Here's a summary of a discussion that took place on CASKA Yahoo! Bulletin boards in the aftermath of a tragic kayaking death that occurred recently in New Buffalo, MI. Thanks to all who contributed.
Yes, this is a Lake Michigan wave. The camera is about 15' above the lake level and the crest of the wave is well above the horizon line.
This one does not sound like it will have a good ending... A reminder to all of us who like bumpy water.
Here's a thoughtful reflection on the incident from the other side of the Lake.
Like Keith, as a kayaker, I am super frustrated with the incomplete story! I am just not sure what we can learn from this tragedy.
The Coast Guard reports that the boys capsized inside the mouth of the harbor. WHY, WHY weren't the Coast Guard able to fish a person out of the water between 3:29PM when they arrived and 5:09PM when the guy went under?
Helicopter pictures here show the search outside the harbor. Did Mitchell get sucked out into the open water? Why wasn't there a diver in a thermal suit on hand to simply swim out to the victim? Based on what is reported nobody went in the water at all. The water was close to 60 degrees. A fit person with minimal protection has at least 30 minutes of meaningful movement control with this temperature. Mitchell apparently lasted over two hours. Was the wind off shore? Does not sound like it from the size of the waves and the reports from 45007 buoy?
Why wasn't the victim simply blown to shore!? Most of the time when I go playing in the surf on rough days I count on the wind and waves to deposit me on the sand if something really goes wrong. Should I be worried based on this incident? I just don't understand!
Upon review, the wind was blowing at about 30 knots parallel to shore, not on-shore. Waves are reported at 9' in that location and the water temperature 58 degrees.
How did Mitchell get out from the harbor through the mouth AGAINST a 30 knot wind and waves!? Was there a strong current flowing out? Or did he not capsize inside the mouth after all? Or was there something else happening altogether?
I wanted to respond to Haris' question about trusting the wind and waves to deposit us on the sand if something goes wrong when we're surfing. I would encourage all of us to know what the water does in the conditions we plan to paddle in on the beach we plan to paddle. I've seen the water heading out, not to shore, on some beaches in the Chicago area when the surf is up. All that water coming to shore has to have a way back out.
Specifically, I've seen it consistently at Gilson Beach, outside of the north jetty of the dog beach. I've seen things go out to sea at that spot when the surf is high; and have been in that sea-ward movement myself, outside of my boat, and actively had to swim the boat in so as not to drift out to sea. I've also seen the water do strange things at Montrose when the surf is really big. Most of the time Montrose is great for surfing; everything pushes us to shore and there are no rocks or pilings under water to run into. But when it's bigger, and I'm sure it depends just where the wind is coming from as well, I've seen rips form that aren't there in the usual conditions we get. I've also watched people struggle to paddle south in a huge north wind at Montrose.
So my point is that we should know what the water at a specific place does in the specific conditions we plan to paddle in. Even though surf in the Chicago area is wind-driven and we don't have much to speak of in the way of currents on Lake Michigan, I do not believe it's fully safe to assume that the waves and wind will push us to shore. It's mostly safe. It's usually safe. It's not fully or always safe.
Good point, Andrea. Rip currents are well known hazard on the ocean that applies to our great inland sea as well. Many beaches have signs warning you about them. I believe there was an incident this very summer when a child was carried off shore in a kayak by the very current you're talking about and, by the time adults got out to the boat, a little girl was gone. I've personally played in rough water next to shore with my son and, at times, I had to work hard to hold on to his hand in the current parallel to shore. As you say, all that water that waves bring onto the beach, has to get back to the lake somehow and sometime.
My experience with these currents is very limited but I have been unsuccessful trying to locate them for the purpose of carrying my boat out through the surf break. In other words, I have not seen consistent currents of this sort. I know I have been caught in them when out of the boat and have seen numerous others that don't move shoreward as fast as they should but, in my experience, on our shores they are short-lasting and tend to migrate from one spot to the other. Anybody know different? Please share.
