A Motion Sick Sea Kayaker

A Real Incident Management Story

This is a behind the scenes look at a real incident that occurred the day of our Skagit Bay Search and Rescue (SBAR) joint exercise.

This is Graton Gathright’s recounting of the incident:

I had planned our training-day launch so that I could take my wife on a little kayaking tour before our rendezvous with SBSAR. This meant that we would need to prepare our gear the night before and leave early to arrive at the launch with plenty of time. Unfortunately, our prep time the night before got taken up with other family responsibilities, and I ended up staying up late to finish, but still had some prep left to do in the morning before we could get on the road. 

As a result, I got little sleep and we left nearly an hour late. We were en route to the meet up with Robert when he called from the launch site to say that it would not work – the location chosen (the sand spit that separated Similk Bay from Kiket Bay) would only work at high-tide and the tide would be too low at our intended launch time.

Google Earth image showing The sand spit that separated Similk Bay from Kiket Bay

We adjusted on the fly

We found a viable launch down the Bay at Sneeoosh Beach and my wife and I arrived at the new spot about 2 hours before the rendezvous with SBSAR. We judged that we still had time for both of us to paddle out for a very quick tour, but we would need to be expeditious about our launch. We suited up and staged our boats and gear on the beach, and then Robert and I began setting up video equipment for the training.

My wife asked if she could go ahead and launch while we did camera setup and we both said it was fine, both of us assuming that she meant to paddle-about immediately in front of us there at the beach. She had in fact meant that she would get a head start on visiting Deadman Island – a small island a little over half a nautical mile in the opposite direction of our SBSAR rendezvous point.

We looked up from our camera setup work to discover that my wife was already a good distance away from us.

Google Earth image showing Sneeoosh Beach to Deadman Island

I launched in haste

I was eager to catch up with her to ensure her safety and because I wanted us to stay closer to the launch point to be able to rendezvous with SBSAR on time. I caught up with her about 10 minutes later near the island. I judged that we needed about 20 minutes to return to the launch and with the rendezvous still 60 minutes off,  I suggested that we do a quick circumnavigation.

As we began our paddle back to the launch, SBSAR began hailing us via VHF to let us know that they were at the rendezvous point. I responded to them, but Robert did not — although I could see him where he was near the launch. I signaled with my paddle for Robert to come to us. He had heard the conversation between myself and SBSAR, but his radio would not transmit.

Location location location

 As we conferred, I came to understand that our alternate launch point was much further from the rendezvous than I had imagined, meaning that instead of being nearly at the rendezvous with a few minutes to spare, as I had thought, we were in fact nearly two miles from from it and I still needed to escort Val back to the beach. We decided — and communicated to SBSAR — that Robert would go directly to the rendezvous and I would escort Val back to the beach before joining them. 

Having dropped my wife  off, I set off for the rendezvous, with an ETA that was at least 30 minutes past the original time. I was feeling embarrassed to be late from having incorrectly planned the launch location, departing late from home, miscommunication with my wife, and misunderstanding our position relative to the rendezvous point.

Getting underway

I concentrated on using an efficient forward stroke to make all-speed to the rendezvous without over-exerting myself before the training. However, with the sun shining brightly and being dressed for the extended time that I expected to be in the very cold water as part of the training, before long, I began to feel myself overheating. I doused myself from the ocean at intervals to cool off, and I hydrated from my hydration pack.

However, I quickly used up the water in my hydration pack as I had not taken the time to replenish it after paddling back to the beach with my wife.  I had opted instead to pack an extra Nalgene of water in my day hatch (in addition to the one in my emergency supplies) to save time. While I needed to drink more, I could see the rendezvous and opted to re-hydrate when I arrived.

Arriving at the rendezvous

It was a relief to arrive at the rendezvous and put the tardiness behind me. After introductions and a quick briefing on the plan they had all worked out, I jumped right into the exercises (and the water!) with gusto. I was dressed appropriately in my drysuit and two thermal layers, but could still tell that the water was very cold, especially on my scalp that was covered in only a thin helmet liner and helmet. I was in and out of the water for more than an hour and in the water for easily half of the time. After a scenario in which I played an incapacitated victim and spent a good 10 minutes in the water, I stayed aboard the SBSAR vessel as we changed locations.

