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Whitewater Rescue


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On Wednesday, April 7th, me and my paddling partner decided to hit the water for a beautiful Spring day’s outing. We met at Nantasket Beach in Hull at 9AM, with a plan to paddle south to Cohasset Harbor, then work our way back up the rocky shore, poking into Little Harbor near high tide (to avoid the strong tidal rip that runs in and out of there under a narrow bridge) and then a waterside tour of the McMansions of Jerusalem Road and Atlantic Avenue as we played in and out of the rocks and ledges on our way back. We had a decent northwest breeze blowing as we launched through light surf at the upper end of Nantasket – a point known as “Surfers Station”. We pretty much flew south on the wings of this tailwind and were in Cohasset by late morning.

After a break on a small beach in the harbor we started working back up the shore toward Little Harbor. High tide was to be at about 1:30, so we were kind of early for slack tide in the rip, which has become a playspot for the whitewater boaters ever since their favorite wave in Cohasset Harbor got spoiled when a powerboat hit and moved a rock in there last year. As we approached the mouth of Little Harbor, that northwest breeze had picked up and we were working hard against it. The thought of temporary shelter in the harbor was inviting. As we turned in toward the rip, I felt the current grab my boat. But, knowing there were sizeable eddies on each side of the main current, I paddled in to take a look. My partner followed me in. As I approached the bridge, I realized just how “too early” we were, as the main tongue of the current was moving at least 5 knots and there were small standing waves under the bridge, with no easy route through. Not to mention that it would be hours before we could get back out if we made it into the “harbor”. I ferried across the current and eddied out next to the left hand side bridge pilings to re-assess.

Just about at that point, I heard a resigned “Oh, well!” behind me, and turned to see my partners’ boat upside down. He had leaned upstream in crossing the current and was out of his boat, but holding onto it. He had managed to glide across the eddy line before coming out and was fortunately in the eddy, as opposed to careening along helplessly under the bridge and into the whitewater below. I back-paddled with the eddy current up to where he went over, but the currents were forming a small whirlpool and he was sucked out of reach before I got to him, and was dangerously close to being pulled into the main current.

I recently started carrying a rescue/throw bag on my deck and decided to try and reach him with my line. Meanwhile, he did his best to kick back toward me in the weakest part of the eddy. My toss fell short, but we eventually made contact as he kicked toward me. As the swimmer held on to both boats, I tried to paddle us back up against the eddy to land. But with the dead weight of the swimmer and the proximity of his boat to mine, I couldn’t make headway in the strongest part of the eddy current. A T-Rescue was out of the question, as we would both have likely drifted into the maelstrom in the process. I gave him the tow-line and I paddled back up against the eddy to where the current was weaker and, with the tow-rope snapped around my waist, started to tow him and his boat landward. At this point, I’m thinking, he’s been in the water a good five minutes already (it seemed like forever) and I need to get him out before he (we!) tire.

I managed to pull him to where my bow was on shore and I had no water to paddle in. I released my spray skirt and was getting ready to jump out and haul him in when the current pulled him and me back off shore and out again. SH*T! Paddle like hell, inch by inch, breath puffing with each stroke. I had to beach the boat before I stopped paddling or I would get sucked off again. I grabbed the marsh grass submerged under the bow. I grabbed the mud. Beached, finally, I whirled in the cockpit and, on my knees in the boat, started hauling him in. Finally he could stand up and wade in. My legs cramped from the exertion.

“I owe you one,” he said.

He wasn’t cold, and didn’t seem as tired out as I was. (Drysuits are the best, man.) But I told him this was our lunch stop, since he needed to eat something and drink some hot liquids. (We couldn’t go anyplace anyway.) We sat and watched the current, analyzing. As high tide approached, the current didn’t appear to slack appreciably. There is apparently a delay in slack water here until well after high tide. (I might have remembered this from a NSPN trip here last fall.) We basked in the warm Spring sunshine, ate, watched the current, daisy-chained the rescue bag a few times, had another cup of tea. Ok, can we get out of here? It’s 1PM, a half hour before high tide, and we still had significant currents to negotiate upstream of the bridge, where the “river” was still raging. Paddle up the eddy, a burst through one rapid, up the next eddy, ferry over, and through!

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful – the wind died down, the sea was flat. Some rock gardens (a nasty gouge right through the gelcoat to the cloth on my poor Surge), a little backsurfing on the breaking swells at Black Rocks, some end-of-day surfing on small dumpers back at Nantasket. We both got maytagged, but after our “whitewater adventure”, a little sand in the ears was no big deal.


NOTE - My motives in posting this account are as a medium for collective learning. I post it knowing that I open myself up to criticisms that could take many forms. I have no previous "combat" rescue experience (other than self-rescue) and no formal rescue training beyond the basics. Therefore, I in no way want to give the impression that I consider myself to be any sort of heroic Jedi Master, lol!


