Lessons from the Triangle

by John Martin




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Sometimes life provides a nicely compact and dramatic reminder of some lessons that should not be forgotten. The story that follows provides some food for thought.

A Day In the Triangle

In January of 2005 I had a paddling experience that I would classify as the best day of paddling a kayak thus far in my life. Virtually all the key points I had learned over the years were reinforced and I was dramatically taught some new lessons as well. I believe all warrant sharing, but be forewarned that I am a bit analytical so this is a bit lengthy. Feel free to just note the bold lessons and skip the rest at your own risk.

Setting the stage: Location is east coast of Tybee Island and Little Tybee in Georgia. This area includes the notorious triangle which I prefer to call the washing machine (ever look in a top loader when agitator is kicking?). The triangle is meeting point of river tidal ebb, Atlantic current, and prevailing winds - from 3 sides as you might expect from the name. The day is cool (high of 50) with water temp in low 60s. Sky is overcast with low cloud cover. Visibility below clouds is in excess of 3 miles. Wind is NE minimum 25 knots but often 35. Waves vary by location as noted below. Mick and I decide it is the perfect day to get the biggest waves we've experienced to date and see how our skills and rescue drills work. We get everything we hope for and more. :-)

Note: very little (in bold) presented here originates with me - most of it came from experienced sources over the years. I'm just confirming that what I was taught is indeed wise and worthy of attention.

We launch (1/2 mile north of the main pier for those who know Tybee) into 6' minumum surf. That is new, but our basic skills work well. We need to keep kayaks precisely aligned while getting in, or we are quickly stranded sideways on the beach and have to try again. After a few attempts we figure it out and paddle into and through some nice breaking surf.

Ten Degrees off Perpendicular Through Big Waves

It really is better that way. Close enough to straight to avoid broaching, yet just enough off perpendicular to allow smoother rise and fall. Perpendicular results in a quite a slam and high risk of being toppled backwards, end over end.

So far everything stays on our decks - we are pleased. Note that we did securely tie or clip everything on as well as put each item under as many bungies as possible. On my deck are hand pump and chart.

Spare Paddles on Back Deck Entering Surf

Mick tried his on front - once. If not for PFD, he'd have a nice hole in his front torso.

Out in the rollers we practice our first rescue, and it goes well. The water is nice and we are dressed appropriately for long immersions. Wind is definitely too strong to paddle against - we are blowing towards pier at a good clip.

We paddle around the pier and enjoy the feeling of riding following seas of 4-6 feet.

Communication Takes Twice as Long with Wind and Waves

When you can't see someone half the time and one of you is shouting upwind, conversations take longer. In conditions like these, explanations simply don't work - paddlers must have enough experience together to be able to communicate reliably with a few shouted words.

Know Your Paddling Partner

And I do mean well. Efficient and safe communication is one reason. Knowing how they will react to adversity is another. Not once during the 6 hours Mick and I spent on this adventure did I ever have trouble communicating with him, nor did I ever doubt his ability to deal with situations efficiently with me and keep a level (i.e. logical, rational, realistic) head. Had that not been the case, the day could have ended very differently.

Know Where You are Paddling Before You Get There

I knew the area well enough to see that the triangle was huge (in terms of wave height at least compared to my prior experience) and that we should take care in our approach. It looked like we could get some geat surfing heading into the back river, so that's what we decided to do. I also knew, and the chart clearly showed, some submerged objects we would not want to meet at full surfing speed. We angled to avoid them.

If You Want to Surf Big Waves, You Have to be Moving

I knew this but neglected to heed as I headed in first to show Mick the way. Taking it easy and trying not to get surfed a mile away from Mick before he could catch the bigger waves, I ended up stopping my forward speed for a bit. When the waves coming up the rear are over 8', that doesn't work. Without forward speed, a wave lifted my stern, rapidly causing the bow to dive a couple feet under water. That effectively stopped the bow, with the wave continuing to take the stern forward. Had I been moving when the wave reached my stern, the bow would have been lifting enough to avoid diving, and the speed differential between me and wave would have been less, resulting in probably another great surf ride. (I did get one great one before this event.)

If Your Bow is Buried, Roll it Out

In any case, as my boat angle passed 45 degrees, I decided to skip the pole vault and initiated a fast forced capsize. This allows the nicely rounded hull of the boat to pop out of the water with the roll and also puts paddler's body into wave, keeping all parts of boat with wave instead of just half (rear half) as before. it worked beautifully, though I think I did it just about as late as I could since bow was looking awfully close to straight down as I last saw it. You could say I was thrilled the technique worked. :-)

I decided to wet exit and give Mick a chance to rescue me in some challenging conditions. Of course, a similar wave hit him about the same time, producing about the same result; so, we got to do our first all-in rescue. I think we did pretty well considering we started 35 feet apart and probably most of the waves were over 6 feet.

All-In Rescue Works Fine in Big Seas

Just as practiced in calmer water. Only key is knowing just what you plan to do and doing it securely as anything released from grip is gone, long gone.

