17 February 2010

SAFETY: surviving a summer storm.

Nordkapp LV and Avocet LV(c)
As a leader (among peers) of sea kayak trips I have often pondered at scenarios that I might be involved in while paddling in a group.
I usually paddle with sea kayakers that have a minimum standard of proficiency (self rescue in mild conditions) and rarely with novices.

Some stretches of water involve crossings of semi protected waters (no ocean swell) of 15-20 Km.
Living in a subtropical locale the possibility of sudden storms, occasionally violent, unexpected and usually brief is feasible.
While the weather forecast is religiously checked and observed before leaving shore, on multi day trips sometimes the only forecast available is via VHF radio bulletins on the morning schedule.
I have been caught out before on sudden changes of weather but luckily close enough to shore to make a hasty easy retreat.

hand towing kayaks to camp in 30+ knots wind
To better my skills and be able to handle unexpected though scenarios I sometimes seek conditions where I never see any other user on the water, let alone a kayaker.
Obviously in those conditions I chose an on-shore wind location where in case of trouble I can be blown back to safety in a short time.
paddling in 30 knots (c)
training with Greg Schwarz in 30 knots wind
In the unlikely but possible event that I should be caught out on the water in a group of 6-8 paddlers (too far from shore to be reached in time) what would be my best way to ride out a short storm (1 hour duration, for example) ?
I have asked this question on a couple of Forums and I got replies of limited value and some abusive ones too ("you should have checked the forecast", "paddle close to shore", "don't go out in bad weather" or "if you are that stupid to be out there in a storm is serves you right").

A local instructor replied to me:

click on image to enlarge
While stating the obvious, I really did not learn much from his comment.
Relying purely on the weather bureau's forecast is very shortsighted.
I believe that knowledge, skills and being prepared for the situation is my best defense.

windy conditions (1)
So I asked the question directly to highly regarded sea kayakers Nigel Dennis (of SKUK) Eric Soares (from the Tsunami Rangers) and Nigel Foster (of Nigel Foster kayaks):
"Since I believe that you have had a fair share of bad weather experience on the water, what is, in your opinion, the best way to ride out such event when paddling in a group of medium skilled paddlers?
Winds would not exceed 40 knots and waves would be of max 1.5 meter with probably braking tops.
I believe that rafting up would be hard and holding together dangerous? clipping the perimeter lines of the kayaks together to raft and leave the hands off the edge of the kayak?
I am open to suggestions"

Thankfully their replies were outstanding first hand knowledge of possible solutions for my sticky scenario.
Nigel Dennis replied:
Hi Damiano,

Thanks for the e-mail. I am not sure there is a one answer. If it was me and I was caught out in strong winds with a group the best thing would be to run down wind. As the wind gets stronger this will become more and more your only option. The problem is that people will be at different levels. It will be very hard to keep the group together. Someone will need to lead from the front so they have a little control over the direction and speed of the group. Another will have to stay at the rear and be in charge of rescues. As the wind picks up you will have problem with people falling in. You can't afford for this to happen. Your only option left is to raft up. I would advise two small rafts rather than one big one but only if you have sufficient competent leaders to go in each group. Finally it would help if you used a small drogue on each raft or clipped helmets on tow lines to each raft. This will be difficult but it’s the only thing you can do. I have had to do this in the past.


sea kayaks in wind waves (2)
Eric, more specific to different levels of storm gravity and participants skill level, said:
Greetings Damiano,
Here is my reply to your scenario.

1. Of course, all your friends are right who say "You shouldn't be there." Right. But as you said, you can't always forecast sudden squalls that only last an hour or so.

2. I do not recommend rafting up unless someone is very ill. The reason is as you said. Even in somewhat brisk conditions such as you describe, boats that are rafted bang together, which can hurt boaters and damage boats. It's especially risky to tie boats together, as they may get entangled, which can cause all sorts of problems, as you can imagine.

