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#1 rick stoehrer

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 03:16 PM

Several of us had an adventure back in 2004 and we each wrote up the incident from our own POV as a means to work around the little bit of trauma experienced and our dawning realization to the real buy in price of some days on the water. This is one narrative. After some discussion in the group, it was determined that sufficient time has passed and that we're all comfortable enough sharing the experience. Unless the guilty parties opt to pipe up, no names will be used - please respect not posting any, even if you think you've guessed them.

On October 23rd, 2004 a big storm roared out of the Northeast and several of us raced off to Plum Island to see what kind of fun we could have playing in the surf.

In our hubris, we timed it so that the ebb was running well before our start so that we had the best of the worst possible conditions – swell on outgoing tide and then the whole she-bang jacked up by sustained 20+knot wind with gusts to 30 knots. (Here is probably as good as any a place to start our mistake-o-meter count - let’s call that 1)

Three of us arrived at Pebble Beach and from shore we could clearly see the frothy white tips on the surf breaking out on the point almost a mile away…any reasonable person would have immediately climbed into their still warm car and beat a hasty retreat, but nope, there we were, 3 grinning, paddling alpha male fools, all chompin’ at the bit to get out on the water. (2)

And as we got the boats down and loaded for bear, the fourth paddler arrived. He showed up for this late October paddle with a wetsuit; his dry suit was back at Kokatat being patched and so all he had for the day’s adventure was his wet suit. We paid little attention to his attire as we had all paddled together for years and accept that his combat roll is as bomb proof as could ever be reasonably understood. In retrospect, we would all agree that “reasonable understanding” within that group is open to loose interpretation. (3,4,5)

We launched into the Sound and paddled over to the Southern tip of Plum Island and even here in the relative lee, the wind was whipping the tops off the sea. (6)

Before we dropped into the current to ride out of the Sound and into the brunt of the storm, we discussed what we were going to do. Our plan was to take a route out in relatively “calm” (note - calm is not the right word…less rough? Less breaking? The stuff that didn’t look like it was going to try to immediately kill us?) water and then enter the train of waves pounding into shore. While the swells coming in on this patch of water were 10 ish feet, they weren’t breaking (often) and we felt that if we could get out through this stretch, we’d be able to turn around and ride the swells and breaking waves back into the Sound and to safety. (7)

And so out we went in a pretty tight group with 2 in front and 2 in back, all keeping an eye out on each other as best we could in the heaving water. The paddling was tough into the wind and up swells but we made good headway.

It’s about this time the question arises - have you ever paddled up a wave and thought “Well, if I can just get 3 more strokes in, I’ll be over this before it breaks…easy-peasy?” This is what’s going on in my head as I’m powering up one particularly looming wall of near vertical water…1-2-3…oooh-oh….the answer was 4 strokes…and the wave throws me over backward (the flavor of backwards where the bow goes up and scribes a nice arc, briefly vertical before you get just hucked towards shore) with nary a thought and I’m upside down in a place where perhaps, right side up is only marginally better. So I roll up and think to myself “Huh, gotta time those better” and on my merry way I go, anxious to catch up with my compatriots. (8)

(Important safety tip - see that paragraph up there? That was a clue… had I only read the play book before hand, I’d a recognized it.)

In the amount of time it took that wave to toss me backwards and upside down like so much inconsequential foam, the group had meandered a bit farther North than we had originally discussed – having now been wave tossed into being the guy in the back, I had an excellent view of where the group was as a whole. We had strayed into the big breaking waves just NE of the Southern end of the island. I knew this wasn’t the plan but figured, well, one of us is up front and he knows what he’s doing (9) and besides, I don’t have a way to catch up quick and talk with him (10)

10 minutes later and a little farther out from shore in the break, I look over to see my wet suit clad buddy go over and into the drink. I don’t think twice about this as after years of paddling together, his roll is an article of faith that’s accepted as dogma - unhesitatingly and without question. So it’s a minor crisis of faith as I see him come out of his boat after his roll fails.

