard, and paddled like hell towards dry land. It took me about 15 minuets to get to the beach.
Once at the beach I felt quite relieved and surveyed my situation. My Mysterioso had done a pretty good job of keeping me warm for a while but by this point I was COLD. I ran around on the sand or – as people who know me and my crooked chicken legs will tell you more liked hopped around – until I was a bit warmer and got some blood flowing. I then dumped the water out of my boat and got back in for the paddle back to the car. As I paddled back I kept trying to figure out why I could not roll and then (LIGHT BULB!) made the connection between the blade feather and my diving paddle when attempting to roll. I changed the feather on the paddle and, before I paddled into the beach through the waves, made myself do a couple of practice rolls just to make sure I had not forgotten the move.
When I finally got back to the car, changed into dry clothes, and got the heater going full blast I looked at the dog and the still empty parking lot and thought that it could have been a long day for my loyal friend.
I was lucky. I have spent most of my life in and around water and I still had made some very basic, life threatening, mistakes. Perhaps it was the comfort level I had that led me to this lapse in judgment or maybe it was just plain forgetfulness. The good thing is that I know now that I will never paddle again without the right gear. It’s just not worth it.
Lets go over my list of shame: paddling in remote rough water ALONE, not enough insulation (can we say wetsuit!), unfamiliar gear (wrong paddle feather, new kayak), no paddle float, no bilge pump, no backup clothing stashed in a dry bag, no food, no communication device and I did not tell anyone where I was going – can there be anything ELSE!
Basic Cold Water Kayaking Gear:
Insulation and Drysuit or Wetsuit
Booties and Socks
-Tom “safety-first” Meckfessel