Not feeling well – the ‘incident’

Aboard the vessel, I started to feel nauseous. I ascribed the nausea to motion-sickness or the fumes from the boat engines. But it also made me realize that I had not consumed the extra snacks that I had brought to make up for my inadequate breakfast. I nibbled at a PBJ from my lunch but found it unpalatable. I was feeling pretty miserable and — I soon recognized — somewhat chilled. I felt embarrassed to be motion sick among all these ocean boaters, but when the vessel stopped, I told the crew that I was feeling a little ill and a little cold and that I thought I would hop back in my kayak and paddle around the vessel a bit to warm up and get my vim back. 

Paddling around did help to mitigate the nausea and chill somewhat, but I still felt miserable overall and I remember thinking that this was the first time I had ever been in my kayak and wished that I was home! 

When Robert came over to explain the next scenario, I told him I wasn’t doing great. Robert drew-up immediately to my boat, and lay across my foredeck to stabilize my boat. He fetched my Nalgene from my hatch for me and handed me ginger for the nausea from a small container in his PFD pocket. He offered to procure Dramamine from his first-aid kit, but I declined.

The last exercise

Robert said he would take the victim role in the scenario that had already started, and when the scenario was done, we would wrap-up the training. The SBSAR boat located us and we completed the scenario — the SBSAR personnel lifting a “stroke-victim” Robert directly from his boat onto their vessel. Robert and the SBSAR folks debriefed as I continued to circle in my kayak. We concluded the event, expressed to SBSAR our delight to be able to participate in the training, and then departed back towards our launch point.

With the training event complete, we could tend to me. 

We were very near the southeast corner of Hope Island and I could see that the low rocky-beach point of the island was bathed in sunlight. I told Robert that I’d like to stop there and warm up. We beached and I dug-out my storm cag, staggered to the sunlight, donned my cag, sipped some water, then laid down — helmet for a pillow — and fell instantly to sleep.

I woke seemingly no time later and felt less miserable —  the nausea was gone — but more chilled. I could tell that my thinking was somewhat muddled and my speech was slower. We decided to return to the launch about three quarters of a nautical mile away. We launched and Robert attached a tow line to my bow and we plied water and sunshine for what seemed like quite a few minutes. 

At times, I paddled at times to help warm myself. At times, I rested — even nodding off to sleep on a couple of occasions.

Back at Sneeoosh 

Landing at Sneeoosh Beach, I felt invigorated to have made it back, but I was shivering quite a bit, so I indicated to Robert that I would change my clothes.

I changed my clothes and then climbed into the sun-baked car to warm up. I woke up sometime later and felt warm and much recovered. I exited the car and found that Robert had hauled my boat and prepared all of my gear for loading. He helped me load and tie-down my boat and load my gear. We visited and joked for a bit then we took our leave to head home.

By the time my wife and I passed the exit for the Burgermaster, I felt quite myself again, and we stopped for burgers like it was any other paddle.

Blame to go around

Reading Graton’s story, it comes across as him having made a number of mistakes that lead to his bout of nausea and our getting back to shore safely at the end of the day. But whatever mistakes he made, I’m as much to blame for what went wrong.

This incident was a good example of failure on both of our parts.

My actions – I know better

I lead trips, training and otherwise, in bigger conditions. I did NOT treat this event the way I would other paddles. 

I was complacent. I saw no risks. Graton is a competent paddler. He’s smart, has situational awareness – I trust him. So when he suggested our original launch site, I didn’t verify that it would work. I shouldn’t have had to but I know trip planning isn’t Graton’s strong suit. We’ve had the discussion several times about the ‘soft’ skills. I should have offered more support and mentoring. I didn’t.

Too much confidence in my ability to handle the conditions in front of us? Maybe. Whatever the reason, planning on my part – at least discussing the plan ahead of time – would have averted the situation.

Graton pretty much nails it with this quote:

You need those soft skills that come from experience. You need to develop the wisdom and good judgment that comes from that experience.

The sea state!

I’ll add that I never checked the tide height or currents for the day (and I teach how necessary this is!). I can’t say that would have mattered and I often don’t – I knew the location and the waters well and we had a plan where neither would matter – until they did. Second mistake. Lesson learned. Knowing his intended route with his wife and our rendezvous point, we could have made a change.

Which of course leads us to my next mistakes…

  1. No beach talk. We ALWAYS brief prior to launch. We didn’t. We missed the critical moment to discuss our location relative to where we’d be meeting SBSAR. Toss in knowing the currents and the time, we would have altered the events that unfolded. A quick chat would have eliminated what could have been a serious issue on the water.