I race over and make eye contact - make sure he has his wits and is okay, secure my paddle with the short tow, grab his boat and yell for him to get in. He has just enough time to say “wave” before the shadow that is looming over my head breaks in a thunder around me. (11)

I push his boat away from me…the last thing I want in a wave this size is a boat by my head (which, miracle of miracles, does actually have a helmet on) or under my shoulder which is bound to dislocate if I try to keep his kayak under there. I figure if I release the boat that it’ll move at a different speed than I do and I’ll be clear (and did it ever). As I wait for the roar to die down, I gather up the short tow and grab the paddle…index on right side and roll….and nothing…WHAT? Nothing? There’s always something! Set up again…nothing…and another wave breaks on my hull…I manage to use the wave energy to come up a bit and grab another quick breath before I’m hanging upside down again…give the roll another shot and still nothing happens…and suddenly that little reptile brain screams “AIR NOW!” and I pull the skirt. (12) I come up alongside the boat and swim back for the toggle fast and am left holding the boat in one hand and the paddle in the other. It’s at this point I realize a few things…a.) The paddle has broken at the point where the blade meets the shaft…shear busted from the force of the wave and the short tow. b.) My spares have been washed away and are no where to be seen and c.) Now there are 2 of us in the drink.

Now of course, a third paddler sees that 2 of his friends are in trouble and he is going to sort it out and paddles toward us to initiate a rescue…and goes flying by on a wave as fast as I’ve ever seen a kayak move. I lose him in the surf and the next thing I know, see him out of his boat.

And now, now things got worse. the boats we were holding onto by the toggles? In surf those boats fill up with water and weigh a lot; they still float mind you and have loads of buoyancy - far more than you do and one of the consequences to this is that the wave will take that tremendously heavy but still buoyant boat and use that buoyancy to fling it at a far greater speed than it flings you. Regardless of whatever kind of mad GI Joe kung-fu grip you’ve got…the boat is leaving in a hurry.

So that leaves the fourth paddler…who has the good sense to understand that the conditions are such that any rescue (much less a rescue involving 3 swimmers) is impossible but what is he going to do? He hasn’t brought his radio (13) He see’s a few storm watchers on the beach half a mile a way or so on the island and paddles for them for all he’s worth.

Meanwhile, back in the water…the three of us grouped up and headed in towards shore. It’s going to be more than a half mile swim or so but fortunately, we are out of the current of the ebbing sound. We swim a few strokes and get pummeled by the breaking waves; it picks you up the 10 feet or so and then slams you down, driving you under water twisting and bending you in ways that are novel and patently not good. You come back up for air briefly, get a quick bearing to your friends and shore and the cycle repeats. This exhausts you very, very quickly and I remember clearly thinking that if I could only breathe, this wouldn’t be so bad, would it? In short, it was a bad place.

Between the beating we were taking and the cold water this late in the season we were very concerned for our neoprene clad buddy. Each time he’d stop to rest, we were worried that he was slipping away in the chill water, succumbing to hypothermia. So we’d group up and talk as much as we could in this washing machine sea. Of all the things we did wrong this day, this was something we did adequately – there was no panic, we stayed together, understood the situation and what was happening and did as much as we could for each other.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, the 4th paddler had shot flares (14) in an attempt to get the attention of the folks on the beach. Ultimately, he landed, ran up to them and grabbed their cell phone and called in a mayday to the Coast Guard. He then raced back down towards the tip and paced on the shore we were slowly swimming towards. (15)

One by one, we slowly made our way to the sandy beach, each one of us dragging ourselves out and up onto shore. The hypothermic paddler immediately took off down the beach towards his boat that through some miracle, the sea had released and had the grace to wash up on shore only 200 hundred yards away. Aahh, the wonders of an eddy.

We caught up with our friend, secured the boats and radioed the coasties that everyone was on shore and there was no need to muster a rescue.