Of course by now we have blown right into the triangle, so the next 3 hours are going to be spent there (wind, current, and river ebb counteract to make us almost stationary). We practice dozens of rolls (planned and unplanned), just about every kind of rescue you can imagine, pump boats more times than I care to recall, and even mess around with day hatch access. All of this takes place in 8' breaking waves (because some places are so shallow you can touch bottom in the troughs). The following is taken from all these events combined.

Forget About Emptying a Boat in Big Waves

We did a nice job emptying the boat; but, by time paddler was back in and ready to paddle, all the water was back inside. There just isn't enough time between waves to do the whole job, and each wave puts gallons of water back in. Just get the boat upright, paddler back in, and then help each other stabilize and pump.

While swimming: Lifting Bow Empties Boat Well; Depressing Stern is Useless

In these conditions, lifting the bow to empty a boat while floating next to it worked very well since waves basically did all the work of raising cockpit above water to drain. Depressing the stern of inverted boat to empty failed because boat was too hard to control in big water on round slippery hull.

Ballast may be Useless

Unless your boat was specifically designed to handle big water better loaded, chances are you will want it as lightly loaded as possible for best handling. Mick had some water in jugs in day hatch of Explorer - after a while we were taking it out of day hatch as best we could. In these conditions we need boats that rode high on waves, not boats that submerged in them.

Accessing a Day Hatch in Big Water is a Chore

If the goal is to get somethng out and not get that much water or more in, then facing into waves is a good idea. Make sure packing of day hatch (organization) is such that all items can be quickly moved into a position for extraction. It will be enough of a struggle just keeping boats together and stabilized during this operation. Remember that the boat with open day hatch has to be keep almost level to avoid water just pouring into hatch. Forget about doing this solo, unless you don't mind doing it upside down.

Practice All Your Rescues Until You are Sure They Work Well

Just a few days before, I had tried a hand-of-god rescue on Mick and had been disappointed in my speed. We did it again until I was happy. Today I had chance to use it for real and apparently did such a good job Mick doesn't quite remember it. :-) He did a great one on me later in some significant waves. Our bow rescues were good too - no crashes or overshoots.

Rolls Need to Work on Both Sides Every Time

In other words if you roll isn’t bomb-proof on both sides in all conditions then it isn’t good enough. In big water you don’t get choice of side and often churning water makes a roll tough to time. Practice rolls with spray-skirt off. Practice with someone clinging to your deck. Practice with a couple friends moving your bow and stern back and forth through the water. Get both sides solid.

Re-entry and Roll is Only Self-Rescue

At least in the conditions we had that was all that would work for a solo rescue once out of cockpit. No cowboy re-entries. Paddle float assisted re-entry would have been nearly impossible, assuming we could even have managed to get float and paddle set up properly. (Many top BCU instructors have told me they consider a paddle float worthless; it is now very clear to me why.)

Don't Let Go of Boat or Paddle

We tried this a couple times. Yes, we are nuts. You do not want to have to chase a paddle or wind-blown empty boat while trying to keep visual contact with swimmer in the water. And you absolutely do not want to have to paddle a boat back to the swimmer - it will not be a short or easy paddle.

A Secure Contact Tow Method is Essential

And by contact I do mean contact, not even a short line would have worked in these conditions. A tow line of any kind will result in the towed boat rolling frequently and jerking the tower all over the place. It will also add enough drag to make return to swimmer perhaps impossible. Even with a contact tow, both boats were by some big waves inverted - once even with me leaning completely on the towed boat as an outrigger. By a secure contact tow, I mean something that will not break even if two boats are tumbled over each other several times in breaking waves.

Use at Least One Deck Bungie in Contact Tow

Or another method that provides shock absorption. If our boats had been clipped together on deck lines, either deck lines or deck fittings or boat decks would have failed under force of wave action.

Replace Deck Lines and Bungies Regularly and Make Sure they are Great Quality

At end of day, both boats had amost failed deck lines and bungies from force of wave action.

Provide More than One Deck Bungie and Line

A single line running all around deck or cris-crossing it as a bungy is a single point of failure. Had either of our lines failed, we would have lost all function on that deck surface or would have had to try a field repair under very difficult conditions.

Make Sure Deck Lines Run All Around Deck

One portoin of back deck of one boat was lacking a deck line. During one rescue and stabilization, that cost me a grip and Mick paid the price with a second dunking. Not good if you are tired.

Paddle Leash is Essential

Doing rescues in these conditions required a secure paddle leash. No way could either of us hold a paddle during some aspects of a rescue. We tred, and they were ripped from our hands several times (fortunately still leashed). Forget about stowing a paddle under deck bungies or in a deck line - water will take it out and probably smack you in head or face when it does. Next day I found I had a nice cut on my neck that looks for all the world like a carbon fiber blade edge created it.

A good paddle leash design should hold the paddle under all conditions, but should be designed to fail if wrapped around your neck with force sufficient to prevent unwrapping it manually. It should also have workable quick-release on both ends that can be manipulated sightless (i.e. by feel). We lost a paddle because a leash failed.