3. Form a diamond formation of four boats. If there are more than four boats, form more diamonds or parts of diamonds. A diamond formation has one boat in front, leading, another boat in the back, sweeping, and one boat on each side. Each keeps a safe distance from each other, about ten meters or so, so they don't bang into each other, but the paddlers can communicate and watch out for each other. Also, for your weaker paddlers, the formation provides a psychological structure so they feel safer and protected in a "pod". If there are say, two diamond formations, have one follow the other with the lead of the second diamond maintaining a distance of about ten meters or so behind the sweep of the first diamond.

4. From the diamond formation, (assuming the wind is 30-40 knots, w/seas below 2 meters in a semi-protected environment), FACE the wind directly and have everyone put their heads as low and forward (to reduce windage) as possible, so they are looking up to see forward. Arms (elbows especially) should be close into the body to reduce windage. This will give you a low physical profile so you are less effected by gusts and the strong prevailing wind. The leader should paddle just hard enough to make nominal forward movement, so slower paddlers can keep up. Do this for an hour until the squall passes, then resume your course. Facing the wind like this provides the most stable feel for inexperienced paddlers.

5. A formation variant: Should you have one or two truly weak paddlers, make a column formation, either by itself, or within the diamond. A column formation is a straight line. The weak paddlers draft on the strong lead paddler, so their workload is reduced.

7. Another solution: Should you have all strong paddlers, just continue on course with the wind at your flank in a diamond formation and ignore the beam seas, while doing correction strokes as needed. Or, turn with the wind, fan out (row formation), so you don't run into each other, and run with the wind for the storm's duration, then turn back toward your destination, assuming it's to the side and not behind you! These two solutions are preferred, if your paddlers are strong and bold. This is what we do!

8. If someone is unable to stay up for any reason, have a diamond of four or five paddlers raft up, all facing the same direction (ideally, into the wind and swells). Put the weakest paddlers in the middle and the two best on the outside. Hold the boats together tightly by placing paddles on your laps, with the blades extended to the boater next to you, so he can grab your paddle. Everyone holds onto the paddles, and that keeps the boats (roughly) in place, with everyone pressing toward the center.

9. These solutions to this scenario should be rehearsed, first in mild conditions, then in rough conditions--but near shore!

Happy paddling!
when it rains it pours (c)
Vanilla practising in 30 knots wind (according to BOM records)

Nigel Foster addresses the training for the unexpected.
Only by being prepared and having trained in harsher conditions will give me the chance to survive a possible storm.

Hi Damiano,Thanks for your patience. Recovered thanks and back on the water... and last weekend running kayak incident management courses.
Re your questions; If I could start with the concept; "fail to prepare; prepare to fail" and suggest that for the individual paddler who faces a real possibility of encountering certain conditions on open water, then the best advice is preparation. If you want to know what it's like to control your kayak in strong winds, then practice in strong winds in a safe place (such as just a short distance from shore when the wind will quickly blow you to shore if you get out of control)
If you can paddle circles or figure-of-eights in the wind, can edge and brace for balance against a side wind and make forward progress in all directions... then you are in a better position to meet similar conditions unexpectedly while on a trip or on a crossing. It's neither safe nor as much fun for the individual or the leader to play Russian Roulette on open water, knowing that there's a good chance of meeting conditions that group members have never experienced even closer to shore. But... it's really fun to learn techniques in a safe place in wild conditions that get close to or exceed your experience and current ability, especially if you're doing it with paddlers who know what to do and can offer help and advice. It makes you a better paddler.

Ideally each paddler should be confident and able to rescue others, and to perform self-rescues in conditions they might expect on any trip they choose to go on. Ideally that means practicing in similar conditions in a safer place before signing on for an open water trip where those conditions are a possibility.
What do paddlers generally find easiest? Heading straight into the wind until it reaches a certain strength... ( beyond that wind strength the kayak will prefer to be sideways to the wind.) So in the first instance, paddling against the wind through a squall will offer more ease of control for individuals, and therefore more safety so long as they can keep together as a group.
So a good practice session might include heading out from a safe shore against the wind to a nearby anchored float and paddling steadily to remain as close as possible to the float for the duration of a violent squall. Try it with a small group and try it with a larger group. If anyone gets tired, they'll be blown onto the safe beach behind.

