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When you least expect it.

Brian Nystrom

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A situation arose on a trip this past weekend that illustrates how rapidly problems can arise, even under relatively benign circumstances. I felt that it would be instructive to detail it.

Seven of us set out for a leisurely paddle on an overcast day, with a light wind and only enough swell to keep us from being bored. The air temp was in the upper 30's and the water around 40. All but one of us was an experienced winter paddler and we were all dressed for the conditions, with dry suits, neoprene hoods, etc. We decided that our best course was into the wind on the outbound leg, so we would have a nice ride home at the end of the day. We set off for a distant coast that entailed an open water crossing of ~ 4.2 miles. So far, so good.

At around the 2.5 mile point, one of the generally more capable paddlers in group began to have difficulties and two of us dropped back to assist. Initially, he was having some leg cramps, but his condition deteriorated to inexplicable, complete fatigue, eventually getting to the point where he was having trouble holding himself upright. The three of us rafted up, fed him some Goo and water, then set off again. At that point, the other four paddlers were ~1/4 mile ahead.

The stricken paddler's condition worsened and we were forced to set up a rafted tow with just the three of us. We informed the other four of our situation via radio and we all continued toward shore, albeit still in separate groups. The lead group of four began to string out, with two paddlers well ahead, the third well back and the forth farther back still. We hadn't been on tow more than five minutes when the forth paddler in the lead group capsized and wet exited. A quick radio call alerted the third paddler who turned around to assist, but the other two paddlers continued on, oblivious to the events behind them. One of them had a radio, but it was turned off, stashed in a plastic case that made it impossible to turn it on without removing it, and further buried in a PFD pocket. The two lead paddlers never looked back to see how the group was progressing, despite the fact that they knew we had someone under tow. At a distance of over 1/4 mile, even a Safety Blaster Horn couldn't get through their neoprene hoods, despite the relative lack of wind and wave noise.

The towing paddler had to race ahead as fast as possible to get to the rescue site, unclip the tow from the assisting paddler's boat, then raft up with the stricken paddler while the other two affected the rescue. The swimmer was in the water for at least five minutes while this went on. Once back in his boat, he claimed to be OK, but since none of the other paddlers left with him had ever paddled with him before, we weren't sure what to think, given his capsize and swim. In the meantime, we had drifted ~ 1/2 mile off course and out to sea.

So there we were. A mile and a half offshore, one paddler down, one questionable and just enough people available to deal with the situation as the other two were now invisible in the distance. Fortunately, the paddler who swam was indeed OK - thanks to his new-that-day dry suit and hood - and was able to paddle back under his own power, though we felt compelled to have another paddler shadow him all the way, just in case. However, we were all acutely aware that one more straw would have broken this Camel's back.

Ultimately, everyone made it to shore safely, though the stricken paddler did require land transportation back to his vehicle. We had plenty of food, drinks and spare clothing to make sure he and the other paddler who stayed onshore with him were comfortable while the rest of us paddled back to our vehicles. Fortunately, the return trip was quick and uneventful.

Lessons learned:

1) When you're wearing a hood, it's more important than ever to keep your eyes moving and watch the rest of your group, since you may not hear a problem.

2) A radio is useless unless it's turned on.

3) When one paddler has a problem that requires assistance, it's imperative that the rest of the group stay close in case other problems occur. Everyone should be on a hightened level of alertness.

4) Proper immersion clothing is essential in cold water. If the paddler that capsized had become incapacitated, we would not have had enough people to deal with the sitation and still be able to get the two stricken paddlers to shore quickly. We would have been left with one person to tow the other four, since both victims would have needed stabilization. The fact that the paddler who capsized was properly dressed prevented a bad situation from deteriorating into a potentially life-threatening one.

OK people, let's be careful out there...

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Thanks for the report for all of us to learn from. The reports that are the hardest to write are the ones where obvious errors are made. The paddlers ahead of the rest of the group being oblivious to what was going on around them being one of them.

More than anything, your report emphasizes the need for all parties in a group to be aware of each other's skill levels. The inexperienced winter paddler who swam in benign conditions and was unable to perform a self rescue - either roll, re-enter and roll, paddle float or even a cowboy re-entry as the conditions allowed should probably not be out doing a 4.2 mile open crossing even if the conditions were flat.

If everyone was aware of the inexperienced paddler's skill level and the decision was made to still go, then it would have been appropriate to have one of the experienced paddlers be right there with them and able to assist at any point to limit the individual's time in the water and also the groups exposure.

This report should make all of us aware how important it is to choose our paddling partners carefully and to keep vigilant on the water and not be lulled into a sense of security because of the conditions.


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I'd say this story is yet another example of what I was asking for in my trip report from New Years Day and that is to paddle more like a team.

Every person who paddles beyond swimming ashore in winter, in a group, needs to know how and when to do all deep water rescues and you need to do them confidently and quickly. They need to know how to help the others in their own rescue. Every person in the group needs to be visually aware of every other paddler at all times. Even if they don't know the other people, they can still paddle as a team. If you play a pick-up game of basketball, you don't just run out of control or off the court because you don't know the others.

Why paddle in groups if we are going to spread out, or not look to the point we are no longer in a group? I used to do this when I started sea kayaking and I'm still kicking myself for it. The experienced people can't help those who put themselves beyond reach. Most experienced paddlers are reluctant to take charge of an informal group that is pulling apart. That's why it important for the least experienced paddler to be aware of the positions they put themselves in relative to those who are capable of their rescue.