We got the igloo, dry bags, food and tea outta the boats and retreated to the lee to address our cold issues. Mr. Neoprene swore up and down he wasn’t cold…until his teeth started chattering and we all insisted he get out of the wet suit and put on some dry clothes for a bit. (16) While he warmed up, we sat around drinking our hot Tang and got our minds around what happened.


Things that could have gone better

1.While different experiences and skills will make each of us calculate our risks/rewards a little differently, our “plan” was to go out and play in a N’oreaster and not dawdle in the lee but to
play in the force of the sea whipped up and on an ebb…not smart.

2.The 4 of us have paddled together for years and have had (and thankfully, still do have) quite a few adventures together. But this peer group built itself into a machine that dropped some critical IQ points when we all got together. It’s a habit that’s hard to break and we still find ourselves sometimes having to consciously break that macho, I-don’t-want-to-be-the-one-to-blink stupidity cycle. This is a big challenge for us.

3.He showed up without his dry suit…late in October…during a storm.

4.We didn’t bag the paddle…or at least HIS part in the paddle.

5.We assumed.

6.We are 4 strong paddlers and we had a time of it getting over the half mile or so to Plum Island and we were in the relative lee. Yeah, that’s a clue huckleberry, turn around.

7.A calculated risk and it wasn’t wrong per se…just not what we did.

8.Again, this is a clue to the conditions…it was simply too big a day to do what we were doing with any kind of discernible safety margin.

9.Again with the assumptions.

10.In high winds and heavy sea’s there ARE NO good ways to communicate.

11.The conditions were such that no rescue was possible. There was a 13 second period between waves but that’s too short a period to perform a rescue in conditions. In a pool it’d be a trick; on a heaving ocean, impossible. I didn’t stop and worry about “me, me, group victim” and in not doing so exacerbated an already dire circumstance.

12.Contact lenses make me shut my eyes tight while I’m under water but logic should tell me what happened - I don’t need to set up and do this again and again…the roll works just fine and had I stopped doubting this for even a second and thought about it, I’d have known what happened and tried to roll on the other side…although that would been the down sea side and who knows if that would have worked either.

13.He doesn’t have a radio with him, let alone on him.

14.Pencil flares are worse than useless - they provide you the illusion of being prepared when in truth they can hardly be seen at all. Besides which, unless someone is looking, no flares do you a bit of good.

15.Pacing does no good. Assess the location, determine where to best treat any casualties and get your med and hypo kit out and have that ready when folks hit shore.

16.We allowed a hypothermic man to have a discussion on how he wasn’t cold. The first thing to go is judgment so shut the hell up and put some dry, warm clothes on him…RIGHT NOW.


Lessons taken away from the day

Why are you paddling today? Do you HAVE TO? No. You probably don't.

Everything on your deck is transitory. The sea will wash it off and most likely at the worst possible time. Take all the steps you want to prevent it but whatever she wants, she takes and the Ocean can be one greedy pig.

If you don’t have it on you and in your pfd then you don’t really have it. It’s like that old boxing aphorism “everyone has a plan til they get punched” well, we got punched and the boats got taken away in surf and we were far off shore...so explain to me that plan thing again? Those nice radio’s did nothing sitting in day hatches. Now, if it’s a big day, I make sure that the thing is in a pfd pocket.

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is watch and be patient. You see a buddy in trouble and run in to help and make the situation worse. In the conditions we were in, no one would have been able to perform a rescue. We were using methods we were taught and practiced and that were successful under circumstances that were way outside this standard. New practices need to be invented, evolve and practiced. We now carry throw bags on the big honkin’ days - don’t know if they are going to be any help but I sure ain’t rushin’ into that situation again!

No one has a bombproof roll. Maybe in the conditions to which you’ve been exposed, your roll has been successful but doesn’t mean there aren’t bigger conditions. The sea gets big and you stay small and just get tired.