Another useful practice session in similar conditions is to paddle a figure-of-eight path around two anchored floats. (Anchored floats can be as simple as a plastic bottle on a line anchored with a brick.) It gives practice in turning in every direction to the wind and shows how effectively you can control the kayak in that strength of wind. The more practice, usually the quicker and more effectively you can do it without getting blown onto the beach.

Other skills that are useful? Techniques for balancing while looking behind at fixed objects or other paddlers, the ability to slow down your paddling pace to match someone else's pace, the ability to turn your kayak around and position yourself to rescue someone in the conditions... and practicing anchored rescues in those conditions, which require positioning skill, tow-line skills and rescue skills... and awareness of what happens if you let go of your kayak... again practice in a safe place first.

Finally, in wind, communication gets more difficult. Practice using eye contact and head gestures rather than shouting, and keeping close as a group. Then... the squalls on open water become a treat rather than a potential hazard, and if someone capsizes, your role becomes one of making use of the situation as a useful practice session for everyone, rather than it falling on you to perform the rescue. Hope these comments help! Get back to me if you need to, and have fun out there!


There you have it.
I very much value their advice that will help me to become a more prepared leader with wiser knowledge.
Please feel free to comment on their advice and if you have anything to add, my readers would love to hear from you.

PS AUG10: a very informative discussion thread on QajaqUSA forum here.

1,2 published under Creative Commons license


  1. Steve emailed:
    This issue is one I have also pondered from time to time. This scenario is a likely one to experience on the W.A. coastline where scattered squalls quickly pass through often leaving relatively fine weather hundreds metres away. Once you’re in them you have to deal with it.
    The sort of response you had on the forums, while not helpful, is not surprising, as this medium generally encourages quick knee jerk responses from readers. I have experienced the same sort of response to my queries in the past, and also been guilty of posting hasty, thoughtless replies as well.
    Nigel and Eric’s advice seem to have a lot of merit and I will be passing a link to your blog to other members of SKCWA to encourage similar discussion. It might possibly be a good basis for the club’s skills session this weekend.
    Thanks for building such an informative blog and useful information resource. Keep up the good work.

  2. Damiano
    Obviously from the comments and common sense perspective there is no single approach.The same debate,to run with or against it seems to happen amongst blue water yachties as well although they obviously have more tricks up their sleeve.One comment that really jumped out at me was from Nigel Foster who feels as I do that most paddlers are more comfortable facing the wind.From a phsycological point of view it would be much easier to manage a group that "feel" more comfortable facing into it as opposed to running downwind at much increased speed and from my experience far less control.I also believe it takes far greater skills to run downwind than it does to just hold your own into it.

  3. I agree that running downwind is less desirable than facing it. First, there's the comfort of facing the threat as opposed to having it sneak up on you from behind. Second, speed over the water increases when running downwind which requires sharper skills. From the safety standpoint,also, if someone capsizes while the group is running downwind, it will take a lot longer for the rescue to turn around and get back upwind to the swimmer. If the wind is strong this may take a very long time indeed!

  4. Damiano,

    I just read your recent blogs. I must say I love the thoughtful, but still gnarly content. Keep up the good work!


  5. Damiano,
    great question, and extremely helpful replies. The only thing I can add is before the group sets off, trip leader allocates buddies before getting on the water, matching a more experienced paddler with a less experienced paddler so all are matched up. Within the pod, the two buddy paddlers stay within vocal distance of each other if things look like getting rough (or at night). That way when things hit the fan, trip leader already has covered off 'stray' paddlers and this paired grouping can speed up the diamond or other formations mentioned.

  6. As usual, Damiano, great stuff. One can never be too prepared, and the only way to avoid trouble is to never go out, I suppose. So that implies the need to always be prepared. I like to play in lousy weather too, of course when the wind will blow me back to shore. I appreciate your writing this blog and collecting the experience of these great paddlers. I'll forward this to David Johnston who is co-leader of the Georgian Bay Great Storm Weekend, an October weekend that brings together paddlers to experience lousy weather together and practice rescues and tows etc... I'm curious to see in the coming months as you and your paddlemates go out and try these different scenarios out.


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