My experience has been that, with on-shore wind and waves, even if you do nothing, you will be pushed back to shore in short order. If you are caught in one of these off-shore rip currents, even if it does not stop after a short while, don't fight it, swim parallel to shore out of this current and you should be taken to shore. Before you launch, pay attention to the direction in which the water is moving along the shore. The rip current will likely drift in that direction as well.
Another technique that should help you get to shore faster if you still have your boat, is to get to the cockpit rather than hold on to the bow/stern toggle. At the cockpit you should be able to get the boat parallel to the waves and the wind and get it to act as a sail or sea anchor. Have you ever noticed how much faster your boat gets to shore compared to you if you let go? Using the boat to catch the wind/wave energy will markedly speed up your progress back to solid ground. Several times that I tried this, I've had very positive experience in moderate surf. Individual results in rougher conditions may vary.
Be aware, that the forces of the breaking waves are tremendous. They routinely rip the kayak toggles out of paddlers' hands when the boat is perpendicular to the waves and presents the least resistance. Try this technique in moderate surf first so that you can judge for yourself what forces you can and cannot withstand when using your boat as a parachute.
Thanks to all for the insightful comments on this tragedy. My thoughts go out to Mitchell and his family and friends.
As a newbie to this sport, I have a couple of comments on what Keith describes as a group risk assessment and Andrea's point that we should all know what the water doesin the area in which we plan to paddle and in the specific conditions before we head out.
Too often we hear about the fantastic places people see by kayak. I'll be the first to admit that hearing of folks' kayak adventures on the CASKA blog and elsewhere keeps me motivated to keep learning and exploring. That being said and perhaps I don't look hard enough, but I rarely see people describe risk assessment in their paddling posts. Maybe, for the many experienced kayakers that post here and elsewhere, this is ingrained and second nature. I, however, would benefit from discussion on this issue, and I suspect I'm not alone.
After reading about this tragedy, I'd like to ask the more experienced kayakers that are part of this group the following questions: (1) how can we make risk assessment and the challenges posed by conditions and other features a regular and explicit part of our paddling outings and posts; and (2) what resources have people found useful on these issues? Your advice would be greatly appreciated.
As a predominantly solo paddler, I don't go out if my gut says no. I'm a pretty conservative paddler so that means I choose options other than the lake many times - even though the conditions on the lake may be well within my capabilities.
When exploring new territory, I'm even more conservative and consult with charts, topos, and sometimes will make phone calls to marina's and other sources. The various Chicago club yahoo groups are another great place for info. A quick "anyone paddled here before?" will usually yield just the info you are looking for. Paddleaway.com has some really good info on launch/landing sites and water trails (both river and lake MI), and of course, the various paddling club web sites are a rich resource.
When out with friends, it's with folks I know and trust. They are all similarly conservative and recognize when it's time to call it a day.
As to a recipe for risk assessment?
This link has a short explanation of the CLAP theory of leadership. It also has a link to a quick, easy to use, on shore risk assessment tool developed by Body Boat Blade International. Check out the tool—you may find it helpful.
Andrea and Sarah gave some good info and references. I'd add these books as additional resources:
... and this one for endless stories of sea kayaking accidents with detailed analyses of what went wrong:
Risk assessment in sea kayaking is deceptively simple: identify the dangers, evaluate your ability to avoid or cope with the hazards, evaluate the severity of the consequences and make your choices. In practice, there are so many factors between the environment, the paddler, and the equipment that a simple process becomes very complicated very fast. And it is also ever-changing. And there are always multiple alternative solutions.
Unfortunately, a lot of ability to identify and properly weigh the hazards can only be learned through experience. In the beginning you just don't know what you don't know. Take a course in which you will, hopefully, be able to have the topic examined with your particular perspective in mind and at whatever level that you enter. Paddle with experienced and responsible paddlers. You will also need to head into the borderline areas as far as safety is concerned. You can paddle on the pond your entire life and learn absolutely nothing about the risks associated with sea kayaking.
These are indeed good resources Haris, and the link to Keith's post is very useful as well. For everything that we can read though, I would encourage paddlers to take a class on the topic of risk assessment and leadership.