Leash Paddle to Boat, not to Paddler

I had been experimenting with leashing paddle to my PFD for a few days to see what I thought. It wasn't winning me over, but wasn't a big problem until this day. After one particularly nasty entanglement, I changed back to deck leashing. The next day the burns on my neck told the story. Worse was not being able to quickly access paddle when I needed it.

Knife Needs to be Accessible with Either Hand at Any Angle

It also needs to be visible and accessible to paddling partner in case they need to access it quickly to help you.

Always Carry a Worthy Spare Paddle

If we had not had a spare paddle each, we would have had a much longer day. One of our spares was a cheap model that was just handy at the time. It proved so useless in the conditions that we almost threw it away. If your spare paddle is not as worthy as your main paddle, then it may not be a worthy spare. If your main paddle broke or was otherwise lost, do you really want to paddle with something lesser in same or perhaps growing conditions?

Wear a Helmet in Rough Conditions or with Shallow Bottom

Helmet isn't that expensive. Boats hurt when hurled against head. Lose head, lose battle with sea.

Consider Anti-Motion Sickness Solutions, Even if not Normally Affected

Since I have an extensive history of motion sickness, I wear wrist bands whenever I expect any possibility of trouble. They worked well. While you may normally not have trouble, focusing on the deck of a heaving boat for extended periods of time can take you into totally new territory. And, if you are focusing on the deck of a heaving boat for extended periods of time, you probably have enough excitement as it is. Better to be ready than rudely surprised.

Carry Multiple Communications Devices

Cell phone allowed us to contact a knowledgeable local source for guidance when our chart was ripped from deck. With that contact, we avoided making a couple big mistakes and ended our day of paddling in daylight as we desired.

Make Sure Others Understand You May Not be Able to Answer Phone

I got quite a few calls during the day, but couldn't answer most of them because my hands were full and I was quite busy. Tell those who have your cell phone number to leave a message and not worry until float plan deadline has passed. Check messages and call them back if and when you can. Of course, make sure phone can be operated in overhead breaking waves (in other words single-handed in water-proof container). :-)

Carry Hot Drink

The hot water in thermos we had (to make soup or tea) sure hit the spot when we landed.

Have a Backup Plan

When we finally got blown out of the triangle, it was all we could do to reach Little Tybee, well south of our intended back river return path. However, knowing tides and currents (we spent prime part of day at max flow of river ebb) allowed us to figure a plan to get back before darkness.

Plan for the Worst

That is, you are separated from your boat and paddle and have only what you are wearing and carrying on your body. How long can you survive that way? Think about it. Anything critical securely stowed in holds of boat or on deck is useless if you aren't with boat.

And, you need the gear, not just your buddy. You might be alone with no time to borrow what you will need before departure from group.

Know Your Gear

If you have possibility of challenging conditions, don't add new gear into the mix unless testing it is your intent. Increase difficulty of conditions in a new boat gradually so surprises are manageable.

Three Paddlers are Much Better than Two

Mick and I had great fun and did well (in my opinion); however, we were at limit of tolerance. Had one more thing gone wrong, in many of our scenarios we would have been in trouble without a third capable paddler. Two can be fun. Three is much better.

If Activities could Trigger Rescue Call, Tell Authorities First

After we got back, we learned the Coast Guard had been called, by someone on the beach, about 1/2 hour after we started our paddle, probably when we were doing our first rescue near the triangle. They mounted a search and rescue operation that involved a rescue helicopter and boat attempting to reach us over the next 4 hours. Finally they contacted our float plan holder and realized we were probably OK and just met us at the landing to complete their report. However, a lot of tax dollars were spent needlessly (although it may have been fun for them). Next time I would contact the local authorities first and tell them what we planned to do, that it might look like trouble, and that we had marine radio and cell phone to contact them if in true need of their assistance.

I would also keep radio volume turned a bit higher. At one point I heard someone mention the "crazy kayakers" but just wrote it off as another boater. Probably it was a Coast Guard communication; and, if I had realized that, I could have replied and cut short their search.

Don't Expect You can get Rescued Everywhere

The CG helicopter spotted us at one point but then lost us. Ultimately they could not find us well enough to effect a rescue or even make contact. And, they did know almost exactly where we were. The boat they launched "couldn't get through", according to them. Had we really needed a rescue, they would not have gotten to us any time soon, if ever. Plan to be self-sufficient.

The Sea will Get Something

In our case, it claimed a nice paddle, my chart, one of the ballast bottles from the day hatch, and a dry bag of emergency gear which it simply tore out of my bailout pack on the back of my PFD (which was fully secured by more than one mechanism). It also damaged deck rigging on both boats. Have spares of everything critical. Secure everything, but still plan for loss.

Life is an Adventure

As I said at the beginning, this was the best day of paddling up to that point in my life. Only way I got it was to be adventuresome. Don’t be overly conservative - go for getting the most out of life you can.

I can't wait to go back. :-)