Our skills sharpen, our experiences increase and the calculated risks we take get a finer and finer edge. The margins narrow right up sometimes. It’s important to keep in mind that whole risk/reward thing and remember that the idea isn’t to go out - it’s to always come back in. After this paddle I came to understand that despite my deep seeded misunderstanding to the contrary, I am not bullet proof and more than just kryptonite can kill me. People have died in warmer, fuzzier circumstances.

Ultimately, you paddle alone regardless of who’s there with you.
Rick Stoehrer
BCU 5* / ACA Coach / Maine Guide

#2 Phil_Allen

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 06:33 PM

Great write up. I always try to remember that the sea will be there another day, but I might not. So far so good.

Phil
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#3 EEL

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 06:55 PM

Rick:

An excellent read and a good one for the start of each season.
A little reality therapy never hurts.
Thank you.

Ed Lawson

#4 Lorrie

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 07:20 PM

Rick, thanks for sharing. Really great trip report and sobering reminder of how tempting it can be to test one's limits by going to play in conditions nobody has any business being in-and how quickly one can get Into trouble. Good story to remember as we're making decisions about when and where to play/not play when storms are kicking up those waves we so desire...
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#5 brambor

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 06:47 AM

Wow. Hot Tang. ;-) <shudder>


Seriously though, great story Rick. Wondering about the technique of holding on to your boat in conditions like that. Would the 'having one foot in the cockpit while holding on to deck lines...' technique be even less effective ? I could thing of several ways why either technique is simply inadequate in these conditions but I was just wondering of your opinion?



While he warmed up, we sat around drinking our hot Tang and got our minds around what happened.


Aries, Qajariaq, Nordkapp, Aquanaut, Tango


#6 rick stoehrer

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 07:32 AM

Wow. Hot Tang. ;-) <shudder>


Seriously though, great story Rick. Wondering about the technique of holding on to your boat in conditions like that. Would the 'having one foot in the cockpit while holding on to deck lines...' technique be even less effective ? I could thing of several ways why either technique is simply inadequate in these conditions but I was just wondering of your opinion?



HOT TANG (which by the way, is a GREAT band name, isn't it?) - i swear that when your cold and wet and tired you can just about feel energy seeping back into you outta that cup! besides which, its somehow reassuring and if things have gone that badly, you need some settling down.

i don't think there is anything you are going to do to keep hold of that boat in those conditions (10+ feet and breaking).

my grip certainly wasn't strong enough and i wouldn't dream of putting my leg in the cockpit as we (the boat and i) were being tossed around - that boat weighs a LOT with all that water in it and it gets tossed around as, if not more, violently than you do - the force would not allow you to hold on steady and you'd break your own leg. no...get clear...get to SEAWARD of the boat and hold on for all your worth being sure to not tangle your fingers in the toggle.

for those pondering..."oh, yeah? use your tow line and attach yourself" think about what your suggesting - lined off in a very vulnerable spot along your spinal column to a boat weighing far more than you do as it is being tossed around faster and just as violently...i would imagine you would be horribly injured and likely killed. imho, you absolutely do not want to do that.

so no, it's unlikely there is any (safe) method that is going to work but i am all ears if anyone has any experience differently.
Rick Stoehrer
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#7 Pintail

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 09:39 AM

<... being sure to not tangle your fingers in the toggle>

I was <wondering> if Rick had forgotten to make reference to this small and subtle detail!
Do NOT try to get fingers inside the loop that most of us have on our toggles -- a writhing boat <will> put a very effective tourniquet on that poor finger or fingers! ;^)

Great write-up, old sport! Still a very worthwhile read.