What I see is that we all start out as paddlers yearning to master the control of our boats, so that we can go out to the places and in the conditions that intrigue us. But in truth boat control is just the beginning. Rescues, navigation, weather, risk assessment are all just as important as boat control. In an ideal world we would learn all these things together as progressing paddlers, but the nature of how we learn, time and money tend to make us put off learning these other skills until later ( although some of the intermediate courses and awards require some knowledge in these areas broadly defined as "seamanship".) If we look at the A in the CLAP ( the leadership acronym ) we have avoidance, which is where the whole risk assessment begins. Before we even get on the water, do we know what the weather is going to do, what that weather means for the place we are paddling, is there a back-up plan or "out" and so on. The list of questions we can ask before getting on the water is long, but doesn't need to take much time to run through. I don't believe that we need to have a bad experience to learn how to do this stuff, but as paddlers we need know how to do a risk assessment, and then listen to the results. I am biased, but I think the best place to learn this is in a class ( these have been offered locally by Geneva Kayak ) where we learn, practice, and discuss using these systems, and then just like boat handling skills go and apply them every time we paddle.
Amen, Alec. I totally agree with you and actually recommended classroom in addition to the book in my post as well. Too much skill can actually take you deeper into trouble than you would have gotten with less confidence. Absolutely! Technical skills need counterbalance.
Don't read me wrong--I don't advocate 'bad experiences' as powerful as they are as motivators of behavior. I am for 'good experience' in potentially bad environment. I am for feeling the wrath of the sea and then landing safely on sand beach with your warm car just across the dunes. Paddle with experienced paddlers who can take you close to what could turn out badly, allow you to rub shoulders against that power, but will stop before you cross the line.
Basic human psychology will tell you that knowledge is only one and, unfortunately, not even the most powerful factor in human behavior. You need personal experience to enforce certain habits because, if you don't, those that have been re-inforced will take over. Everybody knows smoking is bad for you... Yes you can learn just about everything there is to know about risk assessment from books and classes. It takes tremendous will power and discipline to take that out into the field as learned and apply 100%. Not many humans are capable of that. Being soaked in cold water on a chilly windy day in cotton jeans will teach you a very powerful lesson that you will never need to consciously search for.
I do agree with Haris that reading and even classroom work is valuable, but only a piece. The other piece being the on-water implementation of the strategies learned in the classroom. I think that combining the two is crucial to learning. There is nothing like having to figure out what to do in a scenario, and then breaking it down afterward for imbedding the information. Again, I think it is a good idea.
We seem to be discussing two subjects. One is risk management and one is incident management. Risk management is a proactive approach to planning how to respond to risk. Incident management is the implementation of the plan (or winging it if there is no plan) when something does go wrong.
There is a methodology called qualitative risk assessment and another called quantitative risk assessment; qualitative risk assessment involves listing out potential risks, the impact and the likelihood of occurrence. Based on risk tolerance, one can then decide which risks they want to spend time/effort to put together contingency, mitigation or avoidance plans for. Quantitative risk assessment adds statistical probability and cost-of-risk to allow one to plan a budget accordingly.
To start a risk assessment, get together with some fellow paddlers and brainstorm. List out on a piece of paper any potential risk that someone comes up with. Don't worry about the likelihood or impact at this stage. Just write everything down. The next step will be to go through each potential risk and rank 'high, medium, low' for impact and also for likelihood. What you will have is something that looks like this:
Risk Impact Likelihood
Risk 1 High Low
Risk 2 High Medium
Risk 3 low low
Risk 4 medium high
I would suggest that if the impact is high, and likelihood is high or medium, one might want to figure out ways to avoid the risk; If the impact is medium and the likelihood is medium or low, one might want to have a contingency plan (what do I do if this happens). Of course this depends on an individual's risk tolerance.
There….I have condensed a whole bunch of risk management training into a few short paragraphs of email…Risk Management is a large part of my work…(managing IT Technology implementation/integration projects in healthcare)…
There was a 14-year-old boy who died in that current at Gilson on another day with big surf when many of us went paddling.