  2. Mistake 3.5 – I let Graton’s wife head out without knowing her intentions. As Graton mentioned, I also assumed she was going to paddle close and wait.

  3. No gear check. I knew I would need my radio and I didn’t do a radio check to see if it worked! There is no excuse for this. If Graton didn’t have his? Always check your gear before hitting the water – even in perfect conditions! (I immediately replaced the radio, then sent the non-working one in for repair which was fixed at no charge thanks to Standard Horizon’s warranty and awesome customer service)

Note – these last 3 are technically joint mistakes but I am taking full blame. While neither of us was the designated lead (and there’s the other big mistake – no clear leader), I am the more experienced paddler. While that shouldn’t matter, for me, it does.

As I stated – I know better. So these mistakes are on me.

Small miscues added up

Reading Graton’s recount covering his missteps and my detailing the mistakes I made – it should be clear that there was no one big reason that could be identified as the cause. It’s highly unlikely that any one or two of these blunders would have resulted in his motion-sickness. Yet, the cumulative effect of all of them did.

This is not the first time small missteps have led to incidents while I have been on the water – though it was the first time on a trip I helped organize or had responsibility for planning/leading. I am going to add that in almost every incident account I have read, even the most serious, it wasn’t a catastrophic failure that led to it. It was the little things added up BEFORE the ‘point of impact’ that resulted in the outcome.

That means, in my experience, we can prevent most incidents, or at least limit their severity, with some planning.

So why didn’t things end up worse than they did?

For all of our mistakes, we were prepared. Graton had his storm cag, extra water, food, and a working VHF radio. I had my tow belt, my ginger capsules in my PFD, plenty of experience on how to manage the situation, monitor it, and get him – us – home safely. (We both had additional gear in our kits had they been needed, but these are what mattered in this case.)

Preparation + experience saves live.

Graton did something else though.

He communicated with me.

He told me he wasn’t feeling well. I have been on enough paddles and have heard enough stories where someone tried to ‘tough it out’ and things didn’t go as well. On the water, we don’t have the luxury of making a bad decision the way we do on land.

On the sea, failure to act immediately has bigger consequences than on shore. There is no time to ‘wait and see’. The window to get help is very short when you’re sitting in a kayak.

Communication between us throughout the incident helped keep him calm and me aware of his condition. He could relax and focus on how he felt. I was in control and could plan accordingly. 

We are a team

Beyond the skills and the gear in our kits and the communication, things got better, not worse because we worked as a team.

Graton and I operate as a team when we’re on the water together. There’s the usual banter and the quiet, reflective moments, but we are always a cohesive unit. We have each other’s backs. We trust each other. We know we can rely on each other. We know that our actions affect each other and we paddle accordingly. (Though I think now we’ll start thinking like team players starting well before the intended launch time!)

Graton sums up the value of being part of a team:

A team of paddlers who are each capable of caring for self and others offers redundancy: uncorrelated idiosyncratic lapses have vanishingly small odds of coinciding among all team members. Odds that both radios will fail is low

An odd concept

On the surface, sea kayaking is not a team sport. It can be done solo, and often, even when we’re on the water as part of a group, we generally act as if we’re a group of individuals. We don’t launch with the idea that the actions of any one of us

But our actions DO impact others. And we have to be able to trust and depend on everyone in our group to make sound decisions, to avoid placing themselves and the group at risk, and to be self-sufficient. Fail at these points, and you become a liability to the team, not an asset.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but as Nancy Soares of the Tsunami Rangers discusses the team concept, it makes perfect sense:

“In the end, we’re not there to support you. I’m there as a moving part in a safety net that we all provide for each other. If one piece of the net fails, one link in the chain, the whole net is weaker. Once I have to support you, I become compromised. And then the whole net starts to collapse, as we see in so many real time situations. So our obligation as teammates is to always, always be at the top of our game and be alert to anything that might be a “weak link” so to speak so we can deal with it before it becomes a problem. With a good team that’s easy, because everyone’s paying attention.”

About the ‘author’

Graton Gathright is an ACA L2 sea kayaking instructor, a trip leader and coach with the North Sound Sea Kayak Association, and an affiliate for Online Sea kayaking.

You can follow his adventures and passion for sea kayaking on Instagram.

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