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I'm glad to hear that you're both OK and none the worse for wear. It sounds like a pretty intense situation. Thanks for posting the details. One of the best things about the NSPN is that we share such experiences so that all of us can learn from them.

Without knowing the area, I can't make any useful comments other than that when dealing with currents, eddies and ferrying, it's important to be sure that everyone in a group knows how to handle them and that people watch out for each other. If not for some time with Ken Cooper at Woods Hole, I wouldn't have a clue how to handle that kind of water. It may be second nature to whitewater paddlers, but I suspect that most sea kayakers are as clueless as I was. Perhaps this would be a good skill to work on in an organized NSPN session.

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Sounds like you had an adventure. Good way to learn, provided no one is none the worse for the wear.

Little Harbor on a ebbing tide is a wonderful place to learn play with current. As you learned, you don't want to play in there, unless you're really confident, on the incoming tide since you don't want to go through and under the constriction of the bridge.

Setting some safety boaters downstream where the current is less strong, folks can practice peeling in and out of eddies and ferrying across the current. These will allow one to learn edge control, bow rudders, Duffeks and, yes, bracing if needed.

Also, tow rope use in moving water is different than in water without strong currents. The rescuer has to have a plan where s/he wants to lead the rescuee to in terms of a safe spot where it eddies or shallows out without too much current. The rescuee must never wrap the rope in anyway around hands or arms. When the rescuee hits the end of the rope and is still in the current and deeper water, s/he will plane to the bottom. If the rescuee is entangled... Thus the rescuer has to make sure that tow rope will lead the rescuee to a safe spot, even it means running along bank to follow the rescuee.

Also, in moving water, rescuing the swimmer comes first. Let the rescuee's boat go if one has to get the swimmer to shore.

I agree that Ken Cooper may be the person to convince to lead a practice like that. Tommy T has white water rescue skills, as a AMC/Boston ww trip leader, but he doesn't paddle his touring boat nearly as much as his C1.


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I also have taken it (with Dee actually), and highly recommend it. Having almost no previous experience with currents in a sea kayak, I went over twice in the currents that day, but in a semi-controlled, relatively safe situation. I learned a ton.

I've offered to take it again with my buddy from the other day.

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Rick S., Linda and I spent some quality time there with Ken Cooper. There are a couple of really good places to play and learn, both of which have benign runouts. Perhaps we can put together a club gathering with a few experienced folks to be both participants and safety crew. I'm willing; it's just a matter of when and what time.

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A little moving water can tip even the most seasoned sea kayaker. The problem is often a lack of commitment to taking a course of action. Some times it might be better to go with the current to get past some dangerous obstruction like a bridge abutment. There is a natural but futile impulse to fight it and in the process get where you don't want to be. Remember, its the ocean, not a river and it can't flow very far in our coastal region and the tide will turn. (There are some long tidal rivers in Maine where a longer ride awaits you.)

The best solution is just a tiny bit of exposure to moving water and the transitions at eddy lines. Most experienced sea kayakers figure it out in less than an hour. Most tidal rips dump into friendly places, even Wood's Hole end's in calm water. Sea kayaks are big and heavy and when full of water have momentum similar to whitewater open canoes. You see more open boats pinned or wrapped around rocks in WW than little WW kayaks. In moving water rescues with a throw rope, the idea is to "pendulum" the swimmer in to shore, letting the current do the work with the rescuer solidly on shore. You can do this with a canoe if you have three or four people anchoring the throw rope. There is no way to compete with the force of a big boat full of water. The standard sea kayak T-rescues only work if both boats are in the current moving along together and there's plenty of room and time to complete the rescue. I've done this myself in WW in slack water between rapids, but normally a WW paddler just drags it all to shore to collect themselves.

I'd also recommend that if you feel timid about tidal rips but would like to learn to deal with them, the CRCK trips to Wood's Hole are the best way. They are experienced professionals and will look to take care of you. One of these class per year may be all you want to see of these kinds of conditions and you can feel secure in the hands of their guidance. On the other hand, if you're not timid and know you can paddle a boat at least 4 kts and have a solid roll, just go have fun in Wood's Hole.

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After agreeing with all Ken says, I'll add that CRCK also offers an easier Ocean Skills / Currents class right there in Little Harbor. It is rated one level easier than their Wood's Hole trip, and I recommend it for just about anyone, even if Wood's Hole sounds like too much of a committment. I just checked their web site, and it looks like they are offering it nine times this summer.

(This isn't meant to discourage you from trying the CRCK Wood's Hole trip, which appears to show up six times this summer. It is superb, and you will learn more. Just thought I would point out that there is a less intimidating starting point...)

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