I believe 8 people were pulled from the Lake in the wider Chicago area that day, some swimming, some boating. I don't think there were any kayakers that day. Two swimmers died that day. I didn't hear about the kayak.
Gary, My personal opinion is that it's good to spend time in a boat and also on the shore of places where you might surf so you get a good understanding of the venue. You also need to know what your rescue skills - self and assisted - are in the condition you plan to paddle. Go with people who know the venue - we all talk about local knowledge. And if you're going somewhere you haven't been, talk to people who've been there; read about the area; talk to local people; develop an understanding of water and wave dynamics as they interact with the shore, the ground, piers or headlands, etc and how wind interacts with all of those elements as well; and be cautious about the conditions you go out in.
Practice rescues over and over and over in all conditions in which you paddle.
There are a number of ways of doing a risk assessment. Many are simplistic or static. Conditions change by the minute, so a risk assessment needs to be dynamic, changing as the conditions change. There are lots of models out there to use - lemons and lemonaid; red light, yellow light, green light, and many others. Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin has developed an incident management class that would delve into all of these a lot more. I also really like this book.
Speaking for myself, my risk assessment usually starts with water temperature. If the water in New Buffalo was 70 degrees and the victim had a decent PFD and there were no shoreline hazards, he may have been patient with the wind and waves and found his way back to shore.
My attitude towards the lake (or the ocean or the river) changes drastically as the water temperature drops.
My risk assessment usually involves in this order of importance: 1) water temp, 2) how easy will it be to get back in my boat if I do come out of my boat, 3) what shoreline hazards are there?, 4) who is with me?
1) If the water is high 60s and up the risk is pretty minimal.
2) If you are in high winds and waves (or surf) it may be very difficult to get back in your boat or be rescued. High winds may indeed blow your boat or your paddle or your paddle float away. Some boats are easier to get in under rough conditions... My Dagger Meridian is pretty stable when full of water and easy to get into; my Nordkapp is scary when full of water; if you come out in rough conditions you may not get back in.
3) If you come out of your boat 3 feet from a sea wall, it is very different than coming out of your boat 50 yards from a sandy beach. As others have mentioned surf doesn't already bring you to shore, so even if you have a nice sandy beach, if the water is cold and you are tired and a rip tide is pulling you out, you are in trouble.
4) If you are with Scott Fairty or Ryan Rushton, they may save your butt. If you are with lesser gods, they may also save your butt. However, my usual assumption is that I am on my own - if the S%$t hits the fan, you better be able to self-rescue.
I like Tom Eckles' post about the difference between risk assessment and incident management.
I have always thought that kayaking involves both at the same time. That is, one should be continuously assessing what is going around him/her and both act and plan accordingly. Especially if I am the leader, my head is on a swivel. I look at the conditions, especially the clouds when on the ocean, and decide what I think is going to be going on in the next few minutes, few hours and in between. A line of clouds on the horizon can suggest being ready to move closer to shore and to look at the chart to find an escape plan if one should be necessary.
Not long before we got slammed with a storm front while I was teaching at GKC this summer, I noticed all the resident vultures suddenly roosted. I warned my students to get off the water and batten down the hatches. Not two minutes later the winds almost knocked us over. And we were standing on shore.
I'm not disputing what anyone has written so far, just suggesting that paying attention to what is going on all the time is a really important skill that does not come naturally to everyone. I'm not very bold and always want to avoid using all those rescue and rough water skills if I can. Paying attention seems to help, because my rescues and desperation paddling have been very few and far between.
... one should be continuously assessing what is going around him/her and both act and plan accordingly. ..Paying attention seems to help, because my rescues and desperation paddling have been very few and far between. Jim Tibensky
In Tybee Island last year I came across rip currents for the first time. One incident, in particular, while surfing, I had Sarah get me my kayak because I could not get to it because of the current--I laughed. On another occasion I had to paddle out of one to get to shore--didn't laugh.