#8 rick stoehrer

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 09:55 AM

<... being sure to not tangle your fingers in the toggle>

I was <wondering> if Rick had forgotten to make reference to this small and subtle detail!
Do NOT try to get fingers inside the loop that most of us have on our toggles -- a writhing boat <will> put a very effective tourniquet on that poor finger or fingers! ;^)

Great write-up, old sport! Still a very worthwhile read.


i feel very strongly that the toggle should be attached with only a single piece of line dangling down and NOT attached by a loop through and back up to the boat. i believe this can be the difference between having to wear mittens as opposed to gloves and/or save your life.

i feel very strongly that the toggles should NEVER be secured to the top of the boat with bungie for any reason. toggles are meant for swimmers and swimmers are in the water...put the toggles where they can easily be found in extremis (latin - point of death) because that CAN be the difference.

i feel very strongly that the ONLY place to be while IN the water is seaward of a boat. had i been hit by the boat in these conditions i would have been seriously injured or killed.

opinions will vary.
Rick Stoehrer
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#9 Lbeale

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 09:55 AM

Thank you Rick for writing this honest, reflective and informative report. Your report brings to mind three noteworthy books on this subject: Waves (a book about, among other topics, 100 foot rogue waves), Essentials of Sea Survival and, Solcum's Sailing Along around the World. Basically, what I gleamed from this report is," Be careful for what you ask for."

Les

#10 rick stoehrer

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:01 AM

Thank you Rick for writing this honest, reflective and informative report. Your report brings to mind three noteworthy books on this subject: Waves (a book about, among other topics, 100 foot rogue waves), Essentials of Sea Survival and, Solcum's Sailing Along around the World. Basically, what I gleamed from this report is," Be careful for what you ask for."

Les


keying on that word survival you use above...i did find that for me, the best way to deal with being sans boat in surf like that is to cross your arms across your chest and hold onto the pfd (a pfd which you will immediately find alarmingly small, not buoyant enough and ineffective as a flotation aid) and curl into the smallest area i could to prevent from being too mangled in the waves. the first couple really hurt...you figure that out quick. once the noise and spinning stopped, i'd crawl along the surface some more til the next wet roller coaster ride. it was very tiring.
Rick Stoehrer
BCU 5* / ACA Coach / Maine Guide

#11 kate

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:09 AM

Excellent write-up. One time I decided to try the surf at PI during a high-wind/surf day. It was a big mistake. The next time my friends and I decided to go elsewhere. Fortunately I didn't have to learn this in as big a day as you did. I'm often the one to "blink" and back out, and I've never been sorry to wait for another gentler day.

I think there's a trajectory as we're gaining skills, where we accept more and more risk - until we have such a day as you did. For me, suddenly I began keeping a much larger risk buffer. It's supposed to be about FUN, after all.

thanks for re-posting.

Kate

#12 GCosloy

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:44 AM

Excellent write-up. One time I decided to try the surf at PI during a high-wind/surf day. It was a big mistake. The next time my friends and I decided to go elsewhere. Fortunately I didn't have to learn this in as big a day as you did. I'm often the one to "blink" and back out, and I've never been sorry to wait for another gentler day.

I think there's a trajectory as we're gaining skills, where we accept more and more risk - until we have such a day as you did. For me, suddenly I began keeping a much larger risk buffer. It's supposed to be about FUN, after all.

thanks for re-posting.

Kate


I THINK KATE'S POINT IS RIGHT ON: As someone who once made a living using dangerous woodworking bench power tools I always found it ironic that it was mostly the professionals among us that had fewer than 10 fingers left on their hands; amateurs not so much! Great write-up Rick, stay safe my friend!
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#13 Paul Sylvester

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 08:00 PM

I was there: The tough part for me was trying to hold my breath while getting churned under in those breaking waves. We were swimming with all we had and I did not want to get too out of breath. I needed to have some reserves for the breakers that held me under.
Believe I had my paddle while swimming.....suggest swimming with your paddle...good work out.
Two very experienced local paddlers had to be rescued by the CG out of this same area a year or two after our incident. Had we been further south it would have been much worse. Possibly pinning us between the ebb and swells.
It was such a joy to see three intact NDK Explorers waiting for us down the beach.....
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