If there are no experinced members in a group, be very carefull.

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This certainly drives home the point that there is safety in numbers. Of course that only works if every paddler considers themselves part of the group.

On an AMC trip in Maine last year,Linda and I had a somewhat similar situation. Paddling with a group from Beal to Reid S.P. with an assortment of paddling abilities,the group got spread out over half a mile or more. Linda and I hung back to keep an eye on some new paddlers,obviously struggling. Eventually one paddler had to beach and needed medication and a rest. The rest of the group paddled on with the leader,oblivious to the fact that some paddlers were falling behind. Most of these folks had no idea where they were going,had no compass or charts. To make the situation worse,the return involved navigating Goose Rocks Passage,which has wild currents and boat traffic. We ended up bringing the slower group back through the passage to find a few paddlers coming back when they realized we were missing.

Moral of the story-always have a "sweep" with radio contact with the leader. All paddlers in the group should be aware of the "back of the pack".

Dan Lacey

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After further discussion with the parties involved, I learned that my recollection of the radio conversations was somewhat innacurate. The two lead paddlers knew that we had an ailing paddler, but the last transmission they heard (on someone else's radio) was that the three of us were underway and heading toward the landing spot. They did not know that we stopped a second time and were under tow. While that doesn't excuse their lack of attentiveness, at least it makes it clear that it wasn't a case of callous disregard, as it seemed at the time. It also points out that communication errors made by those of us in the rear exacerbated the situation.

Ironically, I had asked about the paddler who capsized at the start of the trip, since I had a tough time helping him get his skirt on and get underway through the surf, which was larger than he had previously experienced. I was told that he could not roll, but was otherwise a pretty solid paddler. I did ask him if he could wet exit with his very tight skirt (a Kelvar reinforced whitewater skirt on a Gulfstream) and he assured me that he had done so before. Considering that he had no other problems before or after the capsize, I suspect that it was just a fluke. I got caught off-balance myself and nearly capsized at one point. Only the buoyancy of my paddle saved me from an embarrasing dunk.

As for the paddler's ability to self rescue or lack thereof, I really don't know the full story. He didn't appear to try to self rescue, but perhaps it's because by the time he gathered himself, help was obviously on the way. He did perform a standard assisted rescue quite well, much to my relief. Not knowing his normal mannerisms made it impossible for me to judge his post-capsize condition accurately, so we erred on the side of caution for the rest of the crossing.

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I think part of the problem is that on SNG's you often get a mix of kayakers with different skill levels. You end up paddling with people that you don't know anything about. We often see stated on a SNG post that "you are responsible for yourself", legally this may be true, but in reality, we should all be reponsible for each other. We need to treat SNG's with more respect and do all of the things that would be done on an official trip, such as pre-launch meetings to go over skill levels, who has what equipment, who will lead, who will follow and sweep etc.

People that decide to attend a SNG with people they are not familiar with need to realize that the day may not be exactly what they expected. Everyone may need to make compromises whether it be simple decisions such as where to land for lunch, or slowing up to wait for the rest of the group even though the current pace is slower than what you wanted.

Certainly, we are all individuals and we a free to do as we please, but on a SNG paddle I believe we all have the responsibility to act as a team member and not as an individual.

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I strongly agree that a team appoach is best, and that EVERY paddler should be visually aware of EVERY OTHER paddler. Some suggestions that may be useful:

1. Have a lead paddler that NO ONE goes in front of.

2. Have a sweep paddler that STAYS in last place.

3. Have a left flank paddler who NO ONE goes to the left of, and a right flank paddler who NO ONE goes to the right of.

4. Lead and sweep paddlers should be in VHF communication.

5. If there is a very energetic paddler who is not challenged enough by the pace of the team,assign him/her as "liason paddler,whose job is to go from sweep to lead, then back again, etc., during the entire trip, monitoring the others and communicating information to the trip leader.

I realize that this may be overkill in many situations, but it is something to think about, especially as conditions deteriorate.


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What you describe is standard procedure for "official" club trips and it works very well. Where things tend to break down is on informal, show & go trips, like the one I described. Those of us who've been through the club's trip leader training have a tendency to stay within the general confines that we would if it were a structured trip, but it's easy to forget that others may not be aware of the "rules" or may not want to adhere to them. An interesting sidenote to this story is that the group of five at the end consisted of four NSPN trip leaders and the paddler that capsized.

The type of training we do can produce more than trip leaders, it can also produce skilled trip participants, which may be just as valuable of a commodity. If people have a throrough understanding of group dynamics on the water, standard emergency procedures and so forth, they're less likely to get into a problematic situation and more likely to be helpful in the event of an emergency. The more people we can educate in this manner, the better.

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Hi all, it's been a while!

I've been critisized by many for being too much of a hardass and for teaching TEAM based paddling in the early days. Now that I have returned to a work place that is filled with folks of my type, I'm reminded that it is the "Mindset" makes the difference.

When dealing with life threatening things the "combat mindset" is one that comes from training for and living in danger. You need only to understand that you train for and function as if the worst were going to happen everyday you work, or in this situation, paddle. I've always believed in TEAM paddling and always will. Mother nature rarely gives second chances.


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I agree. Those of us who had been through the same training functioned well together in this situation. We knew each other's moves and capabilities. To me, it empasizes how important it is to get as many members through our training program as possible. It really makes a difference when things get ugly.

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