Then, in May, my brother-in-law almost lost his life to a rip current in Bermuda (CASKA blog/May). He, like most, did not report the incident. We were both shocked. I had been watching everyone on the beach and watching the tides as well. I had no idea how easily and quickly someone can be swept way out to sea into big waves before they even know it.
From my and my brother-in-law's experience—we could not see where it was until in it. Rip Currents can pull even the strongest swimmer out to sea—some snatch people right off the beach. Water is very powerful-- currents can rip your clothes off you as well.
I had my neoprene booties pulled off my feet in Tybee surf… they need to fit as well although not as important as your PFD.
There is an important fit for your PFD. During one of my expeditions I had my PFD too tight and it made me uncomfortable and I felt panicky; I also had it begin to slip up on me when it was not tight enough!
In 2010, 74 people drowned in the Great Lakes primarily due to rip currents--especially in the fall--whenever there was surf there was downing's (Great Lakes 'Third Coast Ocean Force' group ). It is important to be prepared and not panic—here's some YouTube visuals to add to your training about "what's going on":
Conditions that are favorable for rip currents are onshore winds — winds coming generally from the northeast to east so the wind's essentially coming perpendicular to shore — about fifteen knots of wind, fifteen to twenty miles per hour of wind and then building waves. So, what happens is that all of that water that's starting to pile up toward the shore has to find some way to get out, and it finds the easiest way it can do that. So, it looks for any break in the sandbar at all, and then it all just evacuates out through that.
Rip currents move faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim. You just can't beat it, and, if you try, you'll just wear yourself out and become exhausted and that's when drowning becomes a lot easier. What you need to do is turn and swim across the current to swim out of the current. Rip currents are typically fairly narrow — often times less than 100 yards wide. So swimming sideways — you will get carried out a little bit further, but you will soon escape that current altogether.
The first part of the summer is where it's the worst — an increased number of days because we have more northeast winds. Climatologically into the very first part of July, we tend to have a lot of northeast winds. The good thing about that is that we don't have a lot of people going to the beach in June because the water's cold and the air is still quite cold.
I took notice that the tide was going out as I handed the snorkel gear to some of the kids that morning. The water was retreating from the beach and one area was almost dry that had once been filled with water by the jetty.
Later that afternoon, while snorkeling, my brother-in-law struggled and finally swam back to shore against waves and a strong current. Somehow he had found himself in deep water, waves, and current before he knew it. None of us knew about it until he told us later that night. The National Weather Service believes that deaths from rip currents are also under-reported.
The University of Southern Florida reports that the sandy bottoms of Florida beaches are constantly shifting shape and making them more vulnerable to rip tides. U of SF also reported that researchers found, in most cases, it was wind-driven waves towards the beaches that produced the conditions leading to rip currents. (8)
Surfers actually use rip tides to help bring them out to the waves. They can also help rescue a swimmer caught in a rip tide. Charles Paxton, Science & Operations Officer for the National Weather Service and avid surfer who has studied the area, explained that the rip currents are formed when water from breaking waves that has collected in the shallows is funneled seaward through a narrow channel, creating a powerful stream of water that swimmers can't see and don't know is there until they are in it. (8)
Jim, as usual, is right on. Pay attention to your surroundings (water temp, weather, shoreline, wind and surf) and the skill of your group (or yourself if alone). Incident management is important, but avoiding an incident is better. I have had my share of incidents and situations that in retrospect could have easily become incidents. To be honest all of them seemed to be the result of bad decisions on my part or the group's or the leadership's part. I am too embarrassed to list all of the dumb things I have done.
Speaking for myself, I make much better decisions when paddling alone than with others. Safety in numbers can give a very false sense of security.
Practicing rescues in big winds and waves and surf is a humbling experience. If the water is warm and the shoreline friendly the risk is minimal, but the knowledge gained about how easy or difficult it is to self rescue or assist in a rescue is invaluable. We, CASKA, should do this more often.
The book "Deep Trouble" should be read by every kayaker who ventures on the Great Lakes or the Ocean. Lots of stories of experienced paddlers making bad decisions.